Tales of the Open Road
How a Bike Ride Across America Cured my Writer's Block
The hardest part about writing is finding that burst of inspiration that sets a story in motion; the delicately woven plot, the complex characters, the twists that make your readers stay up well past their bedtimes. When writer’s block hits, it can feel like these details will never fall into place, no matter how much we rack our brains. For me, the solution has never been to force the process. Instead, I pop in my headphones and get moving. The longer, (and more brainless) the activity, the better.
I’ve often used long walks to fuel my storylines. I’ve heard the term "maladaptive daydreaming" to describe the process of getting sucked into a fantasy world, but I’ve never liked using such a clinical-sounding term for something so thoroughly enjoyable. Some of my very first memories are walking through the New England woods, Walkman clutched in one hand, as I imagined myself fighting in epic battles or saving the princess (or prince) from danger. Each song held it’s own story that I could slip into with the push of a button. When teenage angst hit me like a cement truck, I found solace in the worlds that I had built and the characters that had begun to inhabit them. They were a refuge from the social battleground of middle and high school.
In 2011, my husband accepted a job in Silicon Valley, which meant a total life upheaval for me. In an effort put a happy spin on moving 3,000 miles from friends and family, I decided to turn it into an adventure: bicycle across the United States. No support, no partners, just me and my thoughts for two months on the open road. I pictured the wild moments I’d have, the colorful people I’d run into…adventure was calling my name, and I was ready to answer.
In reality, I did have some daredevil moments (drafting 18-wheelers on the freeway), and I met hordes of colorful characters (one man left his family to walk 5,000 miles to the Amazon), but nothing prepares you for the long moments between those gems. Every day, I rode about seventy-five miles. Towing a trailer, that’s about six hours of staring at tarmac. Every. Single. Day. The ten days stretching across Texas seemed to bend the laws of relativity. Every day, I said some variation of, “I’ve only been riding for a half hour? I’ve only ridden three miles?” You can only occupy your mind with thoughts of family, food, or sleeping arrangements for so long. And that moment when your mind goes blank is when the magic happens.
I had an iPod Nano with me (back when Apple still made such things) and my husband had loaded a playlist with new music. One song was just heaven for bicycling—catchy, a quick beat, steady buildup. It was Usher’s “More,” a song that has since faded into obscurity. I listened to it on repeat for hours at a time, letting it guide my daydreams. I had recently watched the paintball episode of Community, and the daydream that unfolded was a paintball match, all timed to the beats of the song. Over hundreds of repetitions, that daydream evolved to include characters with names, faces, and personalities. It became the very first scene in the Langyan Series.
Over the next two months, almost every song on that playlist had a scene attached to it. The upbeat ones guided the action, while slow songs provided the emotional moments. My long days of drudgery faded into the background. I no longer noticed the mind-numbing blacktop as I rode. All I saw were the stories unfolding in front of my eyes. When I finally reached the Pacific Ocean, I had two novels packed into my brain, with no extra effort my part. (Well, except for biking 3,000 miles, but you catch my drift.)
As the Langyan Series progresses, I often joke to my husband that it’s time for another marathon bike ride. Day hikes and weekend backpacking trips are great for coming up with short stories or filling in plot holes, but nothing beats the wide open road for creating a new story from scratch.
Adventure is calling, and for the sake of my writing, I must go.