06/10/2013 11:53 am ET Updated Aug 10, 2013

Rowing Taught Me to Take Risks as a Writer

It's sunrise on the Charles River. The sky is glowing in shades of purple and orange, and the water is like glass. I'm sitting in my rowing shell that's slightly narrower than my hips, my hands lightly cupped around the handles of my oars. My feet are slipped into the boat's built-in shoes so I can push off as if in a horizontal jump for every stroke I take. All around me are half a dozen other similar boats, and we are a team being coached by the young man standing on his launch. We shoved off from our club's dock half an hour ago in the dark, and we've made our way to this spot by Harvard Square in a swift-moving flotilla, far enough from each other so our hulls don't touch, but close enough so we can hear each other's blades making tiny splashing noises as they drop into the water. Any minute now, as we start up again, we'll be blinded by the sun that will be low in the sky, blazing just off our sterns.

I should be happy. The water is good, the day is gorgeous, and I'm with my friends and teammates about to resume doing one of my favorite things in the world: sculling -- rowing a single shell.

But I'm not happy. In fact, I'm miserable. And we don't even resume sculling for another half hour. Because our coach has just stopped the practice to tell us that we are all making a technical mistake born out of our discomfort with a particular moment in the rowing stroke. We are all nervous about the catch -- the moment when a sculler is coiled forward, shins vertical, back angled over, arms and oar handles outstretched and ready to put the blade into the water. And because we don't feel stable at this least stable point in the stroke, we are compensating by leaving our oars feathered (flat on the water) until the last minute. We are using training wheels. The coach tells us that we must learn to do this right instead of leaving it to a work-around. In other words, we must embrace our discomfort.

That day on the Charles, I didn't like what I was hearing. But I have ended up making those words my mantra. Embrace discomfort if you want to get better. This is a message I've found applicable not just to rowing, but especially to the other part of my life: my writing.

I didn't always understand how writing and rowing could enrich each other and found it difficult to balance both my passions. I thought if I wanted to be serious about training, I had to get a lot of sleep -- and that meant not staying up late to work on a new idea on my laptop. And if I wanted to be serious about writing, I needed to prioritize sitting down to that laptop over spending two hours on the water every day. The problem was that in making excuses for both endeavors, I did neither of them well. I went at my rowing and my writing with less than full commitment.

I didn't realize this until, in the spring of 2008, I asked another rowing coach what I could do to gain on a teammate I thought I should be beating. Without batting an eye, she told me I was too chicken. A former world champion, she went on to explain that if I wanted to go faster I would have to ignore the signals my body was sending me. Protective impulses were warning me to ease up before I came near passing out. When my friend got those signals, she waved them off. She wasn't inherently faster, my coach said, but she was braver than I was.

I have had incredible workshop leaders and mentors in my writing life. But my rowing coach could get at something my writing mentors couldn't because she could see it. She could see me back off of the pain; she could see how much air I was or wasn't gasping for at the end of a sprint. With a writer, how are you going to tell whether she has been taking huge emotional risks? You can detect sincerity in someone's prose, but it's much harder to identify the degree of a writer's emotional commitment unless you know that writer extremely deeply. The pages of a brave writer look no more smooth or wrinkled than the pages of one who plays it safe. Looking back on things now, I think my writing mentors mistook my general self-confidence for full commitment. They didn't realize I was afraid to put it all on the line.

So it fell to my rowing coach to give me the second lesson in how to be brave: push through the caution. Though she didn't know it at the time, she had given me valuable writing advice. That spring, I began to teach myself to ignore my body's warning signs, little by little. I grew more and more comfortable with discomfort, saw that I could and would be all right after going all out. As I saw what I could gain from taking these risks on the water, I took risks with my writing as well. Which is not to say that I wrote experimental fiction or switched genres altogether. My risk-taking was invisible to an observer. It was internal -- an attitude of greater freedom to explore and, from there, to commit.

There is real value to the attitude that teaches us to analyze a situation fully before jumping in, to avoid assumptions, to be prudent. But we hold onto caution more tightly than we realize. If you're really going to commit to something, you're going to have to catch yourself at that moment when your instinct tells you to play it safe. Embrace the discomfort. Push through the caution. Even if you're fighting for breath and your quads are burning, and even if you're staring at the blank space of an empty screen. Keep going.