The Male Experience of Depression
Depression doesn’t discriminate based on gender. It affects both...
The interplay between creativity and fitness is unhealthfully underappreciated. Too often, they’re perceived as polar opposites, and we align ourselves with one or the other. Thankfully, the Ninja Poet himself, Sam Pierstorff, was willing to sit down with me and chat about the topic, outlining his experience growing into both creativity and athleticism, how to improve at both, and what motivates him to keep striving to improve.
Growing up, I saw creativity and athleticism as being at opposite ends of the spectrum of possible human talents. As my flat feet slapped around the gym floor and I knelt on my knees to attempt pushups, my sole source of solace was in knowing that as soon as the sock-scented hell known as middle school gym class was over, I’d go back to being on top.
With time, I’ve learned that these things are far from mutually exclusive. I’ve written time and time again about the role of developing an exercise routine in my own journey of recovering from severe depression and suicidal ideation. And yet, as passionate as I am about the harmony of exercising both your body and mind, Sam Pierstorff embodies this concept even more than me.
I first learned of Sam through Instagram. At the height of the “WAP” craze on social media, he stood out. Rather than seeing a teen or twenties-something in a crop top flailing about as Cardi B played, I found myself watching someone a bit more mature, enjoying himself as he analyzed and provided commentary on the lyrics. I guffawed as he proclaimed, “the uvula?” with a pained expression on his face. He caught me off-guard as his commentary came to an end, and he high kicked his way into the pre-chorus choreography.
It only took a quick scroll through Sam’s profile for me to sense that we were kindred spirits. First, his handle, @njapoet, spoke to me as a proud holder of a B.A. in English. Beyond that, I recognized how he embraced his identities as a poet, a professor, and an athlete in unison. He doesn’t restrict himself to any specific category, and his authenticity– whether reading one of his poems, walking through the recipe for a healthy snack, or high-kicking to Cardi– is evident.
He’s that rare breed of person who, once you hear him speak, you can’t help but lean back and say, “that guy is… interesting,” and mean it.
Here are his thoughts on creativity, fitness, and what it means to be the Ninja Poet.
Long before Sam became the Poet Laureate of Modesto, California (and the youngest Poet Laureate ever appointed in the state of California at that), he was an undergraduate student with plans of going the pre-med route.
Along the way, however, he ended up taking a screenwriting course. He quickly found himself growing enamored with the process of writing brief, comedic scenes. Best of all, the instant feedback that he got from his peers was exciting. Creating and using his creativity as a means of interacting with his classmates was addicting– and it was his addiction to the creative process that acted as the gateway drug that led him to poetry.
When he took his first poetry class in a later semester, the fulfillment he got from screenwriting took a profound new shape in poetry.
“It probably saved me thousands on therapy,” Sam stated matter-of-factly as he reflected on his early experiences with poetry.
He wrote about everything, giving special attention to the baggage he carried with him from his past. The conflict he witnessed as a child, his ambitions, and his fears all provided the fuel he needed to burn through the creative process. The more he created– the more he used poetry as a way of making sense of himself and his place in the world– the more compelling it became as a career field for him.
He shifted his plans, setting aside his pre-med plans and ultimately pursuing his MFA in creative writing from CSU Long Beach. Eventually, he settled into the classroom as a professor at Modesto Junior College, where he teaches various literature and composition courses.
Given his reputation as a poet and generally amicable guy, it’s relatively common for other professors to send students his way to discuss poetry.
Inevitably, the first question Sam asks aspiring students is what kind of poetry they read. Almost as often as he asks the question, the students recite the laundry list of historical figures they read about in high school– Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Byron, Dickinson, and so on. Full of angsty, rhyming poems, Sam’s students are caught off guard when he tells them to come back when they’ve read more modern poets.
“You wouldn’t go into guitar lessons without knowing anything about any guitarists, but it’s what a lot of students do with poetry,” he explained with a chuckle. Getting comfortable with writing poetry often necessitates first reading poetry and understanding it. By reading more modern poetry, they’re able to put their ideas down in a more modern, creative way and really grasp what makes for strong poetry.
Editor’s Note: Given this sentiment, it was very tempting to write this entire article in rhyming couplets.
“My family was always the priority– my wife and kids definitely rank higher than exercising, so for a long time I would only go the gym a couple of times per month,” Sam described his previous outlook on exercise. During his infrequent trips to the gym, he’d jog or walk on the treadmill and do a bit of light lifting.
