The human brain remains a mysterious organ despite the insights and revelations researchers uncover each year. The Atlantic recently published an article by Nancy C. Andreasen about the creative brain and how it works. As I read it, I thought of my own creative brain — of how I know it works, and how I enhance its performance. I enhance my brain's performance? Yes, and I stumbled onto this method in the most mundane way.
Several years ago, my doctor became concerned about the circulation in my lower legs. She wanted me to walk even more than I already was, to really give my legs a workout. I decided to use my apartment building's four flights of stairs. Every morning, I "walked the hallways" — that is, I walked briskly down the back stairs to the ground floor, the length of the building's hallway to the front, up the front stairs to the top floor and again the length of the building's hallway, then repeat. At first, I read while I walked. Then I switched to listening to music.
I craved Brahms, so I began with Brahms' Second Piano Concerto. This is passionate music, full of color and driving rhythms, as well as gorgeous quiet moments. As I walked, I focused on the music, and my mind began to wander, skip, and twirl along with the music. Encouraged by the music, my imagination came out to play. It played through scenes in the novel I was working on, presenting solutions to problems, giving me ideas to flesh out characterizations, suggesting necessary edits I had not seen before. This was amazing to me. Every morning, I walked, listened to music, and played with my writing, accomplishing far more than if I'd simply sat at my computer and stared at the words on the screen.
When I began work on my second novel, my desire for walking music centered on Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto, a wickedly difficult piece of music to play but a joy to listen to. I followed the same routine each morning, six days a week. I walked with Rachmaninoff, letting my imagination play with the music to help me imagine this new story, its characters and their direction.
I believe now the music stimulated that part or parts of my brain that I use to mentally visualize characters, action, and places. According to Andreasen, the music perhaps puts my brain into REST mode and the association cortices are going wild. Did I ever tire of the same music every day? No. That's the thing about classical music: there's always something new to hear even with familiar music.
My third novel begins in Finland. Despite my conductor protagonist conducting Brahms symphonies in the story, I wanted to hear Sibelius — specifically his second symphony. I walked the hallways with that symphony in my ears, imagining again scenes in the story, working through the sketch of an outline, having new characters jump into my mind with the music.
It's amazing how much work, specifically creative thinking work, I accomplish during my morning hallway walks. The circulation in my lower legs has improved. Oddly, when I'm at my computer actually laying the words onto the page, I need silence. I usually don't listen to music at that time. I don't need it. The thinking has already been done.
Cinda Yager writes essays, fiction, and two blogs in Minneapolis. She loves classical music and has just published an e-book novel set in the classical music world, Perceval's Secret.