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?
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.
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?