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.

Dec 072012
 

In 1997 I lost my heart.

Still don’t know where it went. Might have misplaced it in my other pants pocket. Maybe I left it in San Francisco, or maybe in Abilene with some other lady. But I found I could no longer write.

Didn’t have the heart for it.

For me, this was a particularly rough time. I wrote for a living, and when I felt I couldn’t do it any more, that left me with three courses of action:

a) Go through the motions, and maybe fake it until I find my heart again.

b) Tequila myself into a stand-up fossil.

c) Do something else.

Hey, I didn’t say these courses of action were necessarily good ones, now did I?

Anyway, I chose Option C. The way I’m wired, that was the only real option. I’m not a good enough BS artist to get away with Option A for very long, and I’m too cantankerous for B. So I did something else for a while, and more than a decade later I rediscovered my heart for writing.

That heart thing is important. More important than knowledge or skills. It’s that place where my dreams and passions hang out, as well as all the dragons and other beasties that wish to take me out of action. It’s an amazing place, and so crucial for the creative and the leader.

Like the physical ticker that’s in my chest, the heart has so much to do with my health. And like the physical heart, I need to guard it. I must be mindful of what goes in, because that’ll have a direct bearing on what comes out. If it gets gunked up, the results will show directly.

With a bad heart I get distant and aloof. Maybe demanding. Definitely whiny. Always critical. It’s one of those things that affects my mental health. With a good heart I’m more fully engaged in what I’m doing, connecting more with people, feeling more in my zone. Good things happen. The condition of my heart definitely affects my mental health.

This heart thing isn’t just a factor with individuals, but organizations as well. Which makes sense; organizations are made up of people. But the last full-time job I had working for someone else had a really strange culture. Everyone was afraid of making mistakes. When a problem developed, the emphasis was on which idiot screwed up this time, not what can be done about it.

See? Bad heart. Everyone clocked in, did the absolute minimum required to stay employed, clocked out, cashed the paycheck, went home to do it again. Everyone there worked without any heart in it. Since that’s not in my nature, I felt enormous pressure to get with the program. For me, this was a really toxic place to work.

You’ve gotta have heart

I’ve always liked athletes who played with heart. I’m thinking of David Eckstein, the runty little shortstop who played with the Angels and later the Cardinals a few years ago. He wasn’t big enough to fight or run a foot race. He had no talent to speak of. But he played with heart. Left something of himself on the field every game.

For a no-talent kid who looked about 12 years old, he had himself a great career. Ignited the 2002 Angels on their way to a World Series title. Did the same thing for the Cardinals a few years later, and got named the most valuable player of that series. Even if he went 0-for-4, he still helped his team win.

Eckstein was the epitome of heart. He was all in, every game, even if he looked like he doesn’t shave yet.

Have a heart, buddy!

It’s so easy to lose heart in this squirrel-cage world, which is why I have to watch mine. Partly because I’m so all-in all the time, burnout is always a threat with me. That’s why rest is so important.

But that’s a juggling act. Being self-employed and working at home — plus having a mind that’s going all the time — I need to be more careful of my on-times and my off-times. Ideally, when I work I work, and when I knock off I knock off, but that’s not always possible. But I do make sure I get a good seven hours of sleep every night, and stick with the same schedule every day. I try to do regular brain dumps and get all the stray thoughts down on paper, preferably written down with the first step to get things started.

I try to shut down one day a week, but I’m not there yet. The best thing is to have all electronics shut off, give my online connection a rest, and just chill. But too often I’m using that day off to scratch out a rough draft. But I’ll start my alleged day off by going over the week I just had, reflecting on what I got done, planning out the next week, and writing in my journal.

For the record I did take off with a few friends for a camping trip last weekend. My phone was shut off almost the whole time (did have some email to take care of although that really could have waited), I sketched out  a few story ideas in pencil by the campfire, but mostly relaxed.

Separating my work time from the rest of my life is one of those things I must do to guard my heart.

Getting to the heart of the matter

But probably the biggest thing for me, and the best way to keep my heart in things, is to revisit the “why.”

I try to remind myself why I’m doing what I do, and why it matters anyway.

Yeah, there’s a paycheck involved there somewhere, but that’s not the whole of it. I do it because … well, because this is what I do.

Because I like sharing my thoughts.

