Idea generating machine

Walking helped this writer heal physically and create more story ideas.

Walking
Walking helped this writer heal physically and generating more story ideas. Image by momojung/Shutterstock

I once wrote to live.

Now I walk to write to live.

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Those extra words entered my life after my head exploded from a ruptured brain aneurysm. Fourteen hospitalizations, 10 ambulance rides, and four brain surgeries followed.

Such an experience – compressed into four nightmare years – forces a complete life reboot. How does New You practice Old Craft?

I started on the road.

Initially, that pathway involved circles – small round ones – traveled with a walker. White knuckles clasped icy aluminum handlebars. My legs wobbled and trembled as my toes and heels, stuffed inside rubber-soled hospital socks, gripped the wood floor. Behind me trailed a physical therapist, her strong hands clutching the gait belt that encircled my waist.

Every morning and afternoon, we exercised like this at the rehabilitation hospital where I relearned how to walk, talk, eat, bathe, and dress myself. Afterward, the therapist would guide me back to my room, settle me into bed, and ask, “Do you want it?” I would nod yes, and she would snuggle my laptop next to me in bed.

And always, I fell asleep within minutes of trying to write. Some part of me – buried deep within – knew these rehab experiences held stories, needed to come out. Capturing them fresh was best. But my words labored, my attention lagged, my eyes fought to stay open. Still, my fingertips tapped. My body’s needs demanded another focus: more physical recovery.

I would wake up sometime later, laptop dark and tucked against the bed’s side rails. Good days delivered a paragraph on a walking memory; bad days, the revived screen revealed nothing save-able.

Time can heal, and I did, too.

I worked up to a cane, then an exercise bar or my husband’s arm, then, weeks later, my own two feet. On discharge from rehab, my doctor ordered strength-building exercises. He suggested walking. The tracheostomy tube in my throat, combined with Houston’s humid summer heat, vetoed traversing neighborhood sidewalks. My husband drove me to the nearby mall. I could not yet navigate steering wheels, gas pedals, freeways, or other drivers.

The mall’s storefronts captivated me. Its near silence on those early mornings distracted, sending my glance back to crammed window displays bursting with color and possibility. I wanted none of the clothes, jewelry, or furniture. My healing brain rebelled at the overload. My eyes turned away, looking instead at the worn tile floor. Is that why my writing shut down during these walks? I find no words written during these weeks.

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Only months later – my throat now free of tubing – did I venture outside alone to walk. The worst summer heat had abated. Both my strength and weight had returned to healthier levels.

I loaded careful supplies that first day: towel, water bottle, tissues, ChapStick. But I first tucked into my waist pack a three-inch notepad, plus a felt pen. My cell phone offered backup. For safety in case of another sudden medical emergency. And dictation. Who knew what I might see that would demand a digital story later?

As I stepped onto the sidewalk, my body nearly collapsed in both joy and fear. The concrete welcomed me like an overstocked playroom lures a curious child. Even tree branches appeared to crook their limbs in my direction, promising freedom, relief, and discovery unlike anything I’d known in previous seasons.

My confidence surged in the simple act of walking. So did the story ideas. Fears of stumbling on the path or, worse, collapsing face-first onto the sidewalk vanished. In came possibilities for flash fiction, short stories, long-form fiction, novellas, short essays, poems. Most stunning was a pair of high-concept novels. Walk time morphed into a storytime flood zone. 

Ideas came from every source, all unexpected. People biking by. Birds flying above. Animals skittering nearby. Cars and trucks racing along. Even the sky overhead delivered narratives, courtesy of clouds-as-dinosaurs, war-like sunbeams, and stinging-bee raindrops.

As the weeks passed, the ideas morphed, moving to feed my longtime priority project – a stalled-by-sickness novel. The more I walked, the more my novel returned to life. Character dilemmas resolved themselves as solutions arose in time with my heels pounding the sidewalk. A footfall at a stop sign delivered a new name to replace an old, awkward one. Scenes moved into new settings, thanks to a magical park encounter involving a family resembling my protagonist’s.

This wealth – so unexpected amid my focus on simple physical recovery – overwhelmed every sense I possessed. Everything around me blossomed in those months. I saw, heard, smelled, and even tasted and touched the life around my walks in ways my old life had never known. 

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Rainwater shimmering in a refilled stream. Rolling tires squishing against summertime asphalt. Blood-red roses emanating tones of honey. Oak leaf rubbing gritty as sandpaper against dry fingertips.

