Before I Write: Five Things

A favorite travel photo from walking across Spain last year. It speaks so much to me about the pilgrimage.

A favorite travel photo from walking across Spain last year. It speaks so much to me about the pilgrimage.

Reading and participating in social media “forums” is a favorite pastime. It’s a good way to learn, laugh and network with others who have similar interests. I participate in groups ranging from Latin American expats to birdwatchers to hikers and writers.

It often bewilders me when I see posts for writers who have difficulty generating writing ideas. Really? It’s a rich world out there. If a writer has consistent difficulty with ideas, it may be time to rethink things altogether. There’s almost no reason whatever for the absence of good subject matter, and outside scheduling conflicts there’s no reason you can’t write every day if that’s your chosen path – not that it necessarily should be.

For me, writing is all about what happens before I sit at the keyboard. It’s about five things mostly.

#1. There Must be an Outline in My Head or On Paper

My pre-writing outline organizational method is pure madness. It involves multiple notebooks in multiple places, various phone applications, Post-It notes, napkins and other scrap paper tidbits.

At 50, my ideas require immediate documentation, or they’re gone forever. I’ve attempted memory techniques, but they’re epic fails. This means there’s a notebook by my office computer, my kitchen table computer, my bedside, in my truck, my briefcase and one dedicated especially for church where so many themes are born.

There’s a notes application on my phone used mostly when I walk, and a dedicated place on the kitchen counter for a stack of random restaurant napkins, wrinkled Post-Its and usually a bank deposit slip or two and maybe a grocery store receipt where I’ve written other random thoughts.  There are both predictable (church, in bed, working out, etc.) and unpredictable (driving, the shower, grocery store, and many other) environments where my ideas get generated, and note readiness is necessary in all these places and more.

Periodically, I review all these caches and gather the dozens of related, if fragmented,  ideas into new groupings. These very rough outlines become the first foundations for blog posts, book chapters and future possible bigger ideas. I mull on them sometimes for hours, other times for months. Then when the inspiration hits, I rearrange the rough foundational outlines into a sensible order, and that’s when the writing may begin. It’s constant chaos until that point, but it’s what works for me, and by the time my fingers hit the keyboard, the writing typically flows pretty well. By that point, it’s almost written in my head.

#2. I Know What Inspires Me

Much of the above leads to the fact that if you’re going to record your inspiration, you need to know where/when/how you typically get inspired.

Inspiration owes me nothing. In fact, it hides around corners and in the dark, and rarely falls into my lap. Inspiration is jealous. It requires that I pursue it, and learn through experience how it ebbs and flows as the tide.

Unquestionably, my best ideas come when I sweat, and it’s even better if the sweat comes outdoors in a natural setting. Neurological research proves this true.

A 2015 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found 90 minutes of walking regularly, especially in non-urban areas, reduces tendencies toward depression and mental illness. Scientists could actually see this at work in people’s brains. Another study used a test group to prove that backpacking and disconnecting from technology boosted creative thinking and problem solving by as much as 50 percent.

Long walks and hikes work best for me. If it’s raining, or if outdoors is inconvenient, a treadmill works fine. My current big project was developed on a 500-mile pilgrimage across Spain and the next one will likely involve a similar adventure. I do believe the best creative ideas flow first as salty liquid through my pores.

It’s not the reason I go to church, and for a time I felt guilty because of this, but I never leave a Sunday worship service with less that a half-dozen good ideas. Since I tie much of my experiential writing to metaphorical and parable-type themes, church and personal bible-reading time always bring anticipation for ideas. It’s often the place where I get the first picture of my future work from 20,000 feet.

#3. Read

This pretty much goes without saying. To create good work, you have to know what good work looks like. You need exposure to what’s good, bad and everything in between.

If I could create a perfect writer-self, I’d be 60 percent Pat Conroy, 30 percent Lewis Grizzard, and 10 percent Larry McMurtry.

You should read books, newspapers, magazines, billboards, business cards, greeting cards – every media you can find. Somewhere in the deep recess of my mind, my subconscious edits social media posts and I just can’t help it. If you’ve used an apostrophe to create a plural, you’ve made me cringe at some point. It hurts so badly. And yes, if you’re a “christian” writer you probably ought read the bible regularly. Two Corinthians has some good stuff, according to Donald Trump.

Another favorite photo from last year in Puerto Cayo, Ecuador.

Another favorite photo from last year in Puerto Cayo, Ecuador.

#4. Travel & Live

I’m never more inspired than when I travel – 10 miles down the road, or 5,000 miles from home, travel brings out my best creative ideas.

Though I’ve been an objective journalist a lifetime, I learned more than 10 years ago in Cancun, Mexico that my creative bent loves new places.

It was during an early-morning run just at the centro came to life when I saw an older, obviously poor, and possibly homeless woman on the street. From the top of her lungs she was yelling at a storefront mannequin as if she saw it possessed. She was obsessed with the figure, cursing, crying in a spiritual battle with a counter spirit she sensed right before her. It was an amazing thing to witness and I was thankful, 2,000 miles from home, to be in that place, at that time, and see the event play out. I felt so sorry for the old woman, but also couldn’t help thinking about all the life experiences that brought her to such a place. Of course, it made me want to write on the spot.

Pat Conroy once said:

“Once you’ve traveled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers. The mind can never break off from the journey.”

It’s true. I’m most alive when I’m traveling.

#5. I Understand My Creative Limits

This is a true product of time and getting to know your creative self.

I can write journalistic-type copy any time of day, but creative copy is a different animal. I’ve worked at it long enough now to know that I have three to four hours a day, about four days a week when I can produce decent work. I also know it must happen between 4 a.m. and 1 p.m. My creative day is toast after 1.

Knowing this also helps me know when I need to do something different.

Today, I desperately need to work on a book chapter, but the creativity’s not there. It would be a total waste of time and I knew it when I woke up this morning. That doesn’t mean I can’t write. It simply means I can shift my focus to something else – a more analytical blog post like this requiring almost no creative juice. And with it, my need to create and express is fulfilled.


When the stars align with the things above, I get to do what I love. Someone once said, “The only way I know  what I think or how I feel is if I write it.”

That’s true enough, and after all these years, I’m glad to understand it better.






4 thoughts on “Before I Write: Five Things

  1. This post was extremely helpful and validating. I have scraps of paper, notebooks, and journals all over the house, in my purse, and car. For too long I’d beat myself up thinking I was too scatterbrained to be a good writer. Well, I’m beginning to learn that those scraps fit together and sometimes make some pretty good writing. Thanks for the encouragement. Looking forward to Blue Ridge!

  2. I couldn’t agree with you more! I’ve often thought I should bring a mini-recorder with me on my morning runs. By the time I get home, my brilliant thoughts have dissipated along with the dawn.

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