In addition to my self-assigned task of drafting a novel, and the pen-for-hire work I do for a major medical center, I write five essays a month: two posts for this blog, two Commentaries for Vermont Public Radio, and a column for The Commons, my local, independent, newspaper. The wonderful thing about these essays is that I get to write about whatever I want to, within generous parameters: For Live to Write, Write to Live, I write about the writing life; for the radio, I write about Vermont life; and for the newspaper, I write about life in Windham County.
Most of the time, I have plenty to say, and the challenge is to focus on a single topic in an interesting and informative way. But every once in a while, I find myself hyperventilating with anxiety because my deadline is fast approaching and I’m parched for ideas.
Somehow, I’ve always managed to squeak something out, but I don’t like the race the to wire, so I’ve developed a two-fold strategy to avoid this eleventh-hour brinksmanship: I keep lists of ideas, and I walk.
My lists are like a safe-deposit box filled with uncut gemstones. When I need to find a topic, I open the box and sift through the raw ideas until I find one whose heft feels right. I rub my thumb along a rough edge, turn it in the light, and pocket it for further examination. Some of these stored ideas spend years in the box – until the season or politics or moment is just right, and some may never see the light of day.
Once I choose a rough idea, I pocket it in the back of my mind. Just carrying it around for a bit helps me think my way around an idea while I’m performing other tasks of daily life. But when I’m ready to get serious about thinking something through, I go for a walk.
I walk a lot – four to six miles a day. It is during this walk that I find my way in to an essay – often I hear the first line, which gives me the voice and the conceit of the piece. When I return to my desk, I write. Sometimes, I hear this voice before I’ve reached the end of the drive, and sometimes, I don’t hear it until I’ve climbed to the top of the hill. Once I’ve got it, I look up and see where I am, sometimes noticing the weather or landscape for the first time that day.
Walking is not the only way I find my way in to an essay, but it is my favorite. I can also let my mind freewheel when I’m at the wheel of the car. I keep a notebook and pen on board, so I can make notes when I arrive at my outward destination, in order to remember these ideas when I return home. There must be something about forward motion that helps me shake ideas into place.
In addition to warehousing ideas so that I can meet my deadlines, these strategies provide other satisfactions: When I’ve used an idea, I enjoy crossing it off the list; and when I’ve figured out my way in to an essay, I enjoy the exercise and fresh air of my walk.
How do you find topics to write about?
Deborah Lee Luskin is novelist, essayist and educator. She is a regular commentator for Vermont Public Radio, a Visiting Scholar for the Vermont Humanities Council and the author of the award winning novel, Into The Wilderness. For more information, visit her website at www.deborahleeluskin.com
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