“Your core’s weak,” Caileen says, nodding her head in woeful self-confirmation. She’s watching me struggle through a leg lift that shouldn’t be hard, one I can’t complete without tilting my hips all off kilter. It’s a compensation I can’t even detect, much less keep myself from doing, and watching me turns Caileen’s nodding to a slow, regretful head shake. “Your abs are so weak they can’t maintain your posture for you,” she says, reaching down to help me and my ego off the floor. “So your back has to work double time to make up for it. That’s why it hurts.”
Actually she doesn’t use the word “abs” at all. She speaks in tongues, using nonsense words like “ilial” and “piri” and transverse.” She shows me where these body parts live, who their neighbors are, how well they normally get along. She explains all the things I’ve done to screw up their relationships, the tensions I’ve created among them by letting some lie around idle, while requiring others to work themselves to death, all in service to keeping my torso erect.
In other words, she says that at root, I’m a fundamentally weak human being.
Of course, that’s not exactly how Caileen put it. But that’s how I remember it on the walk home, temporarily free of pain as a result of her ministrations. I am weakness personified. And the penalty for my weakness is a series of Daily Punishments which, according to so-called “science,” is supposed to strengthen my core, so my overworked back muscles can finally get a break.
The Punishments are boring. They are painful. They are astoundingly difficulty, even though they seem to involve the straightforward raising and lowering of limbs. Yet their most diabolical feature is the fact that I am expected to inflict them on myself. Every day. And without fail.
Does this sound familiar, dear writer? Working one set of muscles till they ache (Grading! Tenure Reviews! Committees!) while letting another set lie dormant (Writing? What Writing??); the sudden realization that this imbalance is not in your best interest; and your insistence that this imbalance indicates your low worth as a human being. Worst of all is the well-meaning expert, blithely prescribing an impossible remedy: work, every single day, the very muscles that are weakest.
If any of this rings a bell, then you will not be surprised to hear that I do not follow Caileen’s instructions and perform The Punishments—at least, not at first. Instead I find it more fruitful to pretend that “I can’t get the form right.” Only after getting the first month’s bill do I begin doing the least difficult ones. And it takes me three full months before I stop sulking and try what I think of as The Prime Punishments—forward and reverse lunges, completed while holding a broomstick along my spine to keep my head, neck and back in alignment.
These moves make me hate every living thing. I make annotated lists of who I hate while I do The Prime Punishments—number one is myself (for being weak) and number two is Caileen (for making me face my weakness). I can’t actually do them at first without falling over. And every single one of them, for months on end, lights a line of fire down the side of my right leg—and I mean this literally. Doing just a few raises my body temperature so quickly that I’m sweating by the time I’m done. The one compensation comes as fall arrives: instead of letting cooler temperatures deter me from my run, I use The Prime Punishments as a warm up, so the cool morning air becomes a relief rather than a shock.
So imagine my surprise, dear writer, when, just the other day, I threw on my running clothes, started up The Punishments, and they didn’t hurt.
Weird I thought, as I lunged down the hallway, I must be doing them wrong. I repositioned my hands on the broomstick and did another set—still no pain. I did some in front of the mirror, slowing down the movements to see if I could find my right leg’s line of fire—no go. It isn’t until I’m composing the question to Caileen by email that I start to wonder: Is it possible that The Punishments don’t hurt because…I’m stronger?
I’m not going to tell you how many days it took me to accept that truth. Because I think you already know. I think you sometimes suffer from the same problem I do, where your accomplishments smack you right on the forehand, but you can’t quite absorb them, because you have a story about yourself as someone who’s weak and undeserving and shouldn’t-have-had-that-problem-to-begin-with.
This story is the real problem. This story is what turns our sometimes unpleasant work from a difficulty into a Punishment. It doesn’t matter if the work is PT or daily writing: The coach says “the solution to your problem is regular writing” and we hear Christ, I am such a loser. The coach says “regular writers are more productive,” and we hear everyone else is writing but me.
The coach says “here try this, it’s really gonna suck for a fair amount of time, but then once you get the hang of it you’ll be golden.” And so we try it and it sucks for a good long while, and then one time it doesn’t and we think Ha! Well, that was a fluke. And then we do it a few more times and think Beginners luck…ok, yes, I’ve been working on it for months but—don’t be difficult, you know what I mean! Then it keeps happening, by which I mean we keep doing it, and we’re like Wait, what the??? Then we are crushing it, there’s no line of fire down our right leg, we’re writing on those days we really, really don’t want to, even when we only have 15 minutes, and then…
And then the last thing that needs crushing is that tired old story. The one we cling to in the face of irrefutable evidence. When you have that moment of cognitive dissonance—when your story doesn’t match your reality—it seems like confusion, but really it’s a choice opening up before you. You get to decide whether you’re going to stick to your old story because it’s worn and familiar, or whether you’ll recognize what’s actually happening.
One way to choose the new story is to take the following three steps: First, think about what story you’ve been telling about yourself. That you’re too slow a writer? You’re a bad mom? You’re disorganized? Maybe you think you’re too scared to share your work-in-progress. Or that you’re not smart, you’re just a hard worker. That you’re no fun? That at root you’re a weakling?
Second, write down (don’t just think about) three ways that your actions have contradicted your story since fall term began. Don’t give up if nothing springs to mind immediately. That story’s probably pretty entrenched, and it might take some time to loosen it up. You’re not looking for anything earth shattering here. Just the little ways you’re different from (more than) what you usually imagine yourself to be.
Finally, (and this will be the hardest part for some of you), chose one thing you can do to acknowledge the significance of those actions—and schedule it your calendar. I’m not saying you have to spend a bunch of money or make a public announcement. I’m just asking you to think of how you’d acknowledge the efforts of someone you care about—then surreptitiously do the same for yourself.
Why make a big deal about this? Cause it’s hard to keep up a regular writing habit if you can’t give yourself credit for what you’ve done. It takes about three years to finish a dissertation, often longer to finish a book, depending on your field. Our progress—I’m not telling you anything you don’t know—is painfully slow and highly dependent upon the sometimes unkind assessment of others. The amount of time we spend enjoying being “done” with a manuscript is pitifully small. Especially when compared with the amount of time we spend getting to done. In these circumstances, being able to see and truly sit with your accomplishments is one of the skills that distinguishes consistent from irregular writers. It helps you keep going when progress slows to a crawl, you fall behind your deadlines, and the number of rejections comes close to the number of pages in the manuscript.
That’s actually what it means to celebrate something, you know: to acknowledge that it happened and to mark it as significant. This is the time of year when many of us are called to celebrate in some form or fashion—either a religious holiday, or a family tradition, or maybe just the end of the semester. These celebrations tend to focus on the public activity we use to mark the celebration: the meal, the drink, the party, the service.
I’m suggesting that you might also want to take a few minutes this semester to celebrate yourself. Not necessarily in the same elaborately public way. But quietly, and on your own.
You endured The Punishments. Now all you have to do is acknowledge yourself for doing so.
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