I remember reading a column by Florence King. I forget the topic, but in it she wrote that she does the same thing every morning: sits in her kitchen, smoking a cigarette, staring blankly into space, waiting for an article idea to hit her.
It’s not the first time I’ve heard writers mention the important role that leisure—the act of doing nothing—plays in their writing. When we’re focused on nothing, we get something.
Kinda. It’s more precise to say, “When you’re not trying to think of something in particular, something hits you.”
The “something in particular” is, I think, yourself. If you’re intent on finding an article topic for yourself, your attention is drawn inward: “What can I write about; I need an idea; I want an article that will knock the socks off publishers.”
When your attention is drawn inward, ideas don’t come to you. It seems analogous to “choking” in sports: The person who chokes, who botches an easy putt or a pass or a shot, is the person who’s thinking about the heroism or humiliation that will be his in a few moments.
The Muses Ignore the Self-Obsessed
The key is to forget yourself and to concentrate on something outside yourself. If you want to make that putt, concentrate on the act of putting and don’t ever, ever, think about the consequences of the putt. If you want a good article idea, concentrate on anything, or nothing, but don’t ever, ever, think about the potential fame and fortune coming your way from your writing.
I think this rule is borne out by the experience of many writers when they’re engaged in the actual art of writing a piece. While I’m writing, I often get deluged with so many new ideas that I have a hard time concentrating on the piece at hand, finding myself spacing down the page to type in some notes or starting a whole new article, or scratching down thoughts on scrap paper—all the while trying to keep my mind on the piece in front of me.
While writing intently, one’s attention is drawn to the reality outside oneself—the topic, the words, the style, the beckoning final product. As a result, new ideas tend to flow in because the writer isn’t concentrated on himself.
In short, the muses don’t talk to the self-obsessed.
Walking and Creativity Have Long Been Linked
Many writers and artists, like Beethoven, Coleridge, Wordsworth, and C.S. Lewis (to name a tiny fraction), went for walks.
Consider these words by Barbara Ueland, from her excellent little book, If You Want to Write:
“And how do these creative thoughts come? They come in a slow way. It is the little bomb of revelation bursting inside you. I found I never took a long, solitary walk without some of these silent, little inward bombs bursting quietly.”
Walking has a knack for taking self-regard out of our heads.
The mere act of walking requires us to direct at least a little attention away from ourselves and put them toward the effort of stepping and choosing a path.
In addition, as we walk, we move from one scene to another. There is constantly something new to see. The constant change of scenery that accompanies the walker tends to shift his attention out of himself to something else, whether he realizes it or not.
The mere fact that we’re outside helps us to shift outside our heads. There’s something about the sky and trees and grass that brings us out of ourselves. Any person who has experienced the simple flood of grace that momentarily enraptures the soul at certain moments while sitting outside realizes this.
There’s also something “sacramental” about walking. The fluid motion of the body lubricating the fluid movement of the mind. These recent observations by Iain McGilchrist aren’t surprising (though it is nice to learn that the current science bears them out):
"Walking has been long considered an aid to fluent thinking – the philosophical school founded by Aristotle was known as ‘peripatetic’, from the habit of walking while discussing philosophy. There is an observable and reciprocal relation between objectively fluid movement on the one hand, and subjectively fluid cognition and creativity on the other."
A Few Caveats
The walker/writer must be careful to enjoy nature’s scenery, not his enjoyment of the scenario. This is a complicated thought, but basically there’s a serious difference between enjoying something and being aware that we’re enjoying something. The first is centered on the something; the latter is centered on yourself. If I’m just looking at the blue sky and enjoying it, I’m drawn to something outside myself. If I’m looking at the blue sky and thinking, “I’m really enjoying this,” I’m drawn inside myself. The former is conducive to the creative mindset; the latter is anathema to it.
The walker/writer must also resist the temptation to scrunch a bunch of activities into one. The creative benefits of walking, for instance, won’t be there if you’re also using the time to chat with a friend.
The benefits will also elude you if you’re undertaking the walk for exercise. The act of exercising has a tendency to cripple the creative faculties for two reasons: (1) It’s draining, and we find ourselves gasping for breaths more than breathing in nature’s goodness; (2) The exerciser tends to be plagued with self-obsessing thoughts: Am I making good time? How many calories will this burn off my body? I’m going to look good in that new outfit.
Finally, you can’t approach the walk with the intent of getting good ideas. You should just set out for a walk. Nothing more. Even if the walking will bring us the ideas and stories, they can’t be our conscious intent or else we’ll never get them because, as pointed out at the beginning of this article, such intent tends to be filled with self-obsession (I need an idea, etc.).
So step outside, take a deep breath and look at the blue sky, then start walking, with no thought to anything except God’s creation. And then welcome the resulting creations that form in your mind.