by Gar Anthony Haywood

I rode my bike yesterday.  It’s a thirty-plus-year-old Peugeot 12-speed roadie like this one . . .

. . . that, by modern standards, is heavy and insufficiently geared, but it gets the job done for a twice-a-week, amateur cyclist like me.  I usually ride down to the Arroyo Seco and, sometimes, around the Rose Bowl beyond once or twice, but today I really pushed myself for no good reason I can think of.  I rode round-trip from the home the family and I are renting in Alhambra up to La Canada Flintridge, a total of roughly 20 miles, and I did it in the 90-degree heat much of L.A. has been baking in for the last two weeks or so.

Crazy, right?  Especially for an old goat like me?

But I made it, and it was fun.  It was a challenge that required me to push beyond the point of exhaustion — or the point at which the will to go on was seriously on the wane — a number of times.

I do this sort of thing regularly at the gym.  I predetermine what weight training exercises I’m going to do, how many sets of how many reps each, and then I do it, come hell or high water.  I force myself to work harder than it’s often comfortable to work.  I don’t quit, I don’t whine.  (And I don’t grunt like a dwarf trying to heave a submarine out of dry dock, either, as some muscleheads are wont to do.)  All I do is get it done.

Usually, what I’m thinking about as I shove, pull or push that weight stack this way or that, is writing.  Specifically, what I’m thinking is that this same dynamic, working hard as hell to achieve a given goal even when the going is damn tough — when everything inside you is screaming, “Stop, please, no more!  We don’t need this crap!” — should work for me, the writer, as well as it does for me, the physical fitness freak.

But it generally doesn’t.

Bust your ass in the gym and invariably, you see results.  Muscle growth, fat loss, an increase in strength and stamina.  It’s simple math: Do this, get that.  But bust your ass with that same level of commitment and determination behind your desk and, well . . .  Maybe something good will happen, and maybe it won’t.

It doesn’t seem fair.

The natural reaction to this inequity is to work harder still at your craft.  Write more, write better, write smarter.  Put even more effort into marketing your work.  Sleep six hours a night instead of eight.  That should do the trick, right?

Not necessarily.

Just as genetics ultimately limits what gains all your blood, sweat and tears in the weight room can earn you physically, so do things like talent, and timing, and luck have a similar effect on what you are able to accomplish as a professional author.  Working harder than all your peers guarantees you nothing.

This all makes for a great argument to do something else with one’s life.  Something less fickle and more likely to pay off.  Something your poor parents, or husband or wife, would be relieved to see you finally do.

Except that we don’t find something else to do.  We just keep on pushing, fighting, scratching to get the words out.  To write something people in great numbers will want to read.  Because the sports analogy that really fits the writer’s life is not one about weight training, but — to bring this post full circle — cycling.  Cycling is primarily a test of endurance, not strength.  How far can you go without giving up?  How many back-breaking hills can you climb before hitting the brakes and turning back for home?

And your reward for the ride?  Forward progress.  Each mile gets you one step closer to the next.  You ride for the certain knowledge, the unassailable fact that — despite any evidence there may be to the contrary — you’re not as far away from your destination in this minute as you were the minute before.  You’re not standing still or, worse, regressing.  You’re on the move, headed toward that place you want to be.

Will you ever actually get there?  The answer to that question may lie just over the next big, imposing, twenty-percent grade on the horizon.

And you’ll never top that grade if you quit pedaling.

Questions for the class: How do you use physical exercise to motivate you in a chosen endeavor?

8 thoughts on “NO PAIN, NO GAIN

  1. Phillip Thomas Duck

    I've been walking for 90 minutes each day, and I use the time to think about my work-in-progress and the upcoming school year (I teach Spec Ed Literacy). Both my lungs and my mind appreciate the effort. Will my thoughts during these walks coalesce into anything of value for either of my endeavors (writing and teaching)? I believe they will. Time will tell.

  2. David Corbett


    Like you, I use the physical exercise to push myself, to overcome the inner voice that says: Okay, enough. To develop the habit of responding: No, it's not. You can do more.

    I think it's that mental drilling that pays off more than the physical. That habitual insistence to keep going.

    Like you, I ride, and I haven't been to the gym as much as I used to go. I do pushups and crunches at home instead. But I've also been jamming a lot work-wise and haven't exercised as much, and it's showing, not just physically. I need that mental edge that only pushing the body can give me. Gotta get back to that. Thanks for the nudge.

    And yeah, going that far in that heat — you crazy.

  3. Reine

    Gar, I have to say I don't get it, but I'm very glad you do.

    I know that bike. Can't tell from the pic, though… is that French thread during the Peugeot transition to derailleur?

  4. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Geeezuz, Gar, I'm like totally on the same page as you. I've recently been on the work-out bandwagon and I've had the exact same conversation in my head…I'd rather do this for three hours at a time, the weight-lifting, sit-ups, treadmill, swimming pool…than sit at the computer churning out God knows what. As you said, I can see the results with the physical activity immediately (not as immediately as I did twenty years ago, however). But writing a novel? Good God, when will I see those results? It's been eating at me something awful lately.

  5. Gar Haywood

    Reine: If you'd like to ask me a question in English, I'd be happy to answer it. "…French thread during the transition to…" HUH?

    Stephen: Hang in there, buddy. Success is just over that next hill. Or the next one. Or…

  6. Reine

    My mistake, Gar. I thought you were into bikes. You said that Peugeot was over 30 years old. I was just wondering if it was made during the period before Peugeots were made with dérailleurs. During the transition period they used what was known as a French, then Swiss, thread. It isn't important. I just have an interest in the old bikes that I picked up in highschool. My boyfriend, Sheldon Brown was developing his expertise at the time. I'm sure you've never heard of him either, but you don't have to bite my head off for Christ sake.

  7. Gar Haywood

    Reine, big, BIG apologies if I came off as "biting your head off." Not my intent at all. Just didn't quite understand the question. That makes ME the dummy, not you.

    For the record, my Peugeot dates back to about '83, maybe '84, and the shifting system looks like (but isn't) the Shimano dérailleur system presently found on bikes today.

  8. Reine

    Oh, sweetheart… it was just the phrase, "speak English" that got to me. I'm sorry I reacted. I do think you are wonderful.

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