On their own, these images and sensations married the ideas and the words. It became so persistent, I named it. I had to.

Idea Generating Machine, or IGM.

The voices – yes, I hear voices but, most often, they’re only nudges or teases – whisper in soft detail with who does what, where, when, why, and how. Those questions and answers trigger my long-ago reporter past. I smile as ancient muscle memory awakens to a new form of wordsmithing, this time of the fiction kind. With my history and in this new writing life, it all equals perfect sense.

Sometimes it’s only three words of scene text. Or a dialogue edit here for Chapter 2, Scene 4. A new nickname to spice up an old essay.

The softest whispers carry the biggest weight, like last spring’s one-word download for a funky road trip blog. RoadBroads. I whirled around and asked, “where did that come from?” Never had I thought of writing a blog, much less while driving to a mountain writing retreat.

Too many more pressing projects. IGM insisted, expanding its message. Create it before the writing retreat. Get a logo. Images of a road, a car, a broad. Write and post as you drive. Keep it going after the retreat.

As the words came in, I smiled, skin more goose-pimpled by the second. Reaching for my cell phone, I dictated to Siri the newest message. The most detailed and longest IGM since I fell ill. (And yes, I developed the blog. Something I never intended to create or write. But still do. Weekly. IGM reminds me.) 

We’ve got a routine now, IGM and me.

My heels start out tap-tap-tapping on the empty sidewalk, my sneakers pounding one step at a time. My eyes drop down to focus on the gray squares of concrete rising up. It’s a welcome of sorts, as if the sidewalk awaited my return. I hear and feel my rhythmic pace, soles slapping to their own private metronome. I walk where I’m led, sometimes to pass by the nearby elementary school. On other days, I head in the opposite direction, where fewer bicyclists crowd the pathway.

In the sunrise walks, my eyes scan the horizon, searching for what’s write-able. If it’s later in the day, I scan landscapes such as the neighborhood park with its turtles and alligators. But wherever I walk, start time equals eyeball time. This activates my stable of walk-to-write questions: What’s different today? If it looks the same, how do I view it differently? Anything I’ve never seen? How can I use today’s walk in a story?

When IGM nudges, I stop the questions and listen. We’re all playing Tag, and I’m It.

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Sometimes my recent past roars back, demanding attention to the aneurysm story. IGM has delivered clever phrasings for aspects of that out-of-body experience. “Hovering high above yellow waving cornfields, three states north of home” was one. Another borders on the TMI: “Nurse Ratched flipped me over for yet another painful insertion.” These are tough messages to hear while walking. Too much of this story remains raw. It will be told, however, because this machine won’t let me forget.

IGM visits about four times a week. At its cue, I tap either the Siri button or the Dragon Dictation app on my phone and start narrating what I’ve heard. I prefer the former because the voice-to-text conversion works better with my talking style. I never slow down, instead walking and staying focused on the sidewalk immediately in front of me. The rhythm and pace of my steps feed the messages in a process I’ve yet to understand. 

I also ignore the content of the message. It’s akin to a first draft story. Rough. Ugly. Lay it down anyway. Capture the words. Activate secretarial skills. No time for judgment, revisions, or second-guessing. This is ore, not gold bars.

After completing the dictation, I forward the message(s) to my studio computer. Immediately. On most walks, one IGM incoming means more is on the way. Some walks, I’ve sent six Siri messages.

When I arrive home after 4 miles on the trail, my life feels richer, more complete. Physical work is done, and the mental efforts are warmed up. I shower and change, then walk again – this time to my office, ready to transcribe what awaits, my first writing work of the day.

Another writing day begins, and I’ve yet to step into my studio.

I’ve missed some daily walks. Real Life intrudes sometimes. I pay a price both ways. When I miss, IGM returns slowly. A temper tantrum? In missing her, I return to the sidewalk faster.

Other tips: I walk alone. No earbuds. Ever. And no pets.

Finally – relax. Ideas come when you’re not looking or craving them.

I craved healing and recovery, not stories or words. Once I relaxed about storytelling, two words left my vocabulary forever: “blocked” and “stuck.”

When you walk, look, and listen, the fountain of ideas floods.

I don’t recommend how I got here. Four brain surgeries disrupt more than a writing life. But my story is not about that. It’s about this – learning how to observe, listen, and capture writing ideas.

Writing, like life, is how you walk it.

 

—Melanie Ormand crafts fiction and nonfiction in novel, blog, and essay form from her Houston studio. Find her at melanieormand.com and roadbroads.com