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Be Relentless:

How Strength Taught Me to be a Better Poet: Pt. 2

 

Growth is a resilient stone. You cannot crack it without extreme effort.

 

Sledgehammers

I used to break rocks with sledgehammers. During my teens and twenties, I pulverized rocks and chunks of concrete in several states, and even in other countries. The work gives you blisters. Dust and shrapnel sting your face. Your lungs fill with steam.


I'm grateful to have been raised with this kind of labor. Working with a sledgehammer gives an exceptional, real-time lesson in what it takes to get a job done. Intensity. Aggression. Grit.


No one has ever turned big rocks into little rocks by lazily wafting a hammer in their direction. Also, no matter how good you are at finding cracks and weak points, you can't break every rock with one swing. You have to grip the handle, swing it over your shoulder in the biggest arc you can manage, and put some weight behind the impact. Then you have to do it again. You might have to do it all day, or all week, or for a year. Most importantly, through the duration of the job, you cannot relent.


Strength training and writing abide by the same principles. Growth in either is a resilient stone. You cannot crack them without extreme effort.

 

Bottom line: you cannot get stronger without working hard, feeling like you are working hard, wanting to quit, and not quitting.

 

Intensity First. Recovery Later.

Training for strongman, I've learned to value intensity before recovery. In fitness today, recovery is heavily emphasized, as well as commercialized. People are influenced to fear overtraining, dunk themselves in ice baths, sit in sauna's, take supplements, and so on. It is more marketable for companies to sell recovery than it is to sell programs or training that involves high effort. Recovery is much easier. This can distort a person's perception of how their activities are contributing to a goal, which provides an easy excuse to decrease the amount of hard work. As someone attempting to maximize my strength, if I allow myself to believe that I am making my best effort by skipping a deadlift session in favor of sitting in a salt bath and drinking a recovery shake, that's a giant problem.


Here's the thing: before you worry about recovery, you have to have a stress from which to recovery. That is why I include intensity as my second priority for getting stronger.


If I'm allowed, I would like to define intensity in my own, unique way. Normally in fitness, intensity is somewhat synonymous with load. For example, if you train with lower sets and reps, but higher weight, it's usually referred to as low-volume, high-intensity training. I, however, would like to use the word a little differently for our purposes. (Remember, our purpose is to apply the psychology and habits of strength-training to the habits required to be a better artist.) By intensity, I am referring to the level of effort you put into the exercise. I also think of it as the extent to which you feel like you are dying. If you want to get strong, you should not be unfamiliar with the fear that the weight may kill you.*


Bottom line: you cannot get stronger without working hard, feeling like you are working hard, wanting to quit, and not quitting.



*As a helpful note for those interested in strength training, this intensity does normally involve higher weight than you want to believe you are capable of lifting for lower reps. Completing 20-rep maximums will feel very intense in the way I defined, but won't contribute very effectively to the goal of getting stronger. The point of this post, though, is to highlight the intimidating amount of effort required to achieve the goal of getting stronger, and how that habit can be applied to art.


 

Hard work in strength training is comparable to the revision and editing process in writing.

 

Self Care & Raw Voice vs. Letting Yourself Off the Hook

I believe there is a parallel in art. Hard work in strength training is comparable to the revision and editing process in writing. That is where the largest portion of effort is typically spent. It's the part of the process that advances good writing to exceptional writing. Personally, my poems tend to go through 40 to 200 revisions before I consider them ready. I probably won't even take a piece to a workshop before 20 revisions. I've also had multiple poems that have been in revision for between five and seven years.


Similar to how strength trainees over-emphasize recovery and under-emphasize intensity, I often witness writers avoid the revision and editing work. Specifically, these two ideas can often be used as reasons to put less effort into their craft:


  • Self-care

  • Prioritizing a raw and unfiltered voice


This is a tough topic, and it requires a disclaimer. Many poets, writers and artists are also people recovering from trauma. I want to be sensitive to them, and recognize the importance of their self-care, as well as the cathartic and healing impact of putting raw expression into an art form. Time and again, I've seen people flourish by finding these things through writing.


What I'm discussing, though, is very specifically the process of becoming exceptional at an art form. There is a difference between healing and craft, and I'm not aware of anyone who has achieved greatness without focusing on developing the skills. In poetry, the initial creation of a piece is often very raw and emotional. It can be cathartic, meditative, and even therapeutic. It's tempting to spend all of your time in that space, writing new poem after new poem, never giving a thought to improving what you have already created and thereby developing advanced writing skills. While I want folks to continue writing, especially if it makes their lives more enjoyable, I also want them to have a realistic idea of the type of progress to expect. For anyone trying to maximize their writing, especially those with the ambition of doing it professionally, they simply must progress to completing poems through revision.


Some writers also site their "raw voice" as the most valuable aspect of a creation. The idea is that any revision will pollute the "essence" of their creative expression. Frankly, I find it hard to hear this as anything other than an excuse to not work as hard.


As stated, the effort is in re-reading, re-writing, cutting lines, adding sections, fixing mistakes, critically thinking about how your audience will receive an image, and so on. It just has to be done.


Don't Relent Until the Rock is Dust


In conclusion, if we want to be great, we need to keep beating that rock until it turns into dust. It will be hard, arduous, boring, and at times we might feel like we are dying. Strength has provided me with such a tangible example, and helped instill in me the habit of toughness. I apply that to my craft of poetry, and encourage my readers to do the same.




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