Writing When We’re Not Writing
We pay so much attention to the various writing schedules of ourselves and others that sometimes I worry we gloss over those critical moments of creative genesis. Instead of where does writing come from we often wonder how is writing made? Are you a morning writer? An evening writer? Are you a binge writer who works till deadline? Or do you, without exception, carve out x amount of hours per day to write? Obviously, finding a rhythm is a vital part of the writing process, but given that there is no end-all/be-all formula for productivity and success (if you know of one, do tell), I expect that we all work to develop schedules that suit us as individuals. So rather than the time we spend alone at our desks, I am interested in the circumstances around which a story, poem, or essay is born.
For me, the circumstances that lead to creativity are not exciting. I do not decompress through meditation or yoga (although I’ve been told both would help my disposition), just as I do not seek inspiration in thrills. A year ago when I wrote for this blog I was afraid of heights, and I still am. You won’t find me bouldering, and on a hike I try to avoid the views and vistas that for others seem to be the prize of all that walking. I enjoy walking, although preferably not at that steep of an incline. In graduate school it is hard to find time to think, and so, boring as it might be, most of my stories come to me in the shower or on a run.
This was a problem last semester after I had eye surgery. During recovery, I was told that I could not exercise or shower for two weeks (don’t worry, I didn’t go out much). As a result I found myself with more time than ever to think, but without the usual channels for creativity. As disappointing as it is to admit, I’ve discovered that stories don’t generally come to me during Netflix binges or YouTube click holes.
I decided to go for morning walks, a little bit longer each day. I called them my grandpa strolls. I’d grab a cup of whatever was on tap at Harbinger Coffee, a shop that in and of itself is a devotion to craft, and walk west on Mountain Ave, eventually making it to Grandview Cemetery. Walking alongside the old Fort Collins streetcar line, I took in the colorful houses and discovered some of our city’s well-kept secrets, such as the tiny lending library on West Oak Street near City Park. Unlike when on a run, I found myself able to absorb details while walking. Within these details, stories started to come to me, some better than others. I continued my grandpa strolls all winter and into the early spring, and it is along Mountain Avenue where I’ve been able to map out the early stages of my thesis.
One of my favorite things about the close-knit community of writers here at CSU is how the idea for a piece is often shared before the piece itself. As a group, we congregate at various bars after workshop on Wednesdays to spend time together as friends and writers. Although the conversation does not always revolve around craft, it often does, at least in pockets. The process, from genesis to execution, is something we all have in common, even if our writing schedules vary. A few times this semester someone has mentioned the idea for a story, some place, character, or event that begs to be explored further, and weeks or months later a manifestation of that idea appears in workshop. What began as, perhaps, a walk down Mountain Avenue is now a tangible piece of writing.
We often say how great ideas “come from nowhere,” but in the brain, everything comes from somewhere; it is just a matter of access. As writers, we must do our best to occupy a space where ideas are accessible, whether that is an open space on top of a mountain or a tight space in a tiny apartment shower. But we can’t always be where we are most creative, and so I think the trick, or at least one of the tricks, is to allow our spaces to grow. For me, I’ve been able to grow my space as far as Grandview Cemetery, and even that’s not nearly far enough. As Abby Kerstetter, a third-year poet, once told me, “I am not always writing poetry, but I am always thinking about my next poem.”
There is a level of neuroplasticity evident in the writing process, similar to the ways our brains change through memory. Like all things plastic, the brain grows more the further we stretch it. By simply thinking about a piece, we program our brains to reinforce the positive experience of creative genesis, long before the process of putting pen to paper triggers our motor memory. In this way, even when we aren’t writing, we can be writing.