The Writers’ Interrogation List: Are Your Characters You?

Whenever a group of writers get together, there’s a series of questions and topics that inevitably come up. I refer to this phenomenon as The Writers’ Interrogation List. I’ve blogged about this topic previously here and here and here.

One question that authors are often asked is ‘Are your characters you?’ or to word that question differently, ‘How much of you goes into your characters?’

Most authors would scoff at such a question and find the idea of an author surrogate (a fictional character based on themselves) insulting to both their imagination and the craft of writing. Author surrogates are a writing technique typically associated with hobbyist writers. In other words, they are seen as bad writing. The fan fiction community has even given these characters a nickname, Mary Sue.

A few authors – very few – openly admit to using author surrogates. Some famous examples are Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five (though Vonnegut’s literal appearance in the novel is more meta than surrogate, but the narrative itself is heavily based on the author’s experiences during the bombings in Dresden), and Robert A. Heinlein is Jubal Harshaw in Stranger in a Strange Land. Of course, these are examples of author surrogates done well. They are the exception to the rule.

Typically, author surrogates are a big fat literary no-no. Sometimes, the narrator of a story is flagged as an author surrogate due to the heavy-handed social, political or philosophical commentary. I’ll return to this idea later, but first I want to discuss the idea of an author basing their fictional characters on themselves.

If an author intentionally buries aspects of their personality or experiences into a character, then that’s their decision (and they may have very good reasons for doing so). If a reader is intentionally picking a character apart in order to find signs of the author, that’s not so good.

As artists, the line between us and our work becomes very blurry very quickly.

On one hand, a book can be very telling as the author may embed beliefs, values, opinions, or real-life experiences into their work, but writing is a strategic exercise. Sometimes characters think or do things that are the opposite to the author, but they do these things because they make sense for the character and because the plot must progress. However, some may argue that all characters are a reflection of the author. After all, they are the ones who created them.

Recently, I completed the final round of self-edits on a mystery novel, and in writing this blog post, I naturally started to wonder how much of me went into my characters. Some of the characters I can identify as complete fabrications, some appear to be almost my polar opposite and others are exaggerated slithers of my personality.

It’s a weird thing to think about because we actually aren’t that unique. We all think fairly similar thought, feel fairly similar feelings and do fairly similar things. (Insert obvious banal disclaimers here). Given this ‘sameness’ – and the fact that I wrote the damn book – it makes sense that some of my characters resemble me. Slightly.

Fortunately, my main character Daff could never be described as an author surrogate. We share a few things in common, we are both Australian females who grew up in Queensland and we are close in age. These similarities inevitably mean that we share other qualities too, but we don’t need to go down that rabbit hole. The biggest differences between us is our personality and temperament. Daff loves gardening, science and cutting up dead bodies. If she were an animal, she’d be an Ox: stubborn, slow, but relentless.

I, however, am none of those things. I did pretty darn well at high school biology, but that was over ten years ago and I haven’t cracked the spine of a science textbook since the day I sat my final exam. Fucking aced it too. Just saying. But I don’t love science with a capital L. In fact, my good grades were a miracle because I flat out refused to dissect rats, animal organs and grasshoppers. What can I say? Cutting up dead stuff ain’t my thing. (Little wonder I haven’t eaten meat in 12 years…with the one exception of an unfortunate mix up at a Chinese restaurant…). Additionally, I find gardening tremendously boring. Like solitaire boring. Like post office cues boring. if I were an animal, I’d be a dragon because that’s what Chinese astrology assigned my birth year.

That being said, there is a character in my book that reads a little like an alter ego. I wouldn’t describe this character as a Mary Sue, a term that is typically reserved for idealised versions of the author, because Melissa Sweet (oh, hey! Same initials!) is a Harley riding, metal head that wears heavy make-up and way too much silver jewellery. Yeah, she’s pretty cool, but I’m way too introverted for her adrenaline-laced lifestyle.

