One of the greatest challenges during this pandemic, which I compounded by getting both knees replaced, has been the lack of movement. Being stuck in my apartment for such an interminably long period made me a dullard who spent too much time either staring out the window or at a screen of some kind.
As I noted in previous posts, I need to move. If I don’t move, I don’t think. It’s that simple. Without motion, my brain barely moves. It’s like mush. It just doesn’t do much. According to Brian Greene (who despite my many references to his words of late is not my guru), thinking is an actual physical event. He uses Boltzmann Brains as well as an entity of his own called The Thinker to demonstrate that thinking demands the physical movement. Particles must dance about in our heads for our brains to function. And that makes it a physical act. There’s a lot more to it, but I don’t understand much – quantum tunneling you say?? – except what I wrote: thinking requires energy.
I know this because, four months after getting my knees replaced, I am back on the bike and my brain is back at it. I figured out a number of blog topics – sacred sex and more! – and narrative fixes in Anori as well as deciding to end a meaningless feud and that I hold no animosity toward the people who fired me (almost) as well as a bunch of other nonsense you don’t want to hear about – all in less than an hour.
I move therefore I think. That’s the thing. Which begs the question: Was Walter Payton the smartest of all?
I am a kinetic thinker. By that, I mean that my brain works best when I am doing something active, moving in some kind of direction. It is this motion that helps me though problems of not only day-to-day concerns but, more importantly, the logjams and black holes of writing a book. I often can’t figure out what a character is going to say or do until I get moving.
Living in New York City, I am most often compelled to use the elliptical machine or stationary bike to give my brain the illusion of going somewhere, just as the father, John, does in an earlier work, Black Ice.
John liked this part – pushing the red switch, climbing on, setting the program, everything the same – 200 pounds, Level 5, 30 minutes, Mountain Program – the dread in him strong. He knew himself in the bright little room, not alone, but inside himself and ready. His knees felt weak, nerves, how it came out of him. He could feel his breath coming up, deep, hollow, the sweat leaking out, itches dotting his forehead and across his face, already at Nine, serious about it, his breath getting hard, eight minutes, 210 calories, 765 feet and feeling good, flushed, not touching his skin, a perfect heat, his.
His feet were cramping, wanting to come in, up and down with the silver and black piston, he was into the Seven, fast too soon, scared at that, the hill and speed ahead, sweat streaming into itself, down the edge of his nose, from his eye and falling, into the Three, fighting, nothing but his sweat, wet stars dripping on the rough black, dripping into a messy constellation, pooling down the sides, and only if he pushed harder, knowing that, that he could. He was at the top and coming down, the hill little, his legs tired, ready, the back of the Three and Five just ahead and the Seven and Nine. He would make it.
I have also biked across Europe a number of times and found that the ideas can flow very well, especially on the long tough uphill climbs. I wrote about this in autobiographical trilogy entitled Buzz.
The Sierra Nevada Mountains loomed. Buzz was sick of the wind and wanted the climb. He attacked the first ascent, eyes straight down at the road, standing all the way, up to the switchback and then sitting, gearing down and settling in. Trucks toiled past, not another cyclist in sight. Nobody dared the ascent over Paseto de las Pedrizas. He would be the first. He drank, finished the bottle; sweat streamed through his sunglasses. He would make it to the rise. It was just ahead, just ahead, after the next switchback, the next. It didn’t matter where it was, another hundred switchbacks, he would make it, back and forth, climbing, climbing. And there it was, too soon, the sign, Paseto de las Pedrizas, 780 metres. He slowed, leaned forward over the handlebars, stretched out his back and held his legs and arms taut as he glided around the first bend and down the steep slope between sun-bleached rock.
A car and another and then nothing, the air still, the sticky speckled asphalt foaming past, he leaned down, his thigh tight against the crossbar, stomach and arms flat, stretched out, face tucked into the handlebars, beside the singing wheel, the silver hub still, forever like this, his hand to the ground. He would never fall, faster, toward everything, around another long bend and a tunnel – a tunnel! – darkness, screaming cool, insane into it, faster, and for a moment nothing, not the road, not the bicycle, and out again, heat and light, a hurtling thing, flying into another tunnel, singing into the heat and light, a sheep and more, everywhere on the road. He braked, swerved, toppled over, a complete somersault, into a bush, a fence and lay still, his face against the ground.
