Trim the Fat: John Irving

I attribute a lot of my focus and drive to having a fitness routine. I’ve learned that consistency is key in both keeping a writing habit and a fitness regimen. I grew up like most young writers do, with a romanticized view of being a tortured writer. Drinking, addiction, and depression riddle the biographies of many favorite writers. In elementary school I worried I’d never be as great as Emily Dickinson because I had a social life. In college, I took shots from a Dylan Thomas shot glass to pay tribute to a man who drank himself to death. It wasn’t until later in life that I recognized the routine and resilience of literary greats like Maya Angelou, Stephen King, and today’s focus, John Irving.

Irving as captured by The New Yorker.

In New England, everyone has an Irving related story. He’s the Kevin Bacon of the North East. I myself have a few but none shine brighter in my memory than when I was first introduced to his work. I was about 10 years old when Hollywood came to town to film Cider House Rules at the drive-in theater on my street. They parked their trailers at my friend’s farm and I got to meet Tobey McGuire and sneak into the costume department. I watched the movie when it came out– it was over my head– and never forgot that my writing could one day be turned into a movie too. It seemed like the best thing that could happen to a person.

This was all happening before I was interested physical activity or serious writing. It is crazy to me that fitness and creativity are put into direct opposition during middle and high school. Students do it to themselves and teachers do little to diffuse the myth that you can’t be great at both. I once wanted to be in a musical and run winter track but the practices and rehearsals overlapped too often. Even though everyone was okay with my having a special schedule, I eventually quit track because I was embarrassed by the scene I had caused with wanting to do both. I wouldn’t try running again for another 8 years.

If you ever need an example of someone accomplished in both sport and word, look no further than John Irving. Not only has he published 13 novels, many of them best sellers, but he is also in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. He competed for nearly 20 years and coached until The World According to Garp was published. The sale of that book finally allowed him to become a writer full-time. Physical activity is still very much a part of his day and an important part of his sanity.

In a 2012 interview with Telegraph, Irving cites his mother as the initial motivation for his becoming a wrestler, “Irving’s mother introduced him to the sport and the discipline, the rigorous repetition of practicing moves over and over carries over into his writing process,Ariel Leve writes. It’s true. Irving himself mentions the dedication it took for him to lose thirty pounds year after year to be able to compete. (Irving’s natural weight is in the 160s but he wrestled in the 130 pound weight class.) Even though he is no longer competing, he still keeps up strenuous exercise to keep up his stamina during long writing days and if I can guess, from getting the dreaded desk gut that all who work behind desks fear. (I know I do.)

Irving’s at home gym. Courtesy of

These days he writes for 8 hours a day, hits the gym for 90 minutes, and then cooks dinner. It is rare that his day wavers from this routine and he sees his dedication to writing and physical fitness as compulsions he must give in to. In his Paris Review interview he says, “I don’t give myself time off or make myself work; I have no work routine. I am compulsive about writing, I need to do it the way I need sleep and exercise and food and sex; I can go without it for a while, but then I need it.”

Now, instead of being worried that I am not edgy enough, I’m worried that I’m not dedicated or healthy enough to be a great writer. I know that I could use my long work days and lack of concentration as excuses as to why I’ll never be as great as Irving, but those challenges are what make it so worthwhile. Every New Englander knows it’s the hard work you should be proud of. In fact, Men’s Journal quotes Irving’s high school wrestling coach who told him, “You are not an athlete. But you love the sport and you understand it, and if you can keep a match close, you will sometimes be able to beat athletes much better than you…'” The author, John Paul Newport, writes that “Irving seems more proud of how far sheer doggedness got him as a wrestler than of his actual victories.”

Doggedness it is. I many not be an author, but I am a writer and I love a good compulsion.


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