Bad Advice Wednesday: Take a Circuit

categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour


An Early Circuit



Part of the writing day for me is a circuit.  This has been true no matter where I’ve lived, and I’ve lived a lot of places since I started writing seriously.  The country circuit is the one I’m on now–every morning out on skis at this time of year, or walking in the summer, or maybe riding a bike, sometimes swimming.  The idea is a similar or the same route each day, preferably a loop (no backtracking), one that takes me through my thoughts as surely as through the woods or through the streets of whatever given city.  The first twenty minutes are often a tumult of spare thoughts–stuff that a desk only encourages–and then, well, wow, I look up and see the trees, or the buildings, or the surf.  The twenty, I know, corresponds to how long it takes for endorphins to get to the mind during exercise.  But never mind the science: suddenly, ineluctably, I am there.  Or rather, here.  Here where I am, and not there where I’m not.  And once I arrive, I begin to write.  Not with a pencil, and not with a pen, and not with an old Selectric, certainly not with this laptop, but up there in the leaves, and over in that plaza, and down in that very clear water.

When I lived in Soho, in New York City, my loop was straight up LaGuardia and into the village, then all the way up Bleecker Street to West 4th and to 11th (yes, weirdly, West 4th crosses West 11th), then out to the river along 14th Street, then by many routes homeward.  When I lived in the Meat District (Meat-Ho, we called it), I reversed the course, heading down Bleecker and all the way to Lafayette, then downtown into China, and around.  In Columbus it was German Village, or on a bike clear to campus along the rivers.  In Worcester, it was through the woods around the Holy Cross campus, on foot, on skis, through construction zones, didn’t matter.  Here in Maine it’s through the woods along the stream on this loop or that, the busy world of birds and bugs and fish and frogs.

(Can’t sleep?  Need to relax?  Take your circuit in your mind even as you lie in the dark.  Picture every step, every sight, all the sounds.  This works.  Zzzzzzz.)

The point is to walk an hour or two in privacy, nothing but your thoughts, and end at the desk.  Full of those endorphins and having thought the circles away and found the straight lines, I’m able to leap right to it.  Often, I’ve held whole paragraphs in my head, wanting only the computer to take dictation from my fingers.  Equally, I take notes in one of my little books.  These I either transcribe or ignore: it’s all equal in the end.

The walk is where I solve the problems.  The walk is where I leave the demons.  The walk leads me to my studio, and that it took an hour to get there makes it all the more imperative I write.

On trips I find a circuit wherever I am.   In Billings, Montana, I walked the Yellowstone River across from an LPG plant. I did it every day I was there.  In Rome I found the Pantheon by a thousand routes–but the Pantheon was the goal going out, my desk (at a flyblown former palazzo of a hotel) the goal coming back.

So, invent a circuit.  Make it kind of long.  End at your desk.  Write what you’ve walked up.  Or sing it.  Or dance it.  Anyway, do what you do after the circuit prepares the way.

And let the walks get longer.

(For Kate Neptune Baum)

  1. Alison writes:

    This idea of taking a long walk and then writing is so dreamy, and what writers should be doing, and all the romance of the writing life that I crave, but it seems impossible as an MFA graduate with no book yet who has to work a job 40 hours a week in order to have a spot of reliable money.
    I think this is wonderful, but it almost depresses me. How do you get to a point in life where you can walk for two hours and then write for three more without some huge leap of faith financially, or having no life other than walking, writing, and working?

  2. elizabethhilts writes:

    An hour? Two hours? Would that I had this much time in a day.

  3. Dave writes:

    I remember your Holy Cross circuit.

    • Bill writes:

      That’s right–we did it together once or twice. Mix of woods, campus, and suburban yards… And ready for office hours…

  4. Heidi Gessner writes:

    I love my weekend circuit around my neighborhood pond with my golden companion, Harry, but sadly during the week it gets squeezed out. Gotta get kids to different schools and to work and walking my circuit becomes a distant memory.