Looking at my cast of characters, the ones that appear to be the most fabricated – the least like me – are the minor characters. The characters who exist to keep the cogs turning or to bring comic relief. Obviously, my main characters propel the story forward the MOST and they share similarities with me because I needed to have a strong understanding of who they were in order for the plot to makes sense.

Having pondered all this, I suspect that the greatest amount of ourselves probably winds up in our first novels. When examining my short stories, I gotta say, there ain’t much of me in them. Maybe this is because the motivation behind writing a short story, for me, is to challenge myself and my skill levels rather than explore a philosophical theme. Some of these challenges include writing a story where the protagonist makes you feel morally uncomfortable (Sidney Cherry), a story that uses classic horror tropes (The Bell, which you can get if you sign up for my newsletter) and an experimentation with metafiction (Haunted).

As I mentioned at the top of this blog, sometimes the narrator is an author surrogate. While I have no doubt that there are sprinkles of me in my characters, it is the novel itself that is the greatest representation of me. After all, I didn’t write a novel about grief and time, family and friendship, post-traumatic stress and trauma because those topics are uninteresting to me.

‘Are your characters you?’ is a dull question. Some novels are made to be consumed and closed, others are made to be contemplated. It’s within the pages of the book as a whole that you will gain the greatest insight into an author’s psyche. You can dissect characters if you wish, but to do so is to miss the point. It’s not about how much of the author has gone into the book, but what is the author trying to say with the book.

Reading is an Intimate Experience

Reading is an intimate experience. It’s a private conversation between two people, the author and the reader. The type of conversation that can only occur between two people: deep and cuttingly honest. You can watch a movie, a play or a sporting match with others and experience that entertainment together because the form exists outside of you.

Books technically exist outside of us too and while two people can read the same book, their experiences of that book will be very different. Reading is an internal and idiosyncratic process. We’ve all read ‘Pride and Prejudice’, we all know what happens, yet my Elizabeth Bennet will be slightly different to yours because I am reading the novel through my perspective; I am filtering Elizabeth’s life through my life, my values and my embedded biases.

I often read moving passages to my partner, but the power contained within those words is often lost when read out loud. And yes, I can appreciate that it is also being read out of context, but there is something else going on too.

When a story is read out loud, you lose the tactile experience of being the primary decoder: the person who transforms the words on the page into people, places and events. The person who is reading out loud may emphasise particular words that you wouldn’t, they may read slower or faster, loudly or softly, so that their voice influences the way you experience the story.

Reading is an intimate experience because you are co-creating a world with the author. Yes, admittedly, the author has done most of the heavy lifting, but readers are the ones that stories are written for and it’s through their participation that the story is able to fulfil its purpose.

Reading allows us to feel something, to travel somewhere, to do things and to move towards something; all while being in someone else’s body. Here, you can witness the internal and honest workings of someone’s interior. In real life, we can never know another person’s interior dialogue. They may share thoughts and feelings with us — but we’ll only ever know what they are willing to share.

Granted, the interior life of a character may not be accurate or truthful, but it is true to that character. If a story is told in third person limited or omniscient, then we have an even broader perspective. It may not be truth with a capital T, but it is a truth.

Reading is an intimate experience because your consciousness is colliding with the novel, and by extension, the author. As you progress through a novel, the boundaries between you and it begin to shrink. We talk about losing ourselves in a novel in the same way that we talk about losing ourselves in a romantic relationship. When you ‘click’ with a book you are willing to suspend your disbelief and to experience the adventure pressed between the covers. A line may fall flat when read out loud because the listener has not been involved in this decoding process and their consciousness has not blended with the novel. To introduce a different metaphor: you can’t know whether a new house will one day become a home until someone hands you the keys and lets you in.

Happy reading guys.

Writing Efficiently

There is nothing efficient about writing. I know. The title of this blog is rather misleading, isn’t it? But it’s important that people accept this simple writerly truth: There is nothing efficient about writing.

