How was your holiday? Mine was spent with my family and my sister’s family. Behind her house is a lovely trail, shadowed by trees and full of birds and bunnies and frogs and so on, and I was reminded of one of the best tools for writing: walking.
Writers tend to be people who mostly live in our heads. Don’t get me wrong, I like my head. It’s well-furnished. But the downside of spending a lot of time inside your own skull is that you forget to inhabit your body, and that cuts you off from a lot of experience that (practically speaking) can enrich your writing and (spiritually speaking) your life.
Walking is a good way out of the rumination loop, and also has a way of untangling mental knots and reconnecting with your senses. At least once per week I get stuck writing–I start a scene in the wrong place, or include the wrong characters, or something else that is obvious in retrospect. But I usually bash myself against the problem for a while before I realize that there’s something wrong. When I finally catch on to what’s happening, I know I need to step away from the computer and do a few laps around my neighborhood. Often the movement enables me to solve the problem before I’m even back to the house.
How can writers go about beginning a walking practice? Katy Bowman is one of my favorite movement teachers and she has a lot of resources on her website. But here is my advice, speaking as someone who isn’t at ALL a fitness person:
- Make it simple enough and quick enough that you won’t put off doing it. I know that if I have to stop writing, go put on exercise clothes, and dedicate forty minutes to my movement, then I simply will not move around. I will instead wander to the kitchen and get a snack, which is not nearly as good for my writing productivity as a ten or fifteen minute walk. Walking around your neighborhood counts. Walking around your house counts. Walking on the treadmill for a little while counts. Just move.
- Other movement can work if walking isn’t possible. This winter, the town where I live got massive and unusual amounts of snow. I had to schedule in a couple of hours every day of shoveling the stuff, making sure our roof wouldn’t collapse, and chopping firewood. We chop wood with an eight-pound maul. There’s a rhythm to chopping wood and a satisfying amount of exertion that will clear your head just as well as a walk (which wasn’t happening, since the snow was up to my hips and I don’t have snowshoes).
- Make it easy enough that it won’t utterly deplete your willpower. This falls under the floss one tooth school of habit management. You begin each day with a finite amount of willpower, and sometimes the ability to focus and keep writing takes ALL of it. If your movement strategy requires you to exert willpower too, you’ll wind up shorting either the writing or the walking. Ideally, your movement strategy will increase your willpower, not decrease it. I like walking around my neighborhood because the route is short and familiar enough that I don’t have to think about it. It’s automatic, and I can just think about my writing problem while my body drums up a little serotonin.
- Make it an automatic yes. I’m the kind of person who generally treats things as an automatic no as a default setting. This works out okay as long as my no is only to clear the way for me to say yes to the things that make my life better. Walking is one thing that makes my life better, so I have set it to be an automatic yes. If someone says “wanna go for a walk?” I say yes unless there’s a compelling reason to say no (dinner’s on the stove, for example). Incidentally, this strategy works with anything that you know adds value to your life, but that tends to get crowded out.
What sorts of things do you like to do to support yourself physically so that you can continue to create great writing?