Advice to frustrated writers: get out


Silk’s Post # 29 — That’s right. Get out. See ya later. Have a nice … walk.

Yes, getting outdoors more is good for you. You didn’t think I was advising you to get out of the writing profession, surely?

Okay, sorry for the provocative title. It was a cheap trick to get your attention. “Why Not Take a Nice Walk Outdoors?” seemed like a kind of boring title. It sounds like a mildly irritating entreaty from a well-meaning family member who doesn’t understand why it’s absolutely imperative that you continue to sit at the keyboard for hours and hours, rewriting that scene that isn’t quite working until your eyeballs fall out of your head.

Yesterday, when I should have been writing my book – or at least my blog post for today – I got outdoors instead. Easter Sunday in the Pacific Northwest is always subject to the weather lottery, especially when it comes early. This year we hit the zillion-dollar payoff, when a perfect, sunny, hot, calm July day somehow wandered into the end of March and called every winter-weary soul outdoors.

daffI’m lucky when it comes to what ‘outdoors’ means. Since I live on a small farm, stepping outdoors means being in a green field with a pond and an orchard, populated by a small flock of sheep and surrounded by a forest of fir trees and maples. The daffodils just started blooming and the early fruit trees are in bud.

Not only that, I live on a smallish island, which is a real advantage for a mermaid. So for me, there was only one thing to do with yesterday’s gift of dazzling weather: get out on the water. I spent the whole day at sea with my favourite skipper, and without my computer. Salty bliss with an unexpected sunburn as a souvenir.

Okay, you may be thinking, goody good for you but what does this have to do with writing?

Getting outdoors is especially good for people whose calling forces them indoors to hunch over a computer for hours, days, weeks at a time. It’s not just about exercise, though “go take a walk” is good (and probably needed) advice for most writers. It’s also about the benefits of getting a snootful of nature.

waldenOne of the most famous literary proponents of getting ‘back to nature’ was Henry David Thoreau, the iconic iconoclast who will be forever remembered for his classic manifesto Walden (originally published as Walden; or, Life in the Woods).

“How vain is it to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live,” wrote Thoreau.

In his introduction to a 2003 edition of Walden, literary luminary John Updike (who calls Thoreau a totem of the back-to-nature preservationist, a perfect crank and hermit saint) wrote: “‘Simplify, simplify,’ Walden advises, and we try, even though a twenty-first century attainment of a rustic, elemental simplicity entails considerable complications of budget and transport.”

The affinity of writers to nature is legend. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe illuminates the attraction thus:

“In nature we never see anything isolated, but everything in connection with everything else which is before it, beside it, under it and over it.”

Albert Einstein, who turned his own creative genius in the direction of science, said it even more simply:

“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.”

Maybe that’s what poet William Wordsworth meant when he wrote:

“Come forth into the light of things. Let Nature be your teacher.”

Still not convinced that getting outdoors and communing with nature will make you a better writer? Recent research provides evidence that Thoreau, Goethe, Wordsworth and Einstein were on the right track, at least in that communing with nature gets you outdoors, and – as I keep harping – getting outdoors is good for people in general and writers in particular.

This from a Huffington Post article from June 2012:

Thanks to more of us living in cities than ever before, fewer people are finding their ways into the great outdoors on a regular basis – and it’s starting to wreak havoc on our health. We’ve all experienced the “aaahh” feeling when breathing in fresh air, and that physical benefit goes right to our heads. Even if you’re hitting up the gym regularly, studies have shown that putting in time outdoors instead can up positive mental health by 50 per cent.

A 2011 study found that outdoor exercise was associated with greater decreases in tension, confusion, anger and depression when compared to indoor activity. And a 2010 study found that even just five minutes of exercise in a green space can improve mood and self-esteem, the BBC reported.

Yahoo News cites another study that concludes getting outdoors not only makes you healthier, it makes you nicer:

A study out of the University of Rochester suggests an outdoor romp in a natural setting – even for 10 minutes – can significantly improve your mood, increase your energy levels and make you a nicer person.

“Data shows that even 10 minutes outside will increase your feelings of wellness and vitality as long as you’re paying attention to nature,” says Dr. Richard Ryan, one the study’s authors. “People feel they’re more autonomous and integrated when they’re outside, more in touch with themselves, [so their increased niceness] is partly a reflection on that.”

 “We can’t just be around artificial environments all the time. We really need access to the green world,” Ryan adds.  

Don’t care all that much about being nicer? Well, maybe this will convince you about the benefits of getting outdoors. Three researchers from the University of Michigan published a 2008 research report “The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting with Nature,” which opens and closes with the following statements:

Imagine a therapy that had no known side effects, was readily available, and could improve your cognitive functioning at zero cost. Such a therapy has been known to philosophers, writers and laypeople alike: interacting with nature. Many have suspected that nature can promote improved cognitive functioning and overall well-being, and these effects have been recently documented …

In sum, we have shown that simple and brief interactions with nature can produce marked increases in cognitive control. To consider the availability of nature as merely an amenity fails to recognize the vital importance of nature in effective cognitive functioning.

So, there!

When I was drifting around Captain Passage and Montague Harbour yesterday, it was actually all in service of better writing. Improving my cognitive functioning. Getting my head together.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.


10 thoughts on “Advice to frustrated writers: get out

  1. Love this Silk! I find having dogs gets me out in all kinds of weather and that has its own rewards beyond the perfect day – the vibrant colours and earthy smells of a rainy day can be wondrous. And as for restoring my creative soul… well, something has to feed it… that is, if I still have one after How Many Years In Advertising?

  2. Made me feel like I was outside, my friend, even though I was you-know- where. Msybthis be a time of smooth sailing for us all.

  3. ” Even if you’re hitting up the gym regularly, studies have shown that putting in time outdoors instead can up positive mental health by 50 per cent.”

    Part of my regular exercise routine is an hour of vigorous outdoor walking, and I walk regularly, in all kinds of weather. It doesn’t make me a nice person (as my wife will attest to at length, if given the opportunity), but I’ve always suspected that it did me more good than an hour on the treadmill. Now I know that my mental heath is being improved by half. “Yes dear, I’m working at being only half as crazy and curmudgeonly as I otherwise would have been.” I’d pat myself on the back, but I have this trick shoulder … … . ;-\

  4. Great post I write as I sit on our patio by the pool in Mexico, looking at the view of tropical gardens and the ocean 🙂
    I love this: “This year we hit the zillion-dollar payoff, when a perfect, sunny, hot, calm July day somehow wandered into the end of March.”
    Having lived in Vancouver for years I know what you’re talking about, but I so wish I could write like that.

    • Thanks Alison! Rain in the forecast for later in the week, so back to normal soon. Mexico is sounding mighty good!

  5. Who can argue with the outdoors? Some of my best ideas happen when I walk along the ocean or looking up the giant trees in Lighthouse Park. Nice research, Silk!

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