By John Lorinc
Early in my freelance reporting career, I had to battle regularly with writer’s block. For a typical feature, I had interviewed a dozen sources and dug up various reports and news stories. Once I’d finished the research, I spent several days transcribing my interviews. But then, with my head crammed with so much detail about the topic, the opening simply wouldn’t come.
At a certain point, I must have given up on some project in frustration and gone out for a walk to clear my head. But then, as I walked, the beginning revealed itself. I practiced the sound of those sentences in my head, honing and tweaking, as I wandered through the leafy streets not far from my apartment.
When I got back to my computer, the opening was, in effect, written; all I needed to do was to transfer the words onto the computer screen, and the rest followed without difficulty.
Many professionals who create for a living – artists, designers, ad copy writers, etc. – will find themselves challenged in much the same way, and facing very similar questions about how to locate the spark that allows them to make something which didn’t exist before.
…created things don’t just happen; rather, they emerge from a series of steps and intellectual engagement…
But we also know that the answer to the problem isn’t about waiting for some mythical flash of inspiration to fall from the sky. In the world of design, process is critically important, and represents an acknowledgment that created things don’t just happen; rather, they emerge from a series of steps and intellectual engagement that allow all the different inputs – from research to user experience surveys or a canvas of graphic design templates – to coalesce into creative output.
For me, the mental block walk became an integral part of my `process.’ My writing schedule, always working backwards from some deadline, would include a few days of feeling mentally constipated and taking walks as I let all those research ideas simmer on a low-heat off in a corner of my consciousness.
Objectifying the block — making it part of the thinking process as opposed to some kind of external antagonist — seemed to help with the psychology. Yet this insight into the nature of creative work was necessary, but not sufficient. There had to be movement, too. It got to the point where I could predict with some accuracy how long into my walk I’d be before the solution to a lede problem would materialize.
There is a rich literature about the relationship between walking and creative thinking. I’m not a psychologist or a neurologist so I can’t attest to the mechanics, but there are obvious — to me, anyway — connections. Walking, like yoga, meditation or intensive cardio activities, involves rhythmic movement and breathing. On a long walk, I often — though not always — find myself feeling very much in the moment, allowing the sensation of one-foot-after-the-other to drive away feelings of stress or anxiety.
…one of the paradoxes of walking and thinking creatively is that the visual distractions allow those ideas simmering away on the back burner to begin to consolidate into the thing you want to make…
Walking, of course, is also about seeing and looking and smelling, and letting oneself be distracted by, or immersed in, the surroundings. It occurs to me, in fact, that one of the paradoxes of walking and thinking creatively is that the visual distractions allow those ideas simmering away on the back burner to begin to consolidate into the thing you want to make, or the problem you need to solve. You look at the challenge, whatever it happens to be, by not looking at it.
The psychic benefits accrue at any time, but the oppressive presence of a massive source of concern — the pandemic — adds another layer to this way of finding a path through a difficult work problem. Everyone faces COVID-19’s common denominator pressures: the economic and professional uncertainties, health risks, anxiety about family members, social isolation, etc. For those people who work in creative disciplines, and are expected to routinely produce ideas and innovative insights, the pandemic distraction poses an additional source of stress. After all, or at least for me, creative work presupposes a clear and focused state of mind. The pandemic, by contrast, is surely the noisiest and most oppressive distraction generator I’ve ever encountered. If you are trying to work creatively, the ambient distraction produces a state of mind that can rapidly destroy focus.
For that reason, and also because I don’t want to be a blob when I eventually resume my weekly pick-up hockey games, I’ve significantly upped the amount of walking I do on a daily basis, mostly early in the morning. I’ve decided to just wander the city, exploring neighbourhoods I’ve never been, and taking in the strangely seductive spectacle of a large and seemingly empty metropolis. After an hour-and-a-half or two hours, I arrive back to the messy home office desk where I spend most of my time now, decently oxygenated and ready to write.
I find myself noticing much more — likely because there are none of the normal urban distractions, namely traffic and people.
The professional benefits of all this contemplative meandering have become highly apparent to me. I find myself noticing much more — likely because there are none of the normal urban distractions, namely traffic and people. But the combination of the extravagant upheaval of the pandemic and these quiet journeys has filled my head with story ideas and projects to try. I also find myself reminded of a critical insight about the work that I do, which is that writing is not a performance art. There will also be time to revise, which is true for most forms of creative work.
So my best advice after almost three months: Take a mental block walk. Go some place new. Walk where others aren’t walking. The rest will take care of itself.