Earlier this week, I took out my keys and discovered that one key inexplicably had become wedged in the ring of another one such that I could not for the life of me untangle them. It was like one of these mechanical disentanglement puzzles that I was never very good at solving. All week I wrestled with them every time I took them out, alternating between reasoned calculation and frustrated acts of force, but with no success.
Yesterday morning after finishing a rather unproductive session of dissertation writing at the coffee shop, I put the pointy ball of keys in my pocket for the ride to work. When I arrived and took them out to lock up, I noticed with some amazement that they were no longer tangled. Apparently, my peddling for 25 minutes was smarter than days of conscious effort, but at this point I wasn't complaining.
I took it as a metaphor for writing, reminding me that sometimes writing happens best when I'm trying the least. Of course, a good deal of writing happens with deliberate, focused attention on the task, but I should never discount the subconscious work of writing that often gets me through the knottier periods when I can't seem to untangle a particular ball of thoughts. Quite regularly the real writing of the morning happens either on the ride to work when the ideas are still warm from a couple hours of writing or on the ride home when thoughts re-animate themselves once I've relaxed my white-knuckled grip on them.
Writing is not a brain-in-a-vat activity; it is as embodied as anything else, even though it's easy to forget when I'm in the mode of writing that involves putting words on the page. Biking is my favorite way to write when I'm not at the computer, but running or walking or taking a shower often can work just as well–whatever method let's the body do some of the heavy lifting for a while so the mind get the sweat out of its eyes and tie its shoes before making its next sentence.