The Rope Test—and the Disciplined Writing Life

What's the Story #7

When I was a teen-ager, my mother always assured me that I wasn’t fat; rather, I was big-boned. And I had a very slow metabolism. Both observations were probably true, but not the main reason I weighed 220 pounds (my suit size was 44 husky when I graduated high school)—too fat for the Marines or the Air Force. I assumed that by enlisting in the U.S. Coast Guard, the only service that would accept me at my weight, I would have an easy time of it, physically. After all, they were the shallow-water sailors. Little did I know that because we were operating mostly on the coast (guarding our shores from enemy aggression), we were always running like hell.

A favorite drill in basic training (boot camp) was triggered by a certain signal on the bell tower—three staccato chimes. At that moment, we recruits, wherever we were standing, whatever we were doing, were obliged to grab our pieces (M-1 rifles) and bayonets and dash to the water to meet an invading enemy and do combat. Traditional Coast Guard boot camp was 12 weeks, versus the Army’s nine-week stint. But even after 12 weeks of basic, I was the only member of my company not allowed to graduate and join a unit. I had lost a good deal of weight at this point—and was certainly as fit as I ever had been—having been forced to march endlessly and run and dive maniacally through the Marine-style obstacle course. But I could not seem to pass the rope test. This was a rope, 50 feet high, with knots spaced evenly for handholds; you needed to climb to the top, and then control your descent. There were other ways of boarding an invading ship, but if a rope is the only answer, a Coast Guardsman must be physically able to do it. Every night after supper I was tested, and every night I failed.

During the day, I worked with a maintenance crew inside an abandoned boiler, chiseling away at the burnt-in soot and debris for hours on end without seeing natural light between breakfast and lunch or lunch and supper. At that time, masks were unheard of. You breathed in the coal dust in the morning and coughed it out at night. By day’s end, I lacked the energy and determination to climb the rope or even to work out with free-weights to strengthen my upper body. Not wanting to remain in boot-camp limbo for the rest of my hitch, I started to get up early in the morning and do hundreds of push-ups and sit-ups before reveille. At lunch, instead of eating or smoking, I would take long walks around the compound. Or I went into the men’s room and practiced pull-ups on the toilet stall doors. The guys with whom I shared boiler-cleaning duty were in detention because of some criminal act they had committed, not because they were too fat or couldn’t pass the rope test. They would not have taken kindly to my “public” display of extra physical training. Their attitude was that we had plenty enough P.T. in our own routine.

Under my secret regimen, however, no more than 10 days went by before I surprised myself and my instructors by literally bounding up the rope from floor to ceiling, which I touched with one sure hand, then skittering down again without using my feet. When I got the bottom the first time, I showboated by going up again and back. It was triumphant moment, not just because I succeeded, but more so because of the ease with which I pulled it off.

A few years later, I realized that my struggle to climb the rope as a Coast Guard recruit—and my eventual success—was also my first significant step toward the writing life. I had always been a voracious reader, and the library, wherever I was stationed on active duty, became a haven of privacy and comfort. The library is where I first began writing long letters and journal entries that eventually turned into essays and short stories. But my triumph climbing the rope led to my understanding and appreciation of a writer’s real secret of success: discipline—an attempt to be creative and productive on a regular basis. Virtually every writer I have ever known or read about, regardless of genre, lifestyle or location,, write or “works out” on a regular schedule. From William Styron to Joyce Carol Oates to John McPhee, writing regimentation is a key to success.

Each day, seven days a week (for the past 20 years), I climb out of bed at 4:30 a.m. and am at work at my desk within 30 minutes. I can get a lot done when the phone doesn’t ring and the horns don’t honk. When I get jammed up with work, I have learned to push the time back—I get up earlier. When you are on my kind of schedule, it doesn’t matter if you awaken at 4:30 a.m. or 3:45 a.m. Obviously, you might have to go to sleep earlier, but five hours a night is more than enough for my needs. As I said, all successful writers will write on a regular schedule and in a disciplined way. But creative nonfiction requires an even more focused discipline because we are not only writers but also reporters and researchers who utilize literary techniques to capture and portray real life and to investigate significant moral and cultural issues.

This issue of Creative Nonfiction contains excellent examples of the potential of the genre and of how much can be accomplished with focused commitment and unwavering dedication. It is also a perfect model of the varied points of view achievable in writing creative nonfiction—from the distance of immersion/reportage to the personal closeness and intimacy of poetry. In Issue 7, Sherry Simpson, a journalist, not only concentrates on the heart of the debate in Alaska concerning harvesting (killing) wolves but also takes us deep into the backcountry so we can understand the depths of belief on all sides of the issue.  Mark Bowden (“Finders Keepers”), also a journalist, captures in intimate detail the seamy side of life in Philadelphia and the frustration and despair of people who live on the fringes of society, while Brenda Marie Osbey portrays the tragic story of the talented but unappreciated musician from New Orleans, Buddy Bolden. David Hamilton, editor of The Iowa Review, ponders Robert Frost and the impact of poetry, while Maxine Kumin discusses the discipline required by gardening and the joy of growing things. David Gessner’s “June Journal” of the final days of his father’s life provides an interesting and evocative contrast to the warmth and joy displayed in Charles Simic’s “Dinner at Uncle Boris’s.” Both Maxine Kumin and Charles Simic, incidentally, are recipients of the Pulitzer Prize in poetry.

You will see that these writers are very different in voice and approach—points of view. But if you ask them, they will all tell you about the regimentation under which they usually work: a disciplined, regular schedule, morning, noon or night, day after day, through most of the year. This is how writers become writers. They may write an impeccable essay, seemingly with ease, just as I passed the U.S. Coast Guard rope test as if I were an accomplished athlete. But I trained hard to be able to scramble up 50 feet, just as writers labor in the privacy of their solitary spaces with disciplined regularity in order to produce a memorable literary effort. We often don’t think about writing as a deliberate act of discipline, but that is exactly how the artful essay begins. 

About the Author

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Lee Gutkind

Lee Gutkind is the author and editor of more than thirty books, including You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction–from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between, Almost Human: Making Robots Think, The Best Seat in Baseball: But You Have to Stand, Forever Fat: Essays by the Godfather, and the award-winning, Many Sleepless Nights: The World of Organ Transplantation.

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