Even if you do all the prep work ahead of time, the story will likely take on a life of its own soon after you begin. Don’t get me wrong, I think there is tremendous value in doing an outline, engaging in a bit of research and constructing character profiles. This groundwork can provide you with a sense of direction and it can ease the creative stifle that often occurs when we are faced with the blank page. Taking the time to become familiar with your characters, the possible direction of your story, and the perimeters that will contain your narrative (world/timeline/genre) is a great place to start, but it’s also important that you, as the creator, remain flexible.

If you create a strict character profile and then find that said character is behaving differently on paper, what are you going to do? You could attempt to stuff that character back into their profile, or you could give yourself the creative freedom to see if this new version is better than the pre-constructed one. You’ll probably find that this character is more organic, that it is easier to write from their perspective and that they feel more real.

If your character changes dramatically, then you may need to reconsider your outline. A plot is informed, at least in part, by a character’s decisions. If your character has experienced a lobotomy, then it is unlikely that your original outline will make sense given that your protagonist (or another significant character) has a new and improved personality. Like I said, writing is not efficient. If you encounter this particular problem, you can either redraft your outline or attempt to ‘pants’ the rest of the novel.

I can appreciate that redrafting an outline may seem pointless, “what if I have to change it again? That would be such a waste of time”, but it’s not a waste of time if the outline gives you enough confidence to start writing.

The outlines I do for my fiction and for this blog are very different from the final product, but that’s ok. If an unfollowed outline assists me in the writing of a book, short story or blog post, then I don’t really care if these two documents differ.

Of course, you can attempt to follow an outline, even if it no longer feels lively or authentic. You may be able to write a chapter or a blog post “efficiently,” but what is the real cost?

Potentially, a book that has failed to meet its true potential.

I realise that I make wandering off the path sound like the way to writerly enlightenment, it’s not. There is absolutely no guarantee that following your story’s lead will lead to a better story. It’s dark out there in the forest and you don’t know what traps lay underfoot or how far it is to the next cabin. With luck, you may have a lantern to help you find your way, but if your story abandons you out there in the dark, it can be a long time until first light.

The real question is, why are you so attached to the idea of being efficient? Is it because you don’t want to waste any time? Because you only have so much time to dedicate to writing and you hate the idea of wasting hours of your life on a story that may not work?

In many ways, writing is a waste of time. Let’s be real here, the world doesn’t need another masterpiece; it has plenty of masterpieces. All the stories have been told. Every. Single. One. All the forbidden romances have ended in marriage. The bad guys got locked up. The planet was saved by a group of misfits. That weedy kid no one liked won the gold medal and became a legend. It’s all been done.

Feel better?

Once you acknowledge that writing is (kind of) a waste of time, it’s so much easier to waste time writing. If you give yourself the freedom to wander off the path, to get lost in the dark until you eventually stub your toe on a forgotten lantern, then you may wind up with a good book. And if you don’t, that okay too. The world will not end, and you probably learnt something. If you cling to the idea that writing must be efficient, if you believe that success is a story produced quickly, then there’s a reasonable chance that your work will be mediocre.

I’ve written before about how the go-go mentality of today’s world fails to support creative artists and whether we consciously buy into these external pressures or not, the collective mentality to ‘get it done now’ is clearly having an effect. In the end, you decide how you create your art. You can rush through the process or you can take five years. You can write every day or binge when the mood strikes. You can self-publish or go traditional. The real question is, what happens after you type The End? Is this art something you can be proud of, or is it just another item you can strike off the to-do list?

You get to decide.

The Pros and Cons of Writing Workshops

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the value of writing clubs and writing workshops. This is mostly because I am working on an article that touches on this topic and because I recently joined the committee of my University’s writing club.

Writing clubs and workshops are a contentious topic among writers.

Stephen King hates them.
Chuck Wendig believes they can be useful.
Cheryl Strayed and Chuck Palahniuk belong to the same one.

Other authors such as Ann Patchett, Elizabeth Gilbert and Dani Shapiro value privacy during their writing process, though they do seek out the advice of other writer friends after they have completed their final draft but before they submit it to an editor. Where writers club and writers workshops focus on experimentation and feedback on works in progress, Patchett, Gilbert and Shapiro only invite other authors into their writing room once they themselves feel confident with the work.

