I’m a big fan of cross-training, whether creatively, professionally, or athletically. Learning to work the mind or the body in new contexts sharpens both my appreciation for my home discipline (in my case, academic writing) and helps me learn about and develop new skill sets.
In my case, I didn't learn to love academic writing until I participated in a narrative non-fiction writing group with historians and law professors. We read a bunch of long-form narrative journalism, and I came to appreciate the beauty of scene setting. I took this appreciation from another style of writing and ported it back home to the critical essays that are my bread and butter.
Similarly, I find that my running habit helps with the vigorous Ashtanga yoga that I do—the endurance required to run a 10k or a half marathon helps me make it through the many challenging poses of the series (though, to be honest, I’m still plugging away on the First Series—more on this momentarily).
And so I think it is for many artists and athletes—who doesn’t love the stories of giant football players learning ballet to become more nimble on the field or tales of the writer who takes up painting and sharpens the imagery of the poetry and novels that make up her daily work.
But because cross-training is a bit like playing—it’s not your main work, and when your main work gets hard, anything—cleaning bathrooms, anyone?—can seem more fun than the task at hand.
I’ve been thinking about this in both my yoga life and my life as a teacher of graduate student writers.
Because I’ve been tired and a little scattered feeling lately (blame the baby, blame the election, who knows), it has felt easier to run than to make it to the yoga room. Running is faster (in time and pace); it feels like blowing off steam, I can listen to podcasts! On the other hand, listening to podcasts and pounding the pavement angrily is perhaps exactly what I DON’T need at the moment. The harder work of quietly focusing on breath and struggling through poses that don’t come easily is, which is why I’m resisting.
But as I look at my week and see I’ve run three times and gone to yoga just once, I can see that the supplement is sneakily becoming the meal.
The same can happen to writing or other creative practices. Today I am giving a presentation with other faculty about having a social media presence as an academic. I’ll be talking about this blog, twitter, and Facebook.
I will tell the graduate students in the audience that I believe in writing an academic or tangentially academic blog. It gives the opportunity for them to write about research in plain English, it helps a writer to conceive of audience; it’s low stakes writing at a time when putting word to page can feel quite tortured. And yet, I’ll also warn them about the pleasure of the new and different taking over from that which it is supposed to supplement. I’ll ask them to think about what the tipping point might be from help to hindrance.
When not watched carefully, cross-training can be an attractive lure away from the harder work to which we’ve committed ourselves. At its best, it reminds us of all we love about the main event.
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