A few weeks ago, I wrote about my experience of endurance rowing training, and the effect it has on my creative life. As I wrote, I found myself thinking about more and more of the creative people I know
(and those, most famously of course Haruki Murakami, about whom I know) who do something similar, training hard (I won’t indulge in transferene and say obsessively) at a particular kind of individual, repeetitive, non-competitive, endurance based physical activity. And I realised I really wanted to find out how it affected them.
And so I decided I’d love to have those people write for me about their experience. I am delighted to start with Lisa Scullard. Like many of my writing friends, I met Lisa on the writers’ site Authonomy about 5 years ago. We have since met in person several times and I have had the privilege of hosting her at a reading in Oxford. Lisa writes with the same flair and panache she shows for life, her deliciously devilish zombie tales an utter delight. She is the kind of person you come away from meeting feeling uplifted and inspired to go out and do more with yoru life. I am particularly delighted that the first piece in what I hope will become a series is about parkour, a pursuit I have loved watching for several years, whose philosophy of “always go forwards” fascinates and inspires me (I wrote about it here). Recently, I have started to research the parkour community more intensively in preparation for the novel I’ve been preparing for *far* too long and am now almost ready to start.
Over to Lisa.
It is possibly the knowledge that certain types of people won’t be there that means I appreciate training. It’s one of the reasons. If I was a man, it would be considered my ‘man-cave’ activity. Psychologically, it’s a neutral space for my brain to go into and focus on my own abilities, and find out if I’m making any personal progress. Free of the dependency of others on me.
My working day, as a self-employed editor and IT support, is full to the brim of clients’ needs and priorities. On those days, I am (among other things) a counsellor, formatter, publisher, a search engine, a dictionary, a thesaurus, an accountant, a researcher, a co-writer, plot brainstormer, PR manager, an address book, occasional driver, a dog placator, hardware engineer, software engineer, email wrangler, website designer, blog manager, video editor, screenplay editor, image editor, photographer, cover copy-writer, designer, historical advisor, current affairs advisor, social media manager, ebay/paypal attendant, press release drafter, and ‘celebrity’ career coach. For this small pittance, I also provide apparently ad hoc consultations on interior design, storage, medical issues, and the contents of the client’s fridge. Not to mention unlimited 24-hour support by email when in the comfort of my own home, watching Never Mind the Buzzcocks, while my daughter knits zombies and writes horror manga fan fiction through the night.
I decided a year ago that I wanted to have a physical outlet again, to re-establish my individual identity. My own sequels weren’t getting finished, and I kept being handed proofreading stuff and additional books that were outside of my interests ‘to take home and read’ on top of having done the same thing on site all day. I needed a bit of personal space. Rebuilding myself did take on a more literal form than I expected, though…
Today I had my first physio appointment. To get my erector spinae muscles fit and functioning again in my neck and upper back, I’ve been given a starter exercise which involves movement of less than two centimetres. I have to make sure the larger superficial muscles have a rest, which have been doing the job of holding my head up for the last 7 months, so that the deep muscles get stronger.
I do Parkour – officially for the last ten months, attending gymnastics classes. Enthusiastically, but not always well. My current progress should be described as ‘easy does it’. More on that in a second.
Unofficially, probably for most of my life, climbing playground equipment and hanging upside-down, as most kids back then did at the weekends before computers took over. Sometimes accidentally falling off buildings (saved by roof of stairwell, age 22), climbing up and jumping off abandoned lorry trailers in orchards (age 6), perhaps unwisely exploring a half-burnt-out block of flats with completely charred floorboards that I could see through to the inaccessible floor below (age 15), and seeing if I could cartwheel around the outside of Alexandra Palace at night all in black wearing a balaclava, and possibly with air-pistol and camera in pocket too, I always seemed to be carrying one around back then (I could, but only where accessible to do so – there was a nice long stretch of pavement on one side parallel to the road. Nobody came along. I was stopped on another occasion around then, only that time I was wearing perfectly innocent denim and with nothing more than a perfectly innocent skateboard, the reason being that I was using the skateboard in question at 4a.m. on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral. Age 23).
Anyway. So far, in 2013 alone, having started formal training, I fractured my sacrum and tailbone in one fall (onto a beam) and my sternum and cervical vertebrae in another (I did an unsuccessful front flip, folded in half at the neck as I landed, and broke my sternum with my own head).
