Keeping the Ideas Coming

The writing life is a sedentary one, requiring hour upon hour of sitting in front of a computer screen—not good for the eyes or the metabolism or that almost forgotten New Year’s resolution to lose ten pounds. Desk-bound inactivity is also not good, I’ve lately read, for the brain—particularly those portions of the brain that support a capacity of supreme importance to the writer: creativity. To keep the brain in good shape and new ideas flowing in, say scientists who study creativity, you need to change things up a bit. Do something active. Think about something else.

The solution for me is running. I run twenty-one miles a week on the back roads around my house. Because of my work schedule, I run in seven to ten mile chunks, which is a bit hard for a nonathletic person like me, so I’ve come up with various strategies to take my mind off of what I’m doing. In addition to thinking about my current writing dilemmas and planning new books, I count the different kinds of birds or flowers or grasses or trees. I carry binoculars for locating birds and have trained myself to recognize their voices and habits. I phone distant family members and friends whom I rarely get around to talking to otherwise. I pray.

On especially long runs, though, even these distractions get boring, so this winter I started playing a sick, depressing game of building alphabets from the roadside trash.

I made up rules for myself. I had to follow the alphabet’s order. I had to actually see a letter—not guess or surmise it from the visible part of the trash—for it to count. No slowing or stopping to look more closely. No stopping to turn a piece of trash over to see the other side. No touching at all! I had to read on the fly.

It was, as I say, a sick, sad game. So much trash. I fantasized about returning after my run with a box of trash bags and picking it all up but never found time.

Then spring came, burying the trash in weeds. That made the game harder and longer. I was on J one day—Js and Vs were always the hardest letters to find—and had been jogging along for miles without seeing even the Juicy Fruit wrapper I’d seen the last time I’d run there. Up ahead, a square of paper stuck up like a tombstone out of the freshly graded borrow ditch. On it was one word: TIME.

It occurred to me that it would be much more fun to collect whole words than single letters, so I wrote down TIME in my little bird notebook and jogged on. Soon I had grand, subway, rub, natural, ice, aqua, buried, cable, light, wet, ones, bud, sonic, key, stone, mountain, and dew and decided to make a poem.

It has always bothered me how advertising and brand names undo words. Light doesn’t mean light. Mountain has no real connection to a mountain nor dew to actual dew. My poem, I decided, would reclaim these words’ real meaning. I would redeem the trash words.

My rules were few. What linguists call structure-class words (pronouns, helping verbs, articles, conjunctions, etc.) and inflections (verb forms, plural forms, etc.) were allowed. So was divvying a word into its parts: keystone offered key and stone. Homophones—such as bush from Busch—were off limits. Once my poem got going, though, I threw out all my rules and just concentrated on making the poem work as a poem, importing non-trash words as I saw fit.

Writing that first poem made me cry. Don’t know why, exactly, except that it felt holy. I decided, in any case, to collect trash words and make poems routinely when I ran. I even started a blog of the poems that have resulted. I find the project profoundly satisfying, from collecting words to redeeming them as poems to posting them for others to read.

I don’t have much of a message here, except this: Get serious—and creative—about your creativity. Every moment, every event, all the minutiae of your life, even the worst things—even running!—can be re-purposed for something good.

In what ways will you choose to redeem your creativity this week?

15 Replies to “Keeping the Ideas Coming”

  1. Fun and inspiring.
    As one who grew up in flyover country (western OK) and am now in Oregon, I think it’s refreshing that you seem to have settled there. My knees gave out on me so cycling is it now but I also play various word games on my bike.

    1. I’m originally from California and lived abroad for a dozen years, but then I married a farmer from Oklahoma. At first I resented it here–the humidity, the isolation from culture (art museums, no place to buy lamb, etc.), roadside trash and other artifacts of poverty and its attendant benightedness. Then, while on sabbatical, I came to recognize our farm as my promised land. A great blessing.

  2. I am impressed. I will be checking out your blog and poems. =)

    Running seems like too much work. Sigh. But I do believe in the mind body connection and find reading my work and walking around the house will kick my creativity in gear.

    1. I say “running,” but it’s actually jogging. Or, if I’m utterly honest, waddling. I go slow but far. I first started eight years ago, at 45, a last ditch attempt to have some sort of exercise in my life. I made it 1/4 mile and thought, “I am going to die.” My face was purple. Within a few weeks, though, I was going three miles. I got hooked on being outside, I think: learning to recognize the birds and flowers. I still have to force myself out the door, but, when I go several days without running, I feel not only cranky but like I’m missing stuff out there.

  3. Creativity comes in many forms. Last year I used rock art for my 4th of July theme cookout. Since it was also my sister’s bday, I made ducks out of rocks and painted them. (She lives on a lake.) Of course I named the ducks…then came the story. I believe inspiration is all around us…we just need the eyes to see.

  4. Oh my gosh, we’re such a nerdy bunch aren’t we…turning EVERYTHING into words? I even dream in words and phrases. And feel blessed. Thanks for this post on creativity. But what I really NEED to get out of it is the running part. Thanks!

    1. For me it took finding a way of exercising that didn’t entail driving somewhere to do it and that offered some sort of delight (birds, flowers, being outside) that could offset, somewhat, the misery of it. Witnessing my mother-in-law’s struggle with Alzheimer’s also helps me keep at it. I kept reading articles saying exercise might prevent (or forestall) it. Here’s hoping. 🙂

    1. Yeah, I got that when a neighbor couple passed me on the road and stopped to find out what I was writing down in my little book…

  5. Though I’m not a poet (though in my secret life I’d love to be!), I love your idea. My creative jumpstart this year is to take a photo-a-day. It’s been such fun. I haven’t missed since January 1st yet. I think posting them at the end of each month on my blog is helping me meet my goal…

  6. Pingback: More about running

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