I often am asked what kind of music I listen to while I write my stories. Well, in reality very few people ask me any questions about my writing, because when I start talking, I tend to put people to sleep (it doesn’t actually matter what I’m talking about – I’m told my voice has some kind of magical soporific effect. Or maybe everything I talk about is boring), but I am often asked what I listen to while I run, which is basically the same thing. I may not have my keyboard with me to do the physical act of writing whilst I run – that would be an impressive feat – but despite that I consider that a significant portion of the mental process of writing occurs when I’m on the trail.
Although I don’t remember why or when I first started to enjoy distance running, I know that it goes back at least as far as elementary school. What “distance” means has changed for me over time, such as in high school, when I eventually quit cross-country because it was too short, so that I could focus more on training for marathons (there were other reasons, too). These days, I find it difficult to justify setting aside three or more hours on a weekend to run, but I still more or less routinely run anywhere between forty minutes and ninety minutes at least once a week. If there were ever something to embody the interplay between the brain and the body, it is my relationship with running. Going for a long run makes my brain work better, improves my mood, and makes me more optimistic about life. I could continue listing benefits of distance running, like better sleep quality, improved metabolism, healthier biochemistry, neurological regeneration (extended “cardio” activities is one of the very few ways to promote the development of new neurons, according to some studies), but this isn’t a post to persuade you to become a marathoner. We’re here to talk about writing.
Somewhere, Brandon Sanderson talks about ways to become a writer while working in another career, which are just as relevant to people like myself who are writing part time or as a hobby. He often speaks about how he was able to write prodigiously before he was published while working the night shift as a hotel clerk. The argument that both of these discussions leads to is that the substance of writing, the work of it, is mostly mental. It requires a time in which you can concentrate upon and ruminate over your stories, plots, and ideas, with minimal distractions, interruptions, or other impinging worries. If you have that time, even if you’re not actively sitting at the keyboard and adding to your word count, you will find that when you are able to sit down and write, the writing goes quickly because you’ve already done the mental preparation and know exactly what you want to tell. It’s just a matter of putting it into words.
The wonderful part about this mental component is that it can be done anywhere, anytime, with no physical resources. While you’re driving, while you’re at a meeting that’s completely irrelevant to you, while you’re in the shower, while you’re kneading bread (okay, that one is a little random), or performing any other task that leaves the mind free to wander. For me, the best time I’ve found to develop stories, to perform this mental component of the writing, is while I’m running. Being on the trail, pounding breathlessly through the miles, is one of the few times that I feel completely alone with my thoughts and unburdened by any other concerns. My body is entirely taken up with the running, and so my mind is freed from worrying about the cares of the “real” world, leaving me completely free to visit the worlds of my imagination and do the real work of telling my stories. When I get back and am eventually able to sit down at my computer, it’s just a matter of putting that story into words.
This is my main solution when I’m struggling with a story and not sure where it’s going to go next or what to write for a new scene. Usually, by the time that I return from a ten mile run, I’ve not only determined how I will solve whatever problem I was originally struggling with; I’ve also determined what will fill the several chapters or sequences, and it’s often better than what I would have come up with just by sitting down at the keyboard and stewing over the text. Nor is this necessarily restricted to stories and writing, as I’ve used the same technique to help me develop solutions to all kinds of problems and stresses and challenges in my life: intellectual, personal, and practical. But that’s beyond the scope of this post.
All of this is to say: don’t associate writing too narrowly with sitting in front of your computer or with your notebook. Yes, the words have to get onto the paper at some point, but the actual development of the story, what I would call the main work of storytelling, the creative aspect of the writing process, can happen anywhere, and may even happen better somewhere other than sitting down and trying to write. I was doing this part long before I started trying to write down my stories, and certainly before I became more serious about the sculpting of language into plots and characters and settings; in fact, it is in large part because of the stories that I would tell myself in my head during times like runs that I began trying to write – I wanted to be able to share with others, and myself, the stories that I was mentally developing in a more polished, coherent, and presentable form.
If you’re trying to start writing, or are stuck on your current project, I encourage you to go for a run. It doesn’t have to be a thirteen mile run on deserted paths in the middle of nowhere, though those are a lot of fun – just get out, get moving, and let the straining of your body and the feel of the fresh air in your lungs wash away whatever mental detritus was frustrating you. Oh, and to tie this back to the original question, I usually listen to movie soundtracks while I run. Somehow, that usually seems appropriate.