I’m a new runner, as in, I ran my very first mile without stopping only three years ago. But I’m an experienced workhorse of a writer.
Recently, I realized that my two favorite activities have one key thing in common: I make progress only if I bend the rules.
With running, those rules cover the gamut from which shoes are “must haves” to how to stretch to avoid injury. Writers of all stripes dole out stern proclamations, too, like, “You must write every day,” “Always/Never Outline,” “Never/Always revise new work from the beginning as you go,” etc.
As it turns out, there’s no one perfect way to run, and there’s no single guaranteed path to writing a book. You have to be willing to experiment, and sometimes that means not only breaking the rules other people set, but your own, too.
Here’s an example. There are lots of training programs designed to help new runners improve their speed. Whenever I try to make myself do any of these speed drills, my immediate reaction is to rebel by grabbing a bag of M&Ms and a book. But, if I set out for a run through my favorite marsh at sunset or along a new back road where I might find wildflower gardens growing in the ditches, I’ll run my heart out, and I’ll find myself setting my own time goals and beating them. Scenery gets me going.
With writing, I’ve tried all of the usual tricks: set a certain word count goal, write at the same time every day, etc. The thing is, many of my best ideas come when I’m not actually writing, but when I “give up” and pull weeds out of the garden or walk the dog. I think better in motion.
Not long ago, for instance, I’d gone for a run in a new neighborhood. I drove there from my house, completed a five-mile loop, and circled back to the car. Suddenly, I experienced a meteor shower of ideas. I frantically searched the car for a pen and paper, desperate to write down these ideas before they evaporated, and came up only with the bill from a recent car repair and a lipstick. It didn’t matter. I captured enough words to use them later.
If I had been sitting at my desk, adhering to word count or clock rules, I would have had my laptop and phone. But would I have had the ideas? Probably not. Instead, I might have gotten frustrated and resorted to YouTube videos.
Likewise, I recently was held hostage at the car dealer’s for three hours while they fixed various things on my car. They had tables and chairs set up outside, so I plopped myself down, intending to read, only to find myself watching the car salesmen troll the parking lot for potential customers. And, presto! I had the perfect details for a character I’m writing about in the current manuscript—even though that book is set in 1878.
My body needs discipline, but I will only continue exercising if I enjoy it. My mind, too, needs discipline if I’m actually going to finish anything I start writing. That means constantly finding sources of fresh inspiration. Even writing in a new cafe or choosing a different seat in the library is sometimes enough to jar me out of my routines and make my brain go in new directions.
My advice? Next time you’re feeling sluggish and don’t want to go to the gym, don’t go. Ride a bike instead, or take a dance class.
And, if you can’t think of anything new to write, or you’re stuck on a scene, just stop writing. Stand up from your desk and take a walk or watch a movie. You’ll be amazed by how much your brain can accomplish if you leave it alone for a while. Just make sure you have a lipstick and a scrap of paper handy if you forget your notebook.
P.S. I recently came across an interview with bestselling author Harlan Coben on Salon, where he talks about his need to drift from cafe to cafe because he can’t stand working in the same place. Have a look at the video for extra motivation from a guy who admits that, yeah, writing is still hard.