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I Do Some of My Best Writing When I’m Not Writing

I remember I was reading a book when I thought of the resolution to my novel. The ending for one of my short stories came to me while I sat on a weight bench with a pair of dumbbells in my hands.[1] Another one occurred while standing in line for the lav on a cross-country flight.

I’ve had many such writerly epiphanies, and almost none of them happened while sitting at the keyboard. Some have come while in the car (bad news for other drivers), others in the shower or while walking Henry; almost always when it’s impossible to write them down and I wind up voicing the idea over and over so I don’t forget, sometimes in public until I get home, which leads me to believe that many of the street people one notices repeating nonsense are in fact writers who got immersed in a plot problem and were never able to get back to their keyboards in time.

walking-away_3One of the most problematic aspects of writing is the instrument itself—the laptop in my and most writers’ cases. I become connected, telepathically, to it, focused on the monitor, on the words I’ve already written and which I read and reread until (hopefully) the phrase that logically follows occurs. That works fine (especially for blog writing), but I’ve found that when I tear myself away from the hypnosis of the screen, the ideas that follow seem more creative. It’s often more productive if I close the clamshell and do some laundry[2] or head out to do yard work.

Walking away from the computer offers an opportunity to remain focused on the story but engage it from another perspective, without the text on the screen forcing the direction of the writing, and that’s when new solutions and tangents often emerge.

Poet Mary Ruefle[3] talks about writers needing to waste time, and makes it sound almost mandatory if one is to produce the kind of work that has meaning. She’s being slightly facetious, because I doubt she meant writers should abandon a story in favor of a rousing game of Grand Theft Auto. But in our world of 24/7 connectivity it’s more important than ever to occasionally break the hold of our devices, to disengage from the cloud[4] and let the mind put the story, or the world, back into sense. I’d be curious to know whether other writers take creative breaks or stay glued to their monitors trying to work through writing roadblocks.

[1] The symbolism of this scene is not lost on me.

[2] Yes, I’m a sensitive, share the chores, New Age guy, which I try to balance with a little hangin’ and bangin’ in the weight room.

[3] I know I keep referencing her book, but it really is an excellent read, especially for writers.

[4] Of course you should only do that after reading my blog.


About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


31 thoughts on “I Do Some of My Best Writing When I’m Not Writing

  1. I definitely get some of my best “writing” done while I’m in the car driving–the longer the trip the better. On the advice of author and friend B. Snow, I always bring along a digital recorder if I’m going on a long trip (even though I hate playing those messages to myself back, I hate the way I sound on “tape”!)

    Posted by Hb Pattskyn | March 23, 2013, 1:06 PM
    • A recorder has got to be a better solution than the notepad I keep in the glove compartment. I try to get the notes down at red lights, but that only gives me a few seconds. If I can’t do that I try to write while driving, which is a big no no, but I do it without looking at the paper, and you can imagine what the notes look like.

      Posted by jpon | March 23, 2013, 1:30 PM
  2. Let’s have an extended exchange of hard luck stories about forgotten literary tidbits, something like Monty Python’s skit, “The Four Yorkshiremen,” each telling a taller and taller hard luck story. I know I could top yours with the sheer number of times I’ve had a dream or woken up cold in the middle of the night with an excellent story idea or novel continuation and thought confidently to myself “Oh, I’m sure I’ll never forget that!” and so didn’t write it down, and couldn’t then remember it for days, if ever. I can’t think what it is, except extreme sleepiness, that makes me so blasted sure that I won’t forget the thing I want to write, but I always tell myself that I’ll recall. And almost never do. Your column gives me the resolve to supplement my laptop with a notepad by the bed (now watch, with things safely in place to grab the ideas, I’ll probably never be able to think of another idea in the middle of the night again).

    Posted by shadowoperator | March 23, 2013, 1:10 PM
    • Actually, I do keep a notepad by the bed. But I notice that when I write an idea down I tend to remember it anyway, and when I don’t, that’s when I forget it. Very frustrating!

      Posted by jpon | March 23, 2013, 1:26 PM
  3. I absolutely do my best writing when I’m somewhere else I want to be. Not when I’m bored or in downtime, but when I’m actively doing something that I enjoy: walking the dogs, listening to an audiobook, reading, in the bathtub, running, nodding off to sleep, in the midst of a conversation with someone.

    I’ve read that this is normal brain function, like when you’re trying to come up with someone’s name on the spot and you can’t, but later, when you’ve stopped trying, it pops right up.

    Joan Didion’s husband used to carry small index cards in the pockets of all of his jackets and pants, just in case.

    Posted by Teri | March 23, 2013, 1:33 PM
    • A famous writer somewhere said something like writing was getting in touch with the subconscious mind. Maybe these other activities are mindless enough that it allows the subconscious to “step forward” and take over the thinking process.

      BTW, if I try to get my wife to follow me around with index cards, I’ll be in a lot of trouble.

      Posted by jpon | March 23, 2013, 10:14 PM
  4. I’m the same way. I even get a lot of my best day-job work done away from the desk. Like I always tell people at work, thinking is working.

