A couple years ago, I separately interviewed two musicians I’m a big fan of for the entertainment website, Hollywood in Toto. One was Christopher Hall of the industrial rock band, Stabbing Westward. The other was Phil Solem of the pop rock duo, The Rembrandts. Both are acclaimed song writers.
One question I always ask writers — whether it be of music, literature, or non-fiction — is how they go about the writing process. I do this, in part, because — as a writer myself — I’m genuinely interested in others’ tricks of the trade. While I usually receive varying answers, there is one common thread nearly all of them share.
Here was part of Hall’s answer: “If I’m writing the song, I work in my head usually while walking my dog and humming to myself. I often wear headphones to keep any one from talking to me, but there’s never music on. I start with words and a melody and start putting together the pieces like a puzzle.”
And this was from Solem: “I tend to like to go on ‘lyric walks’ where my mind is freed up to let ideas fall into place without having to break my brain to concoct them.”
Sure enough, just getting out and going for a walk is a surprisingly powerful tool for a writer. I discovered this years ago when I used to go on night walks around my old sub-division. I started doing it primarily for exercise, and I went at night because I worked at an office during the day, and spent the early evenings with my family (helping my wife with our young children and later putting them to bed).
I was working on my first novel, From a Dead Sleep, at the time, and I noticed that when I walked around my neighborhood, some really good plot ideas would pop into my head… seemingly out of nowhere. Additionally, areas of my writing in which I felt like I’d backed myself into a corner would suddenly hash themselves out. Missing pieces of my writing puzzle (as Hall described it) would fall into place.
The only remaining challenge was remembering all that I’d come up with on the walk, by the time I got back home, so that I could write it all down. (Keep in mind that this was before smart-phones and their helpful dictation features).
I used to joke with (and kind of complain to) my wife that the best ideas came at the most inconvenient times… not just on walks, but also when I’d be sitting in a church pew listening to a sermon from our pastor, or when I’d be taking a shower.
I’d get into that last one with more detail, but I have too much respect for ‘Daly Grind’ readers to plant that kind of imagery.
Anyway, my thoughtful wife couldn’t help me with the church and shower issues, but for the walks, she bought me one of those pocket-sized digital voice recorders. That way, I could carry it with me, and when an idea came about, I could verbally record it for later.
This worked pretty well, but it did occasionally throw a scare into neighbors outside their homes, in the dark of night (usually arriving home from work or retrieving something from their garage), when they’d unexpectedly hear a narrative voice from the sidewalk.
Of course, there’s a non-coincidental reason for why good ideas arise at such times, and I happened to see it described by writer and pundit Nate Silver on Twitter just the other day (which planted the idea for this week’s newsletter):
Indeed, it really is about stimulation and liberation of the mind. Once you remove the confines that come with the pressure of dedicated writing, the ideas begin to flow more naturally.
Jonah Goldberg, one of my favorite political writers, concurred in his response to Silver:
Nate Silver @NateSilver538My best writing advice is to spend less time in front of your screen. Your brain needs time to process shit and stimulating it by going on a walk or a bike ride or hitting up a concert etc. can be really helpful.
I actually remember watching that episode of Mad Men, and thinking at the time, “Exactly!”
Sometimes, even literal observations while getting out and walking have made it into my novels. Here’s one that turned up in my book Broken Slate. (Okay, it was actually from a bike ride, not a walk).
None of this is to say that it’s not important to have a dedicated, comfortable writing environment. I firmly believe that it is.
Regardless of where the ideas come from, they eventually need to be structured and tailored for the intended reader or listener. While some writers are completely at ease doing this on their laptop from places like a public park or a crowded coffee shop, I definitely am not. Thankfully, I’m fortunate enough to have a home office, decorated with things I like (including works of inspiration), and with a door I can close to the outside world.
But it’s the stimulation and from that outside world that often gets the ball rolling. So, if you’re a writer who’s in a rut, and you’ve been beating your head for hours in front of a keyboard, maybe think about just getting outside and going on a walk.
Is there a particular activity or practice that has helped with your writing? Let me know what it is in the comments below, or by sending me an email.
Both shots, babies. And after two more weeks of building up immunity, it’ll be party time for yours truly. I can’t wait.
Obligatory Dog Shot
Nazareth’s “Hair of the Dog” is an exceptionally bad-ass classic rock song, and it’s still kind of surprising to me that a tune with the chorus lyric, "Now you're messing with a son of a bitch," was widely played on the radio back in 1975. But it was, and it became a big hit for the Scottish band.
I’ve liked other Nazareth songs over the years (powered by Dan McCafferty’s intense vocals), including their popular ballad cover of “Love Hurts.” So, I knew once I got back into vinyl that I’d be adding some of their stuff to my collection.
I didn’t mess around, picking up their Greatest Hits album from 1975 when I came upon it in a used-record store bin. It’s a good compilation of their most recognized work, and Nazareth truly is one of those bands that sounds best on vinyl.
That’s all for now. Thanks for reading today’s Daly Grind.
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Take care. And I’ll talk to you soon!