by KC Shaw
I first realized how much physical activity helps my writing in 2008, when I participated in the 3-Day Novel Contest. The contest runs every year over Labor Day weekend. Participants write a short novel in three days.
By Saturday afternoon I’d written over 10,000 words and my brain felt like mush. I’d prepared for the weekend carefully, stocking up on protein bars, juice, microwave meals, and junk food snacks, and I didn’t think sitting in front of the computer all day would be a problem. After all, my day job was sedentary so I was used to it.
But writing is much more grueling than my day job. After eight hours of it I was losing my focus, not to mention my ability to form coherent sentences.
Worse, I was restless to the point of pacing. I needed out of the house. I decided to take a break and walk to the post office, about a mile away. I figured I could use the time to sort out a plot snag I’d encountered and just couldn’t think my way through.
The afternoon was hot and bright. I walked fast so I wouldn’t waste too much of my precious writing time, and felt my muscles loosen after a day of sitting and typing. I sweated, but that felt good too.
By the time I returned home with the mail, I’d figured out my plot problem. The solution was simple—why hadn’t I seen it before? I chugged some iced tea and sat back down at the computer. The words came easily again.
My contest entry ended up nearly 25,000 words. It didn’t win (it was pretty awful), but I learned a lot about my writing process. Even a short walk gets my blood pumping and resets my weary brain. The change of scenery helps me focus when I get back, too.
Fast-forward to 2011. That summer my mother had a stroke and I stayed with her in the hospital for a full month, only going home long enough to do laundry and mow the lawn periodically. It was a miserable time for both of us, naturally. I love summertime, so to be cooped up in an overly air conditioned building with windows that would not open was an extra kick in the pants for me.
While my mother slept, or during her therapy sessions, I sat with a spiral notebook on my knee—trying to write, but daydreaming about the hiking trails near my home. I longed for the silence and solitude of a hiking trail, the comfort of nature, and most of all the knowledge that I could only be hiking if all was well with the world. I knew that one day my life would settle back into a rhythm instead of jarred by medical emergencies. That day seemed a long way off.
Of course things did settle back down. It wasn’t an easy transition, though, since my mother passed away that winter. After six months of accompanying her to hospital stays, doctor appointments, physical and speech therapy sessions, and chemotherapy, and taking care of her in-between, I suddenly had nothing to do with myself.
I hadn’t written much in those six months. I hadn’t exercised at all. I was in terrible physical shape, rocky mental shape, and felt exhausted all the time. Winter turned to spring and I remembered my longing to hike.
So I hit the trail. I’m lucky enough to live literally minutes away from an access trail to our town’s watershed, and I hiked constantly that summer. I picked blackberries and raspberries, stood red-faced with effort at the top of observation point, saw river herons and deer and foxes.
By the time summer arrived—early that year, hot and glorious—I’d shed some of the weight I’d gained over the last six months. I felt better too, with hard-muscled legs and the ability to hike up hills without feeling like I was going to drop dead at any moment. I walked around town in the evenings because I had lots of extra energy for a change.
And I started writing again.
These days, my writing schedule involves a lot of walking and a fair bit of hiking. Last Saturday I picked a pailful of blackberries, came home and made them into a cobbler, then sat down to write a chapter of my current book (and scratch chigger bites). Tonight after work I’ll wait until dusk, when it gets cooler, to walk my usual two and a half mile loop. Then I’ll write until bedtime.
My writing productivity is higher since I added exercise to my writing routine. For a middle-aged woman with a sedentary job, I’m in pretty good shape and feel good too. If I get stuck in a plot problem, I think it over while I walk. And in summer when cicadas sing from every tree and the raspberry canes are bent low with berries, you can’t keep me inside.
K.C. Shaw is the author of Goldie, Evil Outfitters, Ltd, The Taste of Magic, The Dragon Whisperer, and numerous short stories. She was born in Atlanta, Georgia and grew up in East Tennessee, where she lives today. For her day job, she is a test proctor at a state community college. Find her at KCShaw.net.