Walking through Iowa; reading through Europe

Goals to keep mind and body fresh.

Shoes & BookI’ve set two goals for myself this winter: one walking and one reading. In just the first few weeks of the year, I’ve found some interesting links to these goals, beyond the fact that I do them at the same time.

  • My walking goal is to traverse the diagonal distance of Iowa, from the southwest corner to the northeast. A map taped to the wall offers a ready reference for logging my miles and noting the towns I figuratively pass through as I take to the treadmill.
  • My reading goal, as I shared in another post, is to read 10 works of historical fiction in 2014 as part of the historical fiction challenge. That’s in addition to all the other books I know will pass through my hands this year.

I began my trek in Hamburg, the southwestern most town in Iowa. According to the 2010 census, Hamburg’s population was 1,187. This little town was nearly wiped off the map in 2011 when the Missouri River breached the levee protecting the area. Despite great adversity, the people and their town survived.

It’s interesting (to me at least) that Hamburg is named for Hamburg, Germany, since the book I was reading at this point was The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Set in Germany, The Book Thief tells the story of a nine-year-old girl who lives near Berlin during WWII. This child and her foster parents face great adversity as they risk their lives to befriend a Jew they hide in their basement. The book explores the ability of books to feed the soul.

Since leaving Hamburg (Iowa), I’ve traversed almost 50 miles, passing through towns I’ve never heard of – Essex – and some I have heard of but never visited – Shenandoah and Red Oak.

Coincidentally, I “walked” through Shenandoah at the time Phil Everly passed away. Phil and his brother, Don, grew up in Shenandoah from early childhood through early high school. They sang with their father on local radio station KMA before going on to achieve fame as The Everly Brothers.

Walking at 3.8 miles/hour, I can read comfortably and have completed several books, including:

  • Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier. My choice for our book club to read this month, this novel took me to the coast of England to search for fossils with two nineteenth century women whose discoveries upset the scientific and religious worlds of the day. I found this book noteworthy because the author had a unique way to describe characters. One “leads with her eyes,” another “leads with her hands,” another “leads with her chin.”  As soon as I read this descriptor, I realized I know people like this. I admire authors who trigger that spark of recognition in readers in an unusual way.
  • The Orphan Train: A Novel by Christina Baker Kline. This book about a lesser known part of American history, when some 250,000 children were taken by train from east coast cities to find homes in rural areas, drew me in because I have a thread on the Orphan Trains in my upcoming novel, Go Away Home. This is the one book I’ve read so far this year set in the United States.
  • Call the Midwife, Shadows of the Workhouse, by Jennifer Worth. The sequel to the book that is the basis for the the PBS series, this book caused me to consider the scope of creative non-fiction.  Worth was a nurse midwife in London after WWII.  Her life experience and writing are fully engaging. I do wonder, though, if it is appropriate to categorize much of this second book as memoir since several of the stories were not about things that happened to Worth or that she saw personally. Terrific stories, though, and a powerful look at a difficult time in English history.

As I continue to walk, I’ve crossed the Channel to France where I’m on a gastronomical journey with Julia Child in her memoir, My Life in France. She is making me very hungry. 

Sharing goals helps ensure I stick to them. So, I’ll share updates of my reading and walking musings from time to time. If you’d like to chime in on books you’re reading or places you’re traveling or goals you’ve set for the year, I’d love to hear from you.

5 Yoga Exercises For Your Writing Routine

Not long ago, I wrote about how walking stimulates my writing. Writer and yoga instructor Stephanie Renée dos Santos commented that she’s found yoga to be a great help to her writing. I asked her to share exercises anyone can do and she agreed.  Welcome, Stephanie!

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A Writer’s Daily Yoga Practice

First, I’d like to thank Carol for inviting me to share ways writers can incorporate yoga into the daily writing routine.  I write five days a week.  Normally, I write in the morning for three hours and another two-three hour session in the afternoon in what is called the “unit system.” I write for 45 minutes and then take a 15-minute break (For information about this writing method visit my blog post: Up Productivity: Writing & Editing).  In the 15 minutes of downtime, I do housework and/or practice yoga.  I am a yoga teacher when not writing, and like everyone some days I have tight regions in my body. I do yoga stretches to open and relax these areas–allowing me to comfortably write for long periods of time.

