Author Archives: Michele Weber Hurwitz

How Travel Opens Our Writing Eyes

Writers definitely like their routines. Coffee, tea, a specific playlist, a brisk morning walk — whatever it is, we all seem to have something (or many somethings) we do regularly before we sit down to write.

There’s no doubt that routines can be helpful, especially for writers who tend to procrastinate. But recently, a writer friend who returned from a few weeks of travel to different locales remarked how stimulating the travel had been for her writing brain. It opened up her eyes, she said. Getting out of her usual routine made her think and see differently, and she came home with a new perspective on her work-in-progress.

And I thought, duh. Routines can easily turn into ruts for writers who work every day in the same place and at the same time, whether it’s at home, the neighborhood coffee shop, or that one corner cubicle at the library. Routines can drive and comfort writers but also can sometimes stifle creativity.

Travel, as my friend discovered, can open our eyes and writing brains to all sorts of possibilities.

First, of course, there’s setting. Being in a different place can generate all sorts of ideas for new and unique settings. When I travel, I love to look at big things like monuments and skyscrapers and oceans, but also small things, like how cobblestones are arranged on a street and the way people plant their gardens or what kind of curtains adorn the windows of an interesting looking house. And be honest, doesn’t an old, abandoned barn just beg to have you imagine its past?

Travel can provide numerous opportunities for developing unique characters with diverse backgrounds. Like many writers, I watch people wherever I go — their mannerisms, clothing, hairstyles, expressions, accents. I love observing people in line to buy hot dogs in New York, or a brother and sister building a sand castle on a beach, or an older couple holding hands on a park bench. I imagine their stories. I imagine how I would write their stories.

And dialogue! Travel gives a writer the chance to listen to people you might never hear again. Years ago, I took a summer class at the University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop. One of our assignments was to sit outside for an hour and write down snippets of overheard dialogue. That was the best possible exercise in learning to write realistic, believable dialogue. I still do it sometimes, especially when I travel. I love hearing the flavor of another place through both natives and tourists. One line spoken by a passer-by can generate countless imaginary ideas!

Finally, traveling and getting out of a writing routine can make you remember to take risks and have fun! Sticking to a routine and having daily writing goals can sometimes make writers forget that all-important element of enjoying and having fun with your work. Traveling turns routines upside-down, and the unexpected, unpredictable places you go and people who cross your path will undoubtedly give you fresh, novel ideas. Even if you’re just going to a different coffee shop.

Middle Grade Goes to College

A unique comparative literature class at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, uses the popular American Girl books as part of its assigned reading. Yes, the college students who are enrolled in the course read the very same middle grade books about Addy, Kirsten, and Kaya. Assistant Professor Brigitte Fielder’s course contrasts the American Girl stories with 19th and 20th century literature to explore the definitions of “American” and “girl.” It’s been a popular course each spring semester, attracting many nostalgic students who grew up with the iconic dolls and books.

The American Girl company (now owned by Mattel) is based near Madison and since 1986, has been selling dolls, accessories, and books focused on a wide range of historical periods and cultural perspectives. The company has long supported diverse characters and stories.

Students in Fielder’s class also read Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs, as these books offer a contrast to the content in the American Girl stories.

The professor frames the class around the notion of American girlhood — what it means to be American, to be a girl, and to be an American girl. She feels the AG books offer a broad example of the different lives of many girls over time who lived in America — whether or not they were considered “American” during their lifetimes due to slavery or being an immigrant. Fielder believes the books stimulate critical thinking skills about gender and race, whether they’re read by college students or middle graders.

Interestingly, after the course ends, some of the participants have rediscovered middle grade and YA books.  One student who took the course included such favorites as S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie as must-reads on her blog’s 2017 reading bucketlist.

Obviously, I’m a big champion of all things middle grade, but seeing MG books included as part of a college course just made me want to stand up and cheer. I firmly believe that reading MG lit can be life-changing, whether you’re 12, 18, or 45!

Writing and Yoga

Last month, I took a one-night workshop on yoga and writing with middle grade author Jenny Meyerhoff. Jenny is an avid yogi and says her practice has helped immensely with her writing. I was intrigued (which is why I went) but I admit, also a little skeptical. Breathing and stretching? How could that help with my writing?

But I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised by the concept! During the workshop, we did yoga poses and breathing exercises for stress relief, creativity, and focus. We also did some poses to relieve back strain from constant butts in chairs!

When I got home, I looked up ‘yoga and writing’ online and thousands of matches came up! I didn’t know this was a thing, but there are countless yoga retreats, classes, and groups specifically meant for writers.

The philosophy behind the connection makes great sense, actually — that the stillness and calm (hopefully) achieved during yoga can help writers quiet the noise and tune in to their inner clarity and thoughts. While in a yoga pose, breathing, or meditating, you concentrate on clearing away worries of what’s on your to-do list or the pile on your desk, allowing your mind to be open to ideas and inspiration. This is essential for the dig-deep kind of writing, where you’re truly “in” the work.

There are many times I’ve shoved my overfilled calendar into a drawer and put my phone on silent, yet I still find my mind drifting to those nagging little tasks while I’m writing. Since the workshop, I’ve been trying to practice yoga breathing when that happens, and I’ve found it does help bring me back to the work.

Another benefit and connection between yoga and writing is learning to take things at your own pace. And not compare! In yoga, it’s not important what the person next to you is doing (even if it’s the most amazing eagle pose you’ve ever seen), you just focus on what you can do.  Same goes for writing. When you compare yourself to another (undoubtedly more successful) writer, we all know that never turns out well.

Yoga also can help writers learn to move on when a manuscript needs to be put aside or doesn’t sell, as the practice teaches acceptance.

Yoga also perfects your posture, increases your blood flow, and improves balance. On top of all that, it boosts creativity! Hard to argue with those benefits for us writerly people who often sit for hours, wracking our brains and wrecking our backs 🙂

I plan to incorporate yoga into my writing this summer, and I’m excited to see what happens. Wish me luck. Namaste!