John Irving on Wrestling and Writing

The author John Irving was interviewed by Michael Enright on CBC Radio a few weeks back. He spoke about how his own career as a wrestler influenced his writing. Irving started to wrestle when he was an ill-tempered fourteen year-old. He told Enright that “you can’t lose your temper on a wrestling mat”, and that wrestling was all about controlling one’s temper. Channeling it. “Wrestling was my first discipline,” he said.

Irving started to write about the same time as he started to wrestle, and eventually made the connection between the two pursuits. Passion, fear and anger are fuel for a writer as much as they are for a wrestler; and just like a wrestler a writer must be able to manage them. He learned how do do this on the mat first through repetition. Through the hours of practice on the mat. He goes on to say that as a wrestler, you…

accept the responsibility of learning a small detail until it becomes second nature. Until a move or a response to someone else’s body becomes instinctive. It isn’t instinctive. It’s a learned process. But it has to be as quick as something instinctive if you’re going to be any good. I was disciplined at that before I became disciplined as a writer. And it helped me.

Irving relates the necessity of a wrestler to constantly repeat his movements over and over to the necessity of the writer to constantly revise. Wrestling taught him the stamina for constant rewriting.

I am thinking of Irving these days as I lay down my rough first draft of the Walls book. Quite frankly, most of what I’ve written is horrible. My experiences overseas were rich, and my notebooks are full of delicious details, but my prose so far is weak and my narrative disjointed. I know that the beauty, if there is to be any, will come later through rewriting. I have a long way to go and I get exhausted thinking about it. I could use a little of the wrestler’s stamina right about now.