‘The Write Tools’: a blog series featuring authors, artists and their favourite tools.
Today's guest is author Mischa Merz. Mischa is the author of Bruising: A Boxer's Story (2009), as well as fiction and creative non-fiction. She is also a champion boxer, winning the Golden Gloves and Ringside World competitions. Her latest book, The Sweetest Thing, will be out in the US in April 2011.
Some writers like to romanticise the struggle and the solitude and overplay the pressures and the agonies of deadlines and editorial demands in their lives. But I’m not one of them.
Once you’ve been punched in the head a few hundred times it seems pathetic to whine about the torment of an empty page or a blank screen because anyone lucky enough to earn a living from something they enjoy doing shouldn’t complain.
Having trained as a journalist in the old school style of sink or swim, I also learned quickly to write while there was noise and chaos all around. Sometimes I had to file my copy over the phone to a copy taker who sounded like she had smoked a million Craven A’s and had heard it all before – unimpressed and unshockable.
But my most productive times have been when the punching and the writing have worked together and become a writing-fighting co-dependency, one feeding the other and the physical demands of training allowing me to settle in to the sedentary writing position in a more focussed state. Does that make boxing officially a writing tool?
Thinking is a big part of both activities, which might surprise some people. In boxing, you need to be able to think and move at the same time and operate inside a shell that allows you to be calm under fire. Sometimes it reminds me of filing over the phone while things are going on around you, noise and activity. Maybe my disposition craves chaos in order to create.
It used to be that writing about my own boxing journey was also a bit like therapy. It helped me process all those confronting moments. Those big existential issues like fear, anxiety, pain, courage and resilience. Now more than ten years down the track I’m more cavalier about fighting and those big issues have become less significant.
And yet I continue to write about the subject. But what feeds my cerebral side now is the extraordinary array of characters that inhabit the fight world. ‘Extravagant fictions’ as the writer Joyce Carol Oates described them, ‘looking for a structure to contain them.’ In my five weeks of writing and fighting in the US I would race back to my hotel from the gym anxious to start recording the hilarious and dramatic events that seemed to occur every other day. It wasn’t a blank screen that I lamented so much as the fact that I never learned to touch type and still bang things out with about four fingers. I could hardly keep up with events and submitted my first draft of The Sweetest Thing nearly 40,000 words over. The final chapter was written in noisy a Brooklyn café called ‘Root Hill’ which made me nostalgic for the days when I worked on the Melbourne Herald. I never really needed peace and quiet or the right configuration of desk ornaments, or even a routine in order to get going. I’m powered by the force of the subject matter.
I’m lucky to have this topic, which is, frankly, a gift that keeps on giving. I have written my share of short fiction and made several attempts at two or three different novels, so I know it’s much harder to make stuff up.
I’m not the first writer to fall in love with boxing of course. As well as Joyce Carol Oates and her classic essay ‘On Boxing’ the most famous of these was Norman Mailer. He used the fight metaphor occasionally in fiction and famously documented the Muhammad Ali v George Foreman battle in his book The Fight, you could say, was somewhat obsessed. Being a Jewish ‘mamma’s boy’ he always wanted to prove how tough he was and that maybe there was a tough black guy inside him ready to bust out. He’s been the subject of ridicule for that – derided as a closet homosexual and a tough guy groupie.
Mailer sometimes thought of himself as a writer version of a heavyweight prizefighter, describing to an interviewer how bad reviews for Barbary Shore forced him to learn how to climb back up off the floor like a young fighter who had been knocked down.
The reality is though, that both writing and boxing are about routine or, as Mailer knew, discipline. They are, in their ways, exceedingly undramatic. But together they help you reconcile the physical and the cerebral and I’m not the only writer to appreciate this dynamic.
Joyce Carol Oates still clocks up the miles in her roadwork, running at least 10km each day. She says it helps her order her thoughts.
In a New York Times essay she wrote ‘Running! If there's any activity happier, more exhilarating, more nourishing to the imagination, I can't think what it might be. In running the mind flies with the body; the mysterious efflorescence of language seems to pulse in the brain, in rhythm with our feet and the swinging of our arms. Ideally, the runner who's a writer is running through the land- and cityscapes of her fiction, like a ghost in a real setting.’
Boxing has helped me keep things in perspective when it comes to the pains and worries of this writing life too. No deadline ever feels like pressure compared to how it feels as the seconds tick by before you enter the boxing ring. No harsh editor’s cuts feel quite as potent as someone trying to knock your head off. And as for the critics? Bring it on, I say. I’m ready to rumble.