Writing Stories on a Treadmill
“How do I find inspiration?”
Start with the world you know
One of the most popular topics here on Medium or on any writer-centric social media platform is “How do I find inspiration?” I’ve lost track of the replies I’ve written on the subject, or how many times I’ve been asked this during lectures to up-and-coming writers. I’m never dismissive in answering the question because it comes up so often that there must be some systemic failure on the part of English composition teachers, editors, mentors, and other successful writers to whom the novice scribe looks for advice. Those of us who write for a living — full-time or freelance — have gotten so used to the pat answer that I think we forget how frustrating an answer that can be to a new writer.
The simplest answer — which rarely satisfies the questioner — is “Inspiration is all around us; write what you see.” “Easy for you to say,” they respond, “but to me, finding something to write about every day is really hard. How do you do manage to do it?” Putting myself in the shoes of the beginning writer, I tell them about the young me, 55 years ago, at the time when I was just starting out as a writer.
My first mentor
When I take that long look back, I recall my writing mentor — my mother — showing me, rather than telling me, what was all around me that could serve as inspiration for a short story or even just a journal entry. She was a fine writer in her own right, and as the daughter of a novelist and movie screenwriter, she had the genes to pass along.
- She pointed out my hobby as a model airplane builder and suggested that I could write about why I like to build models, and what it’s like to assemble and paint a plastic model airplane. “Write about that,” she said.
- She noted that since we were a military family and had moved a dozen times in 15 years, that I must have accumulated rich memories of the places I’d known and people I met. “Write about traveling around the world,” she said.
- I was very much into astronomy back then, and I’d recently completed grinding my own telescope mirror — a lengthy, and messy but delicate process. My mom pointed to the completed telescope and noted that not only was there a story to write about the hard work that went into grinding the mirror, there was also a story about how I got interested in astronomy in the first place, and what it meant to me to stare out into space through the eyepiece of my very own hand-made telescope. “Write about space,” she said.
- She even pointed out a go-kart I owned that would become the subject of one of my hardest life stories I wrote many years later. “You love driving around on that,” she said. “Write what it’s like to drive a go-kart.” Eventually I would.
“Write about what is in front of you,” she would say when my imagination flagged.
One of the most valuable lessons of my writing life
Patience was a virtue when it came to showing me what to do
Several years later, when I was working as a new reporter for a local daily newspaper here in Virginia, my managing editor, Carol Griffee, assigned me to photograph a Memorial Day wreath-laying in an Alexandria cemetery. I accomplished the task, and when I got back to the newspaper — on Sunday when it was closed except for the press room — I processed the film and made a print of the wreath-laying. I took it to the head pressman who stared at me like I had half a head. “Where’s the caption for this, kid?” he asked. I said I was just assigned to take the picture. He came back with, “No, I was told you were assigned to cover the wreath-laying, so you need to give me a caption to go along with the picture. I don’t have all day.”
Thus chastised and corrected, I went into the darkened newsroom and found a typewriter and some paper which I rolled into the black machine. I began typing what I thought was a good description of the event, knocking out about 100 words, and feeling pleased with my teen-aged self for getting so much into so little space. I took my “caption” to the pressman. “This isn’t a caption, kid,” he said with clear disgust. “Give me about 20 words — short ones if you can — and hurry it up.” The look on my face must have been as priceless as it was blank. “Just-write-what’s-in-the-picture. That’s all. Write what was in front of you,” he said with what I know now was the patience of Job.
Finally getting it right
There is nothing like having a grizzled old pressman who is working on a deadline stare at you as if you were holding up the print run of the Washington Post. I went back to the newsroom, came up with 20 words about the event, and handed it to my now-head-shaking-and-long-suffering press boss. “Fine,” was all he said, and took the photo and the caption. He started to walk away, then he stopped and turned back toward me. “What’s the byline on this?” he asked. I was flummoxed again. “What do we put down for your credit for the picture?” he said with a fatherly tone. “Moore,” I said. The photo below, copied from the clips album my father kept, is the result of that lesson.
The following afternoon, after the paper came out with my picture and caption buried somewhere far beyond Page One, the managing editor called me into her office. “The guys in the press room told me about the whole caption thing,” she said, with her unflappable stare. “Remember this: A caption has to tell a story in just a few words. It’s not the whole story, but it has to reflect what’s in the story,” she said. “Just write what you see in the picture; just write what the reader is seeing.”
I stayed with that paper for another year, gaining a lot of writing experience before I left for college and journalism school. But nothing in J-school brought home the need to write was in front of me like that day in the press room. I learned to write what was in front of me, whether it was about the Colorado sugar beet crop, a cattle auction, a visit by the governor, a plane crash, a town that needed an ambulance service, the local football teams, the blizzards, etc. The who, what, why, where, when, and how sort themselves out once you focus on the task that is right in front of you and open yourself up to the myriad details of everyday life and the human experience.
All of which is a lead-in to my answer about story inspiration and where to find it.
