February 28, 2005

Sally Jenkins is an award-winning sports columnist for The Washington Post whose years of reporting and writing about athletic performance have led her to see a provocative connection between those of us who test our limits on a keyboard instead of a football field. In an e-mail interview, Jenkins describes what athletes can teach writers about improving performance. The author of five books, including “It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life” with cyclist Lance Armstrong, Jenkins has also worked at Sports Illustrated.

Chip Scanlan: How and when did you make the connection between writing and performance issues?

Sally Jenkins: Well, I first thought about it with regard to deadlines. For some reason they decided to light stadiums, so now a lot of sports happen at night and writing game stories under crash deadlines can be rough, especially at an Olympics or a Super Bowl. Sometimes you have to write a thousand words in about 45 minutes — in a cold sweat after you’ve run the stadium stairs to the locker room. And you can’t hide; you know it’s going on the front of the section and about a million people are going to read your lousy first paragraph and quit on you the next day. So I used to try to get “up” for that kind of deadline, go in amped and ready to type faster than a semi-automatic weapon.

But I thought about it a little more seriously several years ago when I interviewed Billie Jean King for a feature story in Sports Illustrated magazine. We talked a lot about performing under pressure, and how great athletes summon their best performance when it counts most. It was one of my first big assignments for Sports Illustrated and I was scared to death. When I sat down to write, I felt like I was choking my guts out. I said, “That’s swell, here you are writing a piece about one of the great champions and pressure performers, and you’re gagging.” It occurred to me that writing was a form of performance under pressure, too. So I started thinking about how to do it better, instead of trusting to luck or a jolt of deadline inspiration.

Was there a particular epiphany?

Yes, when I read this in a magazine article about the brain: “The brain will rob muscles of the energy to function.”

Basically your brain trumps the rest of your body in order to think. One reason you have trouble thinking when you’re tired is that your body doesn’t have as much to give to your brain — it’s why fatigued athletes sometimes make bad decisions in big games. If you read anything about biochemistry or the brain, you discover pretty quick that it’s ridiculous to suppose that just because you’re sitting in a chair typing, your body isn’t working — it is, and sometimes quite strenuously, especially after three or four hours.

So writing as a performance was a natural connection for a sportswriter to make. I thought, why wouldn’t you, as a writer, treat your brain the way an athlete treats her body?? If you’re ambitious about writing, why wouldn’t you behave half as seriously about your ability as an athlete does?

It’s interesting because we often respect athletes for the wrong things: they’re overpraised, and we ascribe all kinds of virtues to them they don’t actually possess. But the longer I watch them and write about them, the more I do respect their central ethic and their composure. The laziest pro athlete I know works much harder than the average person, day in and day out, to get better. And the weakest, most losering choker in the pros is more brave when it comes to confronting his unevenness under pressure.

As people, they’re as flawed as you or me, of course. But as performers, they know something we don’t. A great example is Andre Agassi. Totally remade himself. Throughout his teens and early twenties, he was a lazy choking hedonist who lost all but one final he played in. But when he hit the age of 25, he went to work and became an all-time great, when nobody thought he could turn it around. A total professional transformation. And one of the reasons for that, he told me, was that his first wife Brooke Shields was on Broadway at the time and he watched how disciplined she was about her work, how she treated acting like ditch digging. She wasn’t the greatest actress, but she made a success out of herself with sheer work. “It taught me a lot about performance,” he said, “I watched how disciplined she was at giving eight performances a week.”

Are you a lone voice on this issue or are there others who share your attitude? Have you ever written on the subject, or read someone else that inspired you?

I’ve never talked to other sportswriters about it, mainly out of self-consciousness. But I’ve read books by people who discuss physical links to creativity and performance. Choreographer Twyla Tharp has a great book out called “The Creative Habit.” She believes the body was designed to move, and she believes movement is directly related to mental capacity and creativity. And she also talks quite a lot about focus — and focus is of course a very athletic orientation. All athletes talk about focus. It’s not something you’re born with, it’s a habit and you foster it.

What is focus?

It’s the opposite of the Monkey Brain that caffeinated writers suffer from. For athletes, it’s the vacuum-like state they get in. Billie Jean King talked about “picking up my racket, while thinking about nothing but picking up my racket.” Chris Evert had such focus that at the end of a match, sometimes her hand would cramp around the racket and she had to pry her fingers loose. NFL great Deion Sanders used to get focused in the locker room with his pregame dressing ritual. He would lay his uniform out and dress from the toes up.

