It’s all about momentum Little V, it’s all about momentum.
So goes one of my husband’s regular pep talks to his novelist wife. Momentum is one of Hugh’s favourite words and it drives much of his own philosophy of teaching and productivity.
It’s a word I’ve been thinking a great deal about lately as I cycle up and down the hills of Concord, New Hampshire. England, or the bits that I have lived in, is pretty flat. I realise that Concord isn’t set on a mountainside, but still, should you choose to cycle up Pleasant Street from St. Paul’s School to Main Street, you will have to change gears a few times. Or if you have my writer’s physique, you will.
I’ve learnt a trick in mastering those steep bits of the route: get into a really high gear when going down hill, pedal super fast and then allow the forward push – the momentum – to help you zoom up the hill. If I don’t bother to start peddling early on the down slope, I don’t have a hope in hell of making it to the top: I’ll stall and eventually need to get off and push my bike to the top. Which, considering I’m pregnant, would be forgivable, I suppose, but ah, the satisfaction of getting there all in one go.
I know, I know there’s physics to all this and it’s pretty logical, but this law of motion has made me think about how momentum can act as a metaphor for the artistic life too – or, indeed, for anything we set our minds to, from clearing out a wardrobe to organising a birthday party.
So, here’s what I’ve learnt about momentum, and how it helps me in my writing life.
First: it’s about starting.
Simple enough, you might say, but we all know that to begin is the hardest. The thing is, you don’t have to start pedalling half way up the hill. You can start on the flat. You can start on a downward slope and just pedal in the air for a while or go around the block a few times where the terrain is familiar. At first, don’t worry about getting anywhere in particular or about getting much done. It’s just about beginning to put your energy into the task. Even the smallest step forward can have a huge impact, can get the creative ball rolling. And once that ball is rolling, there’s no telling where it will end. I suppose that this stage is about intention and acting on that intention.
Second: it’s about gaining speed before you hit the hard bit.
It feels good to free pedal downhill, right? To stop moving your legs, to feel the wind in your hair, to sense the rush of your body moving through space. And there’s a place for that, certainly. But when you want to get a job done, when you want to kick start a project or make progress when it’s all feeling stickily slow, it’s good to start pedalling when things are easy, when there isn’t too much resistance yet. It’s about starting to fight the battle before it’s even begun – it’s about giving things an extra oomph at the first sign of that upward curve.
Third: it’s about believing you can do it.
It’s common to freeze when you see the hard bit in front of you. It’s easy, in fact, to collapse in a heap and give up altogether. To say, ‘I can’t.’ In fact, when I first drove up Pleasant Street with my husband and saw all those hilly bits, I never imagined I’d be strong enough to cycle all the way from school to town. But you can always do much, much more than you realise.
A few months ago, my little girl, Tennessee Skye, went through an ‘I can’t’ stage. I found it deeply distressing. I know that struggle is part of learning and that as a two year old there are a great number of things she is trying to master are very difficult, so the ‘I can’t, Mummy’ response, is only natural. But still, I want her to grow up with that all too American philosophy of ‘I can.’ So, this is what I did.
We cycle together a great deal. Tennessee sits on her purple seat on the back, usually giving me a running commentary as I pedal extra hard to make up for the additional weight on the back. When I lived at Wellington College in England, I would cycle her through the woods and there was always a particular spot with a sharp incline that needed some oomph. I pedalled my heart out on the downward slope and on the way up, whilst red-faced and gasping at the air, I cried out:
I can! I can! I can!
Enjoying a birthday bicycle ride earlier this month.
Tennessee giggled with joy. Then, the next time she felt stumped by a task and said, ‘I can’t, Mummy, I can’t,’ I’d say to her: ‘Remember what Mummy says when we’re cycling uphill?’ And she’d respond in her snuffly nosed little voice: ‘I can! I can! I can!’ And often, this would be enough to get her back to the task in hand.
So, as you see that difficult chapter looming, as you sit down to a big re-write, as you get to the tricky phase of a project or those difficult items in the ironing pile, give yourself an extra ump, chant the mantra, ‘I can,’ pedal a little harder and go, go, go!
There’s another aspect to momentum, which is just as important as gathering speed.
Fourth: the snowball effect
One of the definitions of momentum in the hefty, Oxford English Dictionary, which I lugged all the way from England, goes as follows:
The impetus and driving force gained by the development of a process or course of action.
There’s lots to unpack here but the word I want to focus on is ‘gained.’ By making a start, by getting on the bike, by pedalling, even when you’re on an easy bit, even when you’re going flat or downhill, you begin to accumulate energy – momentum- and, wonderfully, your project grows. Here are the words of Steve Ferrante:
Success is like a snowball…You gotta get it moving, and the more you roll…the greater it gets.
There’ll be snow in New Hampshire soon and Tennessee, now well over two and a half, will be learning to make her first snowballs. Her little fist will grip at the wet snow, she’ll pat it until it becomes a firm, round, icy ball and then, together, we’ll start rolling it…uphill…downhill…along the flat bits…around in circles…and maybe, just maybe, from that small fistful of ice, we’ll make a snowman.
I hope that you’ll find some momentum today, that you’ll make a start, that you’ll pedal a bit harder when it’s easy so that when you hit the hard bit, you make it all the way up, that you trust you can do it and that you watch your beautiful project grow.
Tennessee gathering snow in Switzerland on her first Christmas.