By Ronda Simmons
Originally posted September 19, 2019
Professional football players warm-up before every game or practice. So do rock climbers, Little Leaguers, dancers and anyone else whose work or art is physical. Increasing heart rates improves your circulation. Stronger blood flow delivers more oxygen to the brain and body and gets the fluids moving to lubricate joints. It readies them for physical activity and prevents injuries.
A proper pre-session warm-up can be as valuable to an author as it is to an Olympic athlete. It is challenging to sit down at a keyboard or desk and begin writing really excellent prose all at once. Gently getting the synapses to fire can prepare the writer to produce his or her best work and can prevent the dreaded writer’s block.
Natalie Goldberg, in Writing Down The Bones, quotes Katagiri Roshi’s term: “fighting the tofu.” You know tofu, it’s viscous and unwieldy. Wrestling in the muck is ineffectual. Writing warm-up can clear out your brain and get to the good stuff. Sorry, tofu lovers.
One way to warm up is to re-write a passage from an author you admire. Copy their prose word for word. Here’s one I often use, the opening paragraph of A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway:
In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.
I write it and then delete the whole thing. Once I’ve warmed up with a little Hemingway, I find my mind limber and ready to go. My own words flow more easily. I get into the zone more quickly.
I chose this particular passage because it’s haunting and beautiful, and I admire Hemingway’s concise, unadorned style. You might want to try something by Faulkner if you are more of a fan of his long sentences and subordinate clauses.
Or pick anyone else, from Neil Gaiman to Shel Silverstein, Stephen King to Maya Angelou, Diana Gabaldon to Andy Weir to rework. Maybe memoir is your thing. Find an excellent autobiography and copy a couple of beautiful sentences as an exercise.
My favorite? I Feel Bad About My Neck and Other Thoughts on Being a Woman by Nora Ephron.
You may find this technique works for you. Find an excerpt that you consider perfect. Copy it and fall in love all over again.
There are other warm-up techniques, including automatic writing, personification, letter writing, and many others.