In Tharp’s case, she works out every morning at 6 a.m. when she is creating a new ballet. She limits her stimulus, doesn’t watch junk on TV or read the paper too much, or go on the Internet; she keeps the noise in her head to a minimum. She’s very writerly. She talks about a blank room in which she’s trying to create a ballet, as a blank page. And she talks about the anxiety that comes from blankness, and how to convert it from paralysis to performance. She cites one writer who deals with performance anxiety by writing a little bit every day. He makes himself pick out a person on the street, and then he describes the person’s face in a few sentences. He does it every single day of his life. It’s his way of developing a creative habit.

What have athletes taught you about the need to be in shape?

Athletes teach you that behind any kind of confidence is conditioning. And behind any inspiration is hard work. They also teach you that creative decision making — clarity of thought, and composure — is directly related to your physical state. There is a saying: “Practice beats talent when talent doesn’t practice.” And it’s absolutely, utterly true.

Are there lessons in their approaches to performance that writers could profitably adopt?

Not long ago I was working on a column about Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, a three-time Super Bowl winner and a wizard under pressure, and I wanted to find out more about how the brain performs under stress. I came across a piece about a molecular biologist, who said this: “For every emotion there is a molecule.”

What that means is, all our feelings have corresponding physical reactions. Once you accept that, it makes you look at writing in a whole new way.

Especially under stress. Under stress and anxiety, your body issues a stream of hormonal and adrenal messages. And sometimes, in some people, the messaging overfires. That’s called choking. And it’s not a state of mind, it’s an actual physical reaction. It literally makes your hands and feet weaker.

Here’s why: in response to threat or anxiety, your body shunts blood into the larger muscle groups, in anticipation of either running away or fighting, fight or flight. You simultaneously send less blood to the smaller muscle groups; they’re siphoned, drained of blood. So you lose fine motor control. Your hands and feet quit working. A simple task you’ve done your whole life, namely TYPING, can suddenly seem harder. That’s because it is harder. You have less blood in your hands and fingers. Also your brain function alters; your vision grows more narrow, and you get a “tunnel” effect. So that’s why a pro tennis player suddenly can’t toss the ball straight and double faults. Or a quarterback underthrows a simple screen pass. Or a writer fumbles at the typewriter keys and can’t think clearly and transposes and misspells.

But you can learn ways to control the hormonal and adrenal firings — that’s what great athletes do. What’s fascinating to any sportswriter is how they manage to do it on a regular basis. It’s not random, and it’s not luck, and it’s not divine inspiration. They do it over and over and over. They learn how to control their minds and bodies, and that’s the essence of real performance.

Athletes are great preparers. And they’re incredibly thorough. They practice and study all week for a single event and they care for and fuel their bodies as meticulously as high-performance cars — all in the name of managing their performances. Writers and reporters are different creatures, obviously. But I suspect we could manage ourselves and our talents better. We could procrastinate a lot less, and prepare more. It’s an incontrovertible fact I’d be a much better writer if I did more advance work, quit stalling and whining around and just sat my ass in the chair and started typing earlier in the day and gave myself more time to revise.

Also, we treat our bodies terribly. For years, I lived on coffee and almonds and hot dogs. That was my lunch. Look, any athlete will tell you that what goes into your body is what comes out, in the performance.

So one way to enhance performance as a writer is to just take better care of yourself, mentally and physically. Create more red blood cells and oxygenate your body. Watch what you eat — caffeine and sugar are lousy for thinking, they work for about 10 minutes, and then actually exhaust you. It’s like squealing your tires. You’re actually burning out your brain.

On the other hand, protein is good. Researchers know that protein helps brain cells bond, which is why they put people with ADD on high protein diets. So eat protein.

The main thing is to be cognizant that that your body is where your brain goes for help when it’s trying to perform at a high level.

What are the ways you get up for a game at the keyboard?

For one thing, I kill the monkey. I force myself to get my mind quiet. Just as what you put in your body is what comes out, the same is true of your head — what you put in, will come out. So I don’t listen to music, and I don’t turn on the TV. I don’t put distracting crap in there. I cultivate some silence and focus.