The view from the treadmill
How the ordinary gym becomes a feast for inspiration
I’m on a weight loss mission; my goal is to dump about 90 lbs. from my 70-year-old body and try to get healthy enough to see my grandchildren graduate high school — and maybe college — 18 to 20 years from now. Over the past four months, I’ve shed a bit over 60 of those pounds by sticking to a great diet, walking 2–3 miles a day, and hitting the gym every other day.
My low-impact (no jogging) gym routine created by my personal trainer, Mary, begins with 40 minutes on a treadmill, set in “random” mode for a variety of hills at a good walking speed. That usually works out to a little over two miles at a 3.2 mph pace. After the treadmill, I do about 30 minutes of lower- and upper-body exercises, including free weights and resistance bands and one or two machines.
So, what does all of this have to do with writing? Well, let’s start with the fact that I’m a writer, and like you, I need characters for my stories. To create them, I have the same choice you do: I can weave them out of the whole cloth of my imagination, or I can go in search of them in the world outside my writing space. Over the years, I’ve learned that the path of least resistance for a writer is to write what you know, or, in this case, what you see right in front of you.
From my treadmill view of the club pool, to the interactions I have with club members working out around the gym floor and in the club lobby and parking lot, I observe a very broad spectrum of children, men, and women of all ages, ethnicities, colors, and physical abilities taking advantage of the club’s facilities. If you are a writer, such an atmosphere of human diversity makes for a rich field of story inspirations.
As a reporter and editorial writer I consider the world around me the best source for characters and human-to-human interactions that would be far more difficult to conjure up in a vacuum devoid of social experiences. The people at the gym present themselves at their most publicly vulnerable, and, therefore, their most fundamental state for observation. They can’t hide behind shields of tailored, body-shaping suits or bulk-draping loose-fitting clothes, even if their workout gear is top-of-the-line; there is no makeup to hide spots or wrinkles or scars; there is nothing that defines them by blue- or white-collars; they swim or work out freed from fear of judgement because everyone at the club is working on something they want to improve.
Seven studies around the gym and pool
Let’s look at seven possible gym/pool related subjects for a novel or a few short stories: everyday men and women you will find at any gym or recreation club, but each of whom have a story only you can tell.
The driven old man
My gym schedule frequently coincides with that of a man probably 10 years my senior (and I’m 70), who looks a bit like Bernie Sanders. He is slight in build. He has white whispy hair. He wears a grey t-shirt, dark blue or black gym shorts, faded white sneakers with calf-height white socks. He comes in with a red towel over his shoulders, and a bottle of water.
At first glance, you’d think he’d be cautious with his workouts — his slender arms, thin legs, and lean face creased with hard-earned lines that tend to droop, give him a serious, focused, professorial, no-nonsense sort of Down East visage, suggesting an older man content to walk for a while on the treadmill’s conservative setting. How wrong my first impression of him was. The man is a beast on the treadmill!
While I’m fast-walking at a modest exertion setting, this guy starts out at a run, and keeps on going for an hour…thud, thud, thud, thud, thud at a full tilt. His expression is one of dogged determination, and it never changes even as the sheen of sweat turns into rivulets streaking down face; he looks straight ahead, but not as if he’s seeing the same pool outside the gym windows that I see. He is staring beyond the gym, beyond anyplace I might know, a place where he is in complete control. His story fascinates me, and I begin to write it as I wish it, not as he has lived it.
A Millennial woman on a mission
A woman comes in; she is, I’d guess, in her early 30s. Medium-length brown hair, pulled back and tied off by a scrunchy. Her face is a slightly extended oval, with high-set eyes over-arched by gently curving eyebrows. Her nose is long, with wide nostrils, and her lips are thin, top and bottom. She’s wearing a pair of gray sweatpants and a matching sweatshirt with a college logo — Indiana, I think. She has a small green gym bag over her shoulder. She stands by one of the stationary bikes, places her reusable hard-plastic water bottle in one of the bottle holders, reaches into her bag and extracts a phone and a pair of white Bluetooth earbuds, taking a moment to work them into her ears before she sits on the bike’s seat.
What is her story? It is mine to write, and I imagine her as a rising middle-management junior executive in a Virginia-side of the Potomac non-profit organization where the fit-the-mold fashion sense so common in the Washington-area legal and lobbying firms is not the culture where she works. There is none of the Type-A vibe in the woman, but there is, as I watch her increase her speed and lean into her workout, a firmness of purpose. I don’t see a ring on her left hand, and while that may just be a gym thing with her, I picture her single and content with that for now. My mental notebook flips to a new page, and in my mind’s eye, I begin to write her story.
The middle-aged mom
Beyond the gym’s windows, just entering the pool area from the women’s changing room, comes a middle-aged woman in a non-nonsense, modest, white bathing suit that gently conforms to her round figure, neither emphasizing her generous curves nor attempting to disrupt her shape. She’s wearing a white bathing cap. Her posture is perfect; shoulders back, head high, legs in a steady march to the end of the pool. This is a woman of determined routine. She has a large tan and red-striped tote over her shoulder. She places the bag on one of the blue plastic chairs on the pool’s concrete deck and rummages in the tote for a moment and pulls out a pair of pink pool shoes — the kind that fit snugly and protect against the rough bottom of the pool. She walks to the pool’s edge, sits down, and gently lowers herself into the water in the farthest of the pool’s lanes. She begins a slow, measured, front crawl down the length of the pool. As I watch her, I’m beginning to add some details.