Writers need feedback and they need community.

You don’t have to be a member of an organised club. You don’t have to attend monthly meetings. You don’t have to read stories that aren’t your jam. But these practices can add real value and understanding to your own writing process.

Most writing clubs have a pretty simple structure. Writers distribute copies of their work to club members prior to the meeting, then the writer shuts their trap as each group member delivers their in-person critique. By nit-picking other members’ work, the idea is that each writer will better identify the weakness in their own work.

Workshops and clubs also provide writers with the opportunity to experiment with different writing exercises and techniques. I used to do a lot of writing exercises, but these days hardly any. When I get time to write, I want to work on a short story, a novel or this blog. I want to sit down and produce something specific, something that can go out into the world in some form.

Writing exercises are made for scrap notebooks, so don’t go publishing that stuff online.

Writing exercises stretch your technical ability by introducing you to new literary devices and then challenging you to apply them. Writing clubs and workshops give you the time, space and permission to mess around with your writing. Rather than relying on the tricks you’ve already mastered, these exercises push you to produce prose for the sole purpose of learning. Writing clubs and workshops aren’t about perfection, they are about mess.

They are also about community. Being able to talk about your writing process, about books that you love and resources that support you is part of the package. There is value in sharing your successes with people who really get what a big achievement publication or getting shortlisted is. People who know what it is like to open a vein and to bleed onto the page. People who share your passion for words and stories, truth and beauty.

Workshops and clubs are a safe place where you can present works in progress, but they are also places of critical growth. Let’s not sugar coat this. Having someone point out the (many) typos, flaws and weaknesses in your writing can be uncomfortable, embarrassing and even maddening. Sharing your art with someone is vulnerable, even when you know it isn’t perfect; perhaps because you know it isn’t perfect. It’s hard to have fifteen people point out what isn’t working in your piece, but if you want to grow and develop as a writer then you need to know what your weak points are so that you can start to strengthening them.

Of course, writing clubs and workshops also have their dark side. If a club consists solely of beginning writers, some discernment regarding the quality each members’ feedback may be needed. Such instances can feel a little like the blind leading the blind as members are qualified more as readers than they are as writers. Perhaps you are extraordinarily luckily and you have a professional editor in your club, but chances are you don’t. When feedback slips into personal preferences or ‘this works for me and this doesn’t work for me’, then members are not critiquing submissions on their own merits nor are they acknowledging the author’s unique voice or style.

Similarly, I have also seen how club members can begin to mimic the critique styles of others. If confident members of the group favour a minimalize style and present their feedback in accordance with their personal tastes, then less confident members of the group hear these opinions and start to adopt them as their own. Such a person may even extend these opinions to their own writing as they strip all decoration from their descriptions, dialogue and prose. If you become familiar with the type of feedback style of each member, you may become overly self-conscious and begin censoring yourself in order to avoid having John point out your love of adjectives – again! Eventually, this may lead to all members sounding more or less the same.

That being said, I personally think writers club and workshops are valuable and like everything in life, you got to take the good with the bad. Writers clubs and workshops aren’t essential they are just another nifty tool you can use. If you join a club and realise it is not for you, then great! You just figured out something about your creative process. The main thing to remember with writing clubs and workshops is that members’ critiques are really just a bunch of suggestions. If someone makes a comment that doesn’t land with you, then you can exercise your authority as an author and ignore it. However, if six people say your dialogue is a bit on the nose…well… then it probably is.

Writing demands time alone – hell that’s half the appeal! – but sometimes this solitude slips into loneliness. It’s nice to talk about the struggles we are encountering with others who have encountered them. It’s nice to have someone recognise an elegant sentence that took two hours to write. It’s nice when someone picks up a subtle literary reference.

Writing clubs and workshops offer community, encouragement and support. They are a place where you can be productive and goof-off. The trick to their success lies in our ability to recognise them for the beasts that they are: a dog that can bite and befriend you.

