How Writing Is Like Biking

BRATISLAVA –From the slumber of their winter hibernation, I've pulled our bicycles from the depths of our cartoonishly overstuffed hall closet.

Dad’s self-appointed task: wipe down the dust and cobwebs, pump some life into those tires. Sure, I’ve suffered minor injuries, like a bruised shin, but I get no sympathy from this crowd.

There's another cost, too. When you go so many months between riding a bicycle, as we did from fall to spring, certain muscles grow dormant. Guess what? They begin to atrophy. At least at my age, they do.

In the wake of that initial sojourn, then, I know I’ll feel a little achiness in the buttocks, knees and calves. So much so, I’ve begun blurting out a new slogan to anyone who’ll listen: I ain’t gettin' any younger.

Yet, the muscle memory is there, retained. That maiden voyage flips the switch and re-activates the muscles. Soon enough, your confidence soars until even biking with little kids feels oh so natural.

Well, writing is just the same. Neglect certain skills, watch them wither.

I was thinking about this as I sat down to write another article for Harvard’s Nieman Reports. Sorting through hand-written notes, jotted in a notepad, becomes something of a chore. I find myself procrastinating. But of course I must go through these damn notes.

As I constantly preach to my journalism students, you gotta back up what you say, not just spout any ol’ opinion. That’s not journalistic.

When you’re wielding a notepad every day, though, you don’t think twice about the need to draw out the most relevant facts, details and quotes – the real voices of real people. Those are the building blocks to my writing.

Procrastination, though, is something I grapple with quite often, like assembling the nitty-gritty of this current grant proposal I'm also working on. It’s not a lot of fun. Why have I not yet roped in an intern!?

In fact, I’m procrastinating right now, blogging about procrastination instead of diving into that notepad.

None of this, though, excuses me violating a cardinal sin of journalistic laziness. I just emailed (and Facebooked) a handful of questions to three possible sources. Ah, the email interview. So wooden, so impersonal. Quotes are certain to be duller than if you interview a source voice-to-voice, if not face-to-face. For me, I turn to the email interview only in case of emergency, as the last-ditch alternative, for when a deadline is bearing down. Even then, just a few questions, to get a reaction or some facts.

This afternoon, though, I scratch the surface. I’m not normally lazy when it comes to my journalism.  (Laziness about cleaning the flat is another question.) So why the email cop-out, choosing the path of least resistance? In fact, it’s because I do fewer and fewer conversations with actual sources. It’s a simple formula: more teaching plus more book-writing equals less reporting plus less interviewing.

At a time when I’m pulled in so many directions, the idea of a one- or two-hour phone chat feels more difficult to pencil in. Not surprisingly, certain muscles begin to atrophy. I feel more anxious about studying up on topic before the interview, even writing down a batch of questions, rather than trust myself to cover every area I want covered. Again, this is a skill honed by daily reporting.

Then there’s the muscle that enables you to think quickly on your feet, say, if a source gets testy. Or doesn’t quite answer your question – whether intentionally or unintentionally. You need to be quick on your feet, to bounce back, smartly. A related side-effect is that I feel like I stammer more. Another culprit may be the fact that I go days and days engaged in banal café-chatter, like ordering an espresso without milk, in survival Slovak. The verbal sparring only begins at home, at night, with the wife and kids.

But I know what I need to do: compel myself to pick up the phone. At first, it’ll be a bit uncomfortable, like the metal indentations on the bicycle seat. (Let’s see if a new gel seat-cover can resolve that issue.)

However, the journalistic muscle memory is clearly there, permeating my DNA after two decades in the business. Within an interview or two, once again, it feels like second nature.

Michael J. Jordan, who arrived in Lesotho in 2011, is the lone Western foreign correspondent living in the country – and covering its crisis.