This changed, however, after a family vacation. As he stood holding his child’s hand and facing the ocean, his wife took a picture of them from behind.
In addition to capturing the paternal moment, the photo also showcased how Sam’s body had changed over time. He wasn’t thrilled with what he saw in the photo, noticing how his back showed dips and curves in places it once hadn’t.
To counteract this change, he made a point of doing cardio more frequently and cutting down on his portion sizes. With this process, he dropped about fifteen pounds pretty quickly. Yet it was taking his daughter to swim practice that helped him really amp up his fitness progress. It was there that he noticed a group of adults swimming and inquired about what they were doing. To his delight, they had a swimming group for adults, so he decided to get involved, making swimming a new part of his routine.
Much like his experience with poetry, his early experiences with exercise emboldened him to take things further. A healthy balance of cardio and lifting became ingrained in his routine, and his focus shifted from reclaiming his body to maintaining it as he challenged himself to continue improving.
“It just makes me feel better about myself, you know? I’m the kind of person who has a ton of energy, and if I don’t do anything with it, it just builds and builds. When I work out, I’m able to let it all go,” Sam recounted. “It’s like if you have a bottle of soda that’s gotten shaken up and has a lot of built-up pressure. Eventually, the cap is going to come off, and it’s going to explode. For a lot of men, unfortunately, the explosion happens at home too often. For me, the gym is a healthy way to process those emotions, let the day go, and feel better. It’s a time when I’m most focused and relaxed.”
And, it has paid off for him. One evening while watching American Ninja Warrior with his daughter, she asked him if he thought he could do what the competitors on television were doing. He hadn’t particularly considered it up to that point but decided to give it a try.
Increasing the amount of cardio in his routine and incorporating calisthenics, he focused on building up his agility and muscle control. To his daughter’s delight, he made it onto the show, first competing in American Ninja Warrior Season 6 (2014) and then going back to compete again in Season 9 (2017).
Though he hasn’t (yet) scaled the heights of American Ninja Warrior’s greatest challenge– Mt. Midoriyama– he continues to challenge himself and push himself to go further. Whether it’s orchestrating light bulb moments in the classroom, coming up with a witty comeback for jokes about his forehead wrinkles on Tik Tok, or recording his new podcast, Sam brings his frenetic vitality and fondness for metaphors into everything.
While the prototypical poet likely isn’t someone you’d expect to see bounding across obstacles or doing handstands while balanced precariously on upturned dumbbells, for Sam, the creative and athletic lives are one and the same.
“It’s after a workout that I’m most able to create. I can come home from the gym and open up my laptop and write and write and write because it serves to release the pressures and distractions of the day. I’ve also written directly about my experiences in the gym. I have poems about the un-asked-for spotter who shows up while you’re doing bench presses; I’ve written about the pullup bar that has essentially become a rack for his coats and ties.”
Before we wrapped things up, I was curious to ask Sam a hypothetical question. If he had to pick only one physical exercise and one creative exercise to do for the rest of his life, what would they be? Being a fellow gym rat and writer, I knew that it was a question I would have trouble with myself. To my surprise, it only took him a second to know what his answer would be.
"Push-ups, definitely push-ups," Sam asserted, "perhaps it's cheating because you can do so many variations and switch up your push-ups to get almost a full-body workout with them, but that's what it would be."
When it came to picking a creative exercise, he hesitated a bit longer but ultimately settled on one of my personal favorites: the "I remember" exercise, as outlined by Natalie Goldberg in her book, Writing Down the Bones. In that exercise, Natalie Goldberg outlines the basic unit of the creative process, which she considers to be writing for a set period of time. She advises, "Begin with 'I remember.' Write lots of small memories. If you fall into one large memory, write that. Just keep going. Don’t be concerned if the memory happened five seconds ago or five years ago.” The exercise’s goal is to force yourself to let words flow for a set period of time without worrying about censoring or editing yourself– focus solely on letting your memories pour out without first qualifying the thoughts.
Given what I've come to know about Sam, the workout and creative exercise choices make sense. He has a knack for making the most out of whatever situation he's in, and both of these exercises enable him to do exactly that.
Whether you're looking to follow in Sam's footsteps as a ninja, poet, or both, his progress in both areas serves as an effective blueprint for getting started. Remember– Sam didn't start out as a stellar athlete or award-winning poet. He worked his way up to being both, which is why we wanted to feature him as an exemplar of wellness. He read a variety of modern poets and learned to let his words flow unhindered. He wanted to get back in shape, so he pushed himself to be faster, stronger, and more active month over month.
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