The Balance Between Academic and Creative Writing

Apologise for not posting these past two weeks, I have been up to my eyeballs in uni deadlines and entertaining multiple groups out of town guests. The next four weeks will look much the same as I complete my Honours thesis and my final assessment items which is why this week’s blog will be a little shorter than usual!

These past two weeks have been endless paperwork as I applied for scholarships and further study (a doctorate). My editing cap has also been firmly in place with the proofreading of my thesis and final assignments while also preparing for an upcoming research presentation. As a result, most of my writing has been either academic or administrative (hello, Personal Statements!). There are many seasons in life and right now, the priority has had to be the progression and completion of the above projects, but I am so looking forward to returning to my creative work.

Recently, I read an article that focussed on the balance between academic and creative work as experienced by Australian Creative Writing lecturers. Some academics felt that their craft benefited from the interactions with students while others found that teaching and an increasing administration workload left little time or energy for their creative work. Many spoke about the pressure to publish academic articles and the fact that scholarly publications continue to be seen as more valuable than creative works. Fortunately, a few outliers stated that their creative and academic publications were equally valued.

I hope that this attitude towards creative practice and publications continues because the crafting of a compelling and thoughtful narrative requires a writer to dig deeper, to think critically, to ask hard questions, to reflect upon themselves and the world and to then respond to this internal and external stimuli.

Writing an innovation and original academic essay is not easy, but neither is creative writing.

I know which one fills me with a buzz greater than the strongest of coffees. The one that tugs my ear in the night. The one that steals away hours of time without my noticing it. The one that takes my hand and leads me to my desk each morning, and I can’t wait until I can get back into that chair.

A World Worth Writing For

Unfortunately, writers guilt is all too common. When we are working on a project, we feel guilty that we aren’t doing something more practical or useful – even if that task is nothing more than basic domestic chores. Ironically, as soon as we leave our desk to carry out said useful task, we feel guilty for abandoning our project. “I should be writing!” is the familiar, tedious mantra that plays in every writers’ mind.

Lately, though, I’ve been struck by the other type of guilt creatives suffer from. Perhaps you are familiar with it? The “Is my art doing anything?” guilt.

Part of me believes in art for art’s sake. With so much ugliness and helplessness in the world, I believe there is a place for aesthetically pleasing art. What harm can come from admiring something that is beautiful? What’s wrong with reading fun, frivolous fiction and indulging in the escapism it offers? Then there is the other part of me. The part of me that scorns this irresponsible reader. This placid person who chooses to read the latest bestseller while soaking in a tub of Epson salt as the world burns outside their window.

A vision that spurs the question: how can reading and writing contribute to solutions?

The “civilised” world has never been perfect. For better or for worse, technology’s omnipresence means we can no longer remain ignorant of our imperfection. In the face of these serious and urgent global issues, how can writers contribute to the crafting of solutions? Do their story-telling and communication skills offer anything of value?

Some argue that the publication of books reflecting current global issues is vital. Of course, these people tend to be authors. Ann Patchett (author) recently stated that she has moved away from reading classic literature in favour of contemporary texts. She believes that the accountability and challenging themes presented in recent works have once again made reading a political act.

To contradict Patchett’s point, I recently started reading Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’ and I have been shocked by the timeliness of the commentary. Many of Esther existential concern remain relevant today.

“I felt now that all the uncomfortable suspicions I had about myself were coming true, and I couldn’t hide the truth much longer.” (31)

“A million years of evolution […] and what are we? Animals?” (87)

This modern classic was published in 1971. A fact that saddens me slightly, as it illustrated how little we have evolved in the last 47 years. As an aside, I bought my copy of ‘The Bell Jar’ from a second-hand bookstore. The previous owner had unlined the above passages (and others) in pencil.

I wondered why someone who loved a book enough to read it with a pencil in hand would ever part with said book. This question was immediately followed by the thought, “Maybe they died?” Given the sombre tenor of these passages/the whole book and the former reader’s obvious identification with them, I hope their ending was happier than Esther/Sylvia’s … That being said, I was constantly impressed by Plath’s ability to clearly articulate what depression felt like. I’ve never experienced depression (though the evening news does test me…) but Plath’s considered descriptions of Esther’s mental state bridged that divide. I got it.

