I’ve been walking this same two mile stretch of road every morning pretty much since Hank-dog came to live with me two years ago. It’s a quick drive out of town, and there’s usually no one else there, which is important. Despite having made most of my close friends upon moving here through our dogs, at this point, I don’t want to chat on my dog walk. Also, there aren’t many cars. Hank and I are still working on the concept that cars do not need to be herded (neither do runners, or bicyclists). So for two years I’ve walked exactly the same stretch of road, and I’m the opposite of bored by it. It’s both the same, and different every day. The colors of the vegetation change in the creekbottom below the road. The sky is a different blue with different clouds every morning. The wildlife changes — one morning it’s a hawk and a goldfinch, eyeing one another from two branches high in a cottonwood snag, another day it’s the kingfisher diving for minnows, and nearly every day the blue heron rises out of the creek on his enormous wings. Right now, the chokecherries are coming ripe, which means I’ve got an eye out for bears.
It’s not just the ever-changing details that keeps this walk crucial to my day — it’s actually the routine nature of our walk that opens up my head and activates both my powers of observation and creative thinking. Because the structure of the walk is the same, the task doesn’t take up any head space, which allows my mind to wander in the best kind of way for that 40 minutes every morning. I’m not there to accomplish anything other than giving both Hank and myself a little exercise, and practicing Not Herding Inappropriate Things. And because I’ve deliberately chosen a road where I don’t usually run into people, it gives me a solid 40 minutes to talk to myself, usually in my head, but sometimes, yes, I find myself muttering out loud. This road has become the place where I think up ideas, where I outline essay and story structures, where I talk things over with myself. Sometimes I dictate into my phone — I’ve discovered that if I pull up a Google doc, I can dictate in the roughest of rough drafts, which as someone who loves editing, I’ve discovered is a great way to jump start a piece, or get myself unstuck.
I’m with Flaubert, who wrote: “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” It has always been the central project here at LivingSmall — to pay off the house, to bring my expenses down so I can afford to chance a freelance life, and to build for myself the kind of domestic routines that allow my brain the space to roam, to make things up, to imagine worlds in which all kinds of things can happen — and then to get those worlds down on the page.
For me, routine is the mental scaffolding that allows the work to get done. It’s not that I go dog walking in order to produce ideas, it’s that when I go for a dog walk, when I let my mind drift — when I look at a landscape both as deeply familiar as this one but which is, because it is a natural place, is also always in flux, different colors, different birds, sometimes the cattle are in the bottom, sometimes they’re up high — all this makes space for ideas to emerge.
Our culture has become so obsessed with productivity, so addicted to the drug of busyness, that we forget how crucial daydreaming is to our mental wellbeing. It’s difficult to advocate for taking a walk, for daydreaming, for carving out time to protect those routines that feed our creative processes, when we’re all struggling so hard just to make a living.
Figuring out what routines we need seems to me one of the biggest challenges of building a creative life. For one thing, it seems so precious and bourgeois — oh poor me my challenge is not to survive and put food on my table and make sure my kids have shoes but to figure out my perfect little artistic life — but if we’re to get the work done, it’s one of the most important things we need to not only figure out, but to protect.
I’d love to hear from you all in the comments — what routines work for you? Do routines work for you, or are you the kind of creative who needs to shock your system once in a while? It’s been ages since we’ve had a commenting community here at Livingsmall, but it was always one of my favorite parts of blogging, and I hope that (if you’re out there), you’ll join in.