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Be Strong Like a Sphincter

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A series of concentric circles for Be Strong Like a Sphincter.

Yes. We’re going to talk about those circular muscles that open and close passages in the body. It’s going to get silly.

What’s the deal with sphincters?

There are over 50 different kinds of sphincters in your body (50!), all busily doing their job without any glory. We’ve all heard of the biggies—esophageal, anal, and urethral—because we ingest food and eliminate waste every day, and their successes and failures are a big part of our quality of life.

But there’s also the pyloric sphincter, which keeps our food in our stomachs until it’s thoroughly mixed with digestive juices. Sphincters cause our irises to contract and dilate in response to changes in light. Pre-capillary ones regulate the flow of blood into our tiniest blood vessels, and there are an estimated 10 billion capillaries in each of our bodies.

So we have billions (billions!) of sphincters in our bodies and we consciously control only two of them: the external urethral and anal sphincters. The rest are constantly working to regulate our digestion and waste elimination, the flow of light, and the movement of blood and bile and pancreatic juices (these last two through the awesomely named Sphincter of Oddi); they prevent air from getting into our esophagus when we breathe, and food from getting into our lungs when we eat.

As Hank Green says in his video, Three reasons to love sphincters (at the bottom of this post):

Sphincters don’t get tired, which is an amazing thing. They squeeze. Like, your butthole is squeezing all the time. If you squeezed any other muscle in your body it would get exhausted. But not your butthole! It’s one of the most efficient muscles in your body so it can stay clenched all the time and never get tired. Hooray! Hooray for sphincters!  

Why am I almost as excited about sphincters as Hank Green?

Because I’m tired.

It feels like so many of my life muscles have been non-stop contracting and never releasing since COVID and I am weary of persevering. I was on the verge of writing a super-whiny-but-hopefully-charming post when I saw Green’s sphincter-rave. It is both silly and true and it nudged me out of whine-mode and into inspiration-mode.

I want to be strong like a sphincter. 

Tireless. Efficient. Knowing when to contract, when to relax, when to keep things flowing, what to prevent, and when to contain. And just doing it. Automatically.

What does this have to do with writing?

Sphincters work by contracting to contain things and relaxing to let things flow. Think of your writing process. It likely has a rhythm of collecting (ideas, writing advice, research, story beats, character bios) and releasing (freewriting, collaging, drafting). 

We are advised not to edit too much when we’re in drafting mode (i.e., don’t contract when your job is to relax). 

Sometimes we do a word vomit.

We write crappy first drafts.

We know how glorious it is when we’re in flow mode and the ideas and insights and words practically spill out of you. But we also know that feeling of straining to push out words.



The phrase Be strong like a sphincter was enough to nudge me out of self-pity this week. Maybe it will help you in some way, too. And if not, I hope this made you smile.

What gets you out of your head when you’re stuck there?
Do you have any silly sayings you actually take to heart?


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