How I Learned to Write

I used to be a really terrible writer. I’m not exaggerating. My high school teachers probably cringed at the papers I submitted. I hated writing essays. In college, I lucked out because I studied finance and I never had to write.

One day I started writing a blog about wrestling. It wasn’t very good, but it was fun. For the first time, I actually enjoyed writing.

I started keeping a journal too. Since then, I have filled up three entire notebooks with my thoughts. If I ever die suddenly, please burn them.

One day I read a book called The 33 Strategies of Warby Robert Greene. I read it over and over again until it was seared in my memory. It had a huge influence on me. When writing in my journal or on my blog, I discovered that I started to mimic his voice.

“I could write a book like this,” I thought, “but about wrestling strategy.” I decided that I would try to draw lessons from various disciplines, just like Robert did.

I read every book about elite athletes that I could find. I read biographies of Mohammad Ali, Ted Williams, Jesse Owens, and many more. I took pages and pages of detailed notes.

Our college wrestling team had morning lifts and I arranged my schedule so that I didn’t have any classes before 1:00 p.m. After the lifts, I would sneak to the library where I found a small booth. I would compile my notes and try to write. I went to that library almost every day and sat down for hours. No one knew where I was or what I was doing. I’ve never told anyone about this.

I made an outline on my computer. It had chapters with bullet points, sub bullet points, and sub-sub bullet points. I still have it. It’s 64 pages long.

I even wrote a few chapters. I wrote an introduction full of lofty statements of purpose. I just reread it for the first time in years. It made me laugh.

I spent countless hours hidden in that library. I stopped paying attention to my schoolwork and my grades suffered. The ironic part is that I should have been focusing on my own wrestling career. I should have been using my free time to rest and recover.

I never did finish it though.

The summer after college, my friends and I went on a 28-day road trip. We had the most amazing stories. I wouldn’t even believe them had I not been there.

Afterwards, I sat down and started writing the stories from that trip. I wanted to present them to my friends so that we would never forget them. I had started my job on Wall Street and didn’t have much free time. But still, I would lock myself in my room on weekends and try to write as much as I could.

Although I never finished them, I did write 150 pages. Occasionally, I sent them to my friends and we had a laugh. I still find them hilarious. Maybe I’ll finish it someday.

After two years working in New York, I quit my job and moved to Peru.

I was worried that people would think that I had gone off the deep end. Who leaves a job as a bond trader to become a cage fighter in South America? People just don’t do that.

I decided to write a blog so that people could understand what drove me to do what I did.

I wrote my first post in the Ft. Lauderdale airport during a seven-hour layover en route to Peru. The opening line is: “I hope that if I ever have children they are nothing like me.” I don’t know if I still agree with that.

As I reread that post now, it sends shivers down my spine. I remember vividly where I was sitting. I felt like I was jumping out of my own skin. I couldn’t believe I was actually doing it.

The more I wrote, the more people began to follow my journey. I wasn’t just some weirdo in a far off land. I was telling a story and people were listening.

One day, my friend Jordan came to visit and we backpacked around Peru for two weeks. It was one of the most fun trips I’ve ever taken. Like my road trip, we had the most improbable and outlandish adventures.

As soon as I got home, I began writing the story down. I sat in Starbucks every day between my grueling MMA practices. At the end of four months, I had a book. It was 75,000 words (~300 pages). It was such a fun process.

As I looked back through the book, I realized something: it was a piece of shit. It lacked focus, cohesion, and any semblance of a storyline.

I felt like I should have been disappointed, but I wasn’t. I was happy because now I knew that I could do it. I shrugged and tossed it to the side. The next morning, I started writing the book that I actually wanted to write. I started writing my story.

But it wasn’t easy.

From the day I set foot on a wrestling mat at age seven, I intuitively knew how to wrestle. I still had a ton of technique to learn, but the building blocks were already there. Writing was not like that. I had to scrape and claw my way at every step.

I read On Writing by Stephen King. Before reading it, I embarrassingly didn’t know what adverbs were, nor how excruciatingly awful they sound. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott taught me how to write. If you want to write a book, read this first. I read Story by Robert McKee. It’s the Bible for storytellers. I read every book I could find that I thought would help.

I wrote every day and plowed through it. The first draft was 140,000 words. I didn’t know it was possible to string that many words together. It was way too long. Editing it was a nightmare. It took almost as long as writing the damn thing. I had to squash so many of my favorite stories. The final word count was 87,000 words.

The Cage by Rollie Peterkin

I wrote a book.

I sometimes wonder if that was my intention all along. I’m a pretty self-aware person, but I have to admit that I can’t say definitively.

I think my goal was—and still is—to try to lead a life worthy of a book. I wanted to lead a life worth living. I would have done it exactly the same, book or no book. And I’m definitely not clever enough to plan my life that far in advanced.

But still…

One time in college, I was driving through Kansas with my friend Chris. We were listening to Heat by Bill Buford on tape. In the book, he leaves his job as a writer to try to make it as an elite chef. And then writes a book about it.

“I could totally do that,” I remember saying to Chris. “But with MMA or something.” That was almost ten years ago.

And then I did it.

Want to see how the final product came out? Check out my book about my adventures fighting professional MMA in Peru: The Cage: Escaping the American Dream.

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