It took a long time to diagnose and obtain the right x-rays and scans, as apparently folk with those injuries don’t usually get up again, let alone drive themselves home saying ‘ow’. Thanks to yoga practise from the age of three, my spine was more stretchy than most people’s, so for a while doctors convinced me that I was just bruised as they did not believe the fall could have involved that sort of impact. Over the following months, going back and forth for appointments with cardio-thoracic and spinal trauma consultants, it occurred to me that all of my bone-related injuries sustained in life have been sports-inflicted. Broken kneecap (steel pin still in situ) doing school high-jump aged 10. Blow to the side of the head with a cricket bat during non-stop cricket aged 14. Cracked wrist and collarbone doing martial arts. A few other small random prangs leading to untreated lumps and bumps or crunchiness for a few months – motorcycle, skateboard, quad-bike. And now ‘butt whiplash’ (as my daughter calls it) on the beam, an unfused sternomanubrial joint, rib and manubrium fracture, displacement and type III endplate and disc trauma of the cervical spine (neck) on the tumble track.
I’m definitely returning to individual form in that sense.
At school I was considered the slowest runner, the least sporty weed who was never picked for a team. From age 15 I was signed off sports altogether with Graves’ Disease, a thyroid condition that involves a sustained high resting heart rate, which made sports dangerous (mine resting was between 180-200 bpm). And yet, since leaving school and having had my thyroid removed age 19, I’ve done nothing but exercise. Besides writing to motivate my brain, yoga, martial arts, skateboarding, hula-hooping, and now Parkour are what motivate me to physically move. As a small child I had an extra-curricular ballet phase, and a horse-riding phase. As an adult, I also had phases including football, salsa, and basketball.
I have gym equipment placed randomly around my house, wherever there is a space to put it. I have just enough floor space to add a yoga mat when I want to stretch. My favourite spots are the twister disc under the coffee-table which I pull out and use in front of the TV, and the step-machine beside the worktop and small mirror where I brush my hair, from which I can also see the TV. Stepping enables me to improve the sciatic nerve signal lag in my left leg, an issue that accompanies other symptoms following my collection of spinal injuries from 2013.
Since giving up martial arts seven years ago (after twenty-two years of training on and off), I stick to non-competitive exercise. The challenge of Parkour is the available environment, whether that’s the gym, a playground, or the kitchen worktops (yes, I’ve used those!) and your own body’s experience and limitations. The challenge of writing in solitude is your own life experience and observations, whether incidental or through research.
While in a sport you learn to build a level of physical ability, it’s through writing attempts that theoretically, you should also learn the limits of your knowledge and improve them. But it’s not always the case, unless you have a qualified and canny editor looking over your shoulder, who is Googling the facts as you type. Gah… and I’m straight back to my job description again…
That’s one of my jobs in IT support that has become a sometimes alarming necessity – voluntarily checking the facts in true-life books by other authors before they unleash them as chapters or blog posts. I have to make the product ‘fit’ – in the context of physically able for the market it will face and audience it will have to stand up to. Something in a passage might strike me as unconvincing or unreliably obtained while I’m spellchecking and formatting, so I will have a sneaky look around online. Recently, the latitude of Moscow was nearly moved 165 miles south, in an anecdote about its supposed parallel location in the UK that the author had overheard from an unremembered source and was keen to share. I had to refuse the Moscow reference’s inclusion altogether, as the inaccuracy meant it could not be made relevant to the piece.
Without preparation and research in advance, a writer might only learn of their own suggestibility and gullibility if an expert on their chosen subject comes along with a scathing critical observation.
Meanwhile, a sportsman learns of their mistake the second they hit the ground.
Writers are by nature fantasists, at times of their own abilities, rather like some armchair sporting experts. Occasionally they believe they are imparting knowledge when their imagination has actually sneakily filled in the gaps for them, having drawn what is essentially an assumption. Or they have allowed someone else’s imagination to do so, and listened to a speculation fed to them as fact (sometimes second, third or fourth+ hand speculation) without checking it out thoroughly. In this sense, the main risk of a being a writer is of fooling yourself before anyone else.
Doing Parkour reminds me of the importance of dealing with what’s real and what’s in front of me. I’m a fiction author with a creative brain, and fiction-writing requires the ability to speculate at every turn to avoid becoming stale or stereotyped. But when facts are involved in any way, even small facts, I need to be aware of the difference between knowledge/experience, and long-held assumptions, in order to be the best writer I can be. Such as, have I ever looked up the meaning of that word I’m about to use? I’m about to put it into a piece of prose that might reach a worldwide audience. Could writing this particular thing down that I’m not fully confident about cause me to fall, metaphorically, on my butt?
