Jul 232013
trail magic leconte

All sorts of amazing things happen when you’re out walking. Like “trail magic” and thin mints. Photo taken ascending Mt. LeConte in the Smokies.

So my brain is fried, my words pass gas instead of sing, and the thought of getting a lousy 100 words down feels like do-it-yourself surgery sans anesthesia. What to do, what to do?

I won’t call it writer’s block because in my mind there’s no such animal. Let’s be honest, though. I was writing. I’m blocked. What else do you call it?

Time to do something else. Get some blood flowing because my butt or feet have lost their circulation.

That’s when I jump on the bike and pound out a few miles. The more blocked I am, the harder I’ll pedal.

Even if it’s a cold day or there’s a light rain, I’m out there getting a good sweat rolling. If it’s raining hard, it’s going to be a messed-up day.

If not biking, I’ll just take a walk.


Anecdotal evidence: How moving around works

I recently read an account of Mark Twain visiting his friend Nikola Tesla’s lab one night. Twain got on this vibrating platform, and before throwing the switch Tesla warned him the vibration was only good in small doses.

But Twain was having the time of his life, really enjoying the ride, saying he never felt better and wild horses couldn’t drag him off.

Until he started looking really uncomfortable, signaled Tesla to stop that thing.

Then dashed off to the bathroom.

Sounds crude, but getting up and moving around does shake everything loose like that.

In his classic list of activities to keep you young, baseball player and ageless wonder Satchel Paige once explained this idea:

“Keep the juices flowing by jangling around gently as you move,” he advised.

Of course, in that same list he said, “avoid running at all times.” I’m totally with him there. Biking is great. Walking is great. But running? Forget it. Too violent on the ankles, knees and back. If God meant for us to run, we’d have been born with a pair of Nikes.

But that walking or biking, with or without the jangling, does knock the crud out of my brain. Seriously.


Advantages of taking that walk

All kinds of cool things happen when you take a walk or ride:

  • You get to disconect from your project for at least a few minutes.
  • You give your eyeballs a chance to adjust after staring at a computer screen, legal pad, sketchbook or music charts for several hours.
  • You’ll get back to work refreshed.
  • If the walk is long enough — for me about seven miles — the endorphins kick in and I feel just plain wonderful. Some people spend good money for that feeling, but you can get it for free.
  • Think of all that vitamin D you’re sucking up.
  • It’ll help get rid of that seceratory’s spread if that’s an issue with you.
  • While disconnecting and walking (or riding), great ideas come to you. When you’re not thinking about your task, the creatures in your attic are busy cranking off those ideas and feeding them to you. That’s why I always carry some index cards while I’m out on my ride. If I have to pull over and jot something down, it’s been a good ride.
  • You’ll get unstuck. Stephen King said he found the key to continuing The Stand while out on a walk. Of course, he discovered a disadvantage to walking when some guy in a van mowed him down. Took him a long time to heal from all the broken bones. So there’s that.
  • If you walk with a friend or you meet cool people on the road, you’ll get to engage in some real conversation. That’s always great fodder for your next great idea, and it beats the isolation that often comes when you’re creating something.
  • People-watching is great fun too, and it sure beats daytime TV for afternoon entertainment.
  • It’s great for burning off stress.

Listen, that last part is important. I finally figured I don’t do stress well. I can easily handle it when it’s just a couple of days’ worth, but when I hold onto it for too long my brain goes haywire. Neurons fire at random. The inside of my head starts looking like some lunatic’s electrical experiment. I turn the whole doing-stupid-stuff routine into an art form.

Telsa's experiments

This is my brain on stress …

The best advice I’ve received over the past year is to burn off that stress, that excess energy every day. I’ll do this after my writing is done for the day, and sometimes in midstream if everything gets too heavy for me. Even a walk to the corner grocery store helps.

(For the record, the second best piece of advice I’ve received over the past 12 months was to never fry bacon in the nude. But I digress.)

So get out there.

Strap on that backpack.

Clip that water bottle to your belt.

Get out there.

Get rid of the gunk.

Sniff the air outside (this is better when this air is something you can’t see, but do the best you can).

Notice what’s around you.

Get some sun on you.

Flood your body with those feelgood endorphins.

Then get back to work.

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You tell me: How do you get rid of the brain fuzz and/or junk in the trunk every day? Share with a comment.

Jun 282013
pot with potatoes

Sometimes you have to slow-cook your idea.

Funny thing about this creative business. Some ideas are best executed quickly; hit ’em and ship ’em while they’re hot. Others require a lot more time.

Besides telling which project is which, the trick is to let an idea sit for a while without any interference. It’s that watched-pot analogy at work.

Journalists will tell you all about deadlines. I sure can, from all my years of hanging around newsrooms. Most newspaper types navigate a network of these deadlines. We know when an issue is supposed to hit the press and work backward from there. Page designers have a deadline. Editors have several. Photographers have some, and reporters have a few. We always know when we’re getting close to deadline when we hear the managing editor behind us, racking his shotgun. Everything’s time sensitive, no extensions, no grace periods, no manana.

