Does exercise improve your writing?

By Carol / November 19, 2012 /

A problem with a piece of writing often clarifies itself if you go for a long walk.Helen Dunmore

British novelist, poet and children’s author Dunmore shared this bit of wisdom in a list of her “Nine Rules of Writing.”

Other writers have also found that physical activity plays a role in their creativity. The January 2013 issue of Writer’s Digest touched on this in an article “If Walls Could Talk” by Joy Lanzendorfer. (I could not find this article on line.) Lanzendorfer visited the writing spaces of a number of famous authors and shared the lessons she took away from those visits.

She reports that Lousia May Alcott was a runner. Alcott also climbed trees and jumped fences), activity that gave her the energy to write Little Women.  Poet Robinson Jeffers split his days between writing and gathering the boulders he used to build his house. Lanzendorfer’s conclusion is that there is a “connection between the moving body and the thinking mind.” And that “Even just a walk through the neighborhood can invigorate writing in unexpected ways.”

I’ve  found that walking yields writing benefits for me, too. An early morning walk clears the nighttime cobwebs so I sit down to write with a clear head. A mid-day walk offers a break from the keyboard, loosening my neck and shoulders at the same time it seems to loosen my brain. Sometimes I step out with a particular dialogue or plot problem I’m puzzling over. More often, I make it a point not to think consciously about my writing. It is surprising how many times I return to my desk with a new thought, a clearer thought, about how to tackle the next page.

I don’t know how it works or why. Perhaps for the same reason people facing a difficult decision are often advised to “Sleep on it.” Stepping away from a problem lets our subconscious minds work their magic. In any case, it’s nice to know all my walking does serve a purpose. And here I thought I was just procrastinating!

My guess is that many forms of exercise accomplish the same end. Is exercise part of your writing routine? I hope you’ll take a moment and share your experience.

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  1. annamaria on November 19, 2012 at 9:43 am

    hi carol,
    i also take a mid morning break to go for a walk through my neighborhood or walk at my state park, which is just a walk away. i make it a point to clear my mind and relax… but inevitably my mind will reach out to places it’s never gone before, and new, fresh ideas are born. walks are pretty stimulating.
    enjoyed reading your piece

    • Carol Bodensteiner on November 19, 2012 at 10:03 am

      I think your point about clearing your mind and relaxing is a good one, Annamaria. I know the more I let go, the more free my mind is to do it’s own, good thing.

  2. Penelope J. on November 19, 2012 at 11:37 am

    Agree with Dunmore but then I’m also English and walking is a way of life for us. I use walking as a writing aid, it helps me work out glitches, plot, plan scenes, analyze characters, and find ideas for next steps. It clears my head of the author’s fog that can overcome a holed-up writer.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on November 19, 2012 at 12:07 pm

      I have English ancestors, so I perhaps walking is in my genes! I like the way you phrase that, Penelope – “clears my head of the author’s fog.” These crisp fall days are particularly good for dissipating the fog.

  3. Courtney on November 19, 2012 at 1:24 pm

    I find going for long walks either really clears my head or makes time for new ideas to rush in! Then I have to run home to write them down so I don’t forget! I workout regularly and feel it gives me more energy to stay motivated. Great article!

    • Carol Bodensteiner on November 19, 2012 at 2:27 pm

      Thanks, Courtney. I have that problem, too. The perfect way to phrase something comes to me while I walk and I do my best to keep it in my head until I can get back to a piece of paper. I know some folks carry paper and pencil with them all the time, just for such moments. Now, if I could just remember to do that!

  4. Sharon Lippincott on November 19, 2012 at 3:36 pm

    Lacking a convenient and safe place to walk — we live on a busy narrow hillside road with no shoulder or side path — I don’t do it as often as many. One alternative that at least keeps me moving is cleaning house or doing yard work. If I didn’t run into occasional writing dilemmas, my floor might never get vacuumed or scrubbed, etc. or my yard attended to. Somehow bringing order to my surroundings seems to bring order to my thoughts.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on November 19, 2012 at 3:48 pm

      Oh, now there’s finally a reason to clean house! I tend to “file in piles” all over my desk and floor. When the piles begin to slide, I have to bring them under control. The disorder does affect my ability to concentrate.

      I also live in the country, Sharon, and walk on roads with tiny shoulders. Not as treacherous as yours, I think. Because I persisted in walking even in the dark, a neighbor stopped one day and gave me a reflective vest! He may merit a mention in the acknowledgements section of my novel.

  5. A.D.Trosper on November 20, 2012 at 9:28 am

    Oh yes! Walks are incredibly helpful to the creative process. It frees you from the pressure of the keyboard, gets you away from the distractions of the house and allows the fresh air to rinse away the cobwebs. Your mind is free to wander in any direction and that usually helps solve any writing problems you’re stuck on and lets in all kinds of new ideas and possible directions for the story you’re working on. I love walking.

    I also found that milking my goats is another activity that inspires ideas. Sitting there in the chilly barn with my head leaned against the warm side of the goat, the only sounds are the milk filling the bucket and the goat munching grain. Its so relaxing and peaceful, my brain can work out all kinds of problems.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on November 20, 2012 at 9:36 am

      I really wish I could lay my cheek against the warm side of a goat (or cow). That sounds fabulous! I’ve often wished I could find someone in the agri-tourism business that would let me spend a week on their farm milking. My sister once said that you have to have been gone from a farm for a LONG time to think that milking cows would be a fun vacation. But that’s for another post.

      I think it’s the physical versus the mental that sparks creative fires – whatever the physical happens to be.

  6. Vikki Page on November 21, 2012 at 10:05 pm

    I am so glad you shared this. It has reached the point that any time I go to the gym, I keep a notepad and pen on the treadmill/elliptical/bike/whatever so that as ideas, plot solutions, and character ideas come to me I can jot them all down. There IS a lot of scientific research behind this (I am up to my neck in a manuscript but if I get a chance later I will try to send you the links.)
    I also like to take a walk and just ‘pretend’ that I am a character I’m having a problem capturing. What are THEY thinking about as they take a walk etc… (Oh the joys of being able to hide the ‘crazy’ behind the guise of ‘writer’ 😉 )
    Again, thank you for sharing this. It’s most definitely not just you that yields a benefit from a nice walk. 🙂 Hope you have a great Thanksgiving.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on November 22, 2012 at 9:12 am

      Keeping a pad and pen with me at all times is something I MUST start doing. I’d love to see the research on exercise and creativity. I used to be a runner and experienced the “runner’s high” from time to time. I’m sure endorphins play in there somewhere. When I’m working on dialogue, particularly for my male characters, imagining my dad helps. Then I cut three-fourths of the words. Happy Thanksgiving to you, too, Vikki. Thanks for commenting.

  7. Charlotte Adams on November 25, 2012 at 9:33 pm

    Although movement is helpful in the role of creativity, I think the benefits come more from nature and relaxation – both of which open the mind and heart – than mere exercise. My most creative and productive thoughts come when I’m mucking out the horses’ paddock and my beloved mare solves my problems when I’m on her back.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on November 26, 2012 at 10:55 am

      Nature has so much to teach us. When we are quiet enough to listen. I agree, Charlotte. I’m sure your mare is an ongoing gift. I have a pasture full of horses that I can enjoy watching every day. I think doing anything that moves the focus out of our self opens the mind to creativity. Thanks for commenting.

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