Because I like to encourage people.

Because I like to tell a good story.

That’s what keeps me going. The other things I mentioned keep my physically and mentally healthy, but the “why” is the thing that gets me standing and locked at my computer at 9 a.m. That’s the thing that drives me to getting my words out every day, with or without help from The Muse. It’s what makes the difference between wishing I was a writer and being a writer.

In 1997, I lost track of the “why.”

The heart went soon after that.

Connection? I think so.

Things like getting proper rest and recreation, reflection time, and building relationships are good ways to monitor my heart. But probably the best one is for me to keep the “why” in mind.  

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Oct 142012
 

When I was a young’un I read the story of Archimedes. Seems some king took delivery of a crown and suspected he got short weight on the deal. Maybe Archimedes could tell him if the crown was pure gold as he’d requested, or an inferior silver/gold mix.

Archimedes practically tore his hair out trying to figure this one out, so he decided to step away from the problem for a bit. Maybe a nice bath would help him get his head in order.

You might know the rest of the story. He got in the bath and noticed how the water rose as his body displaced it. H’mmm, there might be something there. According to the story Archimedes jumped out of the bath and ran out in the streets shouting about the thrill of discovery. Didn’t even bother to put his clothes on. Just kept shouting, “Eureka.” I’ve found the answer.

Cool story, even if I’m gonna leave the visuals alone.

Sometimes when you’re facing a real thicket in the creative process, stepping away may be the most positive action you can take. If ideas keep coming to you while you’re driving, if you find a solution to some problem while on a morning run, you already know how this goes. There’s an underrated power to disconnecting.

This week we’ll explore the idea of stepping away, all in 3 graffs. Join me.

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Jul 062012
 

I’ve noticed some of your productivity gurus are trotting out one of the oldest ideas around and packaging it as the new thing: The idea of a sabbath.

Shut everything down for the day, they’re now saying. Disconnect from the madness. Totally rest, veg out, do family things, take a road trip, watch a ballgame. Anything but work.

Since I’m always jacked up and poised over the “go” button — addicted to busy-ness in fact — this one’s a hard sell.

Lately I’ve been trying a version of this. From sundown Saturday to sundown Sunday, I’ve been staying away from the computer. I am basically unavailable. No writing, even if I had to break off in mid-sentence.

That’s why I’ve limited Sunday postings on this blog to just sharing a quote, and even that has been pre-selected and set on automatic. It’s already in the system, to go live at the usual time. I love this WordPress time-posting feature.

But some of the so-called experts take this day of rest a step further. No checking email. No online activity at all No electronic gadgets, period. Just totally disconnect. Some purists say that you have to do all that to call it a real day off.

I call that a load of bull, but inwardly I’m jealous. I’d like to try a complete disconnect for a day, knowing I’d probably go nuts before lunchtime. Just thinking about it brings weeping/gnashing-of-teeth noises. I hate to miss anything, and I feel lost without some sort of contact. And though I may want to take that day off, my brain isn’t always with me. Frankly, it’s like a five-year-old that never shuts up.

So I continue to carry index cards with me should the brain say something that’s actually important. I keep my Android phone with me in case someone else does. In this case “someone else” includes friends who email me, total strangers who catch me on social media, and all those news outlets who drop stuff in my RSS feeds.

So much for disconnecting. It’s still something I’d like to try, but I’ll miss too much.

Even with my incomplete day of rest, I get a lot accomplished. I’ll explain here:

See, doing my work is vitally important to me. It’s not the only thing that’s important, though. It may not even be the most important thing in my life, and I try to not wrap my whole identity in what I do, though that’s hard in today’s world. Taking that day off helps me keep things in perspective.

There’s some flexibility with the day of rest. If you decide Mondays would make a better day of rest so be it, as long as it’s regular and it’s every week.

But what’s interesting  is how I am when it’s time to go back to work. I’m ready. By the time the sun drops on Sunday I’m at my terminal, pulling together the shorter entries for this blog. Sometimes I’m watching the sun descend, waiting for the signal — kind of like the office mouse waiting for the 5 p.m. signal to peel rubber out of the parking lot.

And Mondays — which by all rights should have been eliminated by Congressional edict, well, they’re not half bad. I’m usually up and fully operational when the bell rings.

Work six days, rest one. An ancient standard, but it’s still golden.

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