The lights dimmed as Linkin Park’s early-2000s hit “In the End” began to pulse through the speakers. Instantly I was transported back to my high school weight room, which smelled of rubber and teenage body odor and where the floor was always inexplicably gritty.
The workout instructor’s husky voice crackled into her microphone, projecting through the speakers louder than was really necessary. She told us that class would begin in two minutes and we could warm up at our stations until then.
I took my place on rowing machine number four, strapped my feet into the plastic braces, and grasped the handlebar in front of me. I pushed off with my legs and pulled the bar to my chest, lacking fluidity as I tried to remember what Dana, the instructor, had told me in her overview.
Out: push with the legs, lean back with the core, pull with the arms.
In: release the arms, sit up with the core, pull in with the hamstrings.
I watched the water swirling in the flywheel and tried to create a rhythm with my whoosh, whoosh, whoosh-ing.
This was my first session at Orange Theory Fitness, a trendy gym where the workouts are based on interval and heart-rate-zone training. The class was divided into two groups: half started on the treadmills for cardio intervals and the other half started on the rowing machines before moving to the floor for strength.
I was in the strength-first group, and I found myself holding back a bit because of chronic pain in my thumbs. I can do more now than I could at this time last year, but it still makes lifting weights difficult and painful at times. But when it was my turn on the treadmill, I felt ready to give everything. I’m not the runner I once was, but I still feel strong and powerful and connected with my body when I run. I love to chase the feeling of being so depleted at the end of an interval set that my whole body shakes and I have to limp up the stairs for a few days.
Dana explained how the running block would go: three sets of intervals—seven minutes, seven minutes, and five minutes. We would stay at our “base pace” the whole time, and the intensity would come from incline, not speed. We’d do one minute on flat ground, one minute at an incline, and then repeat. At the very end of each set, we would do a thirty-second all-out sprint.
It was a test of endurance and strength, of planning ahead and holding back just enough so I could get through the whole workout but still have nothing left to give at the end.
I stayed strong through the first set and well into the second, but near the end, I started dragging. As soon as the instructor called time on our current interval, I pushed the 1 percent incline button to bring me back to my base. But my legs couldn’t wait for the treadmill to inch its way down.
I jumped the rails.
My creativity breaks are getting more and more frequent. This is troubling to me, but even more troubling is how much effort it takes to get back into a creative rhythm when the break is over.
Even writing this essay feels like pulling teeth, and I’m still so creatively exhausted that I’m not going to edit out that cliche. I couldn’t even finish the previous sentence without opening a new browser tab to check Facebook.
In my first three years of blogging, I took only two breaks: one was two weeks long, while I moved; the other was two months long, after I had Selah. Both times I was eager to get back into writing and publishing. In the past six months alone I’ve taken three breaks, and I haven’t really been ready to come back from any of them. I still love writing, but doing too much has killed some of my joy.
For the past year, I have posted what I hope are high-quality essays to the blog two to three times a month, submitted at least one original essay to another publication each month, written a book proposal and 50 pages of sample material, tried to keep up with social media and “grow my platform,” pinned my old pins, created new pins, and journaled fresh ideas—all in my fringe hours when I’m not working or mothering.
I’m not trying to make this a sob story. This is all stuff I chose because I love and value it. It’s work I am privileged to do.
Beyond that, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, the state of world is a bit of a mess. I’m using up a lot of mental and emotional energy trying to process what’s happening at the border and what Justice Kennedy’s retirement means and whether my writing even matters when we have Very Serious Problems to grapple with.
The short version of this story is that I got tired. I didn’t even have enough energy to scale back and see if it helped. I just stopped.
I jumped the rails.
With my feet on the outer rails of the treadmill, I folded in half. Sweat dripped off my nose and landed on the belt, whirling around and around as I struggled to catch my breath. I jumped back on a few seconds later, finished the set, and let my heart rate come back to normal during our walking break.
On the final five-minute set, I did it again: I pushed too hard during the sprint intervals and had to jump the rails rather than slowing down gradually with the treadmill belt. Dana was kind and called out a general, “Remember, don’t jump the rails! Slow down sooner if you need to.” But as the only new person in the class, I knew she was talking to me. I glanced around and saw everyone else jogging on their belts; apparently, they knew better.
After the workout Dana debriefed me on the experience, explained what all the color coded bars on my heart-rate report meant, and asked me how I thought it went. I laughed and said that it was as hard as I expected, and I was happy to be so exhausted—I could never work that hard on my own. I acknowledged that I had jumped the rails and struggled to figure out just how hard I could push myself without burning through all my energy too quickly.
“It always takes some time to find your rhythm,” she assured me. She thought for a second and added, “And then it changes again! You just have to keep listening to your body.”
Whenever I jump the rails on the treadmill, or come to a screeching halt out on the trail, it’s difficult to get moving again. My legs grow inert. When I start back up, it’s harder to break through the wall than it would have been to just keeping going.
It’s the same over here in writing. I’m inert. I’m rusty. I feel like I’ve never written anything before in my life. It’s going to take a heck of a lot more effort to reestablish my creative routine than it would have been if I’d just scaled back a bit.
In her book The Soul Tells a Story, Vinita Hampton Wright puts it this way:
Opinions vary on this, but my thought is that sometimes you do need to rest from a project. And it’s nearly always better to rest from a single project than to rest from creative work altogether. Creative work is multifaceted enough that it’s possible to find rest within it by shifting tasks. As you become more familiar with your own ebbs and flows, you’ll learn to relax and recognize the many different faces and phases of your work.
This constant start and stop routine is no way to live a sustainable creative life. That’s not to say there isn’t a need for dedicated periods of rest or creative cross-training. But if I feel the need for full-on breaks every couple of months, that should be a sign to me that the regular routine isn’t working. It’s draining me too quickly.
But for now, even here on the rails, at least I’m still on the creative treadmill. And as soon as my mind tells me go, I’ll jump back on the belt in search of that healthy base pace.