Walking Away From It

When I’m stuck on what I’m writing, I walk away and go do something else, preferably something mindless, like chopping up vegetables for dinner or pruning or digging holes.

This is on my mind today because I’ve been plagued with something (probably pollen; I do allergies really, really well) which has been giving me headaches of various levels of complexity for several days now. I’m a bit frustrated because my usual solution for getting into my writing simply isn’t working.

Walking away from writing is a hard tactic to explain. Most Americans are taught to keep working on a problem: put one foot in front of another and we’ll reach our goal. For those writers who have only a limited amount of time in which to write (after the day-job, after the kids are in bed, whatever), this way of dealing with writing practically comes as heresy.

But the fact remains that, for me, staring at a screen or sheet of paper, trying to force the words, is the best way to make sure they’ll stay away.

Part of the reason for this is that I’m a subconscious plotter and my subconscious is notoriously cranky about being forced. However, if I get to work on something else, then the subconscious relaxes and often the words start flowing.

This has happened a lot to me but, there’s one occasion I think of as the perfect illustration.

I was writing Changer. The novel was well past the introductory chapters. Characters were on stage, problems were not only introduced but mounting in complexity. As they did, I began to be troubled by the question of why these people didn’t simply bop each other over the head. Instead, some of them had been frustrating each other for millennia.

To place this in context, this was in the day when Highlander was very popular both as a movie (which I saw) and a television show (which I never saw). In the universe according to Highlander, immortals seemed to have nothing better to do with their time and energy than murder each other. Seemed a waste of immortality to me, but as my characters began to suspect and doubt each other, I did wonder why several of the more annoying (Sven Trout, for example) hadn’t ended up dead long ago.

I sensed – that’s the only way to put it; you’ll simply have to believe me – that there was something more than caution staying their hands. However, I couldn’t figure it out.

So I shut down the computer and walked out the door to get my daily exercise. I was not even two tenths of a mile from my front door when the solution came to me. Words came rushing into my head. Images nearly drowned me in their intense complexity. I resisted turning around to get it all on paper. Instead, I went and walked my usual three mile route.

My feet probably did speed up a bit on the last few blocks. I hurried through the door, grabbed paper, and started scribbling.

Accord and Harmony, the differences between them, the differences between voluntary and involuntary compliance. Why people who viewed each other as enemies would cooperate – or at least find more interesting ways to undo each other than simple murder.

All of it was there, ready to be used but, if I hadn’t walked away, I don’t think I would have found it that day.

Over the years, I’ve learned to walk away, but I always walk back. If I didn’t, well, then I’d create a whole new problem, wouldn’t I?


9 Responses to “Walking Away From It”

  1. Nicholas Says:

    It’s the same thing with me. I need my mind to be unified to write. Sometimes I have to wait a day or two for it to get there. But when it does, I can write page after page for up to three hours.

    It’s nice to know I’m not the only one who needs to just accept the need to retreat in favor of a better battle later.

  2. Alan Robson Says:

    It’s a useful technique in any creative field. As a programmer/administrator I’ve found that this approach to problem solving works wonders when it starts to look as if the computer is going to beat you *again*. Sometimes you are too close to a problem. When you find yourself at a dead end it’s time to go away and do something totally different. It blows away the cobwebs.

  3. heteromeles Says:

    I love walking to get ideas, although I’d add that it’s an even less popular tactic when you’re working in a company than when you’re working on your own.

    The other fun question is whether to take a notepad or not on that walk. I remember times when I had this great phrasing for something, only to forget it on the way back. That’s the argument for taking a notepad, and I started doing that when working on my grad projects, when I was under a lot of stress.

    The argument for not taking the notepad is what I’ve been doing for the last year. When I come up with something good, I set myself to memorizing it, on the theory that if it’s memorable, I will remember it when I get back, and if it’s not any good, I’ll forget it and there won’t be a loss. Of course, right now, I’m not under so much stress.

    Hard to say which strategy works better, but it’s good to know that someone else is inspired by movement.

  4. janelindskold Says:

    I’ve just got to add a coda here! It’s too funny not to…

    Today I was writing. I had a feeling I’d taken a wrong turn. Couldn’t figure out why.

    A friend had called this morning saying she was delayed out of town and asking if I’d look in on her pets. And while I was driving over there…

    Yep. You got it. I solved the problem!

  5. Alan Robson Says:

    Another good strategy is to explain the problem to someone who knows absolutely nothing about it. This requires you to explain it in great detail, so that they will understand what you are talking about, and consequently it forces you to think about the problem in greater detail than you were thinking about it before. Because of this altered way of thinking, about half-way through the explanation, the solution will suddenly occur to you and you can send your audience away.

    I have discovered by experiment that the audience does not have to be human. On more than one occasion I have explained tricky technical problems to my cats. Invariably they have solved the problems for me…

    I’m not sure what this proves about me. Or about my cats.


  6. heteromeles Says:


    I think it proves that you have very patient and caring cats.

  7. Paul Dellinger Says:

    Yet another useful technique for writing that I have picked up from this blog. I hope you’re not charging for lessons!

  8. janelindskold Says:

    No Charge, Paul!

    Very silly….

    Alan, I don’t talk to my cats about my writing. In fact, no one sees a work in progress until it’s done.

    Jim has become very good at handling queries that start with something like: “I don’t want to tell you why, but I need to talk to you about frontier theory [or whatever I’m into at that moment]”

    Part of this is because I want him to be an unbiased first reader, but part is because I fear that if I tell him the story, I’ll no longer want to write it!

    I’m not very good at writing proposals for that very reasons.

  9. Jane Says:

    Walking away from a problem doesn’t help me at all. My husband doesn’t understand how my mind works, but it doesn’t spend time pondering problems when I’m not consciously thinking about them. I’ve never had that “eureka” moment in the middle of the night or while taking a shower that you always hear people mention.

    Alan’s “talk it out” idea does work…though I never tried it on a cat. My problems do tend to be technical more than creative. Maybe the “talk it out” method works better on techy problems.

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