The best advice I ever got about writing had nothing to do with writing. It came from my boxing instructor. During our Friday night sparring sessions, he’d yell, “Damn it, Brancatelli, drop your shoulders and keep breathing!”
The first few times I got confused and dropped my left hand instead. I got clobbered with a hook to the face. I learned fast after that. Seeing stars will do that to you.
The advice sounds easy, but it isn’t. Human beings are smart. In subtle ways our brains can sense impending doom and prepare for it. We tuck our heads into our shoulders and hold our breath, which is a natural reaction if you’re jumping off a cliff. But you can’t spend your life as if you are about to go bungee jumping.
A great deal of the work of boxing involves disciplining the mind to do the opposite of what the body wants to do instinctively. If you drop your shoulders, you gain flexibility of movement and rhythm. If you breathe, you gain time to think strategically, coordinate footwork, and–most important of all–endure a three-minute round with somebody trying to make you look as if you really did fall off a cliff.
Like boxing, writing is counter-intuitive. That is, it’s not about writing. It’s not about words. It’s not even about story-telling. It’s none of that. It’s about gaining flexibility of movement and developing a rhythm. It’s about disciplining the mind to do the opposite of instinct, which would have you engage everything and everyone. It’s about conditioning the self so that you do not engage your opponent but let him come to you.
In that way, it’s like living in New York, where you learn not to engage people, especially in enclosed spaces like trains and buses. Your opponent in the ring is easily identified. It’s much harder in writing, because your opponent is you.
If you get sloppy in boxing, your opponent will clobber you. If you do it in writing, you will succumb to mediocrity, maybe even take seriously “what’s trending” on Facebook and Twitter. You may be successful but definitely forgotten. I don’t necessarily believe in art for art’s sake, although the image of Wallace Stevens and Franz Kafka writing insurance policies hits too close to home (see “Reg 60”). I believe in the pursuit of truth no matter how hard-hitting.
Dropping the shoulders and breathing will get you there not just in boxing and writing, but in other areas of life.
Think of it this way. In the ring, you don’t create your own reality. The guy coming at you will smack you around whether or not he conforms to your mental construct of the world. A jab to the face hurts the Marxist as much as the neocon. Sure, boxing involves strategy, manipulation, and posturing, but by the third round it comes down to one guy trying to outlast the other.
Dealing with the reality in front of us is the best way I know of not to waste the time God has given us to do something worthwhile. This is a spiritual exercise that exorcises the demon of the ego and can be applied to any profession or endeavor. In writing, it is what literary critic George Steiner called the “vacancy of self and spirit.”
It can be done with or without sixteen-ounce gloves.