Writing is a Muscle, by Trevor D. Richardson

Trevor D. Richardson is a Portland-based novelist, who is soon to be relocating to the Baltimore area. Wanting to broaden his literary horizons here in the land of the Ravens and Natty Boh, he decided to take on the task of joining the BrickHouse community as a guest blogger! We hope to see more from him the future, but without further ado, please enjoy this first piece from him titled “Writing is a Muscle.”

––Kate Surles, Online Editor

Show, don’t tell.  Write what you know.  You can’t write with your mother in the room.  Force yourself to write every day.  Less is more…

All of these are just a few of the more common bits of advice I’ve been told over the years about “how to be a writer.”  There are so many self-proclaimed axioms on writing out there that it began to feel a bit like trying to memorize Bible verses when I was a kid in Sunday school and, in similar fashion to how I feel about Sunday school, I have come to believe that all of it is wrong.  Take a minute to go over that sentence, it’s not every day you get a burn on religious tradition and idiomatic literary advice in one statement.  Go ahead.  I can wait.

Back?  You didn’t think about it, did you?  I’m wounded, but we’ll move on.

Here is my own axiom, perhaps the one and only motto that I live by:

Writing is a muscle.

Work it out, train it, stretch it, and that muscle can only become stronger, faster, and more reliable.  If you haven’t worked out in a while, it might feel a little weird getting started again, but, as another old axiom would have it, “It’s just like riding a bike.”  And why is riding a bike something you never forget?  Muscle memory kicks in, the physical sensations of the process stored in your body and your mind, burst out and instantly help you recall how to perform the task.  Writing can, and should, be no different.

If you train your muscle then you can simply hop on that bike and go.

Okay, up till now it’s just been clever wording.  Where’s the life application, the hard evidence – where’s the method?

Well, there are actually many methods behind this basic thought and not all of them will fit into a single blog post.  However, I can begin with the simplest, broadest of them all:

Forget, “Force yourself to write every day.”  The truth is, you never stop writing.  Every part of you, every part of your life, will someday direct or, at the very least, color one of your stories.  So why would you think about “writing” as just those few minutes or hours that you are crouched over a laptop or huddled over your notepad?  The truth is, you already knew that, but maybe haven’t put it into quite those words.  In fact, odds are you are doing this already, but it is important to note take note of this thought and to remember it in your daily life.  Inner monologue has a lot to do with our success.  Studies have shown, for example, that a person on a diet who says “I don’t eat that” is more than twice as likely to achieve their goal than the person who says, “I can’t eat that.”  Your mind is a funny thing, but if you learn about how constructing your thoughts can change your life, and do it on purpose, you can go far.

Change your thinking, therefore, to say, “Everything is research, everything will effect my voice, my literary choices, the people that I put on paper, so I shouldn’t do anything lightly.”

In keeping with the athletic analogy of writing as muscle training, a marathon runner or a competitive cyclist is constantly self-evaluating, monitoring diet, personal vices, hygiene, growth, setting goals and beating them and then setting more.  It is the same for those of us who put pen to paper.  Don’t just let things happen to you, seek out things that will sharpen your mind and deepen your experience.  Read books that will add the kind of flavor you want to have in your work, not just because they influence your style, but because they influence you as a person.  Watch movies that deepen your soul or sharpen your sense of humor.  Challenge your mind and even your body to new, more dramatic heights.  Set goals, not just as a writer trying to get to page 28 by tonight, but as a human being who wants to see Rome by the 28th.

The point is, you aren’t a writer and a person, the person you are is a writer.  Everything you do, in every moment of your life, is shaping that person one way or the other – you’re either getting fit or you’re getting fat, you’re growing old or you’re staying young, you’re getting smarter or you’re getting dumber.  It’s all training.  Or, to use a different term, it’s all growing.

I will liken it to a personal hero in literature.  For this writer, my all-time favorite fictional character, from Gilgamesh to Katniss Everdeen, is Sherlock Holmes.  Not only because he is cool and clever, not only because the humor and drug-addled wit still resonates two centuries later, but because he is the perfect metaphor for how you have to live if you want to be a skilled craftsman.

Sherlock never wasted a minute.  Everything he did, both in his investigating career and in his free time, had the focus and clarity to be wholly committed to becoming a master of his art.  He devoured the literature from various sciences, trained in chemistry to understand how compounds burn or degrade, walked the streets of London analyzing the different kinds of mud, learned about geology and gun powder residue and tobacco leaves, all to be able to look at a streak of schmutz and tell you where in town it came from and who could have tracked it in.  Sherlock never stopped being a detective.  Everything he heard, everything he read, practiced, performed or exercised, was for the singular purpose of always getting better.  In short, Sherlock believed investigating was a muscle, and he worked that muscle every single second of his waking life.  For this reason, he was hailed by his peers as the greatest detective of his age, and we are all still reading about him decades later.  What could be possible for the writer that applied that same commitment and drive to their own craft?

Think about that because the possibilities are as boundless as the effort applied.

So, here’s the rub: you want to be a writer, then you live it, you earn it, you work and you strain.  It may seem hard at first, but, like that athlete on the bike or in that marathon, you push through the pain, get over that wall, and on the other side is that downhill glide to the finish line.  You will find it getting faster and easier because you never stop hearing good ideas out there.  More than that, you won’t get writer’s block because you’re no longer sitting at home begging your mystical muse to show up and help you out.  You worked hard enough to become your own muse.  You write because you insisted on it, you wouldn’t take no for an answer.  You trained that muscle and, in spite of all of the bullying ideas and advice out there that say you can’t do it, you’re ready to flex that muscle and say otherwise.

So go.  Never stop writing.

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