Cross Training for Writers

Many times over the years, I have been impressed with the “other” talents of writers I admire. We are not only novelists and crafters of short fiction, we are dancers, singers, teachers, composers, musicians, farmers, cake decorators, painters, martial artists, animal trainers, and athletes. One shared characteristic of these activities is that they are all forms of creativity. Not only that, they force us to use our minds (and our bodies) in different ways than writing does.

Writing is hard work and it’s easy to get burned out. When we’re tired and our minds have gone numb, we’re tempted to think the remedy is to “zone out.” Passive activities (like watching television) create the illusion of rest and refreshment, but all too often leave us feeling even more drained than before. I propose that what benefits us most is not “down” time but “differently-creative” time.

Years ago, I noticed that at the end of my day-job week, all I wanted to do was curl up, usually in front of television. However, if I could get myself out to go dancing or to a concert, or even dinner with friends, I would finish the evening energized and enthusiastic about diving back into my current story the next morning. It was as if I’d started the weekend a day early, instead of dragging myself out of bed midway through Saturday and picking listlessly at last week’s tepid efforts. I think the same process holds true regardless of whether we work a 9-to-5 day job.

Five years ago, I decided to treat myself to piano lessons. I’d never studied music before, although I’d sat through hundreds of hours of my daughters’ lessons. Since I’m a skilled typist, I figured that the piano fingering would be simple. (I pause here for anyone who’s played a keyboard instrument to snort incredulously in my general direction.) Needless to say, I was soon juggling trying to make my hands, wrists, and shoulders do something new and exciting, and also wrap my mind around and through the internal structure of classical music, and also listen to what I was playing. As frustrating as this process can be, it’s also exhilarating. I’m asking my brain — motor, sensory, cognitive and kinesthetic functions — to work in a new way, a new and creative way.

(I’m going to sidestep the issue of whether a musical performer is “creative” in the sense of adding anything to the composition. I will say instead that playing music is inherently creative because you’ve gone from silence to the active presence of an art form whose medium is sound. A dancer who is performing a set choreography is creative in the same way.)

An essential part of the care of a writer is “filling the well” or “recharging the batteries.” It’s rare to be able to pour forth volume after volume of peerless storytelling while sitting in a room, isolated and absorbed only in the work. Most of us need to actively engage with other people and in other activities, to rest one part of our minds while flexing and strengthening others, to stockpile a treasure trove of sights, sounds, dreams, thoughts, emotions, relationships. Acquiring a new skill — whether it’s karaoke singing or mountain climbing, a Chopin Prelude or a perfect pirouette (human or equine), is a good way to begin.

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Cross Training for Writers — 5 Comments

  1. Music uses a different part of your brain. I find that I have to do a couple or three quite different creative things at a time. There are skills that I can set aside for a period of time (piano or watercolor painting, for example) and creativity that I have to stick with, like writing. My knitting phase has lasted for almost ten years now and I am thinking it is probably permanent. I am toying with the idea of painting a wall mural, however.

  2. Making lace requires much the same thought process as writing. It is also sedentary requiring intense concentration. Knitting and tatting are more automatic, fewer decisions to make.

    But dancing involves a whole other set of muscles in the body, the mind, the ears–especially tap. I have to listen to the music and attach my body to it. Ballet interprets the music. Tap becomes part of the music. Which ever, I find I have to dance as much for the shift of mind as the physical exercise. Hiking is wonderful exercise but doesn’t disengage the mind. When I hike, I’m still plotting, hashing through dialogue, etc on a subconscious level.

  3. Great comments! Phyl, I have the same experience hiking/walking. Sometimes that’s what I need — to approach the plot problem with the blood flowing, heart pumping! But there’s a special magic when my mind an body are working in a completely different gear and I come back to the writing problem. (And discover all kinds of ideas and solutions I never knew were there!)

  4. I love this post! I started piano lessons last year, after spending years and years telling myself (and everyone else around me) that I was not musical.

    Then we got a piano off the classified ads for cheap (for the kids, of course!) and I fell in love with it. I never thought I’d pick piano as my instrument (I’d always been more fond of strings), but apparently, what do I know? 😛 Now my 5 yo son and I both take lessons, and I love the time we have driving back and forth to lessons together, and playing duets with him.

    I realized that I had sabotaged myself all those years by insisting I was not musical. I’d been afraid to step outside of what I knew and fail. I’ve always been very cautious that way. Surprisingly, having kids has really helped me overcome that (must be the mama bear instinct). It’s so much easier to try new things *with* them—messy art, foosball, dancing to The Nutcracker in front of the dining room windows (*grin*)–because they are so good at letting go and living in the moment and not caring what anyone else thinks. 🙂

    So, while playing piano has helped my creativity, it’s given me a much-needed boost in the courage department.

  5. I cannot imagine =only= writing. I can only hope that all the knitting, painting, gardening, and the possible construction of an invading army of hobbits out of grape vine prunings will fuel the fiction. It could be that it is all working the other way.