Two months after I began an MFA program, deep in a pandemic winter, I fractured my ankle.

“A chunk of bone came off when you tore the ligament,” said the emergency doc, looking at the CT scan. “No running for a few months,” said the physio.


Running is how I self-medicate out of low-level depression and into cheery and productive sanity. Running during a pandemic—after six months of homeschooling, in a deepening vortex of Zoom—is how I was determinedly elevating myself from slug to human, just about.

Running is also how I write.

Mind Flight

I keep good company in this. Many writers are runners. Haruki Murakami wrote a whole book about his love of the two pursuits and their entanglement.

“In running the mind flies with the body, the mysterious efflorescence of language seems to pulse in the brain, in rhythm with our feet and the swinging of our arms,” wrote Joyce Carol Oates in the New York Times. “The structural problems I set for myself in writing, in a long, snarled, frustrating and sometimes despairing morning of work, for instance, I can usually unsnarl by running in the afternoon.”

Unsnarl. That’s exactly it.

Say, for example, I’m writing an essay on the complex topic of trust and I get stuck. I’ve written paragraphs on conspiracy theories and the reality of COVID-19. I’ve written about myself naked, aged seven, in the bath with my sister, framed by wallpaper with wild orange flowers. About the 1994 massacre of 800,000 Tutsis and Hutu moderates in Rwanda.

All these chunks of writing relate to trust. Or betrayal. But there is no easy thread connecting them. The essay feels like an amateur circus of mistimed trapeze leaps and lumbering elephants. I’m tired. My thoughts, like Joyce Carol Oates’, are snarled.

So, I go for a run.

I pull on the sports bra, lace up my runners. My calves take it from there, leaping forward of their own volition. My thoughts run wild like the ferns and Garry Oak I sprint between. My mind mulls, obsesses, circles back, leaps off, spills its anxieties to the wind. A part of me is detached from this mental wandering, aware only of my beating heart.

The chill of my earlobes.

The scent of damp moss.

And suddenly, I have this brilliant idea—to frame the essay with a slideshow of photographs, moments of trust and betrayal, real and imagined. All those disparate musings slot themselves into the perfect structure in my mind. I watch the slideshow over and over as I run, excited, hoping to remember this structure until I can scrawl it down. 

Science would say the run was raising my levels of feel-good endocannabinoids and beta-endorphins and improving my cognitive functioning and neuroplasticity—including executive function, memory and attention.

At home, of course, my perfect structure seems a little less perfect. Not all the pieces fit the slideshow, and my idea evolves. The run has helped immensely, though—given me the frame I needed to hang the essay on.

Brooding Body 

But now what? Can’t run with a fractured ankle, can’t write?

Luckily, I still have dance.

The kind of ecstatic dancing I do doesn’t require a solid ankle, or any particular body part at all. If your legs don’t work, you can dance 5Rhythms with your arms. Or you can dance flipped-over-beetle-style, spinning on your back on the floor.

But you don’t have to do my kind of dancing. You can do any kind of dancing.

The only requirement: Sink into some music that you love and let your body move. Mozart, The Doors, Chinese opera, Nina Simone, Lizzo—all good. Pay attention to your jaw, your shoulders, your fists, your hips. Release tension. What do your knuckles have to say? Your toes? Your womb? Soften. Harden. Move however you want. “Don’t resist any impulse, as long as it won’t hurt you,” one of my teachers says.

Running helps the mind untangle wound-up thoughts; it stirs loose what is clotted. Dance takes you into your body. Helps you feel the emotion brooding underneath a story. Sparks new connections, often symbolically. Loosens hidden memories.

Sound, rhythm, lyrics … they interface with your subconscious.

Say I’m writing an essay about my enduring childlike need to be good. I am contemplating virtue ethics and cardinal sins. I set an intention to explore this piece as I dance, and then I let my mind float free, my hands twisting, shimmying, twirling.

I stretch them out and a string of scenes from my life appears between them: A moral question posed by my headmistress when I was five: “If you had one cookie and both you and your friend were hungry, what would you do?” A postdoctoral research interview with an egg donor in Mexico: “I need the money. They pay SO BAD.” The music speeds up and I prance around the room. Breasts jubilant. Waist joyful. Hips jaunty. Suddenly, a boy behind me on the bus when I was a virginal 19: “Slut!”

All useful material.

The beats are pumping now. Relax every part of your body. I feel like I’m being pushed into a fast current, body curving with the water, amid a herd of flailing Zebra. What if you step out of the way of what’s already happening? I hear bees. They swarm my face, my head, down my arms to my fingertips. Suddenly I want a character who is a beekeeper, a bee whisperer. A new story starts to form.

I dart off to write it down.

Rhythmic Intention

Dance improves cognitive function and counteracts the effects of aging on the brain. But there’s also hand drumming, which thickens the fibres between brain hemispheres. Could a daily drum session (hands tapping a beat on your tabletop) help you more dexterously weave sensory experience with research evidence, into a piece of literary journalism?

Cycling increases activation of semantic memory (the part that stores general knowledge). Could a bike ride help you fill in the blank spots on your recent lyric essay? And swimming increases blood flow to your cerebral arteries. Would that enrich your metaphors? Strengthen your sentence structures?

How about skiing? Lawn bowling? Hiking? Capoeira?

Give it a whirl! Pick a rhythmic physical activity that appeals. Choose a writing intention or a problem you are grappling with. Squirrel a pen and notebook in your pocket. Set a timer for twenty minutes, get moving, and notice what happens.

Heather Walmsley is a British-Canadian writer and editor, living as a guest with her partner, two daughters and puppy, on the traditional territory of the Lekwungen peoples in Victoria, British Columbia.