Two days ago, reading a rom-com novel published by HarperCollins in 2011 and sold in good faith by Tesco, I learned that Rio is in Mexico. Who knew?! I hope for her sake the author hasn’t tried to book a holiday to her imaginary Mexican city… (HarperCollins, I want my money back!) There may well be various ‘Rios’ in Mexico, but it wasn’t the one that was implied in the passage I read. (In the same novel, a make-up artist was summoned with her powder-puff during a photo-shoot to ‘power the model’s boobs’ but I assume, in contrast to the relocation of Rio, that it was a typo rather than a research error on the alleged super-electrostatic abilities of make-up artists).
In sports, you risk kidding yourself, taking on a new challenge or considering a new obstacle. Your eyes may be bigger than your stamina (or your muscles, or that gap between obstacles). But we learn the consequences through pain, very quickly. In my case, it motivates me to try and get fitter, to prepare more. After a motorcycle crash on my first day riding one when I was 19, I signed up for a year’s motorcycle mechanics course. Pain (and points on my licence, and everlasting guilt about the pedestrian’s broken leg) didn’t turn me into a quitter. It made me want to be more prepared and smarter than I was at the time.
Again, note – not in competition with others, or their knowledge or ability. I always aim to be smarter than my old self.
Writers don’t learn the fast way through pain, unless they have a particularly sadistic editor sitting nearby. (It might help). My constant reminders to author clients “Don’t assume facts” or worse “Don’t invent facts” even when I’m sitting right there, often fall on deaf ears (with very short attention spans* where criticism is involved) in the fertile imaginations of starry-eyed writers who are blinded by worlds of their own invention. Inaccurately outing celebrities as Christians comes to mind… I Googled for ages with no affiliation matches until the author saw a photograph online in front of me, and announced she had named the wrong actress/Christian she was thinking of altogether. The same author said to me yesterday ‘You know, Margaret Lockwood, red hair, enormous bosoms’ to which I replied ‘You mean Rita Hayworth?’ and Googled to show her a photo of the modestly-proportioned, brunette Ms Lockwood. (She did mean Margaret Lockwood, but had never looked up a picture of her. Apparently any given early 20th Century actress resembles Rita Hayworth in her imagination). But so far I haven’t resorted to inflicting pain as a teaching method.
*(One example of how short an attention span can be when processing facts in the mind of a creative writer – my favourite author client above was once convinced there was a lady named ‘Mrs Chapstick’ to reference in her latest book. It was in an email she had received that morning. I was suspicious. She opened the email to prove it to me. It was ‘Mrs Capstick’. I don’t have the time to even feel smug on those occasions. I might miss the next one in the deluge of supposed facts to check).
Perhaps writers who don’t do research, in preference to keeping their own erroneous assumptions pristine and in keeping with their imaginary reality, should be made to do push-ups every time a mistake surfaces. Holding a keyboard in their teeth. We’d all be a lot fitter.
Preparation makes you confident in writing in the same way that training makes you confident in sporting activities. Writing fluently exercises a set of intellectual ‘muscles’ and connections in your brain, exactly like in sports. When writing, try to remember that ‘facts’ and ‘anecdotes’ overheard in the bar or cafeteria (or occasionally, read in the gutter press, or imparted by elderly relatives) are about as convincing as a drunk person standing next to you outdoors at the dead of night, saying ‘I reckon you could climb up the outside of that building’ when the most you’ve ever climbed up are the stairs.
As humans, we learn our physical limitations quickly the minute they are tested, whether we are alone, or in front of others. But words on the page are not tested until others read them – or we stumble across the contradictions ourselves, having written them.
In both scenarios, doing sports and writing with limited facts at our disposal, two things can happen. One is helpful to us as individuals, and one is detrimental and further-reaching.
One: We acknowledge our shortcomings, and realise we’re not good enough for what we attempted. We go away and learn more, or we give up for now and try something more achievable.
Two: We fool our gullible audience into thinking we are experts, regardless of our inadequacies. This convinces us in turn of our ‘expertise’. Strange cults are formed to follow our examples and quote our doctrines. Our fans wonder why their friends don’t agree we’re the best thing since half-baked bread.
