The Walking Cure

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.

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About Mark Alpert

Contributing editor at Scientific American and author of science thrillers: Final Theory (2008), The Omega Theory (2011), Extinction (2013), The Furies (2014) and The Six (2015). Next books: The Orion Plan (coming February 2016) and The Siege (July 2016). His website: www.markalpert.com

10 thoughts on “The Walking Cure

  1. Interesting that the same technique (walking) works both ways.

    I do the same thing to distance myself from my WIP for a short time, but usually to pry my conscious mind off it. When I try to think my way through a WIP, the result is always predictable and (for me) boring.

    Different strokes.

  2. Walking never fails me. Stretching out stiff muscles from sitting too long at the keyboard always helps the brain work better and more efficiently.

    Mark, when I was in NYC recently, Central Park was a welcome respite from traffic and noise.

  3. “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking” –Nietzsche

    Yup yup and yup. My best work comes on foot. Preferably around lots of trees. (Maybe it’s the oxygen they release?). There was a study a while back by some Stanford researchers that verified walking stokes creativity and extends into the time you actually sit down to work. They also found outdoor walking wasn’t any more effective than indoor. So just walk…treadmill, around the old mill, whatever. It works.

  4. At a science fiction convention, I was on a panel on writing, and a question was asked about hitting a stopping block like this. I told the story of discovering that a research source was wrong on a specific point so that the careful set of plot dominoes I’d constructed would no longer work. After banging my metaphorical head against the wall for a while, I got up and started housework. I ended up cleaning the refrigerator, and an answer came which worked better in the long run. Everyone in the audience laughed, and it hit me that I’d said I’d cleaned out the refrigerator. I hastily told them that I didn’t eat my way through the refrigerator, I cleaned it. I’m chubby, but not that chubby.

    But, yes, walking works great. So does going to the gym, housework, mowing, or some other mindless task that allows my brain to do its thing. If none of that works, I go back and reread the last few chapters, and I often discover I couldn’t go forward because my writer brain knows I’ve made some major mistake in plot or character that must be corrected to move forward.

  5. Yep. I walk, too. The other activity that I find useful is going to LitCharts online where I’ll read the summary and analysis of a novel in my genre. Not for the story, just for a reminder of how to get from here to there; a reminder that more story-telling is needed.

  6. Hot Tub, 20 minutes, jets on low power, 97 degrees, not too hot to burn your butt off, but enough to get things flowing! Resist the urge to bring a book with you, but have a tape recorder or deck of note cards on the nearby table. Works like a charm!

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