Writing and Recreating by Sean Ulman

I’ve got some go-to hikes. Mt. Marathon’s Jeep trail. Lost Lake. Routine routes, my basis, build a training base. There are surprises. Birds, conditions, thoughts. The same trail is different every hike. But getting the goods – exercise, fresh air, mindset reset – is the same. All I have to do is go.

I’ve got some writing habits. Weekdays. Up early. Start coffee. Spark woodstove. Computer, pen, paper, coffee. Music. I read and edit what I wrote the day before. Pick up where I left off.

My system is ordinary. And essential.

I value when it’s going good. Try to stay at it. Be patient when it’s going clunky. Value those sessions, too. The encore, just before I rise from the chair, is always scratching notes helter skelter. The prize of what comes next. Discovery is achieved by writing up to it. The pen or keyboard like a pick and shovel. Or goldpan.

I finished a new novel manuscript in February. It’s about senior citizens, homemade ice cream and Instagram. Finding new pieces to the puzzle was automatic. All I had to do was sit.

I think we can hit a higher level of operation, even consciousness, when we write. The start can be tricky, like going for a run in subzero temps. There’s a warm up. The first sentences come slow. But once I get up to speed thoughts can chug.

My dad wrote sports for the AP for 45 years. Many letters on his keyboards were worn away, like blank scrabble tiles, from vigorous typing. He worked from home before it was vogue. Hearing the keystroke percussion from down the hall, I’d know he was into the music of game action, quotes, stats – the athletics of a logical story that any reader could breathe in like air.

In Bernard Malamud’s novel “The Tenants,” a writer character shares a John Keats quote with another writer while they are drinking red wine.

“I am convinced more and more day by day that fine writing is next to fine doing the top thing in the world.”

In the next scene that writer is “depressed, one useless morning, dispossessed of confidence in himself as a writer, as he sometimes was” and goes to a museum.

Sometimes I don’t feel like writing. Or running. Or doing anything.

On down days I try to force these tried-and-true routines. Healthy habits of writing and running have helped me dodge some dips in mood. Or bounced me out of the snake pit before the teeth can sink in, secrete poison.

Endorphins are part of it. A chemical change occurs when I’m sweating up a mountain. Same sorta thing with writing. Something switches when I’m working at it. I feel better. Enlivened mind. Momentum. My body is getting stronger, my times faster. My novel is progressing.

So routine is good for both writing and recreating.

What about breaking routines? Surely there is tremendous value here as well.

There is nothing better than hiking a new trail. My ripened senses arc out for new information. As I reflect back on some first hikes I picture a William Steig children’s book. All is alight, magical. The woods are glowing. Frilly ferns brush my knees. Warblers trill over burbling rills. Part of me expects the river otter I surprised to remark, “So you found a new one, eh?” before it lurches down the bouldered bank.

When stories (characters, styles, sentences) break usual patterns and embark on new ground – it can feel like hiking a new trail. New directions. A writer is an inventor.

I spent some time with my parents on Cape Cod this winter. I had my writing routine locked in – up early, warm up with journaling (new for me), hammer at the novel. Then out the door for a run.

My regular jog was a 9-hole golf course around the corner. But things got more interesting when I started exploring. Beyond a chain link barrier, I spied a trail crisped with oak leaves. The fence was peeled back. I stepped over. The path treated me to three route options – descent to a big lake with a sandy beach, a twisting 3-mile single track circuit under white pines and a subdivision cut-through to a sprawling 18-hole golf course.

Stepping over fences is also good to do in writing. Attempting to grow in new ground is gratifying. See what comes up. Journaling and writing essays have informed my fiction writing. I recently wrote an odd poem. It needs work.

In my fiction I often try to get lost. Find my own way. A writer is an explorer. Chasing a new type of book is the ultimate pursuit. But just trying new things with style feels good. Strange phrases. Incomplete sentences. Plugging in a word I just learned. Loading up on dialogue. Text messages. Dream scenes. A character I can’t relate to. Write what you don’t know. Tell don’t show. To a point. A game. See how it plays out.

Crust skiing invites exploratory travel. Resurrection River bed beckoned like a blank page. I slalomed driftwood gates. Dipped in lidded creek beds. Skate skirting the river, I schussed into so much space. When I turned to head back, the mild headwind had flipped. My timing zipped up to expert level. The dimpled moonscape was smooth sailing. Gliding back over my sun-slicked V’s, I found the seed for this essay.

A week later a friend and I prospected kettle lakes in the Gray Cliffs area of Nikiski (on skis). Cold start. Windy. We sk-sk-sk’d to the trees. A dash of powder aided our sashays betwixt black spruce. Twas a kick kicking beside newer growth’s tips of these Dr. Seuss-y tufts. And over lynx tracks.

Breaking out of the trees onto new lakes was the big rush. Pushing into fresh space.

Writing can be like that.

I bet Keats would’ve dug crust skiing.

Sean Ulman’s novel Seward Soundboard was published by Cirque Press. He hosts a radio show Seward Sound Words – local writers reading their work live on the air. New episodes are available on youtube, on the @SAKtown channel.

2 thoughts on “Writing and Recreating by Sean Ulman”

  1. Thanks for the great read. Once again you put the reader in your running shoes and gliding on your skis. I can appreciate the places you go and the processes occurring in that time span. You make such a great connection with physical and mental activities. This gives me a better understanding of your writing process and how you are navigating it. Tom

  2. Justine Pechuzal

    Your essay has the momentum as skate skiing! Thanks for the tried and true reminders that good stuff comes out of consistency and effort. I enjoyed the glimpse into your dad’s writing career as well.

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