Remember – just because you can convince others of something, or that you’re good at something, doesn’t make it true. Or advisable, necessarily.
At the moment, the most painful thing for me to do is to sit upright at a monitor, working. Running around, training, and moving those injured muscles, getting some exercise endorphins, is more comfortable. Exercise is the next best feeling to propping myself all around with cushions and staring at the ceiling to take the weight of keeping my head upright off my neck and sternum. Even better than sleeping, where I have weird dreams, and wake up from strange spinal muscle spasms that induce me to go and vomit for no reason.
If I looked for deeper meaning in it, I would say my injuries are trying to get me into a better relationship with my body, and the real tangible and physical world instead of a virtual one, populated by unqualified opinionators and unconfirmed ‘facts’. I can train at home with my hula hoop or step machine, with my rechargeable cordless MP3 micro-SD card headphones on, and my imagination can wander in the safety of my own head, while my body recovers and gets stronger again. And that in turn makes me want to apply the same philosophy to my writing. I want to ‘get better’. I don’t want to wallow in thinking I’m stuck, or that I should get recognition for being a dud or a failure at anything. There’s still so much more to learn and to accomplish in life.
Accomplishment doesn’t have to be remarkable because it’s ‘in spite of’ one’s abilities or circumstances, physically or professionally. There’s a culture of celebrating limitation, which shouldn’t be a substitute for everyday hard work. An individual without physical or social limitations has to work just as hard to accomplish anything while being obscured in the fog of their otherwise ‘unremarkable’ lives. It’s just as likely to be achieved because of forward planning and preparation, and repair and recovery from any limiting circumstances without a fanfare of bells and whistles attached. People only think that plain hard work and effort is an unremarkable route because it’s the long-established one.
And we all have limitations, unremarkable or not. One person’s long walk down one set of stairs and up the other may be another person’s split-second double kong vault.
(You won’t catch me attempting that one yet. Maybe never).
Doing Parkour (which is all about taking the un-established route to get somewhere) also involves a lot of preparation. The good ones prepare hard, and train every day. They make it look easy. They’ve also had their fair share of spills.
Writers who make their work look easy subconsciously do the same thing – they prepare mentally, observe, check details, and have the ability to take all the information they’re given in life with a pinch of salt. They’re not afraid to question their own judgement, or the input of others. All of this is on autopilot, because it’s a mental attitude and discipline rather than a physical one.
Fiction writing is playtime, and as long as you don’t shuffle the geographical arrangement of the globe around, or mess with the laws of physics (if your stories are set in the real world) and laws of copyright, you have more freedom. You only need basic language and grammar skills, the ability to check any facts you do include, and you can let your imagination fly with confidence. Parkour is like playtime – again, once you have the skills and fitness to give you confidence.
There are of course still daily reminders of A World When Research Was All Crap. Like the time when a widely-held belief that the world was flat caught the imaginations of everyone on it, trying not to stray too close to the edges. Now the world is established as round, and we have a pretty clear concept of gravity, yet Accident & Emergency departments are inundated with drunken Parkour fans still keen to test it late at night at the weekends. And drunken martial arts fanatics. Like under-researched writers, they think it’s all bluff and bravado and you can convince just about anyone that you’re good at it after a good drinking session at the bar. Some things can make you embarrassed to be identified with them, when you’re trying to do the same sensibly and seriously, in a methodical, trustworthy and sober manner. Whether it’s research, writing, or a sporting hobby.
I do learn from observing the risks others take in both creativity and sports, where the ground is untested or the individual is pushing their own comfort zone. It works when the individual has the skills and qualifications, but less confidence. They know their discipline, they want to put it into more challenging practise, and they want to expand on strengths that they know they already have.
It fails where the confidence outweighs the skills and training. We’ve all seen the over-confident X-Factor auditionees who don’t understand or accept that they can’t sing in tune. It seems to be a completely different personality type – ‘learning/training’ is apparently beyond their comprehension, or they consider it unnecessary in proportion to the ‘star power’ of their ego. Whether this is because of a misplaced encouragement they’ve received, or some other form of self-delusion, it’s the same potential inner conflict that writers and sportsmen will confront at some point in their careers.
At some stage, an author or Parkour traceur able to avoid the emotional wave of self-delusion or greed for early achievement/attention, will be able to stop before they approach an untested subject or obstacle and say “I’m not ready/trained/fit/qualified to do that yet.”
