Finding Inspiration on the Long Trails—and Other Ways to Get Your Creative Groove On

“You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” —Jack London

Igor Stravinsky did headstands to clear his mind and help him compose musical masterpieces. Agatha Christie took baths while munching on apples, surrounded by the fragrant cores as she dreamed up myriad murder mysteries. Japanese inventor Nakamatsu Yoshirō, who’s churned out countless ideas for the thousands of patents to his name, dives underwater and stays there until inspiration strikes (which we can assume usually strikes quickly, as he’s now 92 years of age). 

Talk to any number of artists, novelists, musicians, songwriters, inventors and other types of creators, and you’ll hear all sorts of ways they summon their inspiration.

Writer Geraldine Brooks walks in graveyards, Khaled Hosseini watches the news and Melanie Benjamin peruses art exhibits to stimulate their imaginations. Judy Blume goes people-watching, envisions those strangers’ lives and “comes up with what’s missing” as inspiration for her works of fiction. Former Vogue fashion director Grace Coddington would do her people-watching on the subway, early in the morning on her way to her Times Square office. And rumor has it that 19th century French novelist and playwright Honoré de Balzac would drink as many as 50 cups of coffee a day, sometimes more than one at a time, to stimulate his creativity. Can you imagine that caffeine buzz? 

Some say an effective way to enable creativity is to shift our focus away from our own internal processes and look at things from new and different perspectives—that we can’t just sit back and wait for inspiration, willing it to come, but instead need to go out and find it. 

Others feel that creativity can come only when one is engaged in the creative work itself. “Inspiration exists,” Pablo Picasso once said, “but it has to find you working.” 

Henri Matisse felt that creativity is neither gift nor talent, but rather a “friend” who stops by only when you’re hard at work. 

Some writers can stare at a blank page or screen, hands poised over keys or pen over paper, and the ideas will flow … sooner or later. Others really need to get up, get out and move to get into the creative groove. In my case that sometimes means backpacking a couple hundred, or a couple thousand, miles. My creative inspiration often takes a very long walk.

Movement and exercise is a common form of inspiration among those who create.

While I have just two books to my credit, novelist Haruki Murakami’s dozens of books and stories have been translated into 50 languages and sold in the millions of copies outside of his native country of Japan. When he’s working on a novel, Murakami says, he gets up every morning at 4 a.m., writes for several hours, runs 10 kilometers or swims 1500 meters (or both), reads the rest of the day and then goes to bed promptly at 9 p.m. He keeps to this routine for six months to a year, using this repetition to stay inspired. “I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind,” he explains.

For others, inspiration comes in simpler, less physically demanding ways. 

In a 1993 interview with The Paris Review, novelist and essayist Toni Morrison said, “I always get up and make a cup of coffee while it is still dark—it must be dark—and then I drink the coffee and watch the light come … Writers all devise ways to approach that place where they expect to make the contact, where they become the conduit, or where they engage in this mysterious process. For me, light is the signal in the transition. It’s not being in the light, it’s being there before it arrives. It enables me, in some sense.” 

Maya Angelou told the Daily Beast in 2013, “I do still keep a hotel room in my hometown, and pay for it by the month. I go around 6:30 in the morning. I have a bedroom, with a bed, a table, and a bath. I have Roget’s Thesaurus, a dictionary, and the Bible … I have all the paintings and any decoration taken out of the room. I ask the management and housekeeping not to enter the room, just in case I’ve thrown a piece of paper on the floor, I don’t want it discarded. About every two months I get a note slipped under the door: ‘Dear Ms. Angelou, please let us change the linen. We think it may be moldy!’ But I’ve never slept there, I’m usually out of there by 2. And then I go home and I read what I’ve written that morning, and I try to edit then. Clean it up. And that’s how I write books!” 

From relocating to quiet, de-decorated hotel rooms to sipping coffee as the sun rises to running, swimming or walking, the sources and modes of creative inspiration come in all forms and places.

