Reading, Writing, and Wrestling

by Christopher Arbor

When I was in high school, my grungy intellectual friends couldn’t understand why I competed in a sport as combative as wrestling, and my teammates couldn’t understand why I read Marlowe between matches. They all wondered what sort of fractured psychology could take an interest in both.

Somehow it made sense to me. It still does. I mean, how different are reading and wrestling? One is a struggle that relies upon your quick perception of subtle movements, requiring remarkable reflexes honed over years of training. The other is all about entering a flow state in which you are transported to another reality where your world and your self are discovered anew. Yeah, those sound different, but the two descriptions work equally well for both reading and wrestling. The best books are as challenging as athletics. And solid competition educates as much as any text does.

Moreover, reading a book you don’t fully understand or wrestling a match you don’t win is how you get better. We get stronger by failing. Reading about Frankenstein’s monster is as valuable as wrestling him. Twilight’s Bella Swan, on the other hand…

Wrestling consists of three periods. Let’s move into the second. In both reading and wrestling, the people involved are simultaneously of crucial importance and utterly irrelevant. Obviously, the reader needs a writer; the wrestler requires an opponent. It takes two to tango. But the two are less important than the tango. It’s the line between the two points that’s of real significance. It’s the relationship, the synthesis, or what the co-founder of CityTerm David Dunbar simply refers to as “The Third Thing.”

As a wrestler, as a reader and a writer, I have to remind myself of The Third Thing often. In wrestling, it’s easy to imagine the sport as one person forcing his will upon another. Same with writing and reading. But good wrestlers, good readers, and good writers know that it’s not always about forcing the other person into a position. It’s about sensing their weight, their movement, and moving with them.

This article isn’t about me. And it’s not about you. It’s about us. This little dance we’re doing. This match we’re wrestling. How is it going? How are we doing? You still in it? You ready for the third period?

Reading and wrestling have something else in common: They’re both endangered. Maybe you’ve heard. The fact that wrestling was almost removed from the 2016 Olympics has gotten more coverage than the actual sport ever has. And sometimes it seems half the text in the world is about the death of text.

I hesitate to add my outrage.

But I’m going to.

We’re in overtime now.

Reading and wrestling demand patience and perseverance, two characteristics often at odds with one another, yet somehow both in short supply these days. Reading and wrestling demand full attention and focus. They require sensitivity and power. They require empathy. They require the ability to simultaneously see and shape the world around you. They require the ability to react quickly and respond intelligently. These are skills that the world needs to foster, now more than ever.

Just as every match I’ve wrestled is a story, so too is every text I’ve read or written, a match. My opponents, my authors, my readers, and me, we’re all in this together. How are we doing?

Afterword: Richard Fletcher, my wrestling coach, never had a problem with my reading Marlowe, maybe because in addition to leading Charlotte Latin to a state championship ten times in the past twenty years, he also teaches art. And David Dunbar, whose ideas I synthesized (or perhaps just stole), has a lot more to say at:

Christopher Arbor coaches humanities and teaches wrestling at Asheville School. Much of the work featured in his short story collection Static to Signal was crafted in the Great Smokies Writing program.