“What kind of training do you do?”
The question, innocent enough, has popped up innumerable times in my life. I never have an answer. Still don’t, because I honestly hate training. It takes the fun out of things, this training business.
Years ago, when my neighbor asked me if I was headed out training - what with a big Everest trip coming up and all - without thinking I coined a new (to me) term: “No, I’m headed out funning.” Somehow, training has always felt to me too serious, taking the pleasurable act of exercise to a level where it becomes competitive, aggressive, distasteful, and definitively not fun, which I feel exercise should definitively be. When it became “training,” exercise for me morphed into an outward rather than inward discipline, something I was doing to please, impress, wow and woo others.
For years, writing was like “funning” for me. I wrote what came to mind, sharing on my blog and social media and elsewhere, not thinking much or worrying much about what I was writing, how good or bad it might be, what others might think of it, etc. It was just fun, a creative pursuit, mental effluvia spilling forth to be shared, good, bad, or indifferent.
Alas, a couple years ago that all changed when I went “official.” The officialness was and is more of a mental construct than anything else, but it was a marked transition from writing in an informal mode to declaring myself a Writer, complete with capitalization and all. Once that happened, my writing became like training in the exercise realm: less about fun, less free and open and effective, and more constrained, more outward focused and results driven. And - as those of you who come here often know all too well - it became less-frequent.
In his painfully humorous and accurate essay The Nature of the Fun, David Foster Wallace hit the nail on the head:
In the beginning, when you first start out trying to write fiction, the whole endeavor's about fun. You don't expect anybody else to read it. You're writing almost wholly to get yourself off. To enable your own fantasies and deviant logics and to escape or transform parts of yourself you don't like. And it works -- and it's terrific fun. Then, if you have good luck and people seem to like what you do, and you actually start to get paid for it, and get to see your stuff professionally typeset and bound and blurbed and reviewed and even (once) being read on the a.m. subway by a pretty girl you don't even know it seems to make it even more fun. For a while.- David Foster Wallace, The Nature of the Fun (read essay for free at the link, or as part of his collection Both Flesh and Not, also at your library)
And, it does, it did, get more fun…for a while. I experienced this as a climber, climbing initially for fun, doing what I loved, not worrying too much about who was paying attention and what potential accolades I was (or was not) receiving. Then I got sponsors, started being “seen,” and things changed. Same with writing: I wrote here, and for a while it was good. I enjoyed the interest by you, all of you, and others. I appreciated the occasional praise, the warranted criticisms and critiques, the whole thing.
Eventually, though, that waned. The funning became training, the writing and creating…work. Back to Wallace:
Then things start to get complicated and confusing, not to mention scary. Now you feel like you're writing for other people, or at least you hope so. You're no longer writing just to get yourself off, which -- since any kind of masturbation is lonely and hollow -- is probably good. But what replaces the onanistic motive? You've found you very much enjoy having your writing liked by people, and you find you're extremely keen to have people like the new stuff you're doing. The motive of pure personal starts to get supplanted by the motive of being liked, of having pretty people you don't know like you and admire you and think you're a good writer. Onanism gives way to attempted seduction, as a motive. Now, attempted seduction is hard work, and its fun is offset by a terrible fear of rejection. Whatever "ego" means, your ego has now gotten into the game. Or maybe "vanity" is a better word. Because you notice that a good deal of your writing has now become basically showing off, trying to get people to think you're good. This is understandable. You have a great deal of yourself on the line, writing -- your vanity is at stake. You discover a tricky thing about fiction writing; a certain amount of vanity is necessary to be able to do it all, but any vanity above that certain amount is lethal. At some point you find that 90% of the stuff you're writing is motivated and informed by an overwhelming need to be liked. This results in shitty fiction. And the shitty work must get fed to the wastebasket, less because of any sort of artistic integrity than simply because shitty work will cause you to be disliked. At this point in the evolution of writerly fun, the very thing that's always motivated you to write is now also what's motivating you to feed your writing to the wastebasket. This is a paradox and a kind of double-bind, and it can keep you stuck inside youself for months or even years, during which period you wail and gnash and rue your bad luck and wonder bitterly where all the fun of the thing could have gone.- David Foster Wallace, The Nature of the Fun (read essay for free at the link, or as part of his collection Both Flesh and Not, also at your library)
Where did all the fun go? I’ve asked that myself many a time as I rued and gnashed and fed my ravenous digital wastebasket. I’ve done the same often with climbing, my love of the outdoors, letting the fun, the zest to explore and move and strain and survive be overcome by outward-focused desires to accomplish, impress, prove.
Funning became training, writing became work, and all of it suffered.
While I’ve rarely been one for resolute resolutions, I’ve decided this year to make some with all the above in mind. I’m doing it not to prove anything, but rather to force-morph the things I love - exploring, pushing, challenging, thinking, creating, and sharing - from the realm of work back into fun.
To that end, on the physical side, I took a leap and signed up for my first ultra-marathon, a grueling but beautiful trot through the Mosquito Range of Colorado called the Sheep Mountain 50. I’ve never been much of a runner, but have in recent years taken a liking to trail running, finding the combination of athletic challenge and the ability to explore the high country a wonderful combination. By signing up for the Sheep Mountain 50, I guess I’ve got reason now not to train per se, but to fun with a goal in mind, fun with a purpose.
And, I resolve going forward to be more present here on the blog and my other outlets. I’m going to get back to writing, creating, sharing, and doing it regularly, hopefully rekindling and rediscovering that old joy in the process. I’ll work to think a bit less hard about what you all, my readers, my friends, think about what I’m writing and sharing, and instead dive deep into the old creative self and create and share that which I think important, inspiring, interesting. Always unDefined, these writings may (and likely will) wander from mountains and history to philosophy and climate, politics to photography, training for an ultra to traveling the world.
Back to Wallace once more, he wraps up the dilemma with usual prescience:
…the way out of this bind is to work your way somehow back to your original motivation -- fun. And, if you can find your way back to fun, you will find that the hideously unfortunate double-bind of the late vain period turns out really to have been good luck for you. Because the fun you work back to has been transfigured by the extreme unpleasantness of vanity and fear, an unpleasantness you're now so anxious to avoid that the fun you rediscover is a way fuller and more large-hearted kind of fun. It has something to do with Work as Play. Or with the discovery that disciplined fun is more than impulsive or hedonistic fun. Or with figuring out that not all paradoxes have to be paralyzing. Under fun's new administration, writing fiction becomes a way to go deep inside yourself and illuminate precisely the stuff you don't want to see or let anyone else see, and this stuff usually turns out (paradoxically) to be precisely the stuff all writers and readers everywhere share and respond to, feel. Fiction becomes a weird way to countenance yourself and to tell the truth instead of being a way to escape yourself or present yourself in a way you figure you will be maximally likable. This process is complicated and confusing and scary, and also hard work, but it turns out to be the best fun there is.- David Foster Wallace, The Nature of the Fun (read essay for free at the link, or as part of his collection Both Flesh and Not, also at your library)