The best place for an active mind is hiking. There nothing else but the trail ahead, albeit the occasional creeping fear, as evidenced in the second section of All In.
I went along the trail and then stopped at a cliff and leaned over to see anything in the mist and trees. I went back on the trail and then followed a water pipe that went up the rocks. It was starting to rain. Water was dripping and then running down the rocks. I stepped up again and looked through the bushes. There was something green on the ground, a green shirt tag. I went around a hollowed-out stump and into the underbrush. The sun was pushing through the clouds. The forest arched down, and there was a crow coming up from the ridge and then through the gap in the trees. The path curled off into nothing. I was moving quickly, going up toward the cliffs, and I was back on the trail going toward the saddle before going up to Crown Mountain.
There was a chain hanging down part of it. I was feeling better here. I knew the bears wouldn’t bother with this steep rocky part, and then I heard a sudden crash, like a tree being snapped up, and stopped. I went along the rock edge to a small muddy section by a pair of bent trees, their roots bulging up against the rocks. It was a bear, staring back at me. It wasn’t big. It looked more like a dog. “Hey! Hey!” I clapped my hands, and it sprinted down the ravine. It was gone; I couldn’t hear it anywhere. My legs kept going ahead; it was just automatic. I was almost at the saddle, and it was getting darker in the trees, going down to where the bear might be.
I am deep into this blog now (eight years and 1,250 posts) and so this is as good a time as any to finally take a swing at that. What is this blog? Why am I doing this? My writing process! Let’s see if I can narrow that down to a few tips.
ONE: Your process is a personal thing. You can’t just do what people tell you to do. You have to figure out your own process. Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond Series, wrote every morning and then went for a swim. Woody Allen writes longhand. I text myself notes on the fire escape.
It can take forever because I am all thumbs (literally) and the typos and formatting are an issue, but I feels like it works. (That said, whatever you do, don’t email yourself notes from the same account as that confuses Gmail, which then labels all of your emails to yourself as junk.) You just have to figure out routine works best for you.
TWO: Maintain a work ethic. Like my father always said, “Life is work. If you don’t like work, then you’re going to have a tough time in this life.” Writing doesn’t happen by osmosis. You have to do the work. There is just no getting around that.
THREE: Watch what goes on around you in life. Look at the details – how people move their hands, how they walk and scroll, how they look back at you – and write it down. The best characters (read: biggest fuck-ups) are right in front of you.
The only problem is that people are all boring as hell in the end and you’ll have to clean that up – in other words, make it fiction.
FOUR: Move around. Do something. Get outside. A moving brain is a thinking brain. Go for a walk. Take a hike. Go jump in the lake. (More advice from my father.)
The more you move, the more your brain gets going. It’s called kinetic thinking. This is especially important when you’re stuck in the story. When you start to move around and think about that – the moving that is – the narrative solutions tend to pop into your head.
FIVE: Write what you know. Write the exact thing that is in your head. Write it. Name the names. Name the jerks you know. Describe them exactly as they are.
Don’t worry about what anyone might think. Not your partner, not your mother, not your kid, not even you. Nobody. That’s the prime stuff, the lunacy of people. Let yourself go nuts on that. That’s where everything is to be found.
SIX: Review and edit. And then edit it again. And when you’re done that, you guessed it. Edit again! Maybe then you might be ready for an editor.
SEVEN: Do the research, whatever is needed. Read up on the backgrounds of everything that you can. Visit the places. Do it for anything that comes up, the park that’s outside the building, the people walking past, the plane overhead. Read about whatever it is.
The most fulfilling reading will always be non-fiction – even if it is fiction. Biographies, the most fictitious of all, are the most revealing. Tales of exploration too. Those are the fullest.
EIGHT: Don’t listen to any of the experts. Screw them all. They are writing about it because they don’t know any better. Like me. Forget about the plot points. Disregard character arcs. There is no structure to any of this. Let your story unfold as it is. Let the characters live their lives.