Running and Writing

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EricOlsen
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Running and Writing

Post by EricOlsen » August 6th, 2011, 4:58 pm

Looking for a little inspiration? Something to get those words flowing? Unblock that block? Try running. Or walking. Or do anything that gets the heart rate up, the blood flowing, and the muscles working.

But what does working up a sweat have to do with art? Twenty-five years ago I wrote an article titled “Pumping Irony” (yes, I thought the title was rather clever) for a running magazine that set out to explore this very question. In that article, I proposed that something like running — or walking, for that matter — could be a productive part of the creative process.

I bring this up now because I just came across an essay by Joyce Carol Oates titled “Running and Writing.” It’s in a collection of her reflections on writing titled The Faith of a Writer. This is a terrific collection, by the way, especially if you’re curious as to what goes on in the mind of someone who seems to crank out a new novel every other week or so. Her piece about running first appeared in the New York Times in 1999, so I was delighted to see I’d scooped Oates by 15 years. I also found myself thinking: She has time to run, too?

But then of course this was her point, that her running is part of her writing. “Stories come to us as wraiths,” she writes, “requiring precise embodiments. Running seems to allow me, ideally, an expanded consciousness in which I can envision what I’m writing as a film or a dream.”

Oates gets at something that had come up 25 years earlier when I was talking with various creative types who ran. It’s about the shift in consciousness that takes place during repetitive (if not boring) exercise. As the late novelist Robert Parker (the Spenser series of detective novels) told me at the time, “I always run in the afternoon, after I’ve written all morning. I can’t say I get ideas while I’m running, but if I’ve been working on some problem all morning, sometimes while I’m running the problem will suddenly solve itself.”

Or as poet and marathoner Marvin Bell put it back then, “Everything goes better with oxygen.”

According to current models of the brain, the left side of the brain (in right-handed people) is the logical, linear, verbal half. The right side is better at non-logical, nonlinear thought. We use the left side most intensely when we’re hard at work and focused on tasks like writing a story or poem, or doing a math problem, for that matter. But there comes a point when this part of the brain might simply run out of steam — “pattern exhaustion” as it’s sometimes called. If you’ve sat at your desk staring at a blank page hour after hour trying to think what goes on it next, you probably know the feeling. (One has to wonder if Oates ever has….)

During a run, or a walk, you give the left brain a “time out” from intense focus, which gives the right brain a chance to what it does best and maybe come up with an insight or two, that blessed aha!, when all the pieces suddenly fit together.

This left-brain/right-brain scheme sounds a little simplistic, I know, and in fact the whole brain is always involved. Yet recent research into the source of the “insight experience” does locate increased activity in the brain, just before that blessed aha! in a small fold of tissue on the surface of the right hemisphere. One hesitates to suppose that the Muse is in fact a little bundle of neurons — it takes some of the romance out of it all — but the findings are suggestive. This area of the brain seems to be involved in, for one thing, the processing of metaphors, a function that requires reaching out for remote connections between seemingly unrelated concepts. Et voila! Inspiration! Or so we might hope….

Savvy creative types deliberately structure a time-out into their routines to give the right brain a chance to do what it does best, trusting that it’s all part of the process. Einstein, for example, was a devoted practitioner of the long walk, during which he said he did some of his most productive thinking. So were Thoreau, Dickens, Darwin, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelly, and plenty of others, including Oates and her runs….

Other studies suggest it takes about 30 minutes of walking or jogging or whatever for the right brain to fully kick in and start processing those metaphors at full speed. The other good thing about running or walking and writing is that during those 30 minutes or more, not only are you processing those metaphors, you’re cutting your risk of heart disease, stroke, some types of cancer, and even depression, so you might live longer and process still more metaphors in those added years. Better yet, there’s good evidence that regular exercise also helps stave off dementia associated with aging, and perhaps even delays the onset of Alzheimer’s, so you can remember to process those metaphors.

