Years ago we both set a goal to compete in Olympic Weightlifting, Masters division. Our decision came from a romantic dream when I saw that the world weightlifting championship was going to be in Poland, specifically in the town of Koszalin. This was the town where Jerzy had competed the last time before his injury. “Wouldn’t it be great if, after 20 years, you could go to Poland and win a gold medal?” I asked Jerzy. I guess he is a romantic too, because he liked the idea. This was the end of us going to the gym and just exercising—it was the beginning of serious training for competition.
With poetry you must undergo the same kind of training: you have to struggle, push against your limitations, maintain discipline and focus on creating something from the nothingness of a pure white page. You also have to aim for goals—is your writing just entertainment, destined for the drawer, or will you put it out there and get it published, where it will be exposed to the world with all its criticism. You have to become visible, where everything is on display. Both disciplines, weightlifting and poetry, represent the pinnacle of the craft. In weightlifting, snatch requires the most sheer power of any sport, and poetry requires extreme finesse, economy, and control with words. In both practices, there can be absolutely no waste.
When Jerzy and I met, he was an accomplished weightlifter and I had already been writing poetry for years. Over time, we exchanged our passions—Jerzy became a prolific poet and I won seven world championships. It was not an intentional decision on our parts. Encouraged by a psychologist, Jerzy started writing poetry as an exile in Sweden after experiencing the crises of leaving Poland, his family, his profession, and the murder of his close friend. I had been doing some bodybuilding in Poland to become more proportional but I never cared for the vanity involved in presenting your body as an object. Jerzy suggested that I switch over to weightlifting so my focus would be more athletic and the outcome would be a more flexible, stronger, faster and symmetrical body.
There was a time when we were both preparing for the world championship and working towards our MFAs in creating writing. Each discipline required extreme focus and dedication and we were working as well. One early morning, as we started our run to the beach to do our plyometric exercises, I broke down crying and told Jerzy that I quit. Instead of protesting or encouraging me, Jerzy surprised me by saying “I quit too!” Then we laughed until we cried. Afterwards, we decided to walk to our favorite burger place and split a burger. We spent the rest of the day napping, reading, and relaxing. We didn’t write that day either. But, the next day we felt fantastic: fresh and ready to go. We had quit for just one day. We had learned an important lesson about balance, pacing, and micro-progression. You can accumulate exhaustion or you can accumulate good feeling and vitality.
Today we’re still both poets and weightlifters; we exercise every day and always read or write something. We strongly believe that engaging in both activities is our anti-aging secret. There’s a feeling of connection in the soul-searching that comes from writing, it makes us aware of what’s really going on in our lives. By staying mobile you’re checking in with your body on a deep level, aligning, strengthening and readjusting. To make a Polish joke, you have to walk a tightrope and balance the two poles: writing is emotional, mental and internal, while exercise is physical and external. They both produce a tangible outcome in renewed vitality and a connection to living that makes you feel energized. Your essential being is reaffirmed. If you don’t practice in both areas you’re more open to depression, disconnection and dissatisfaction in life.
You don’t have to compete to practice your exercise routine with commitment and focus, your body will improve. And with writing, I like to remember how Viktor Frankl said that creation is intrinsic to human well-being, and if you can’t create, you can still appreciate the creations of others. Journaling takes just a few minutes but can lead you into a powerful space of soul-searching.
Where do you fall on the continuum between physical practice and creative practice? Which do you do more, and which is easier for you? Have you ever had a singular focus where you were living at one extreme and feeling discontented because of it? Can you find freedom in discipline?
Leave your response below in the comments.