If nothing else, this is what writers can do. They can communicate ideas. They can shape messy and complex emotions into tidy sentences. They can shatter binaries and expose hidden nuance. They can repackage complex problems into comprehensible forms. But. Is this the only irrefutable claim that writers can make? That they can present readers with information?

As the saying goes, if information was the solution, we’d all be happy millionaires with ripped abs.

You can write about the issues that trouble you, but you can’t make people read your work and you definitely can’t make them do something. While the publication of cli-fi and other challenging literary works are appearing more and more, the market isn’t exactly flooded. (No pun intended).

In a recent episode of The Garrett Podcast, Jennifer Mills, author and literary editor of Overland said that while the magazine has been successful in the publishing of marginal voices, few submissions address our present-day issues like the Anthropocene (humans impact on non-humans). Instead, most of the submissions received are concerned with relationship dynamics.

Is this because readers want escapism or because writers do?

Mills, who has published her own Anthropogenic work, Dyschronia, says that she intentionally constructed a plot that offered little in the way of solutions or action because that is what she sees in society: passivity. An observation that is no doubt reinforced by the submissions she vets.

Information is key. Without it, people may not understand the depth of a problem or how to fix it. Historically, the publication of good writing has played a vital role in the mobilizing of populations and the igniting of revolutions. Within our current culture, the problem is not a lack of information but our passivity and denial in the face of it.

Perhaps this is where our writerly self-consciousness stems from. Words are the tools wielded by skilful writers, but are we simply hiding behind our profession? Perhaps we should accept the fact that the gap between information and action is too wide? That our culture is passive. That a challenging book is likely to achieve little more than a 3.5 star rating on Good Reads. That it is time to close our laptops, start a biodynamic farm, become vegan and trade our cars for bicycles…I’m not being facetious; sincerity rests in this hyperbole.

It is true that the grandiosity of the world’s problems is overwhelming, but none of these issues occurred in isolation. We are all driving cars, drinking takeaway coffees, shutting our mouths instead of speaking up, lying to our kids about where the steak on their plate came from and buying caged eggs because they’re a dollar cheaper.

We need to do better. We need to do something.

Writers can offer solutions in their weekly columns and fiction. They can encourage readers to re-evaluate their opinions and behaviours by holding up a mirror. While a single blog post cannot change the world, our combined voices do have the power to shift culture.

Together, we can aspire to create a new culture. A culture that carries re-useable cups, that walks to works and eats ethical, sustainable food. A culture that votes. A culture that allows minorities to have space without slipping into fear that they are ‘taking over.’ A culture that questions why education hasn’t changed in 150 years. A culture that swivels its gaze away from the individual to focus on the collective. A world that is less about stuff and more about substance.

That, my friends, is a world worth writing for.

The Walking Writer

Daily walks have long been a part of my writing process, not that there’s anything special or unique about this habit. In Charlotte Wood’s collection of interviews titled, The Writers Room, Tegan Bennett Daylight says, “Scratch a writer and you’ll find a walker.” In contexts, Daylight was discussing how daily walks are a vital part of her writing process as they assist in the unlooping of her thoughts. Though she uses walking as a way to stay fit, this particular form of daily movement has had a positive impact on her writing craft, especially when she encounters creative problems, “Almost everytime I go for a walk on my own, it brings me the solution I was looking for.” In terms of problem-solving, outlining, plot development or a simple deepening of understanding regarding one’s own work, Daylight believes that these insights occur because walking allows oneself to become “distracted enough from yourself to let the creative play start to happen.” Daylight is not alone in this opinion. Anecdotal evidence from both contemporary authors and literary juggernauts has long connected the usefulness of aerobic exercise to creative writing.