Of course, a “time out” doesn’t have to be running or walking. Indeed, in my latest book, We Wanted to Be Writers: Life, Love, and Literature at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, just released by Skyhorse Publishing, we devote an entire chapter to the creative process. The book is a series of discussions about writing and the writing life with about 30 classmates from the Writers’ Workshop in the mid-70s. In our chapter on the creative process, several of us discuss how we write, and when, and what we do when blocked. Some of us walk. Some of us run. One of us rides a bike. Novelist Sandra Cisneros prefers naps. “I call it horizontal meditation,” she says. “I just lie down and it solves everything. It can be something simple, like the title to a story, or maybe it’s something more significant. I have a big bed in my office. And if you can, sleep with a little dog, so much the better because they’re full of spirit…. Take a nap with as many little dogs as possible.”

bcomet
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Re: Running and Writing

Post by bcomet » August 6th, 2011, 5:39 pm

Eric,
I love these thoughts. Such excellent reminders for me. Some of my best writing months
and health months have been on walking vacations on the earth.

I also, years ago, did much involve myself in right-brain/left-brain studies and it is an intriguing
and helpful place to get acquainted.

Lately, I've been stressed (See Oh Crap Breast Cancer thread) but thinking about how walking helps is
very very good for me to remember on so many levels, writing included. Thanks!

BTW, curious, what is your writing background, experience, genre? The Iowa Writers Workshop is pretty good clout.

Also, I heard Joyce Carol Oates speak in Ann Arbor many years ago reading from her Black Water book.
She was so pale and tiny and bookish/scholastic looking. I would never have thought she was a runner.

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Watcher55
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Re: Running and Writing

Post by Watcher55 » August 6th, 2011, 5:50 pm

Eric! welcom. Running and 20 min on my old-school bowflex is the first part of my work day. I compare the experience to a loosening knot, or an unclogging pipe, and the benefits last for hours - not just thirty minutes.
According to current models of the brain, the left side of the brain (in right-handed people) is the logical, linear, verbal half.
Is it just the opposite for left handers or is there some kind of fuzzy cross-over that explains why most of us southpaws are so goofy?

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Ishta
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Re: Running and Writing

Post by Ishta » August 7th, 2011, 2:19 am

This is fascinating! I wonder if there is something about showering that does the same thing - it's mindless, so your mind is free to wander through the problems you've been struggling with.

Terri Farley does excellent workshops on Right-brain/Left-brain writing techniques. I had the privilege of attending one of her sessions at an SCBWI event in Niagara Falls this past spring, and it blew me away how effective her techniques were when it came to "unblocking" the mind.

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Beethovenfan
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Re: Running and Writing

Post by Beethovenfan » August 7th, 2011, 3:04 am

Stephen King has said that he walks 3 miles every day and gets most of his inspiration during those walks. If it works for him...
"Don't only practice your art, but force your way into its secrets, for it and knowledge can raise men to the divine."
~ Ludwig van Beethoven

EricOlsen
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Re: Running and Writing

Post by EricOlsen » August 7th, 2011, 12:56 pm

Watcher55 wrote:Eric! welcom. Running and 20 min on my old-school bowflex is the first part of my work day. I compare the experience to a loosening knot, or an unclogging pipe, and the benefits last for hours - not just thirty minutes.
According to current models of the brain, the left side of the brain (in right-handed people) is the logical, linear, verbal half.
Is it just the opposite for left handers or is there some kind of fuzzy cross-over that explains why most of us southpaws are so goofy?
Dear Watcher55, according to the research I've seen, this left/right brain scheme is opposite for lefties, but some of this research also suggests the distinction is not as well-defined in lefties, which could be why more southpaws seem to venture into "creative" pursuits.

EricOlsen
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Re: Running and Writing

Post by EricOlsen » August 7th, 2011, 1:16 pm

bcomet wrote:Eric,
I love these thoughts. Such excellent reminders for me. Some of my best writing months
and health months have been on walking vacations on the earth.

I also, years ago, did much involve myself in right-brain/left-brain studies and it is an intriguing
and helpful place to get acquainted.

Lately, I've been stressed (See Oh Crap Breast Cancer thread) but thinking about how walking helps is
very very good for me to remember on so many levels, writing included. Thanks!

BTW, curious, what is your writing background, experience, genre? The Iowa Writers Workshop is pretty good clout.

