As a writer, my work consists of thrusting my head into a collection of thoughts and organizing them into sentences, paragraphs, and pages. Along with the constant flow of ideas we have every second of the day, we often must find a way to maintain prolonged focus on the task at hand.
We know this is easier said than done. The longer I focus on writing an article, the deeper I sink into the muddy puddle of my brain. While working as a reporter, I would have to write several articles a day—this led often to a state of near-complete confusion asking myself whether or not I had the right stuff to make it as a writer.
In the midsts of one particularly ensnaring fog, my editor looked over at me and said, “Al, get the hell outside.”
In my mind, I thought she was asking me to waste precious time meeting the multitude of piling deadlines creeping around the corner. Or, I had shown my weakness in the face of adversity, and she wanted simply to avoid my going “postal.” Feeling defeated, I took her order and took a walk down the tree-lined bike path outside my office in Lexington, Massachusetts.
I remember it was an overcast spring day, so the light was just right to see the detail of the trees around me, without my eyes fighting against a blinding sun. The branches wrapped and curled around each other overhead, creating a tightly-coiled embrace of quiet that stretched for miles.
I walked for about an hour that day. After returning to the office, I noticed my shoulders were less tense, my back muscles untangled, and my brow relaxed. This was a much more comfortable state to be in while synthesizing my ideas into coherent and readable prose. I sat down at my computer, and without batting an eye started letting the copy roll freely from my fingers.
The steady mind as a stage
Like a rope between two points—one being my decision to write what I needed to, and the other being the completed piece—was at first a tangled knot drenched in a morass of concepts and insecurities. Going on that walk was like sitting down and taking a moment to untangle and wring out the rope, and laying it straight on the floor between the two points.
The straight rope was, for me, an almost unconscious affirmation:
“I am a writer, and I am going to write.”
All I needed was a moment to step deeply into myself, and see the world around me for what it was. I was losing myself in the work in all the wrong ways, and in brief moments of self-realization I was seeing someone who couldn’t do it. This self image was all I saw when taking an inward look, and it was causing me to falter when my work needed me most.
It was important to recognize one particular point in all this: I am a writer, so whatever I need to do to achieve quality every time is worth my time.
Tons of research exists demonstrating the connection between physical and mental states. Often, I’d find a clear connection between the tension in my shoulders and the level of anxiety I was experiencing. This connection is something I’ve found is lost on lots of creatives I’ve met in my life.
The need to tune out in order to tune in has taught me several important lessons about working for prolonged periods of time in the creative world. Out if the myriad strategies I’ve discovered, they all seem to fall into the below four categories.
When in the writing weeds, taking a walk is one of the most effective actions to step out of the morass. Many great thinkers used the simple act of walking (Thoreau, Einstein, and Bach to name a few) to both clear and stimulate the mind. Whether finding resolution to a particular path, or to help maintain objectivity in purpose, get outside.
Writers are always suffering some kind of anxiety about their work. Deadlines, quality, the implications of your piece—the list is truly endless. I began practicing meditation a couple years back, and found that a good session brought me back to a state of mindfulness that kept me grounded.
Science behind the creative benefits of unstructured play are all over the internet. As a musician myself, picking up the guitar or trumpet (even though what comes out leaves something to be desired) thrusts my mind into another way of thinking. Once I return to my work, it’s like the dried brick of clay has been made malleable again with a splash of water.
Whether to myself or to a colleague, discussing my ideas puts them out into the air. Hearing your ideas, and how someone else understands them, is a surprising way of gaining a fresh perspective on what you’re working on. When your head is buried in the sand, how can you expect to see the bigger theme, picture, or purpose of your task? This is also a great way to test the cohesiveness of your idea.
And don’t fear—your idea may be a bad one, but you just need someone else to say that to you. This has happened to me many times, and the relief always outweighs my dismay.
The Wrap Up
Just as we all have our own particular quirks (why would we do this to ourselves otherwise?), each professional writer has their own strategy for pushing through the swamp that is their own mind. I would love to learn what you do to recharge in the midst of working—leave a comment and tell me how you “get through it.”