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What non-writing activities help your writing?

As writers, we tend to spend a lot of time focused on the job in hand or building and exploring internal, alternative worlds. Work life balance is important and so we asked the scribble what non-writing activities they get involved with to support their writing when they aren’t actively putting pen to paper.

I find that the non-writing activities that are the greatest help are the ones that sort out the type of thinking that leads to writing-paralysis. Meditation is perfect for quieting the ego and stilling the mind so that creativity has room to stretch and play. If meditation isn’t for you, then try to find something to do with your hands that doesn’t require too much concentration. For me, gardening is something that immediately sends me into a state of mental relaxation, and I find ideas often bob to the surface of my brain while I’m busy rootling around in my vegetable patches. Add to that the sensory stimulation provided by the smells, colours, tastes and sensations provided by the garden, and you have the perfect conditions for creativity to bloom. You could try baking, colouring, knitting - all of these have worked for me in the past, as they require just enough concentration to shut up the mind-chatter, but not so much that you can’t wander off into your ideas.

If it’s inspiration I’m looking for, then a trip to an art gallery, junk shop, or museum can be a brilliant place to find stories lurking. Anywhere that contains the stuff of people’s lives contains stories. For example, I remember seeing a chocolate Easter egg in a museum in Hull. It was from the 1950s, and perfectly preserved in the box, with a loving note written on it to a young lad from his parents. The poor lad had been saving it, and tragically died before he could eat it, and his parents kept it until the end of their lives, when it was found and donated to the museum. If that’s not a story waiting to be written, I don’t know what is. It’s been filed away in my mental filing cabinet for years; I’ll dig it out and write it, eventually.

Finally, looking after myself properly has been the best thing I’ve ever done for my writing. Getting enough sleep and taking proper exercise keeps me in the right state of mind; I never write anything decent if I’m tired, anxious or hungry! Your brain is your greatest tool, if you’re a writer, so make sure you look after it.

For me it is important to understand the distinction between non-writing activities that aid my writing practice and those that hinder it.

Walking is a great non-writing activity that aids my writing process. I find that a good walk helps to clear my brain and allows me to more effectively process my thoughts and emotions. Walking makes space in my brain when it starts to get full or over-stimulated and this means there's more room to formulate my own ideas and turn them into writing. The greatest thing about walking is that it doesn't make me feel guilty.

There are, of course, lots of non-writing activities that fall under the category of procrastination and avoidance. I experience immense feelings of guilt and shame when I procrastinate from my work. The thing is, the line sometimes gets blurred and the guilt crosses over to activities that can actually have positive effects on my writing.

It's funny, just before I started to write this I was experiencing just that. I started a story this morning and abandoned it after five minutes because it wasn't working. I felt as though my creative stream had a blockage and wasn't being allowed to flow properly. I felt as though I had achieved nothing all day. I cleaned the kitchen, helped my partner with laundry and read a very interesting article in the New Yorker. None of these things should make me feel guilty - but they did. I should be writing today. I should have gotten two or three pieces down on paper before teatime. Then I realised that feeling ashamed for doing these things instead of writing is ridiculous. Housework is necessary and it is unfair to leave it all to my other half.

Reading (more or less) anything is good for you, it's good for your brain. Reading helps me to understand words and sentences when writing can't - because I don't need to form them myself. A good article or story is just as helpful for the writing process as a classic novel is. Words are words - it's only how we use them that matters and when my brain can't form it's own sentences, reading those formed by other people helps.

I think literally any activity can help my writing. Listening to great music can help me set the atmosphere of a piece of writing; having great conversations can inspire incredible dialogue between characters; going for a walk can give me the best setting. Everything can help if you're in the writing mood!

One of the biggest ones for me is sitting on a beach or pier, and just watching the sea for a while. Something about watching the water, no matter what it's doing, really helps me clear my mind and piece together my thoughts for writing. Maybe it's because so much of my childhood was spent by the sea, or because it's so overwhelmingly deep. There's a million things that burst into my brain when I look at it and it's often the best way to get some inspiration or get writing.

Another one is people watching. I absolutely love watching people and deciding exactly who they are in my head. Of course, they're probably nothing like how I imagine, but it's the perfect way to practice building character personalities and it's so much fun. I can get an endless amount of inspiration by just sitting back and watching a room for half an hour; but, realistically, I could spend all day doing it. It's an activity I recommend, take a notebook and do it. Make brief notes on how they look and then what their day has been like. Did they have a meeting that went wrong? Are they heading home after the school run? Are they doing the walk of shame? Start there and build on it, before you know it you'll have a whole backstory, history and personality built.

Basically, anything can help your writing. Just keep your eyes, ears and mind open. I guarantee something will stick in your mind and make for a great story.

In terms of activities that support my writing, I think they basically fall into two categories: those that inspire my writing and those that help nurture the right frame of mind for writing.

I’m an all on or an all off sort of person. I’m an overthinker, an introvert and a multitasker. In other words, I have to deliberately make time to turn off my brain and recharge.

We live in a world where naturally occurring mental downtime is pretty rare. Engagement is constant, gratification is instant and overstimulation is normal, so I think it’s important to regularly create yourself some mental breathing space. Sitting still and meditating is hard for me, so to shut off my brain I need to be moving and focusing on a physical process. Canicross with my dog, lifting weights, indoor sport climbing and squash all work for me because I don’t have any real aptitude for them, so my mind can’t really drift. It gives me a real stress break!

Sometimes, however, I need the opposite – room to open up my thoughts a bit and work through ideas. A quiet walk is great. Sometimes I shut myself in my study, turn my phone off, ground myself on the carpet and let my mind wander down a creative rabbit hole.

The next one sounds really obvious: sleep. Get enough sleep. I recently discovered that I work at my best when I wake up and dive immediately into what I’m supposed to be doing. The more I mess about, the less sharp I am and the harder it is to sit down and focus. Some of my best work has been done when I’ve woken up unexpectedly with an idea. Always address these flashes of inspiration when they happen; it’s never as good if you put it off and try to catch the tail of it again later.

Finally, feed your brain plenty of new material. Listening to non-fiction audiobooks or podcasts on interesting topics is a fantastic way to spark ideas. Learn about subjects that interest you. Go out and experience things. Most importantly, remember to be mindful about what you’re doing on a more detailed level. Take note of how something makes you feel emotionally or physically; focus on tasting your food; remember what that warm summer evening in the garden smells like; or how your skin felt numb and your hands throbbed in the moment that your heart broke. This depth of detail will help you add a layer of truth to your creative work that will help your reader slip inside of your world.


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Cover image by Fabio Comparelli via Unsplash

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