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?