I have long known that if all the keyboards were to disappear off the face of the Earth my career would be over. I don’t know why, but the act of pushing words through a pencil onto a piece of paper has always been painfully difficult for me. Until I learned to type, my stories existed only inside my head.
But there is another physical ability I have been granted that helps with my writing almost as much as keyboards.
I can walk.
Yes, I know. That’s a bit like saying I can sing opera because I know how to fish.
But not quite.
Let me take today, for example. I have had a young-adult novel rummaging around in my head for several years now. More than just in my head. At one point I had almost 200 pages of it down.
And then I lost faith in what I was doing, put it aside, went on to something else.
A couple of years ago during a long car ride, my agent, Rubin Pfeffer, brought up that novel I had laid aside. He hoped I would return to it. (To my astonishment, he could remember those almost-200 pages in more detail than I could.) I raised various objections. He raised various solutions. And then I nodded . . . and went on to work on other things.
But when someone you believe in believes in you, their belief becomes part of your own psyche. So that novel, the possibility of that novel has never gone away. Even though, when I moved to my new house, I gave away all my research books, the books I had read and highlighted and tabbed with sticky notes, it still didn’t go away. (“I’m never going back to that novel,” I told myself sternly as I filled grocery bags with “unnecessary” stuff.)
So guess where I am now, where I’m thinking about being anyway. Of course, back to that long-ago novel.
I’ve sorted through a number of solutions for the problems I was having. Experimented with a new form, found a new voice. But one question remained, and it kept flummoxing me.
The novel is set in 1968, a time that the story seems to need. But in the previous draft, for all my copious research I couldn’t quite get hold of the feel of that time.
Yes, I know I lived through that disastrous year. In 1968 I was 30, in fact, and should have been very much present. But I was a mommy, my life completely absorbed by babies. The world happened someplace else. Someplace I paid little attention to. What I did experience that year occurred at such a distance—partly because of those babies, partly because of my own capacity to turn inward and let the world fly by—that little registered.
Which leaves me dependent on research to reinvent what so many know in their bones!
Not an enviable task.
And it leaves me using an old brain to try to hold the myriad events of 1968 against my characters’ personal struggles.
Just thinking about repeating all that discarded research, about trying to coordinate the complexity of that time with my story, leaves me feeling cross-eyed.
So I came back to it all again today. I let it bang around in my head for a while and got nowhere. “Dump it again!” I told myself. “Go on to something else,” I said. Though I have nothing else in my mind to go on to at the moment.
Finally I gave myself an order, the one I usually deliver at such moments.
GO FOR A WALK!
And I did.
I don’t know what it is about walking. The snow lay deep and untouched across the frozen lake I circled. The air was crisp and fresh. The rhythm of my steps brought every cell of my body alive.
And every cell of my brain.
By the end of the walk, by the time I emerged from the trees and could see the cheerful red of my car waiting for me in the parking lot, I had a solution. It’s a bit odd, this solution my feet beat out of the asphalt path, but it might work.
And when I sit down tomorrow, if it doesn’t?
Well, I’ll go for a walk again. There is nothing like it for getting my writing under control.
I am enormously grateful for my keyboard. Always have been, always will be.
But, oh, I am even more grateful for my feet!