I eat a good breakfast, protein. And I get some exercise. Any writer who’s struggling or is stuck on something should try this experiment, time permitting: go for a short power walk or run. Don’t listen to music while you do it, either. Just move, and concentrate. And see what happens. See if you don’t come back to the typewriter with at least two good thoughts.

And don’t be hungover on the morning you start writing.

But what about Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner? Didn’t they set a standard for dissipation that writers equate with success?

Bull. Not in their prime. They worked like dogs early on, and in “A Moveable Feast,” Hemingway clearly longs for his younger, cleaner and more productive days. Writerly dissipation is a myth. Dissipation killed all of them in the end and ruined their work. Don’t forget, Fitzgerald wrote half as much as he should’ve, and Hemingway shot himself and his last books weren’t really close to his early work. I’m the daughter of a writer, who was renowned for his dissipation, and you know what? He NEVER drank at home, and NEVER drank when he was working. You can’t do it.

The tradition in journalism is to repair to the nearest bar after deadline. How do athletes come down from the high of performance?

They do what we do. They binge. Pete Sampras used to go Peter Luger’s steakhouse in Brooklyn after he won the U.S. Open and gorge on steak, until he almost threw up. I’ve seen Andre Agassi pound the red wine pretty good. Lance Armstrong sucks down as much beer and ice cream as he can lay his hands on after the Tour de France — sometimes together. The difference is, they indulge a few times a year, as rewards. As opposed to writers, who behave this way weekly.

What’s your stance on stimulants, those writerly crutches like caffeine, nicotine, alcohol et al?

Oh God, I love them. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I’m fighting a lifelong battle against my weak character. I try not to drink too much coffee when I’m writing, because it really saps you. And I quit smoking a decade ago, but to be honest, I recently started smoking a little again. And I try to make alcohol strictly a reward for being done. I’ve never ever written a word with gin in me and the day I do is the day I’ll check into that nice clinic in Palm Springs.

Are they the literary equivalent of steroids, substances that pump you up but eventually bring you down?

Steroids would be better for you. The trouble with any stimulant is that it doesn’t last long enough to really help you at the typewriter. Let’s face it, you can barely get anything decent done at a typewriter in under 45 minutes to an hour. And to really write well you have to sit there for about four hours. It’s the mental equivalent of marathon-running. A marathoner doesn’t drink a Coke and eat a glazed donut before a race, because he’ll collapse. But writers do the equivalent all the time and then wonder why they didn’t write better, and feel so lousy.

It’s the sustained arduous nature of the work that make stimulants so self-defeating. My own opinion is that the best thing you can do for yourself, seriously, is to train yourself appropriately for the job, mentally and physically.

Incidentally, my own favorite stimulant is incense. There’s something psychoactive about it. It starts wafting around, and I start typing. Works every time. Weird, and woo-woo, I know. But I’m a desperado.

What surprises you about this subject?

I’m continually, constantly, everlastingly, refreshingly surprised by how hard writing is. It’s like a case of amnesia — between stories I forget how awful it was. But I remember again as soon as I sit down in front of the computer.

I’m also surprised by how much writers fumble around in the dark, just hoping for a blast of fortunate inspiration. And I’m surprised by what a minor factor inspiration is in the overall process. It helps. But frankly it’s the glazed donut of thinking. Writing is breaking rocks with a shovel. It takes a certain kind of strength.

What have you learned from it?

How weak I am. And how shoddy my work is beneath my cunning veneer of competence.

If you could shape writers’ behavior, in a newsroom or at a single writer’s desk, what kinds of things would you change, advocate, recommend?

I’d put a gym in every newsroom, and I’d feed us all better.

After Sally e-mailed me her answers, I replied how inspired I was, but “as someone who keeps a dorm fridge stocked with Diet Pepsi next to my desk at home, chagrined as well.”

Imagine my relief when she answered, “I should point out in there somewhere that I break all of my own rules on occasion. I’m the first to lunge for a Coke when I’m tired. I actually think a jolt like that can get you through the last hour of a tough deadline.”

[ Getting up for the game: What enhances your performance as a writer? ]

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Christopher “Chip” Scanlan (@chipscanlan) is a writer and writing coach who formerly directed the writing programs and the National Writer’s Workshops at Poynter where he…
Chip Scanlan

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