She’s a mom of three kids, all in high school or maybe college (after all, this is the middle of the day, she’s not home caring for young children, and she doesn’t strike me as someone who would hire a nanny just so she could enjoy her pool time). Her bearing and posture remind me of my life as a military brat, raised to “stand up straight, don’t slouch,” and so I create that narrative of her life in my mental notebook. She has become new malleable material completely subject to my story-telling whims.
The danger-soaked body builder
Out of the corner of my eye, I catch a blur of red and dark gray coming up the ramp leading from the pool to the gym. I lose sight of it for a moment, then the gym door swings open and a tall, deeply-tanned, black-haired guy, thirty-ish, I’d guess, comes storming in. He is more than heavily muscled — he looks to be built of brick-sized blocks, from his calves to his shoulders. Solid, bulletproof, a do-not-fuck-with-me physique that commands attention…as form follows function, the man himself is his own nightmare. There is a fearful look to him…as if he is being chased by his darkest dreams. His eyes, deep set, almost black, dart back and forth, taking in all the treadmills, bikes, and rowing machines and the club members on them. Dismissing our presence, he hurries over to the weight machines.
There he begins a frantic workout, cycling through all the machines. Despite the “Please do not bang the weights” posters on every wall, the man drives the weights up and down with pile-driver intensity, banging each set of weights over and over and over. Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang at each station. Lift, pull, push, lift, pull, push until every machine has been punished just for being in the guy’s way.
And then he is gone. Out the door, down the ramp in a farewell blur of red shorts and gray tank top. Whew. Oxygen begins to flow back into the gym and I can feel the other club members exhaling in one collective breath. The club member in me says, “What the hell was that?” and then my writer’s mind starts working overtime to memorize the body, the intensity, the energy, and the relentless pounding noise of his workout. The guy is not just a character in a book, he is a book, though one I’m not sure I have the skills to write, such is the frenzied darkness about him. But my notebook collects him anyway.
The wounded and the healer
As some of the club members leave the gym, a few more come in. There is a frail man, thinning white hair edging the sides of a brown-spotted bald head. He has a strong chin, clear blue eyes, some scars on his forehead (and I guess he has been under the knife for basal cell cancer — as have I). His left leg is noticeably withered, and he is assisted by a young woman who, as it turns out, is his yoga coach.
She is small, lithe, and extraordinarily pretty, but it is her gentleness with the man that makes her more beautiful than all her features combined. Their stories intertwine as she carefully guides him through stretching exercises and a few modest poses that help him arc his troubled body gracefully, with dignity. I sense former great power in the man, maybe a CEO whose name I would know — and will certainly make up if I write him into a story. He is trusting, but not without a reserve of self-control that she is working with, not against. My notebook on these two fills several pages.
My own time on the treadmill is up, and I cool down before beginning my own exercise routine. Next to me, the hard-charging senior is still pounding down whatever road he is on; I know from experience he has at least 20 more minutes to go before he retires from the chase and heads out of the gym in his sweat-sodden shorts and T. The young woman has already completed her time on the stationary bike and is eyeing the rowing machine when her phone buzzes and, after looking at the screen, turns and walks quickly out the door. Duty calls, I guess. But what duty…or person? Gotta jot that down in the notebook.
The kid who would rather be somewhere else
Out in the pool, the swimmer in the white bathing cap is still on her laps, holding on to one of those small blue lozenge-shaped floats and kicking her way down the lane. I have to give her credit for determination. Walking next to her, barely aware of her rhythmic splashing, a young lifeguard makes his rounds of the pool deck. He’s either a high school senior or a college freshman…or maybe he’s in between and figuring out what to do with the rest of his life while pacing the concrete and occasionally checking the chemistry of the pool. He’s lanky with short-cropped blond hair and a tat on his shoulder. If I write about him, I’ll try not to give him a pickup truck, though there is that temptation. One more line in the notebook.
A wealth of characters at your fingertips
These seven vignettes, based on real people who I watched during my hour at the gym, should encourage you to see the characters who populate your everyday life. It’s impossible to run out of them: they are grocery store customers and employees; they are your dog’s veterinary staff; they are your teachers, or office colleagues, or the plane full of passengers you are trapped with for endless hours at 40,000 feet. They are EMTs and cops; they are church congregations, they are fast-food workers or road-repair crews you pass with hardly a blink.
But don’t do that…don’t blink. Look at them, see them in their uniforms, work clothes, suits, jeans, sweats, hoodies, bathing suits. Are their eyes deep and shadowed, or bright and cheerful? How would describe their hair, their height and width? What might they be doing in a life that you create for them in your stories? They are giving you the raw material, a wealth of characters at your fingertips. You’re the writer; write their stories. Choose your story lane and dive right in.