Writing, Spinning, and Perpetual Apprenticeship

A Poetry Squawk
By Julie Marie Wade
Author of Six and Catechism: A Love Story

Julie.DaniaI started spinning four years ago because, like most people, I benefit from robust, aerobic exercise— and because, like most writers, I need a way to be busy with my body so I can be free with my mind. For years, I have swum and run to cultivate the simultaneous effects of the physical endorphin rush and the mental field day. It is a perfect storm. I have designed classes this way. I have written books this way. I am writing this post this way right now.

Here’s what makes spinning so spectacular to me: It is a high-heart-rate, repetitive-motion activity that I can perform with my eyes closed. While lightning may force me out of the pool and flash-floods may force me off of the road, spinning is performed in dark, temperature-controlled spaces at fixed times on stationary equipment. In such spaces, I can embrace the paradox of going nowhere fast. There are no lane changes to consider, no traffic to watch out for, no onerous battles with the elements. It’s just me, on my bike, with the classic rock or the pop song blaring, and I find that my mind also is traveling at warp speed.

I think every writer needs something to do that isn’t writing, some way to get outside the writing self in order to appraise that self, its wants and needs, and in order to feed the important work that self is doing. For me, spinning has made possible the best and most essential ekstasis of my literary life. When I say spinning makes me ecstatic, I mean it in every sense of the word. I mean, while riding, I am displaced, I am entranced, and I am joyful.

Now spinning may not be your Something Else, but no doubt, as you find the portal to your preferred ecstatic exercise, the writer in you will not be able to avoid drawing certain parallels between that thing you do that is not writing and that thing you do that is. Inevitably, by way of analogy—and writers have been blessed and cursed with a great capacity for analogic thought—you will find yourself mulling over what kick-boxing or late-night driving or French cooking or Zumba class has in common with the art, the craft, the practice of creative writing. How are these two things—the writing and the not-writing—linked?

I don’t always spin with my eyes closed, and when they are open, adjusted to the dark, I am watching the rider in front of me or a rider at the front of the room. This isn’t an act of voyeurism; it is an act of emulation. When I started spinning at the Hollywood Y, I watched Maria. I had always told my students in workshop: “Find the writer in this room who is stronger than you are now, whose work is more controlled and muscular than your own. Then, silently but diligently, apprentice yourself to that writer.” With Maria, I was practicing what I teach.

Maria is a stronger spinner than I am: sleek in form, precise in movement, and prodigious in speed, even while climbing the steepest simulated hills. I admire the way she has learned to lift her body but retain her speed, even with the addition of the body’s weight. To come out of the saddle, as it’s called, is simple enough—a basic maneuver—but Maria knows how to elevate with advanced power and balance, overcoming even the extra turn of resistance so her legs never stall or falter, so she carries the seated momentum with her into second position or third.

I have learned to ride the way I read, the way I encourage my students also to read—as a perpetual apprentice to someone stronger. In this way, I have become an intermediate spinner. By analogy, I have become an emerging writer.

The lexicons of spinning and writing also dovetail nicely. In both practices, the words tension and cadence hold particular significance. Most anyone can sit on a bike and pedal, but without ever increasing the tension (by turning the resistance knob to the right), your muscles will never grow, your stamina never increase. It’s easy and effortless, but as a consequence, unrewarding. Likewise, most anyone can sit at a computer and type: this happened and then this and then this. But if there is no passion, no conflict, no wrench of desire or threat that desire might be thwarted, how will the writer, the reader, the character or speaker ever learn, ever stretch, ever grow?

Writers increase tension by turning as well. The volta is not just for poets and not just for sonnets. I think of the volta, each volta, as a turning point in the poem, essay, or story. I also think of the volta, each volta, as a diminutive of voltage. Science tells me that as the voltage (read energy) increases between two points (read plot points) separated by a specific distance (read narrative arc), the electrostatic field becomes more intense (read greater tension, read more at stake, read “turning up the heat”). Spinners sweat, and writers sweat, too. That’s how we know we’re doing it right. That’s how we know we’re working to capacity and expanding what that term means.

The cadence of a poem or work of prose refers to tempo. The same is true in spinning. Specifically, we do cadence counts to calculate our revolutions per minute, our rpms. When we simulate going uphill or downhill, riding on a flat road with a head wind or a tail wind, crossing over potholes or weaving through cones, we expect the cadence to be different. We expect variation in speed proportionate to variation in terrain: the gravel versus the concrete versus the turf. And don’t we expect, and indeed require, similar variation in writing? Consider the pace of a manifesto, a rant, an elegy, an ode. Consider the mad dash toward the climax of a story, then the ruminative decline of the dénouement. Also, consider how we modulate our literary pedal-strokes: with enjambments versus end-stopped lines, with stream-of-consciousness versus single-word sentences. The writer’s cadence count involves syllables, stressed and unstressed—the practice of scansion sometimes. Think of the caesura and the double space. Think how punctuation can throttle, and also paragraphs—where we indent or don’t, where we break or block the text.

What the writer calls imagination, the spinner calls simulation, but in both cases, a blank page and a plain floor must become a world—every bit as difficult and believable, mysterious and authentic as the World itself. The writer and the spinner are perpetual apprentices to real-world conditionsand to the most artful simulacra of those conditions—that the art, the craft, the practice can provide. In both cases, emulation is our most powerful teacher. We can only learn by doing, but we do best by attempting what we have witnessed before. The writing teacher says, “We must taste that madeleine along with Proust and trust it was really there.” The spinning teacher says, “We must feel the road beneath us and trust it is really there.” In both cases, the literal nowhere we are going must be a mythical somewhere the mind accepts and the heart receives as its own. Then, and only then, can the real work, the real sweat, begin.

Or, in other spells: Be busy. Be free. Watch, watch, watch—then close your eyes and see.

Julie Marie Wade is the author of four collections of poetry and four collections of prose, including the Catechism: A Love Story (Noctuary Press, 2016) and SIX: Poems (Red Hen Press, 2016), selected by C.D. Wright as the winner of the AROHO / To the Lighthouse Poetry Prize. A recipient of an Al Smith Individual Artist Fellowship, a grant from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, and the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir, Wade teaches in the creative writing program at Florida International University in Miami. She is married to Angie Griffin and lives in the Sunshine State. Find her at www.juliemariewade.net.