How Quitting the Gym Made Me a Better Writer

By Marian McCarthy

Dorothy Parker and I actually have something in common: a love-hate relationship with writing.

​For many writers, writing produces anxiety. The sheer thought of it can conjure all kinds of urgent responsibilities that need attention. In Parker’s case, there were always martini-fueled lunches at the Algonquin, or important meetings with her agent. Her habit of procrastination regularly caused her to miss deadlines at The New Yorker. However, she always managed to deliver incredibly clever poetry, biting criticism and crisp short fiction just in the nick of time. Readers loved (and continue to love) her work; thankfully, her editors deemed her wit worth the wait. As an avowed Parker fan, I lament the fact that she never produced a novel.

​I, on the other hand, gave up my small free-lance writing business so I could finally write a novel. Then I decided to join a gym. With no set deadlines or the promise of client checks in the mail, I was finally free to get in shape. After working out each morning, I was certain that my afternoons would be full of inspired writing; I’d churn out a bestseller in no time.

​I was wrong. I became a gym rat instead of a novelist.
Yes, I put on my discount store leggings and faded T-shirts, laced up my running shoes and joined the Lulu Lemon-clad supermoms in daily morning fitness classes. They, having just dropped off children at private schools, came to work out their already taut bodies with a vengeance. I, more than a decade older than most of these babes, came to work out because it kept me from writing.

​First, it was just yoga. Then yoga class became spin class. Then I bought the special cycling shoes that help you spin faster. Then, I went to pilates to strengthen my core. And so on. Every day there seemed to be another class to try, another reason to avoid the idle keyboard in my office.

​Once in awhile, one of the Lulu Lemon women would smile with perfect white teeth and nod with encouragement. “It’s so great that you keep coming! I wish my mom would be as active as you are!” High-fives all around.

You go, old girl!

​Yes, I got into pretty good shape for a sixty-year-old woman. My body was a regular brick house. But I’d drag myself home, drink a protein shake and sit at my desk, stupefied with fatigue. All the wonderful ideas that had occurred to me in dreams or had been sparked by my early morning caffeine habit were now elusive. I couldn’t remember why I thought I could be a novelist, much less someone who could actually sell a manuscript. Procrastination had exhausted me.

​After a couple of years of working out in the morning and producing nothing but clever “shares” on Facebook during my afternoon “working hours,” I connected with Cheryl Forrest, a friend who was writing a memoir about her summer of French immersion. We started meeting to read each other’s work, which meant I had to start producing some pages. In order to produce, I actually had to write.

​So, I gave up the gym and came up with a new regimen: walk for half an hour in my neighborhood, then do pushups at home. I now exercise in the fresh air, shower, and head for my office. With my not-so-fit rear end in the chair, I have managed to write the first draft of a 100,000-word novel, Base Housing, in about 10 months. With Cheryl’s encouragement and razor-sharp critique, I’m now almost finished polishing the third draft. I also engaged two other “beta” readers who hold me accountable for completing my work.

So, dear reader, if you are also a procrastinating writer, I entreat you to find what’s keeping your butt from staying in that slippery writing chair. Even the “healthiest” of pastimes can masquerade as procrastination.

Cheryl Forrest