By Mark Alpert
If you’re a writer of fiction, you’ve probably faced this dilemma.
You’re staring at the blank screen of your computer. You want to start a new chapter of your novel, but you can’t think of the first sentence. You go to the kitchen and open the refrigerator. No answers there. Nothing occurs to you while you’re eating your sandwich or drinking your coffee. So you decide to take a shower. You stand under the hot water for the next thirty minutes, trying to focus on plot and character and setting. Still nothing.
Then you give up and take a nap. I know, I’ve been there. Many times.
But if I’m being smart and strategic, I’ll go for a walk. Ideas come to me like magic when I’m walking. The conditions have to be right, though.
First of all, it can’t be raining. And if it’s cold outside, I have to be dressed warmly. I don’t want to be distracted by physical discomfort.
Also, I don’t want to be distracted by traffic. In my neighborhood (the Upper West Side of Manhattan), every time you come to an intersection you have to focus at least part of your brain on the traffic lights, careening taxis, deliverymen on bicycles, etc. And when I’m thinking about my book, I need to devote my whole brain to the task. I want every last neuron working on the problem. So my solution is to choose pedestrian-only routes that aren’t very crowded. There’s a nice oval path that surrounds the Great Lawn in Central Park, and in the winter it’s pretty empty.
Even closer to my apartment building is the superblock that contains the American Museum of Natural History and the Hayden Planetarium. They call it a superblock because it stretches without interruption from 77th Street to 81st Street, a distance of about 320 yards. East to west, it’s shorter — 270 yards (the distance between Columbus Avenue and Central Park West). So the total length of a circumnavigation of the superblock is 1,180 yards, or about two-thirds of a mile. (But my actual route cuts through the small park outside the planetarium, so the total distance is a bit less.)
I don’t go to the superblock when the museum is open, because there’s usually a crowd at the Central Park West entrance, and I don’t want to expend any mental energy on dodging the tourists. But at night it’s perfect. Last night I walked three times around the museum block and figured out exactly what’s going to happen in the last six chapters of the Young Adult novel I’m writing. Although there are a lot of interesting things to see on this particular route — the museum’s medieval turrets, the statue of Teddy Roosevelt on horseback, the giant models of the planets behind the planetarium’s glass front — I’ve seen all of them a million times already, so I don’t have to think about them. I can focus on the book.
Don’t get me wrong: The focus isn’t always laser sharp. Last night I crossed paths with a large roach scuttling down the sidewalk, his carapace shining under the streetlights. I wished him well. (The insect could’ve been female, though. I didn’t get close enough to check.) I also saw a whole family of rats scurry out of a garbage can. I yelled at them, pretty loud, “Hey! I’m walking here!” They didn’t get the movie reference. (It’s Dustin Hoffman’s famously unscripted line in Midnight Cowboy, as pictured above.)
But that’s summer in the big city. I enjoy communing with the local wildlife while I think about my characters. At 10 p.m. I returned to my apartment, turned on the air conditioner, and wrote a paragraph-long summary for each of the final six chapters. Now I just have to write them.