The name Stephanie Vanderslice often comes up when discussing best practices for teaching writing. I’ve happily hosted her here on the blog before, and am pleased to welcome her back. Her latest book, The Geek’s Guide to the Writing Life, is chock full of solid, writer-tested, smart, and innovative tips on living a writing life in the 21st century. Stephanie holds an MFA in fiction writing from George Mason University and now directs the Arkansas Writer’s MFA Workshop at the University of Central Arkansas.
Please welcome Stephanie Vanderslice
I originally put the book, Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, on my reading list last summer because the title was so tempting, because I am a victim of the modern culture of “busyness” as much as anyone else, and because I thought I might find in its pages the secret to managing my time.
Instead, what I found more than anything else was a history of artists and the creative life over the last several centuries, a history with a surprisingly common thread: walking. Walking, or some kind of meditative physical activity undertaken without distraction, without trying to multitask or do anything else but put one foot in front of another.
I was astonished to learn how important walking had been throughout history, how many of the world’s great writers and artists have been walkers. Jefferson, Kierkegaard, C.S. Lewis. Alice Munro, Barbara McClintock (Geneticist), Lin Manuel Miranda. They all got their best ideas walking.
I am no stranger to physical exercise. I ride for miles each week on a stationary bike while staring at my Kindle or reading a magazine, and I power walk around my neighborhood while listening to podcasts. Anything to keep my mind occupied, because even though I’ve exercised for 30 years, I still find it pretty boring.
The kind of exercise advocated in Rest was different. The kind of physical movement that inspired the creatives of the past was exercise for its own sake. It was supposed to be boring. That was the point. As Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard reveals, “I have walked myself into my best thoughts.”
After reading Rest, I became so enamored of walking that I first began scheming to make my commute to the university where I teach on foot—a 20-minute prospect each way—but the problem of figuring out what to do with all the stuff I’d need to schlep back and forth persisted. In the end, I decided to start smaller, with a 45-minute neighborhood stroll after my morning writing sessions. The new caveat: headphones not allowed. I had to give my mind as much freedom to roam as my body.
The results have been impressive. Each walk has ended with so many writing ideas, especially development ideas for my novel-in-progress, that I quickly had to start a file called, “walking ideas,” to keep track of them. Moreover, I am learning not to pressure myself on these jaunts, telling myself that my mind can go wherever it wants, even if that means perseverating on what I should have said at yesterday’s faculty meeting. Still, I have yet to return home, even on the most stressful of days, without a revelation about something I was writing.
It’s not just Rest that’s onto something. Recently at a reading at my university, a student asked renowned poet Maggie Smith how she generated her ideas. “Put your phone away and take a walk,” she said.
No wonder the Romantics spent so much time wandering the moors. So, while Rest (the book) has not necessarily granted me an extra hour a day or helped me maximize my REM sleep, it has changed my creative life. See for yourself—read Rest and give the “daily constitutional” a try.
Images courtesy S. Vanderslice