Maurice Carlos Ruffin on Heavy Things

by Maurice Carlos Ruffin

One of the biggest influences on my writing is weightlifting. Why am I somewhat embarrassed to admit this to a readership of very smart people? It may be because some of us were bullied by bigger kids back in grade school. Or maybe it’s the stereotype that writers, readers, and other literary-minded folk are a non-physical lot. Throw a ball at us, and we just kind of stare at it. But I’ve found that people like us are often intensely physical, even sensual. Perhaps you garden or take walks at sunset or adore the smell of a good sauce bubbling in the pan. I love many physical activities: jogging, hugging, sitting on a blanket in a park as the nightbirds circle above. But I must admit, there’s something about lifting a very heavy thing that I find quite satisfying.

I think this is because writing can be a very heavy thing. There’s the terror of the blank page, a beast every writer must overcome time and time again. There’s the emotional toll of revealing our personal trauma in non-fiction and the problem of manufacturing trauma in fiction. We take time from our loved ones: spouses, partners, children, friends. We sit at a desk while life continues to rumble past like a locomotive. Sometimes we look in the mirror and see a new wrinkle or a copse of gray hair and wonder where the time went.

It went into the writing.

Every minute we spend on the page is a minute we spend out of the world. Perhaps this is the biggest challenge of all because we are physical, sensate beings with a need to be connected to the flow of life around us.

I’m saying this all to say that writer’s block exists for a reason. Writer’s block comes from any number of sources—fear, anxiety, depression, shame, guilt, and the unnamable—but the effect of it is always the same: you are frozen. And the shadow-source? The hidden source beneath the source? The subbasement of the problem we writers face, a problem faced by all people on some level? Disconnection.

Writers are connected people. We see, hear, feel, taste, and smell in such peculiar ways. Ways that allow us to reflect the world back at our communities. But this is not possible if we’re numb. Sometimes, you must pry yourself from the cramped place.

Every writer must develop a system of escape routes. Doors, windows, staircases, chutes, and ladders that lead to the freedom of the page. Walks and garden work are as good as anything, don’t you think? But I like lifting the heavy things.

For me, I find that looking back at prior victories is one such escape route. It’s never a guarantee of future writing success, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.

The trick of lifting heavy things lies in its mystery or rather its illusion. When I opened this essay by saying I like weightlifting maybe you rolled your eyes. Perhaps you envisioned The Rock (or, if a little older, Arnold) all swollen arms and an improbably thick neck. Yet, statistically, you, dear reader, are probably a woman. So maybe you’re thinking of fitness models with washboard abs in swimsuits. Or those young influencer women on the Gram. I’m not talking about any of those people. I’m talking about us. The physically not-extreme. People who would prefer to be sitting in chair possibly with a kitten in our lap as we create, knit, do a cross-word puzzle, or write.

The weight meets the lifter. I don’t mean to sound like a guru here, but I must state the obvious. There’s no requirement that you need to be able to lift a small car to be successful. You merely need to challenge yourself. The challenge is simply in picking up something that seems a little heavier than you’re comfortable with. If it feels like you’re picking up a dinner plate, that won’t do. If it feels like you’re lifting a very, very large baby, now we’re talking.

Our bodies are so changeable. We all start tiny and grow larger. Some of us birth children. What makes you think lifting a dumbbell would be a problem?

Weightlifting reminds me that the limitations I see in myself are mostly internalized stories. Sometimes, I feel positively decrepit. Then I realize that I just leg pressed much more than my body weight. (It’s easier than it looks. If you can walk, you can always leg press your own body weight, and then some.)

How then, does this relate, for example, to writing? I celebrate every time I publish a story, essay, poem, or book. It may be a small celebration. When I published my first poem, I went out for ice cream. Or a large fete. For my first book, I had 300 of my closest friends over to a music venue in Downtown New Orleans. I’ve blown up my book covers for posterity. And taken trips abroad.

But you know what? None of that matters when it’s time to write. Because self-doubt is real. Whatever success I may have experienced melts away when I consider that all success is past success. I may have worked wonders in 2019, but that was a long time ago. The muse may well have abandoned me and moved on to some other fortunate soul.

I lift weights on a cycle. Most of the time I don’t lift heavy because I’m in a maintenance phase. But every few years I go extra heavy and hard. I don’t want to get hurt, so I work my way up, patient as a gardener. But slowly and surely, I gain strength and often surpass my previous personal records. Then I let up and spend the next weeks and months returning to normal. Why do it then? Why do we climb mountains? Why do we write?

Look, I don’t need to be able to carry a family on my back (although at my strongest, I probably could). But when I sit down and find myself at a loss for words, I consider that I’m able to become strong when I need to.

Even if I feel lost, I can write when I need to. Those first pages and paragraphs may hurt. I may be mentally stiff. I may rage at my lack of facility. And then something moves within me. I am myself again. A writer who lifts heavy things with ease.  

Maurice Carlos Ruffin
Maurice Carlos Ruffin

Maurice Carlos Ruffin is the author of The Ones Who Don’t Say They Love You, a NY Times Editor’s Choice that was also longlisted for the Story Prize, and We Cast a Shadow, a finalist for: PEN/Faulkner Award and Dayton Literary Peace Prize.

6 responses to “Maurice Carlos Ruffin on Heavy Things”

  1. What a funny thing. Just before reading this, I spent 30 minutes on a kitchen chair with a 6-pound dumbbell, a different thing for me. You are correct, the connection matters, mind to body. Thank you for this.

  2. Beautiful!
    The more I exercise and write the more I realize how the discipline required to pursue physical fitness informs my writing practice.
    “The challenge is simply in picking up something that seems a little heavier than you’re comfortable with.” – thanks for the encouragement!