There’s a big irony to the writing process, and it is this: While we seek to optimize our creativity while writing, the inert nature of the task works against the brain’s ability to perform at its imaginative best.
It’s become axiomatic that flashes of insight or even grand epiphanies come to us while showering, driving, walking, hiking through the woods and so on. In other words, breakthrough thinking comes during physical activity when the brain is charged with quicken blood flow and a higher dose of dopamine and other chemicals.
This is no mystery. We’ve known for a long time that physical movement stimulates the brain. A stimulated brain is more creative. Yet almost all writing is done sitting in a chair with the body physically inert. No significant movement, as with showering or walking, and no significant visual stimulation as with driving a car and observing the rush of passing imagery.
Indeed, one of fiction’s most prolific and respected novelists, Joyce Carol Oates, and one of the craft’s foremost writing coaches, Julia Cameron, have both talked about walking as an essential part of their routines for keeping their writing sharp. Cameron’s even written a book titled, “Walking in this World: The Practical Art of Creativity.”
I tackled this issue years ago when I bought a tiny hand-held digital recorder. Mine happens to be manufactured by Sony, though there are many different makers of the device. They’re not expensive and they hold many hours of spoken content. The recorder permits me to “write” while I walk or drive or engage in other types of physical activity.
Ninety percent of this article was written during an afternoon walk through the rainy streets of Northern California. The walk lasted all of 30 minutes. There is even good software these days that will take your recorded text and turn it into printed type in your word processing document, so you don’t have to painstakingly transcribe your recordings.
I was inspired to buy the recorder when I started taking walks and noticed better ideas springing to mind for the writing assignments I was working on. My recall was good but not complete, so when I got back to my word processor I’d dash off as much as I could. What obviously made sense was to buy a recorder and capture those thoughts in their entirety in real time. It allows me to produce a high volume of content for my first or original drafts.
It wasn’t easy at first. It seemed awkward talking into a recorder. I tended to walk streets, walkways and hiking paths with the fewest people and vehicles. Still, in short order I found “writing” aloud a more natural and less self-conscious activity.
I was further drawn to this concept of writing on the move after I read a book titled Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. It was given to me by 24 Hour Fitness CEO Carl Liebert, who considered the book a breakthrough work on the comprehensive value of exercise and fitness.
The book’s author, John J. Ratey a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, writes in the book’s introduction: “In today’s technology-drive, plasma-screened-in world, it’s easy to forget that we are born movers – animals in fact – because we’ve engineered movement right out of our lives.”
Ratey writes at length about how exercise floods the brain with neurotransmitters and other chemicals that stimulate the brain, enhance its learning capabilities and generally help maintain its overall health – so much so that women who exercise are 50 percent less prone to dementia in their elder years.
Even the act of getting up from the desk and pacing in my living room would often give me access to the wordplay, turns of phrase or transitions I was searching for. Then it was back to the chair, back to a static posture and a gradual deceleration of the brain’s electrical activity.
So what I’m proposing is that we rethink our traditional way of writing, that we get off our seats and move, that we stimulate our brains and verbally narrate the document we’re writing. Make writing a physically active process.
There’s an additional benefit to this approach. Our writing becomes more conversational, a characteristic that enhances its readability. There’s something about the formality of sitting in a chair, hunched over a keyboard, that encourages formality in our writing. Certainly there are times we want our writing to strike a formal tone. But more often than not that’s a stilted way to communicate. It’s less interesting, more difficult to read and lacking in personality. The less personality in our writing the less chance of people being drawn to it and feeling an emotional connection. That’s key to producing powerful, influential writing.
So get on your feet and get moving. Make it a habit. It will make you healthier and more imaginative. Done consistently and earnestly your writing will blossom and take on some new dimensions.