Hiking 2,000 Miles to a Novel

“Walking a trail frees my mind to wander.” —Me

Like most writers past and present, Truman Capote had a favorite method of getting his creative juices flowing: writing while lying on his back, often with a glass of sherry in one hand and a pencil in the other. In my case, I’ve tended to lie on my stomach, on a thin foam pad in my tent, propped up on my elbow with my flashlight in one hand (I know, I could use a headlamp) and my pen in the other. No sherry for me, though; I prefer a Nalgene bottle of filtered creek water, even with nature’s floaties in the mix. 

That was often the scene as I wrote my first novel while hiking the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. Over a bit more than half of those 2,169.4 miles, I wrote snippets of story (which had nothing whatsoever to do with backpacking or the great outdoors) on scraps of crinkled paper and a napkin now and then, while lying in my silnylon shelter after the day’s hiking was done. I’d scribble bits of scenes or dialogue from the much longer mental movie I had watched as I’d hiked for hours, and then mail batches of those crinkled snippets back home each time I passed through or hitchhiked to a trail town, which happened roughly every three days to a week. 

Stanford researchers have found that walking boosts creative inspiration—that the act of walking itself, and not the environment, is the main factor. In that case, on the Appalachian Trail, I guess I had creative inspiration on acid.

This is basically how it happened:

On June 22, 2000, I was 82 days and 935 miles into my thru-hike. I was walking along near the northern end of Shenandoah National Park, talking with my new friend, Kit, otherwise known by her trail name Split P (but not nicknamed after the soup). Our conversation that morning touched on many topics and eventually turned to writing and real people who would make interesting models for fictional characters. And that’s when Split P began telling me a little about a therapist a friend of hers had known, until the man passed away in the early ’90s. I was fascinated. As the day went along and more miles passed beneath my feet, the man Split P had described morphed into a character I would soon name I. Joseph Kellerman. Purely figments of my own imagination, Constance Fairhart, Orla Heffel, Bernie Babbish, Lucille McBride and Maggie Carlisle also began to come alive before I fell asleep in my tent that night. 

Throughout the next three months on the trail, I spent countless hours walking and camping with Kellerman and the gang, and came to know them well. When I returned home in early October after completing my hike, I gathered all those scraps of snippets I’d mailed from the trail, arranged them in some sort of order, rearranged a few times, and then typed the first draft of my novel. That process took six weeks. The story and the characters went through a number of transformations during the editing process, culminating in the book that bears the name of the character who only somewhat resembles the real man who’d inspired the idea, and with no hint of what I was doing when I was inspired to write it.

More Creative Inspiration on Shorter Long-Distance Trails

“What keeps life fascinating is the constant creativity of the soul.” — Deepak Chopra

It’s said that Michelangelo was usually so caught up in his works of art that he would spend weeks wearing the same clothes and shoes. I can relate.

Since that first novel, conceived in a by-then well-worn pair of hiking boots and synthetic trail clothes that could nearly stand up on their own, I’ve written a second novel, a number of essays, several short stories and hundreds of articles. But since the Appalachian Trail, I haven’t been able to be quite so self-indulgent—to break away to spend months getting inspired on another uber-long footpath (e.g., there’s the Pacific Crest, The Continental Divide Trail, the American Discovery Trail and so many other tantalizing adventures). 

That said, day hikes, early morning neighborhood walks or painfully slow jogs just don’t do it for me, even though I do them a lot. For creative inspiration, it usually takes me a while—as in, days or weeks—to walk off the serious business of life. On a short outing, I barely finish planning, budgeting, problem solving or chewing on what’s been irking me lately before I get back to the house. It takes many more miles of walking or hiking before I can leave behind the trappings of adulting day in and day out, to free my mind to wander to much more wild and wonderful places. 

