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by Writing Workshops Staff

4 months ago

Meet the Teaching Artist: Write Like an Athlete with Caitlin Kunkel

by Writing Workshops Staff

4 months ago

Meet the Teaching Artist: Write Like an Athlete with Caitlin Kunkel

by Writing Workshops Staff

4 months ago

Drawing parallels between the worlds of writing and sports, Caitlin Kunkel taps into the principles of day-to-day improvement, long-term commitment, and mental fortitude in her new seminar, Write Like an Athlete.

As a former competitive distance swimmer turned writer, Caitlin expertly intertwines concepts from both domains to empower participants in strengthening their creative practice. Caitlin's writing has been featured in The New York Times, The New Yorker, McSweeney's, and on public radio. 

Throughout her seminar, students can anticipate delving into the nuances of self-talk, pre-performance routines, goal setting, critiques, and social accountability, all tailored to fortify their writing journey.

Hi, Caitlin. Please introduce yourself to our audience.

I'm an author, editor, and speaker who specializes in comedy and satire across a variety of forms. I created the Online Satire Writing Program for The Second City and co-founded the comedy site The Belladonna as well as the Satire and Humor Festival. My first co-written gift book, New Erotica for Feminists: Satirical Fantasies of Love, Lust, and Equal Pay (born out of a viral short piece!) came out in 2018. In the past few years I've been working on comedic novels, and I recently sold a craft book on how to write comedy with genius (and fellow Writing Workshops instructor!) Elissa Bassist, out in January 2026!

What made you want to teach this specific class? Is it something you are focusing on in your own writing practice? Have you noticed a need to focus on this element of craft? Or is this just your jam and you love it?

I was a competitive distance swimmer growing up all through college (brag: double state champion; brag caveat: that state was Rhode Island) and was taught many elements of sports psychology from coaches along the way. More recently, I worked at a tech startup with two sports psychologists who expanded my knowledge and understanding of those concepts, and I began to see the ways in which creativity and writing overlap with the many tools athletes use to access a high performance state. I started to implement some of the strategies into my creative life, had great success, and decided to put together a class on the topic. As someone who has struggled in the past with creative burnout and a disconnect between my mind and my body (I affectionately call this "writing like a brain stem"), I've found great relief in returning to more physical tools to support my mental work. Enough people say that writing careers are a marathon, not a sprint—I decided to take that idea a bit more literally! 

Give us a breakdown of how the course is going to go. What can the students expect? What is your favorite part about this class you've dreamed up?

We have two hours, so we can fast and furious! We start by discussing the overlap between creative practice and the pursuit of sports. Then, we use elements of sports psychology (per-performance ritual, drills) to create a warmup routine for our writing. We discuss how athletes access a high performance state and how we can steal some of those techniques to get into a creative flow state; we talk about using sprints and challenges to push ourselves, but then contrast that with the important of rest (or "tapering" for athletes); and a lot more! I send out my class slides afterward so students can reflect on and experiment with the sections that spoke to them.

What was your first literary crush?

Stephen King for sure! I started reading him when I was about 8, and taking in the ending of Pet Sematary at that age fundamentally rearranged my brain (for better or for worse is up for debate). I've always loved stories of horror, sci-fi, and the uncanny, and those elements have certainly influenced my writing—satire is a very heightened form of comedic writing, and I often pull from those genres in coming up with ideas. Basically, I'm a lil freak who writes about dark stuff with a smile.

What are you currently reading?

I'm very into hyperreal stories with comedic elements, where the world is like ours except for one major element exaggerated for satirical impact.

I'm currently reading Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah's Chain Gang All-Stars (his story collection Friday Black is one of my all-time favs). I'm always rereading Patricia Lockwood's Priestdaddy to see comedy used perfectly in memoir. I read fiction during the day, and nonfiction at night to help go to sleep. Given Boeing's recent woes, I definitely recommend Flying Blind: The 737 MAX Tragedy and the Fall of Boeing for more context!

How do you choose what you're working on? When do you know it is the next thing you want to write all the way to THE END?

Five years ago, I started tracking the things I was constantly reading about in a spreadsheet (this turned into the concept for my newsletter, Input/Output, mentioned more below). For the first time, I really could see the patterns of topics I kept returning to and reading more and more about. Now, when I have a critical amount of background information on a topic or world, I feel the seeds of a writing project—a short satire piece, a class idea, and more recently, two novels—start to emerge naturally from my interests. Knowing that I've been interested in a topic for years helps me persevere in those inevitable moments of "maybe I should throw this entire project away and start a new novel based on that weird dream I had last night that I only remember 10% of."

Where do you find inspiration?

I have an entire newsletter about this called Input/Output! I don't believe so much in writer's block as I do that there are cycles of creativity. Sometimes you're writing a lot, and other times, it feels like your creative well is dry and rather than continuing to grind (which can lead to burnout), you should let go of productivity guilt and take in things that inspire you. I often search other forms other than the ones I work in when I need inspiration—I look at visual art, read thrillers or mysteries, watch TV shows in different genres than I normally gravitate for. I almost always find that if I allow myself a break, ideas and patterns start emerging for me again. Wintering by Katherine May is a great book that touches on seasons of creativity.

What is the best piece of writing wisdom you've received that you can pass along to our readers? How did it impact your work? Why has this advice stuck with you?

I went to a reading by Emily St. John Mandel (author of Sea of Tranquility, The Glass Hotel, and Station Eleven, which is one of my top five all-time books) and she said that her writing mantra was "VELOCITY." I truly loved that—she expanded upon it to say (not direct quotes) that she writes to maintain the energy of the story. She doesn't describe a bookstore if we all know what a bookstore looks like, when instead she could use that space to expand our understanding of a character or plot point. I very much adhere to the idea that projects have an energy to them and you need to work to cultivate and curate that energy throughout to prevent them from languishing. Don't put them down too long, but also, don't work to the exclusion of all other input and influence or you might find yourself drawing down your creative battery to a critical point. Now when I'm writing I repeat "velocity, velocity" to myself as I go. We definitely discuss self-talk phrases in Write Like an Athlete!

What is your favorite book to recommend on the craft of writing? Why this book?

Beyond mine and Elissa's book (out January 2026!), I've recently really been enjoying Matt Bell's Refuse to Be Done: How to Write and Rewrite a Novel in Three Drafts for fiction. And in particular for the concepts in Write Like an Athlete, I highly recommend Haruki Murakami's What I Talk About When I Talk About Running on the crossover between running and writing.

Bonus question: What’s your teaching vibe?

Energetic and personable! I consider it my job to raise the energy of the (Zoom) room and create a space where people feel comfortable contributing. It helps me massively when students give that energy back by writing in the chat, hopping on the mic, and being active rather than passive participants. I actually love teaching online because it allows way more people to take the class—international students, people with care taking responsibilities, anyone for whom an in-person class is a challenge—and I aspire to make it feel like we're all truly together for those hours.

Learn More About Working with Caitlin:

You can learn more about Caitlin's upcoming seminar, Write Like an Athlete, and sign up now! Join Caitlin on this dynamic exploration where no physical activity is required, but the mental agility and endurance of an athlete are cultivated to elevate your writing prowess.

Instructor Caitlin Kunkel's writing has been featured in The New York Times, The New Yorker, McSweeney's, and on public radio. She co-founded the comedy site The Belladonna, created the online satire writing program for The Second City, and co-created the Satire and Humor Festival. Her first co-written book, NEW EROTICA FOR FEMINISTS, was published by Penguin Random House and named one of the 10 best comedy books of the year by Vulture (NY Mag).

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