    The thing that works best for me is using my phone’s built in Voice-Memo app if I’m out and about. I nearly always have my phone with me, even when I go to the gym it’s in the locker if I get a super bright idea. One of my most recent sonnets began while I was out on a walk and I just recited the lines into the phone. I even have a dictaphone which I don’t use as much now but is in my night stand. Those are great for when you wake in the middle of the night, and have an idea but are too bleary eyed to write anything down or operate a phone safely. Also, a dictaphone would be a good option for the car because you just press a button, which I imagine is much safer than operating a phone. I think I remember Steve Perry saying he uses a dictaphone in his car to sing new songs into when they come to him.

    I definitely am a fan of taking breaks and they usually free me from whatever stuck spot I’m in. Other times it’s a matter of grinding through it, and sometimes it’s effortless, or seems so. Maybe that’s just the port talking?

    Posted by 365 Days of Verse | March 23, 2013, 1:44 PM
    • I’ve tried to use the same explanation as you, to convince my employer I could do better work at home, but they didn’t buy it. The smart phone voice-memo sounds like a great idea too. One of these days I’ll have to break out of the 1990s and upgrade my cell phone. I took it out once while my wife was looking around the ATT store, and the salespeople laughed at it.

      Posted by jpon | March 23, 2013, 10:17 PM
    • And yes, the port could oil those writing gears. Alcohol, I know first-hand, is not a great editor.

      Posted by jpon | March 23, 2013, 10:21 PM
      • I agree. I enjoy a bit of writing with port sometimes, but for editing, I prefer water, coffee, or tea. Sometimes, all three. Speaking of editing, I’m currently revising all three volumes of my sonnets and will put them all out in one revised volume. It may just be me, but I thoroughly enjoy revising older work and improving (hopefully) it. And I definitely can’t imagine doing this kind of revising with port. Though that might lead to some interesting things.

        Maybe every writer should have an ‘inebriated edition’ of their work, for fun?

        Posted by 365 Days of Verse | March 26, 2013, 2:23 AM
  5. I’m the same way, Joe. My blind dog needs to be walked 3 times a day. She’s not only great company, she’s helped me work out many problems (writing and otherwise). Btw, I read an interview with Stephen King, and he said not to worry too much about the ideas you’ve forgotten. The best ones will stick around and bug you until you write them down.

    Posted by Darrelyn Saloom | March 23, 2013, 2:29 PM
    • I’ll bet your dog is a great listener. Henry, on the other hand, is a four-legged interruption machine. And Stephen King may be right about ideas. Some things keep swirling around in my head until I’m ready to get to them.

      Posted by jpon | March 23, 2013, 10:24 PM
  6. Mowing the lawn on my yard tractor, with its loud white noise and rote movements. Sometimes I’ll intensionally let a story play in my head and see what happens. Often it’s good, fresh, unexpected. Other times I’ll get stuck looping a Hall and Oates song in my head. Same with driving, unless they play, You Let My Dreams Come True. Classical music is my best thinking music.
    The trick with all of it is to be in a place that insulates me from television and facebook and phone calls and random conversation. These things are idea suckers. The sphere of the mowers roar creates a kind of idea green house effect. Thoughts bounce around and can’t get out. They collide and create new ideas, to mix metaphores, like an atom smasher. An atom of protagonist angst runs into an earlier character’s love of Studebakers. A whole new element happens. (Thoughtium 262?)
    I’m too selfconscious to do a voice recording. But I usually carry 3x5s or a small spiral notebook in my back pocket and if I can scratch a few words, I’ll later recall the idea. My wife finds these papers (often in unexpected places) and will ask, “Oily guy, green soap, Tanglewood?” Or, “Korean war bride, Spam?” And I’ll take the napkin blurred with Sharpie ink and fold it back into my shirt pocket.
    Breaks are useful. My current one is going on four years. Dryer sheets, D-Cell battery, asparagus. No. Wait. That’s a shopping list.

    Posted by Jon Zech | March 23, 2013, 2:43 PM
    • Come to think of it, airplanes are one of my favorite places to think about writing issues. Once the seemingly incessant series of announcements and pre-takeoff chatter stop, the white noise of the engines always seems to stimulate my mind.

      For you non-physicists out there, Thoughtium 262 is one of those elements that has only been produced under laboratory conditions, using a supercollider. A protagonist is shot at light speed into the collider tunnel in one direction, and a (Mr.) neutron is shot going the other way. When the particles strike each other they produce a brilliant flash of light that lasts for only a few nanoseconds. However, evidence of the element’s existence remains visible in the form of text.

      Posted by jpon | March 23, 2013, 10:35 PM
  7. *intentionally*

    Posted by Jon Zech | March 23, 2013, 2:45 PM
  8. I’m “Liking” this here, since I still see no “like” selection. :-]

    Sometimes I do get epiphanies while at the keyboard. Sometimes elsewhere, like working out, walking/hiking, etc. But also agree we need to “disengage” and get time away from writing. Fallow fields grow better….