But instead of months and thousands of miles, two or three weeks and dozens to 200 miles or so have had to suffice. Backpacking for a week in Wyoming’s Wind River Range and, soon after, several days on Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands Trail led to my second novel. The John Muir Trail—southbound one year, northbound the next—inspired some short stories and the creative ‘oomph’ for umpteen articles. It was challenging to conjure creative writing while battling clouds of blood-sucking mosquitoes on footpaths and canoe routes in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters, but I did come up with other types of inspiration while on those adventures. And Grand Canyon trails and routes have contributed to characters, scenes and fictional conversations for some future projects. 

The act of walking with a pack on my back, in all sorts of weather, along with the physical discomforts, sometimes the fear and often the feelings of mental and physical freedom are what does it for me. That’s my kind of creative meditation.

Finding Big Inspiration in the Little Things

“Creativity is just connecting things.” —Steve Jobs

While the panoramic vistas and far-reaching macro views are awesome, it’s noticing the micro of life that’s most inspiring to me. It’s seeing a slug hitching a ride a caterpillar’s back; the wee frog poking its head out from a mossy trap door between my thumb and forefinger as I braced myself with my hand on an old fallen tree; the look and smells of wildflowers I can’t name; a tree growing out of a crack in a rock. Those are the sort of details and minutia I notice, especially when I’ve been hiking for a while, that inspire me to write. And it’s noticing those details and so many more that allowed me to “see” and “smell” Dr. I. Joseph Kellerman’s cluttered brownstone home and office, which he hadn’t left for years (psychiatrists can have issues, too, after all). The “little things” I discover in nature seem to sharpen my senses in a way that sharpens my creativity too. 

Other Ways You Might Find Your Own Creative Inspiration

“Creativity is intelligence having fun.” — Albert Einstein

Have you heard that by the age of five, we’re using about 80 percent of our creative potential? If that’s the case, we sure do need keep practicing those creativity-enabling activities. Use it or lose it, they say. But if walking for many miles with a pack on your back isn’t your thing, there are plenty of other ways to discover and rediscover your creative genius. Here are some less time-consuming ideas that fit more easily into everyday life:

  • Listen to music you love or maybe something unfamiliar. At least one study shows that happy music really helps get inspired. 
  • Dance. Poorly is fine.
  • Go for a walk—around the neighborhood, around town, on a favorite trail.
  • Spend time in nature in any way you please, even just sitting, watching and listening.
  • Change mediums. E.g., if you’re a writer, try painting or sketching; if you’re a painter, write … or create food … or write a poem. 
  • Go somewhere—a coffee shop, sidewalk café, park bench, etc.—and people-watch (and eavesdrop too, of course). 
  • Write in a journal. Full sentences not required.
  • Run, row, ride your bike, hula hoop or do any other form of movement you enjoy that frees your mind.
  • Look at art, indoors or out.
  • Take a break from the mundane and go somewhere new to you, even in your home town—take a new walking route, visit a museum you’ve never been to, browse an interesting mom-and-pop shop, etc.
  • Read books you love and maybe even some you think really suck (sometimes the suck can inspire us to create something amazing).
  • Talk to any imaginary friend (the shower is a good place, and you can even mouth the words).
  • Play like a kid, think like a kid. Make a snowman or sand castle, finger paint or build a fort, or even hit the swing set if the swing fits.
  • Do a puzzle (the kind with pieces or the crossword kind, etc.) or word games or play Freecell (one of my personal go-to favorites when I want to switch over to a different part of my brain).
  • Play with or just talk to your dog … or cat or pig or what have you (might beat the imaginary friend thing above).
  • Meditate.
  • Do nothing (see also: meditate).
  • Sleep (see also: do nothing) … or just lie in bed in the dark and daydream (I like to put the covers over my head if it’s not too warm).

That’s about it for my ideas. What about you? What’s your favorite way (or ways) to get your creative groove on? Please share with us, no matter how odd or “out there,” in the comments below.

And remember…

“You can’t use up creativity. The more you use the more you have.” — Maya Angelou

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