Even in my online freelance work, deadlines are a fact of life. True, some of the steps — page makeup and printing — are gone but a deadline is still a deadline.

Best work I ever did as a jornalist was a series of stories that, I think, got me some award or other. But I went away thinking, if I had just one more day to develop this and one more page to fill, this is really gonna be good.

As important as those deadlines are, they sure get in the way.


Crock pots and microwaves

But some projects don’t lend themselves well to deadlines. They just need time to develop. Rather than throwing them in the microwave you’re dumping them into the crock pot.

I’m thinking about longer, more ambitious works here. Great works of fiction. Outstanding musical compositions. That fantastic sculpture. You start with an idea and … then what?

That’s when it gets good.

If the idea’s not time sensitive, you can dump it in the crock pot. Or better, write it down somewhere. Put it on your long-range to-do list.

Then forget about it.

That’s when the cool stuff happens. The idea starts to grow.

You’re always working on it. Sure you are, only no one knows. Maybe not even yourself. It sits in your subconscious, where all the creatures in the attic have their way with it.

The old-school way is to give this project its very own file folder and add any supporting items or anything pertinent and interesting. Let the whole thing sit, give those creatures something to play with, and pull it out after a good slow roast. Somewhere along the line some sort of structure and a gazillion ideas have sprouted.

(Of course, since we’re trying to keep a paperless office and quit killing so many trees, you can probably figure out a digital version of this. Electrons and disk space can be killed with impunity.)

But this aging thing is why so many writers like to have a time lag between first and second drafts. You hammer out that first draft at a dizzying pace and let it sit for a month or two. Stephen King says he gives it a minimum of six weeks, during which time he works on something else — like a short story. I tend to go with the Biblical time standard of 40 days and 40 nights. That’s close to six weeks.

But that’s when I’ll take the manuscript out of hiding, blow the dust and cobwebs off and attack it with my red editing pen. Or whatever the digital equivalent is these days.

I remember reading something in a high school English class. Some prolific writer of the day — I can’t remember who — said she lets those loose ideas and concepts “roost in my head.” After a sufficient roosting time she’s writing like mad. Off her explanation I’ll assume that’s her first draft; subsequent work takes a lot more time and care than that.

But with that roosting/slow roasting time, I find it’s best to just plain forget about the whole thing.

Just keep it off my mind.

Those attic creatures do their best work when I’m not hanging around trying to supervise.


Would you read “A Bunch Of People In Boulder?”

When King worked on The Stand, he had some 500 single-spaced manuscript pages and realized he’d written himself into a corner. His Superflu survivors were in Boulder, Colorado trying to rebuild a decimated society, then … what? He had no clue.

But this problem — call it a form of writer’s block as if such a thing really exists — threatened to derail his project.

If it wasn’t for that 500-page investment he probably would have quit.

He tried everything to save it, and nothing seemed to work.

He’d take long walks, trying to untangle the mess he’d created.

The Appalachian Trail

Sometimes that idea comes unexpectedly, and you can’t do anything with it right away.

It wasn’t until another long walk “when I was thinking of nothing much at all” that a solution started to take shape — what’s wrong with blowing up half the major characters and sending the rest on a no-chance quest into the enemy’s lair to take their stand?

Not only did this get the story moving and give him a way to end the novel, but it became the theme and the title. Got to admit, “The Stand” sounds a whole lot better than “A Bunch Of People In Boulder.” Which book would you buy?

King says this piece of an idea came so quickly and so unexpectedly he ran home so he could write it all down. He was that afraid of forgetting it.


Memos from the creatures in the attic

It’s stupid how that works. I’m one of those guys who always carries a pen and index cards with me, and those great project-moving ideas always seem to come at me when I can’t get to those tools.

Like when I’m on the bicycle dodging trucks and crazy people.

When I’m hiking up some mountain where I need both hands and maybe a flashlight.

When I’m in the shower or swinging that weed whacker around in my front yard or (ewwww!) cleaning out my refrigerator.

When I’m talking to someone and it would be impolite to stop everything while I jot that idea down.

When I’m not thinking about it.

That’s when those creatures are manically working. Their timing may be inconvenient, but I’ll take their memos anyway.

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Talk to me: Do those great project-moving ideas come to you when you’re not thinking about them? What do you do when that happens? Share in the comments.


Oct 152012

Writers know about this one. Your first draft will be an unholy mess, written in a frightening stream of consciousness and probably not fit for human consumption.

Stephen King, in his book On Writing, suggests locking that first draft away for a period of time. Give it at least a month. Just for grins, let’s make it the biblical 40 days and 40 nights before picking it up again. Just don’t think about it in the interim. Don’t go there.

Even if it’s something time-sensitive like a fast-turnaround article, I like to have it sit overnight after the first draft. Failing that, even a few hours while I go for a bike ride or hike. That gestation period gives the creatures in the attic time to work on it, if you catch my drift.