Heft on Wheels: A Field Guide to Doing a 180 by Mike Magnuson
Heft on Wheels makes no secret of its subject matter. On the front, we have a photo of author Mike Magnuson, naked, obese and miserable riding his bike outside in the rain. And on the back cover, there’s a photo of author Mike Magnuson at least eighty pounds lighter, fit and wearing a much more relaxed expression, climbing a switchback in his racing team’s uniform. What lies between is a good read that will inspire you to examine your own life with a critical and ambitious eye.
Magnuson is a professor of creative writing, and his book is written as if he were speaking to one of his 19-year-old students, with liberal use of youthful jargon like "dude" and "wow" and "like." At times, this is, like, way annoying – but it can also be one of the book’s strengths. At the least, it makes it hard to think of Magnuson as Magnuson after a while; he becomes simply "Mike," as if he were a friend rather than a distant author. Really, for a book so intensely personal that it is best represented by a nude photo of the author on the cover, it’s probably best written in a conversational style.
Creative writing is notoriously hard to teach. You can’t exactly tell people what to write, or how to write it, because the result needs to come from their own experiences, in their own voice, or it’s not creative writing. Mike is in the habit of proclaiming various rules to his students, so that they will be led toward writing more honestly and authentically. It is through the device of these rules that Mike lays out the lessons he’s learned along his odyssey of self-improvement, and some of them are truly worth writing down and pinning to your wall. My personal favorite: "We learn by getting our asses kicked. If you want to do this in the simplest, least humiliating way, you must first learn how to kick your own ass."
Mike gradually transitions from padding his own ass with beers, nachos and a sedentary life, to kicking it well and soundly. Once he gets going, the results inspire him to continue with few setbacks. Not to spoil any surprises, but he loses the weight and gets fast – you’ve seen the back cover of the book. By that point, you’re pulling for him just like you would for a buddy going through the same ordeal.
The most interesting thing about the book is that the story continues past the point where the weight is gone. At first, I wondered how he could possibly fill another hundred pages after dropping the weight. But as I read more, I found this my favorite part of the book: Mike giving us a feel for what life is like after a major goal has been reached, Mike afraid that he’ll resume drinking and smoking, Mike finding the right balance between eating and riding, Mike settling into healthy stability and Mike generally enjoying his life and being happy with his family. There’s drama in the recovery, but Heft‘s real strength is the infectious lure of Mike’s post-recovery example. It’s that last hundred pages that, long after you’ve finished, keep you musing on your own imperfections and what might be done about them, as the miles roll by.
If you’re looking at dropping a few pounds yourself, you might find these other Reading Room resources of interest: