Thursday, July 7, 2011

the writer takes a walk

INTERN recently finished reading a fascinating book called The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram (a rather fuzzy title, thinks INTERN, for a very smart book). INTERN is notoriously terrible at paraphrasing books, but the basic gist (or at least, INTERN's unreliable and not-to-be-trusted version of the gist) is that since the invention of the alphabet, and in particular the vowel, humans have increasingly existed in relation to a purely human set of signs (as opposed to existing in relation to the entire living, breathing universe, as oral cultures seem to have done.) Literacy, according to Abram, sealed humans off from nature in a serious way--allowed us to live more and more inside our own heads, transfered meaning from the treetops to the page.

Oh, INTERN is so bad at this.

Anyway, it struck a chord. As writers, we spend so much time in relation to words—building imaginary worlds, forming arguments, thinking up the best possible phrasing for a thought. Everything that goes onto the page comes from the writer's brain, or is quoted from another writer's brain. It's like so many mirrors, all reflecting yourself back at you. When INTERN writes, she becomes strangely impermeable to the world. She needs to block everything out in order to enter the word-magic. INTERN knows a lot of other writers (and, come to think of it, programmers) also require this deeply blocked-off mind space in order to do their work.

When INTERN gets up and goes for a walk in the forest or city, however, she gradually feels herself becoming permeable again. Colours and shapes and sounds and smells all flood in. Where the act of writing turns INTERN into this tight little laser beam of selfness, going outside dissolves her, at least a little bit, and there's a palpable relief at becoming part of the world again.

Have you ever gotten stuck with your writing, then taken a walk and had a million brilliant insights pop into your head? There's probably a scientific explanation for this phenomenon (and if you know it, please share!). To INTERN, it almost feels like the ideas are coming out of the air, or shaken loose from her limbs by moving around. It's like there's a part of your brain that can only know certain things when it's taken away from the computer, and by going for a walk you let the genius loci take over and fill in the blanks.

Or maybe going for walks to prevent writer's block is just another writing superstition, like not shaving your beard while you're writing your novel, or, like, only changing your underwear every 100 pages (INTERN knows who you are!)

What are your writing superstitions? Are you a walker, a bath-taker, a rain-dancer? Why do these things help us so much? Is it just a whimsical habit, or is there something larger at work? INTERN wants to know!


  1. I don't have any writing superstitions. I was a mystic in my youth and the results put me off that kind of thing permanently.

    But I absolutely agree about the walking, though I've found that driving, gardening, cooking, scrubbing the bathtub, and hanging out the laundry often have the same effect.

    There is science on the walking thing. Mark Beeman, Northwestern University, if you want scholarly refs.

  2. About language getting between us and the world, I once saw a strange wildflower, wondered what it was, and then realized whatever it was called didn’t matter in the least. It was what it was, right there in front of me, and I was missing it completely ‘cause I was stuck on finding a word to throw on it. A word which would make me feel I understood what it was, when no, it’d just be a stale label on something alive, the product of millions of years of seasons and seeds and adapting to a changing world.

    And I’m too superstitious to share my superstitions, but I did appreciate reading this:

    Charles Dickens walked twenty to thirty miles a day. He also placed objects on his desk in exactly the same position, always set his bed in north/south directions, and touched certain objects three times for luck.

  3. Taking a walk works for me. As does doing the dishes. I've never had any mystical explanations for it like Abram's; I just figured it occupied my body with some repetitive, mindless task while leaving my mind free to wander.

  4. I'm think the opposite, Maine Character - names really do matter. All we have to communicate the position, appearance, and worth (not in the monetary sense, but something like aesthetic value) of a flower comes from being able to describe it, as you did: 'strange wallflower' is its name for all us internetty viewers now. This essay sorta sums up what I think too -

    We'll never as individuals be pre-literate again, barring some terrible brain misfortune. We'll always have this barrier between us and the world, as thin and wide as the flashing cursor. But having words is a wonderous way of passing on those fleeting joys we struggle to hold on to.

  5. I'm definitely a walker. I don't do it necessarily to get ideas, just to clear my head, feel sane, and *prepare* myself to later be capable of coming up with ideas. Gardening in my tiny balcony garden seems to help, too.

  6. I've yet to develop any superstitions (he says as he hides his lucky rabbit foot) but I will say, hand on heart, that I am a walker. All of my best ideas come to me either on a ramble or a long journey somewhere.

  7. Dearest INTERN, I keep my ideas by having a rather delightfully mindless job! I go along to it every day to earn my keep, and that frees my mind to create and discover. I work with my husband, and we are now designing a video game together, and it has become increasingly frequent that our hours at work are entirely used for discussing respective plots, events, characters, important puzzles to solve, and naturally, the importance of names. ;) Walking is good, but I love to enjoy the things outside far too much, and I don't get to think about stories when I see ducks! And swans! And the trees! Those are all pretty things, and I absorb them. I do not mentally write when I walk. I mentally write when I work (or if I am on vacation, when I clean the house ;) ). This is a very good combination.


  8. I blame my computer for writer's block. When it gets really bad, I switch to pen and paper and type it up later. Sometimes it helps to doodle and quote in the margins which you can't do in a MS Word document.

  9. That contrast of sealed off and permeable is pretty much a perfect description. I think it also has something to do with the narrow vision of staring at a screen versus the way standing under a full sky opens your eyes up. This is an entirely unscientific theory.

  10. On another note, if I only changed my underwear every hundred pages, I'd be cited as a toxic health hazard by now...

  11. I think this is exactly the reason I'm so much happier in pretty places - they force me to get out of my head for a change.

  12. Thank you for reminding me about David Abram's book! I read it in college, and it seriously resonated with me as well... I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in language, philosophy, and the self's connection to the greater world.

  13. In the summer I am lucky enough to write in my garden "office".

    Nothing is more freeing than penning prose while birds chirp and the wind gently breezes past.

    I'm sure this is akin to walking, but that would imply I'd have to move! LOL.

  14. I definitely agree about the power of fresh air - I think it's the stimulation of nature, the chemicals released by movement in the brain, and just the refreshing properties of taking a break that get our brains going and our synapses firing again :)

    I hope-hope-hope that INTERN, or someone else, publishes my manuscript :)

  15. I don't have a car in Japan, so I walk everywhere. It's fantastic!

    There is a reason why walking help. I don't know the scientific name, but if you're not consciously using your brain and your doing something rhytmic and relaxed, like walking or taking a shower or even watching dishes, then the subconscious comes to the fore.