    Posted by fpdorchak | March 23, 2013, 3:59 PM
    • Dagnabbit, turning off the “like” button one time seems to have reset my system defaults. Repairs are under way.

      Posted by jpon | March 23, 2013, 10:38 PM
      • Roger, copy. :-]

        This whole revamped WP seems weird. Part is new and looks different and part is the old way. Incompatible (and non-regression-tested) code, perhaps?

        Posted by fpdorchak | March 24, 2013, 1:49 PM
      • Change for the sake of change. I’ve theorized this is done for two reasons: 1. to make users feel stupid and therefore, by default make WP people feel better about themselves, and 2. like when they rearrange everything in the supermarket, so you have to travel every aisle to find what you want and therefore might see something new and buy it–while clicking through innumerable pages on your WP site to find an answer you might see something you have to have (that’s how Google got me).

        Posted by jpon | March 24, 2013, 5:49 PM
  9. Thank god for the New Age disclaimer. I was picturing you in Lycra shorts and a wife-beater.

    Posted by Averil Dean | March 23, 2013, 4:14 PM
    • Note that I said “trying” to balance my softer side with weights. At this age the muscle shirts and short shorts would be grounds for a charge of indecent exposure.

      Posted by jpon | March 23, 2013, 10:41 PM
  10. I lot of things came to mind as I read your blog, Joe. Unfortunately none as amusing as Jon’s. Nevertheless……I write all first drafts by hand–yes, by hand, with a pen and lined paper. I find that, compared to a word processor, laptop etc, it slows me down, which is something my writing teachers have always told me, as in: Linger! I tend to rush through things and the ease of technology only exacerbates that tendency. Also, once the words are memorialized on the page on the screen, they take on a certain credibility, even brilliance, they don’t deserve. It’s harder to see the flaws and harder to “kill my babies” once they have grown into actual type on a page similar to what they would look like in a publication.

    As for getting away from the writing desk, no matter what tools one uses, when I am deep into something–but have to get away from the desk for awhile–those household chores work wonders. They don’t require but 10% of one’s working brain (more or less, depending on how important well-folded clothes are to you), so the words still ring loudly in there, but there is still room for new, maybe better ones. If it’s more a matter of being stuck, seemingly dry of anything new, I read to get through that. They say poetry really helps, but being an essay writer and one who often takes herself too seriously, I find that Shouts and Murmurs in The New Yorker is great.

    I sometimes write ideas or phrases down when I am doing something else, but I think Stephen King is right; I often find when I return to them with great anticipation, they often disappoint: are banal or were good I enough I never forgot them.

    Love your posts, Joe

    Posted by Betty Ruddy | March 23, 2013, 4:52 PM
    • You’re right about words on the screen, Betty. Even if you’re writing a draft of a story, they have an undue weight, and I often find it very hard to change them (although not as hard as I used to). Sometimes, when I know a story is going in the wrong direction, instead of trying to fix what’s already written, I’ll start a fresh file and borrow some paragraphs that I feel are okay, rather than try to revise the original file, so I don’t have to stare at the words I’ve written.

      Posted by jpon | March 24, 2013, 2:23 AM
  11. Some of my best epiphanies come to me when I’m joy riding in my car. Especially in more nature filled areas.

    Posted by Richard | March 23, 2013, 7:01 PM
    • Nice that you have some nature filled areas where you are. My commute from the suburbs to Detroit is more about survival than creativity.

      Posted by jpon | March 23, 2013, 10:43 PM
  12. Bubble wrap. And I love Mary Ruefle!

    Posted by gwendolyn jerris | March 23, 2013, 7:12 PM
  13. I can regularly count on my runs to deliver some resolution or revelation for my stories. And, like you, I’m far from my laptop or notebook to capture them. (I’m often far from my car, even, to rush home to capture them.) And, yes, I will repeat my new ideas out loud so they are burned into my memory. Fortunately, I tend to run on my own. I don’t consider running to be “wasted time” but I think it does give me fresh perspective for my creative stuff.

    Posted by Paul Lamb | March 24, 2013, 2:31 AM
    • Running really can clear the writer’s head. Unfortunately I run with Henry, and I use the term “run” very loosely, since it’s more like he runs, I try to maintain pace and as soon as I do he stops to smell something. It’s more like cornerback drills in football, a constant start, stop, change direction and even go backwards some times. It’s all necessary though, since if I don’t wear him out, he’s in my face the rest of the day while I try to write.

      Posted by jpon | March 24, 2013, 12:31 PM
  14. some great comments here. i guess i should take up running, bubble wrap squeezing, and bathing. but as for driving for pleasure — forget it. :-D

    Posted by Stephanie Barbé Hammer | March 24, 2013, 5:16 AM
    • Driving for pleasure is not really possible in LA, as you know. Perhaps some hybrid of the above activity: squeezing bubble wrap while running or in the shower.

      Posted by jpon | March 24, 2013, 12:32 PM

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