If you’re wrestling with a difficult manuscript, taking a break in the form of a short walk may be more useful that you think. I’ve often solved troublesome plot holes and generated fresh approaches to structural issues while walking my local bush track. As Daylight says, “Maybe it’s because you’re distracted enough – because you need to look around when you cross the road or whatever – you’re distracted enough from yourself to let the creative play start to happen, and then your mind just goes, ‘Here’s the thing you’re looking for.’” Daylight goes on to hypothesise that these moments of insight may be brought on by an increase in endorphins. When the body relaxes, the mind is allowed to open up to “new possibilities.”

It is the potential to discover “new possibilities” that keeps writers on the track.

In his memoir/craft manifesto, On Writing, Stephen King says he experienced his first bout of writers’ block during his initial draft of The Stand. It was during an afternoon walk that a solution – that had been evading him for weeks – suddenly popped into his head and he was able to finish writing the first draft.

Beyond spontaneous insights and the space for mental clarity, walking – especially outside – can be a useful way to gather inspiration and stimuli that can fuel the creative process. Australian author Sarah Schmidt, often documents her daily walks by taking photos and posting them on her blog. The often eerie and unsettling images mirror the mood of her equally eerie and unsettling (though engrossing) debut novel, See What I Have Done. The photographs complement the mood and imagery of Sarah’s work, thus supporting her creative process, but the walk also grants her the time to contemplate her novel on a deeper level.

“I’m one of ‘those’ writers. You know the kind: fidgety, annoying, needs to walk out their thoughts, sees something along the way and thinks, ‘now that’s interesting. I wonder if…’ takes photos of it and then just stares at said photo for hours. I’m also desperately, heavily reliant on nature to help me write.”

In a study conducted by Stanford University in 2014, Marily Oppezzo and Daniel L. Schwartz found that creative ideation increased during and shortly after walking. In a ‘meta’ moment, the idea for this experiment arose while Marily and Daniel were out on a walk. The study featured four experiments that tested participants creative divergent thinking by having them complete the Guilford’s alternate use (GAU) test. Their convergent thinking was tested using the compound remote associates (CRA) test. The study compared the effects of walking on a treadmill, sitting then walking, walking then sitting, walking outside and being pushed in a wheelchair outside. Following a walk, 81% of the 176 students had an increased improvement on their GAU score and 23% on the CRA test.

However, the study found that walking lessened students’ performance when the task required laser thinking. Oppezzo hypothesised that walking proved counterproductive in this instance due to the minds tendency to drift while walking. “If you’re looking for a single correct answer to a question, you probably don’t want all of these different ideas bubbling up.”

Fresh ideas, solutions and the ability to see “new possibilities” occur more frequently when a person is in an aerobic zone. Neuroscientists have discovered that this increase in creative thinking occurs when the mind is allowed to go into a non-thinking default state of consciousness. Many creatives tell anecdotes of how a fresh or exciting idea spontaneously popped into their mind when they were busy doing something else. As Henry Miller said, “Most writing is done away from the typewriter, away from the desk. I’d say it occurs in the quiet, silent moments, while you’re walking or shaving or playing a game or whatever.” Though some may be tempted to give all credit to the muse, the catalyst behind these spontaneous insights is physiological and psychological: there is an increased supply of oxygen to the brain and the mind is free to wonder.

Writing could be described as a conglomeration of personal experiences, observations, external stimuli consciously or subconsciously absorbed and the occasional random insight. These different sources of information settle in our brains, as Ann Patchett describes, like a “mental compost.” It’s through the act of walking that an author is able to shake free this compacted knowledge and discover something useful. This can only occur, however, if the mind is unclamped or enters a non-thinking state. A fact about heart disease read weeks ago and promptly forgotten may reappear while trekking a deserted bush track. Suddenly, the writer is able to fix that drab scene with their overweight, over-aged protagonists by transforming it into a medical drama!

Not all writers are walkers, yet many are. Though some see this casual form of exercise as nothing more than an excuse to take a break, some view it as a potentially useful practice for unlooping thoughts, for others, it is an essential tool in their craft kit. A daily walking habit will not turn an emerging writer into a best seller, but the endless author anecdotes, scientific proof and the basic physiological evidence allow for one solid conclusion: walking can help some writers some of the time, but you can’t make an ‘A-ha’ moment happen.