For example, the next thing I want to try, sports-wise, is Capoeira, because I feel it could help me think more about the issues of rhythm and flow in Parkour, and provide some of the interaction of dancing, and martial arts without full-contact aggression. But after physio today, I was walking up the path thinking about the longer routines in Capoeira, and in particular the stance to maintain, and I knew my neck and sternum aren’t up to it yet.
And I thought “I’m not ready”. I have to heal first, and get stronger. Usually I would jump straight into a new sport. But this time, I do have extra work to do first. I recognised something similar before my first cross-country session on a quad-bike, years ago. I’d ridden one around a friend’s garden in Florida several years before, and recalled the best way to navigate bumps was to stand up. So for two weeks beforehand I hit the step-machine for fifteen minutes a day, watching TV, whatever I could manage, thinking about standing on the foot-rests of a wobbly quad-bike. It worked – I didn’t fall off. More to the point, my back and legs didn’t ache. My shoulders did – next time I’d include wrist weights as well, and maybe handgrip resistance trainers.
I’d admit the same thing if I was approached to edit a textbook about particle physics. I’m not qualified, but thank you. The idea would inspire me to do research, but I would acknowledge that it is possible I’d never be qualified to undertake such a project. I know my limits, and also the limits of reliable sources on that sort of subject for an amateur to trawl through.
When I want to learn a new sport, or look something up, I always hope to get good sources. I’ve had bad martial arts teachers in the past, who spent more time holding their own bleeding nose and then taking it out on their wife than holding the attention of the class. I have the same wary attitude towards questionable gurus who volunteer unconfirmed ‘knowledge’ for writing material. Or ‘research/advice’ picked up in the pub. I fondly remember a friend of mine breezing up to me in the club we both worked in (she was a barmaid, I was a bouncer) and with a huge grin she announced “How stupid am I? All my life I thought Champagne was a country, I’ve only just found out that it’s not!” and cheerfully headed off to serve her customers in VIP.
That’s something I love. Someone open to having their ‘knowledge’ challenged, and not afraid to admit it.
There’s a lot of armchair sports fans in the world, and a lot of armchair experts on any given subject. It’s possible to cross-check almost anything you’re told nowadays with the wonders of the interweb and the library, and I’m sure most mistakes are not contrived out of an evil desire to mislead the world, just genuine laziness, genuine gullibility, or a preference for the attractively unqualified expert at the end of the bar rather than going and doing any of the work oneself like a grown-up. They probably enjoy enough fun and flattery from flirting not to worry that the information they’ve gleaned isn’t worth the beer-mat it’s scrawled on. Often with a fake phone number too.
And a completely understandable fear probably stops most people from taking up sports or learning anything that could give them the kind of injuries I’ve got away with so far.
Makes me wonder what I’m getting out of it, when I practise Parkour, or train at home by myself. It’s not that I want to collect sports injuries. I want to get fit again and collect physical skills. Maybe I do just enjoy occupying a space that I’m not likely to encounter ‘those’ people in. The armchair experts. The gullible schmoozers, collecting unreliable resource material. I see enough of those people while I’m checking their books for mistakes. I finish work and I need the world to re-set to something much simpler, where all I have to deal with is what I can achieve physically, and focus on that and what’s in front of me. Not celebrity gossip, or conversation with equally unreliable people about world issues, public figures and politics, which makes me feel I need to be in reach of Google, and a dictionary to double-check all of that too.
I think that training, as well as being a physical outlet I’ve obviously enjoyed and played with all my life, is my barrier against having to deal with conversations with the pseudo-intellectuals I would run into if I went to local pubs, dinner party clubs or social groups instead to establish some new form of individual ‘identity’. Physical activity to me, even injured, is less taxing and exhausting than holding a conversation. I don’t want to have stressful intellectual conversations away from work (or away from my mum). I don’t find them fun, flirty or stimulating at all. Smalltalk and personal conversations I’m fine with. Those rarely involve checking facts of the sort that my lovely authors are preparing to blog, such as what year the aircraft was invented, where Nelson Mandela was born, who is currently running Europe or starring in Eastenders, and the precise laundry instructions of Nureyev’s tights. I’d rather have the quiet escapist nonsense in my own head, or switch off having to think altogether.
At least, I’d rather not have to be thinking of anything beyond how I’d rather land on the other side of the vault.