    However, you remind me, Bill, that I do have a daily circuit during the work week and I am going to try and adapt it to the centering you describe. I am a palliative care chaplain and round on terminally ill patients with doctors and nurses all over a major medical center. It is intense and on some days I don’t feel like doing it, but it is certainly grounding and never fails to get rid of the fluff floating around my brain, so from now on, I’m going to think of it as my circuit. Thanks.

    • Dave writes:

      Hi Heidi,

      Love, Your Brother

    • Bill writes:

      Thanks, Heidi. That’s a charged circuit. I remember a loop I got to know well in and around Bridgeport Hospital, in Connecticut. Both of my parents spent time in the ICU there (my dad is fine and full of life, my mother died at home in his loving care). Anyway, up stairways and down long corridors and through security doors and out into the day and a long parking lot to a half abandoned neighborhood and over a hill to a brook, then down along the brook to another parking lot and up the street and back to the hospital, escalator, stairwells, magic doors, ICU. It sure helped.

  5. john lane writes:

    Good one. Like song lines.

  6. Chelle G writes:

    As always, right on the money. I have a modified version–we fish. There is, of course, walking involved and endorphins, but I end up doing a lot of sitting and observing–fishing. This leads to scribbling in notebooks, which annoys the hubby, and the frantic click of the shutter to preserve images/moments for later. Some of my best writing and images have come from these backyard–The Snake River is ten miles from home–adventures and travels. Try adding a cheap camera to your walks, it will add fuel to your fire.

  7. Brenda E writes:

    Totally sharing on my page (as you know) and so very grateful for this reminder as I struggle with some demons around my writing. I’m off to walk.

  8. Dave writes:

    You are speaking my language here, Mister Bill. More evidence that we are indeed the same person.

    • Bill writes:

      But you’re able to use a voice recorder and I’m not. You’ll have to teach me.

      • Dave writes:

        If only you had my melodious voice, you’d record yourself too. It’s like being serenaded by a hermit thrush as I walk…..

  9. Richard Gilbert writes:

    Nice, Bill. You are so right about it taking a while to get out of the mind and notice nature, too. This is important for all humans, not just writers, as we live and work and play in mediated environments 24 hours a day. The brain buzzes like a fly in a jar. We were meant to be outside, at least some, and it calms and centers us.

    The circuit is a great refinement on the notion of walking as writer. My current beloved streamside walk, alas, is out and back. Maybe I can alter the return slightly. I have a more suburban walk can make a circuit, and come to think of it now, I like it for that reason.

    • Bill writes:

      Oh, the suburban circuit! In the midst of my mother’s funeral in my home town I went for a long walk in jacket and tie, no less, and was approached coming out of the old familiar, redrawn woods by cops in two cars. They’d gotten several calls–my old route was now (very large) back yards. What was I doing? Taking a walk. This, they couldn’t quite fathom. What are the binoculars for? Birds. Slowly we got friendly and suddenly I realized that one of the cops was ______, who had been the drummer in one of my high school bands. Oh, did we laugh. All of us. Bottom line on the complainers from cop number one? “These people are assholes.” Walk, I say, walk! But make sure you end up at your studio, not jail.

  10. Erin Feldman writes:

    I love this post. I have a circuit, too, and it always – always – gets me to the place where I need to be. The concept is making me think of Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town.

    • Bill writes:

      Hugo is amazing. That you start the day’s work (he was talking poems, but) with a triggering town, any town, and just keep going till you get to the subject at hand. Cut the town when done. We’ll have to do a tribute to him a few Wednesdays down the road.

  11. Kate writes:
  12. monica wood writes:

    This is a really good idea–I don’t know why I don’t do it. I prefer circuits that have coffee and muffins en route.

    • Bill writes:

      I think coffee and muffins are legal. But they do lead to conversation. It’s the old Facebook, only with real faces.