Running for a Song

Does bodily movement enhance creativity?

Posted Jun 30, 2017

“How do you write a song?” someone asks.

I have written nineteen songs for my musical, HAPPY IF – HAPPY WHEN, but I am new to this game, and am almost embarrassed to answer.

“I go for a run.”

Even though it is true, it seems odd. Surely I should be sitting at a piano, or with an instrument in hand, sounding out chords and melodies; but I don’t play any instrument well enough. When I want to write a song, more often than not, I lace up my sneakers and hit the road.

As I set out, my task is somewhat clear. I usually have some idea of which character will sing, at what point in the story, and why. Sometimes a word or phrase is spinning around my mind. I leave the house eager to invite a pattern of notes to take shape in an imaginal space that I have been cultivating.

How can I be sure that running will pull something sing-able into this sphere? I don’t. But it often does.

Why? As a dancer, I know music in and through the movements of my bodily self. It makes some sense that I would want to move in order to write a song. But how and why does it help?

Here I offer a few ideas. Each finds support in some mix of philosophy, religious studies, psychology, and neuroscience (see Why We Dance); and each supports the idea that dancing is vital for human life.

1. A mind is a process of generating novelty.

When I run, it doesn’t take long for the effort of putting one foot in front of the other to boost my heart rate, amp my lungs, and grab my attention. Running is not easy! Inevitably, the work shifts my sense of self. It is as if someone pulls a plug, and a pool of stagnant thoughts rushes down the drain. Left behind is a cool spring, bubbling along.   

It is then that I feel it. A mind, like every other part of a human person, exists by way of an ongoing rhythm of bodily becoming; and it is inherently creative.

My mind is not a thing. It is a process. It is a process of generating new patterns of thoughts and feelings and action-possibilities. These patterns take shape not only as mental formulations; they take shape as capacities for sensing and responding, and as neurological and biological structures the guide future thoughts, feelings, and action potentials.

Sometimes, a mind can suffer the effects of its own creative production and get locked in by movements it has made. Old patterns monopolize attention, blocking the way for new ones to emerge. At such moments, the challenge is not just to slough off an old skin, but to invite the same creativity, the same earth, that has taken shape in those thoughts to keep creating along the trajectories of movement possibility they represent.

2. Creativity is rooted in bodily movement.

The movements of running are rhythmic. I fall into a stride with a particular cadence. The patterns, though seemingly repetitive, involve infinite nuances. The angle of the torso to leg, the bend of the knee, the arc of arm, the fall of the foot can all call attention to the difference it makes to move one way and not another; each movement choice establishes a different relationship between runner, gravity, and ground. 

The simplicity of the movements involved in running thus promotes awareness of a dynamic that the art of dancing also exercises: the inherent creativity of a human mind never occurs in a vacuum. It is always occurring in the moment, for the moment; it is always bodily, situated, and relational. Whatever looms largest in consciousness acts as the attractor to which creativity bends. Whatever patterns of movement animate sensory awareness are those though which the bubbling of creativity will flow. 

Even though the movements involved in running may not appear creative, for me, the action of making them loosens whatever patterns of thinking and acting are stopping the creativity in me from responding to emerging realities in and around me -- including my own desire to welcome a song. 

3. Practices of bodily movement can stir early experiences of being open to what is.

I run outside in the country. I am not in a gym, on a treadmill, or even on a street. Many of my runs have mile long stretches on dirt roads, without stop signs or traffic lights. On one of my favorite three-mile loops passes by two homes other than my own. I run surrounded by wide open fields, huge skies, cows in their pasture, and hills on the horizon. My surroundings invite my mind to remember the open world that sustains humans and their cultural creations.

As I point out in Why We Dance, humans are born completely dependent on caregivers in order to live. Infants emerge from the womb with a lesser degree of brain development than any other primate. Given this relatively immature brain, human young need to complete their own natures by creating and becoming patterns of movement that will serve as instinctual guides in how to secure life-enabling relationships with other humans and their environment

Running takes me to a primal place where I am pliable, able to sense and respond to the desires within me, the environment around me, and the movements that move me in response. I don't forget what I know; I am more able to move from it into new patterns of understanding

As I run, everything I care about wells to the surface. What I most want floods my heart. As the intensity of my feeling rises and deepens, my thinking skips into new vistas that I am calm enough to sustain. I enjoy a taste of freedom – the freedom of participating in the ongoing creation of all that is.

Amid this quickening comes a song. I start humming a scale, up and down a sequence of notes, making audible sounds with which to play. Invariably, the notes organize themselves into a shape. I give them permission to do so. Often that shape is familiar – some piece of a song I already know -- and often from some other musical that I love. I may sing along for a while, and then I seek out a difference, allowing a known phrase to goad me farther along its trajectory of possibility, to a new yet related arrangement of sounds.

As I run, whatever bundle of notes appears takes on a life of its own. It starts singing me. I deem it “good” when I can’t stop singing it. The patterns repeat again and again, until finally they start sprouting branches – alternate endings, different transitions, or whole new sections of the song. 

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When it comes to creating, whatever the medium, the question is not how to get ideas to appear, but how to stop stopping them. Psychologically speaking, this process is often described as silencing the critic, or suspending judgment, and such ways of thinking can be helpful. Nevertheless, in light of the ideas above, even more important is learning how to quicken the flow of the creativity that always and already is, and bend it in the direction of what you most want to receive. 

Judgments are simply past patterns of movements made. They are not bad, just old. Not wrong, just irrelevant to the present moment. The best way to shed them is to catalyze the process that created them in the first place.

I do not always catch a song. I do not always want to. Even when I do want to, one does not always come. And I still rely on others to harmonize, notate, and accompany it. Yet every song that has come through me has been helped along by a blast of nature, let in by movements of running, that wakes up my kinetic creativity and sends me merrily along.

The result is a full musical, written in the country, about my family's experience of moving to the country. And when it premiers in late July, I will send these songs out in the world as an invitation for others to catch some songs of their own.