Writers often suffer from physical pain in the eyes, head, neck, shoulders, lower back, and hips. This stress in the body can inhibit or block creativity. A daily yoga practice helps reverse and relieve bodily tension; when the body is eased, so are the tensions of the mind.

Below are 5 yoga stretches most writers can perform easily, no matter your age or flexibility. (All postures are recommended to be done slowly and mindfully, meaning pay attention to what is going on inside your body–but don’t judge or attach to what you discover, just notice.)

  1. Shoulder rolls: Lift your shoulders up towards your ears, then slowly pull your shoulder blades back and together and down, continue repeating this circle.  Be conscious of your movements and tell yourself it is “okay” to let go and relax, while massaging out any tension in this region.
    Neck Stretch

    Neck Stretch

  2. Neck stretch: Begin with your eyes closed. And breathe in through your nose and out your mouth for 5 breaths with your head upright.  Then, gently let your head ease over to the right, stretching out the left side of your neck. Count 15 breaths, then using your right hand, help your head back up to an upright position.  Pause for 5 breaths, eyes still closed, and repeat on the left side, remembering to help your head up with your left hand.  Returned to center, keep your eyes closed, breathing in through your nose and out your mouth for more 10 breaths or however long you like, absorbing and basking in the relief of this stretch.  ** I suggest getting out of your regular writing chair and onto a blanket or yoga mat in a seated position or on a cushion, or sit in another chair, or on the edge of a bed to do the shoulder rolls and neck stretches.
    Forward Bend, Lower Back Stretch

    Forward Bend, Lower Back Stretch

  3. Hip circles:  This pose is done standing up.  Place your hands on your hips and slowly begin moving your hips in a circular motion, while breathing in through your nose and out your mouth for 10-15 breaths, then change circling direction for another 10-15 breaths.  At the end release your hands from your hips, letting your arms hang down by your sides. Then shake out your arms turning your waist side to side like a windmill, while flexing your knees shaking out any tension in the body.
  4. Lower back stretch:  Standing with your legs the same distance apart as your hips, knees slightly bent, inhale through your nose and then out your mouth and slowly bend forward at the waist, letting the weight of your head and shoulders draw you down to the floor, surrendering your weight forward for 10-15 breaths, stretching out the lumbar and legs.  If you are unable to touch the floor, I suggest you use a chair or blocks to rest your hands and weight into, in order to get the most benefit out of this stretch and to not aggravate the lumbar region. Inhale through your nose while coming up, vertebrate by vertebrate. 
    Standing Side Stretch

    Standing Side Stretch


  5. Standing Side Stretch: Stand with both feet waist distance apart, breathe in through your nose and out your mouth and reach up your arms into the sky, then with the right hand grasp your left wrist and stretch to the right side, opening up the left side of your torso, shoulder, and arm, taking 3-5 breaths.  Then repeat this on the left side for 3-5 breaths.  You can do this stretch, moving side to side 5-10 times or as many as you like.

I strongly encourage writers to begin a regular yoga practice at home and with a qualified teacher in your area, it will help you and your writing in profound ways:  patience development, concentration, fluidity of creativity.

Happy writing!

Yoga in ParisStephanie Renée dos Santos is a fiction and freelance writer and yoga instructor. She is currently working on a historical novel set in 18th century Portugal and colonial Brazil. Stephanie leads Writing & Yoga Retreats/Workshops in Brazil and the United States. For more information please visit: www.stephaniereneedossantos.com or email stephaniereneedossantos@gmail.com or Facebook: Stephanie Renee dos Santos.

Upcoming Workshops in USA:  July 13-14, 2013 half-day & full-day, Writing & Yoga Workshop, Bellingham, WA;  July 2013 (exact dates to be announced) 3 nights, 2 full-day Writing & Yoga Workshop, Oregon Coast, OR. Visit Stephanie’s blog for workshop details:  http://www.stephaniereneedossantos.com/yoga-writing-workshop/

Does exercise improve your writing?

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.