Not many who know me as a person who writes poems know that I spend an equal amount of my energy attempting to be a bicycle racer. Different kind of energy, yes, but an expenditure that requires as much, probably more, time and an equal amount intense focus. I remember a grad-school classmate asking me once which one I’d choose–poetry or cycling–if I had to give one up. At the time, my answers was immediate: I’d give up poetry in order to ride my bike every day. Maybe a surprising response, given that I was five years in to my graduate degrees, but then I was riding every day, and writing not at all. I can’t answer the question today because it seems like such an absurd hypothetical. Or maybe because I don’t like admitting that the answer hasn’t changed. At any rate, when the frustration of this morning’s failed draft was pushed aside by my anticipation of this evening and the season’s first competition–an individual time trial–I started wondering what it is that motivates me to devote so much effort to a sport at which I am, at best, mediocre, when I feel like giving up as a writer virtually every day.
Training and writing are not entirely different creatures. Greg Lemond is oft-quoted as having remarked about the seemingly endless suffering of training that “it never gets easier–you just get faster.” And it’s true: every gain in fitness is replaced by a new goal. When you finally win a beginner race and upgrade to the next category, you find yourself spit out the back of the pack all over again. Unless you’re mulitple-discipline, multi-year world champion Marianne Vos, there’s always someone faster than you–and even she has campaigned for permission to race in men’s events. You’re never finished, and you never suffer any less. I think the same is true of writing: if you could write one perfect poem, you could stop forever. But it’s the wrong word or awkward line, the sense of something important left unsaid, that means you have to try again. And again. And again. Somehow, though, it’s so much easier to swing a leg over the top tube and have another go than it is to sit down and do the work of words.
Like most endurance athletes, my training is structured by the principle of periodization. Periodization manages the three stages of response to physical stress: alarm, resistance, and exhaustion. The resistance stage, during which the body gradually adapts to the stress of the workout, is the key to gains in fitness. The basic goal of periodization is to stress the body as much as possible in the resistance stage without reaching exhaustion, as exhaustion is defined by the body’s inability to continue adapting. Exhaustion is the opposite of resistance: instead of getting stronger, the body weakens, overwhelmed by the stress instead of changing in order to manage it. My workouts are structured to achieve the ideal balance between stress and recovery: a hard interval workout incorporates rest periods, a weekly training cycle includes a rest day and easy recovery workouts following hard efforts, every fourth week is a rest and recovery week. The physical effort is structured, measured, and intentional–I use a power meter to measure how much effort I’m putting forth, and the numbers tell me with amazing specificity how hard I’m working. The numbers tell me when I’m carrying fatigue and when I’m getting faster. How I feel about the work doesn’t much matter–it’s the LED on the yellow PowerTap head unit zip-tied to my handlebars that’s in charge. The gains are objectively measured, and no one’s looking at my power files but me. And since I know there will always be someone faster, it’s enough to know that I’m better than I was last month, last season, five years ago. How I place in a race? I care because it’s fun to stand on the podium, and it’s nice to win back part of your entry fee. But those moments are so few and far between that they’re not nearly enough to keep me grinding out VO2 max intervals by myself in a headwind. Still, unless I’m sick or the weather is uncooperative or I start the session and find via said objective measurement that I’m too fatigued to do the work, I never skip a workout.
I skip writing all the time.
Maybe it’s silly to compare a physical effort with a mental and emotional one–though I have a hard time thinking any undertaking can be accomplished by an isolated aspect of one’s being. You can’t sustain intense physical effort without the mind and you can’t actually write if you don’t sit down and do it. (I’m thinking now of all the students I’ve known who have wanted very badly to be writers but did not want to actually write.) I’ve always been an approval-seeker, and that’s probably why I’m easily motivated by measurement. You’re doing it right, the numbers say. You have to do it for X more minutes, and then you’re done. Perhaps it’s not approval so much as certainty–the knowledge that what I’m doing will produce the desired result–that keeps me going. In his 1987 essay “Not Knowing,” Donald Barthelme writes about this anxiety of, obviously, not knowing:
Writing is a process of dealing with not-knowing, a forcing of what and how. We have all heard novelists testify to the fact that, beginning a new book, they are utterly baffled as to how to proceed, what should be written and how it might be written, even though they’ve done a dozen. At best there’s a slender intuition, not much greater than an itch. The anxiety attached to this situation is not inconsiderable. ‘Nothing to paint and nothing to paint with’, as Beckett says of Bram van Velde. The not-knowing is not simple, because it’s hedged about with prohibitions, roads that may not be taken. The more serious the artist, the more problems he takes into account and the more considerations limit his possible initiatives.
I finished 5/14 at the time trial the other night, clocking a better time than several of the guys who beat me regularly last year. It was a brutal race; the temperature dropped nearly to freezing and a sustained headwind blasted the longest section of the 6.5-kilometre course–a steady 40 kph counterforce with gusts up to 50. My splits were within 20 seconds, and my last of the four laps was the fastest. I spent the whole race watching my power meter to keep my effort within range of maximum efficiency: the centre of what’s called the lactate threshold, which is the point at which the lactic acid produced by muscles under stress begins to accumulate in the blood. Essentially, the muscle is at the peak of resistance, almost working harder than the body can manage. And when you do it for 48 minutes straight, it hurts. A lot. The body starts sending pain signals, trying to prevent exhaustion–save itself from failure–which the thalamus directs to the cortex and the limbic system. As the cortex works on determining the cause of the pain, the limbic system attaches emotion to the sensation. What I experience as a result is a continuous battle between the part of me that knows I’m okay and the part of me that genuinely believes I am going to die if I don’t stop this instant. Much of sports psychology inhabits this juncture: the attempt to rationalize pain, to consciously manipulate the response to autonomic sensation instead of giving in to it.
Perhaps that’s the goal of any psychology: to objectively observe one’s own experience. It’s certainly the goal of meditation–learning to observe the mind, to follow it where it goes–and I think it’s also the goal of poetry. When the writing is coming easily, I feel like a surgeon: as if I’m observing myself from the outside, selecting and altering and sewing together the parts that will make a better whole. So it’s really not that I’m taking myself too seriously–objectivity is a conscious and difficult effort–but that I’m taking the wrong part of myself too seriously: the part that imagines and remembers and feels instead of the part that makes sense of it, that arranges and shapes. Though the body refuses its own exhaustion without the mind’s intervention, the imagination is limited by the same consciousness, brought back to earth by it–but why? Maybe it’s just a different kind of pain–not the deep burn of muscle pushed past its limits but the outright despair that comes with knowing the difference between what is and what might be, what was and what could have been. The poem lives in the potential, in the ability to let go of the psychic pain that limits its coming-into-being just as physical pain limits the strengthening of muscle.