Also, I heard Joyce Carol Oates speak in Ann Arbor many years ago reading from her Black Water book.
She was so pale and tiny and bookish/scholastic looking. I would never have thought she was a runner.
Dear bcomet, I think for a committed distance runner, "pale and tiny and bookish/scholastic looking" might be a competitive advantage; most of the best distance runners I knew back in my younger days tended to be on the small side, and very, very lean, which is why they weren't playing football. Of course, they all had pretty good tans; but maybe Oates likes to run before the sun comes up. Me? I wasn't exactly tiny; probably I should have gone out for football, but I loved to run. I still do. But I'm slow. Very.... As for my background, etc., after Iowa, I got into sports writing to support my fiction habit, then began writing more about fitness, nutrition, and medicine, scores of articles, several non-fiction books. Of course, I still plod away at a mystery novel now and then. There's a more complete bio, plus other cool stuff, on our website:
http://wewantedtobewriters.com/our-authors/eric-olsen/

bcomet
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Re: Running and Writing

Post by bcomet » August 7th, 2011, 1:40 pm

wonderful bio

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Ishta
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Re: Running and Writing

Post by Ishta » August 9th, 2011, 2:08 am

EricOlsen wrote:I think for a committed distance runner, "pale and tiny and bookish/scholastic looking" might be a competitive advantage; most of the best distance runners I knew back in my younger days tended to be on the small side, and very, very lean,
I used to run every day, and I know from experience that there is something to this. Muscle = weight, and while a stocky build can lend you extra power in a sprint, it's a lot more work to lug it around on a distance run. Plus the muscle has needs in terms of oxygen supply, etc. that don't work out so well over great distances.

I loved running, but it was really bad for my right knee, so I had to find something more low-impact. :( I opted for putting on a CD with a good beat and getting my boogie on a few times a week. :D Unfortunately I haven't noticed any big flashes of insight during those sessions.

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Re: Running and Writing

Post by bcomet » August 9th, 2011, 11:03 am

Haha, Ishta! Loved your comments!

I too love to dance and can't run on pavement due to the shin splints. For me, that is more about balancing myself physically and fun exercise.
But walking or "just jogging in place" (on a spring floor) is often an unbeatable way to daydream into story for me too. I might be in motion, but my mind is in the story.

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Re: Running and Writing

Post by danielle100 » August 9th, 2011, 6:07 pm

I love this post. I try to exercise regularly but sometimes I lose motivation. But this is a good reminder that I need to hit the track not tomorrow or Monday, but today. Thanks!

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MattLarkin
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Re: Running and Writing

Post by MattLarkin » August 11th, 2011, 1:40 pm

I get some great ideas while doing cardio excerises. Not so much during more anaerobic stuff.

Also good ideas while driving and sometimes in the shower...so blood pumping exercise may be part of it, but part I think is just my mind relaxes during mundane stuff and is more open then.
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Ishta
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Re: Running and Writing

Post by Ishta » August 13th, 2011, 1:37 am

bcomet wrote:Haha, Ishta! Loved your comments!

I too love to dance and can't run on pavement due to the shin splints. For me, that is more about balancing myself physically and fun exercise.
But walking or "just jogging in place" (on a spring floor) is often an unbeatable way to daydream into story for me too. I might be in motion, but my mind is in the story.
Hee-hee. Thanks!

Further to your comment about your mind being in the story, and MattLarkin's about not getting ideas during anaerobic exercises, I think the reason I don't have any "eureka moments" while I'm dancercizing is that my mind is too busy thinking about what moves to do next. And when I do my muscle work, I'm too busy counting my reps. Boring "busywork" for my brain. But, I like the way it feels to be in good shape, so I don't want to give up that part of my day, even though it eats into writing time.

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sbs_mjc1
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Re: Running and Writing

Post by sbs_mjc1 » August 13th, 2011, 2:49 pm

Totally true, EricOlsen! When I'm stuck on writing, I go for a run (assuming I'm not trapped in the office). Haven't convinced Michael of this yet, he usually plays video games instead.
http://sb-writingtheother.blogspot.com/
FORGOTTEN GODS is out September 17th 2011! Check the blog for details.

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