Dan John: Getting Started in Fitness Writing

Dan John on learning how to write

Every so often, someone will ask me about writing. Some think it’s a gift from the heavens. These people believe some of us are born writers like some of us are born to be seven feet tall.

Height, eye color and the joy of baldness are genetic. I think writing, like most sports techniques, is a skill that takes hours, days and years to just get in the right direction (write direction?).

For me, the process of writing is exactly like preparing for a contest or trying to achieve any other kind of goal.

But first, let’s talk about how I got here.

My interest in writing, as everything in life, begins with a story. It was 1970 and the world was a different place. Simon and Garfunkel and The Beatles split the year before, and we hadn’t even heard of Watergate yet. It’s funny to think that many of the political conservatives were long-haired, dope-smoking revolutionaries back then.

In my house, we had two Vietnam Vets (both had been called “Baby Killers” and “Animals” at various times), who were dealing with the injuries of the war. The troubles nationally and internationally brewed in our home, but so did my father’s first signs of lung issues and his escalating personal problems.

If you don’t mind a moment of cynicism, I just realized I grew up in an ideal breeding ground for an author.


 

After years of very strict traditional Catholic education, my seventh grade year (the best three years of my life!) heralded some changes in education. We still read the Great Books and memorized everything as the pillars of education, but now we had some freedom to explore things a bit. We were given something called an “Open Writing” assignment.

For those of us in salt and pepper corduroy pants, white shirts and green uniform sweaters, this was stunning. We were allowed to write what we wanted to write about?

So, I wrote a piece about a situation where everything slowly gets colder and darker. The last line explains the reason:

“It turns out, I died five minutes ago.”

After reading my paper out loud, my teacher, an Irish nun, said something I have never heard before: a compliment.

“Danny, you are a very good writer.”

I had never heard something positive in my life, save for perhaps about my naturally curly hair.

And my only thought was: “If I was a writer, how would I pay for insurance?”

And, sadly, that’s the truth.

She may not have been a fortuneteller, but she guessed the future. She was right, if you consider that my books sell very well, I write for several magazines and I make most of my living as a writer.

Thomas Plummer likes to joke: “Dan John is an overnight success. It just took him 45 years to do it.” Sister Eugenia was right; it just took a bit of work and effort to become a born writer.

And, I can pay my insurance.

The foundation of my education is theology, some philosophy and just enough geometry to keep things clear. Each of these fields is based on a simple premise:

Givens.

In theology, if you believe in One God and something bad happens to someone good, you have a whole field of inquiry to study to help you grasp it (theodicy). Now, if your Given is many gods and one of them doesn’t like you, well, that’s pretty easy to explain bad things:

That one god who doesn’t like you did it!

Geometric proofs, those hated assignments from high school math, are the cornerstone of my writing. It might not always be apparent.

Given: To Prove

When I coach, I spend a lot of time discussing people’s Givens. This is why we assess: Hey! This is what you are and what we’re working with!

When I coach track and field, your Givens are your body, your situation and your personal record. From there, we can look at improving—imProving—your performance.

When I write, I begin with the Given: what is established, what do we all know, what do all agree on (basically) and what needs to be improved.

Yes, I begin first with a problem.

When writing fitness articles, the problems tend to swirl around central themes:

  1. We are doing far too much here and ignoring the real problem there.
  2. Is there a better way to teach, learn and coach this problem (generally movements)?
  3. Can we connect and combine things to make things more efficient or synergistic?

You could probably make a “Dan John Article Generator” by linking these three questions with two columns: Tools and Fundamental Human Movements.

Tools                                                               Fundamental Human Movements

Kettebells                                                                   Push

Barbell                                                                        Pull

Mini-Bands                                                                Hinge

TRX                                                                             Squat

Sleds/Prowlers                                                        Loaded Carries

Dumbbells                                                                Sixth Movement

Actually, I think most of my work actually does simply that!

That’s the story and the method. But, the real truth to being a writer is going to be sad for some aspiring authors:

It’s work.

I arrange my writing as job with a slavish master. Ebenezer Scrooge, before the happy ending, is a good theme for what I imagine.

My wife Tiffini has an early day with her schedule, so we get the alarm before the sun wakes up.

I’m proactive to a fault, so the coffee is always set the night before we go to bed. I like to clear out my basic emails first and, honestly, answering a few questions is a good way to warm up the writing muscles.

One thing that really helps me is a rule I have: I don’t eat anything until all the writing for the day is finished.  Usually, it takes me about three hours to finish everything and, by then, it’s 9:30 and my Intentional Community (our daily training group) is at the door. So, I “intermittent fast” daily, but really it’s just not eating until the work and the workout are finished.

“Not eating” is what I really do and it allows me to focus on the task at hand. I have weekly, monthly and quarterly writing commitments, so I have to get it done. There’s nothing wrong with food, but ignoring it seems to make me stay much more focused.

The tradition in most religious communities is “First the fast, then the Feast.” I model this daily as I crank out (using the Dan John Article Generator!) my columns, articles and books.

But, the grind of writing has to be balanced with the joy of reading, watching and learning.

The grind of writing has to be balanced with the joy of reading, watching and learning. ~ Dan John Click To Tweet

One thing I strongly recommend for writers is continuing education of some kind. I read a lot in the field of fitness, both online and on paper in the form of books and magazines. This can open some doors for me, of course, but what really helps is reading outside the field.

I mix older works with recent materials fairly seamlessly. It might be my Great Books background, but I find comfort in reading translations like Gilgamesh, Beowulf and The Odyssey. It’s fun to mix a classic with Chad Harbach’s Art of Fielding or Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies. I see both of these books marching with the great themes of Classics like love, death and the afterlife.

I also pull off the shelf some modern Classics, too, like The Once and Future King, Dune, The Godfather and both Jurassic Park books. Again, we see timeless questions and themes that support the big questions like “How many lifts should I do on the One Lift a Day Program.”

In addition, and I have no financial interest in this company, I buy classes from The Great Courses. Oddly, studying the great tacticians of history seemed to help me see the difference between achieving a goal and achieving success (it’s not the same thing!).  I can listen or watch great professors discuss the Arthurian legends or how to understand wine while I’m doing laundry, prepping dinner or doing any light chores.

The reading and additional coursework lights up my mind. I can suddenly see connections between coaching programs and the issues faced by history’s great leaders. Let me just sum up the problem with any leadership position whether it’s being a general, a coach or a teacher:

Clarity.

You might think everyone understood what you said. They didn’t.

I often joke that my model of coaching is based on the story of the leader during the French Revolution: “As soon as I find out where my people are going, I will lead them there!”

Most people don’t know that I had a weekly column in a newspaper for ten years. Fortunately, the late Jack Shroeder was the proofreader. After one of my early columns, he came up to my office and sat across from me. He never mentioned that he was the former editor of a major newspaper and that he knew John F. Kennedy.

What Jack wanted to do was make me a better writer. He told me people connect to my work because I talk about people and tell stories. He said, and I didn’t get the humor at first, “People like stories and stories about people.”

So, I told you my story. I told you how I got here as a writer.

Now, we need to hear yours.

Dan John
danjohn.net

Click here to learn more about Before We Go, Dan’s new book of strength training stories.

Or if you missed his earlier book called Never Let Go, click here to get a discounted bundle of the two related books.

Dan John Before We Go

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