The biking season here in Vermont is winding down – at least for me it is. I’m not a rider who climbs on a bike in the snow or pedals intrepidly when the temperature is flirting with freezing. The latest in the year I have ridden is the second week in November.
I do some of my best writing while riding my bike, so the end of the season is an occupational hazard of sorts. Someone – I don’t recall who – once observed that the most important tool a writer can have is a walk. For me, it’s a ride. When I am alone on my bike somewhere between the Lake Champlain Bridge and the top of the Lincoln Gap, I am invariably thinking about whatever book I am writing.
Like many adults who log serious mileage on their bikes, there was a long period in my life when I never went near one. I rode a bike on occasion when I was 14 years old and living in Miami, Florida, and not again until I was in my late-thirties and living in Vermont. I resumed riding because I thought it would be good for me. It is. I had no idea it would also help me write.
There are a couple of reasons why I have found my bicycle such an important tool as a writer. One is the shower principle – a term I learned from the fictional Jack Donaghy on “30 Rock.” It has less to do with sweat than it does with clearing one’s mind. “The shower principle is a term scientists use to describe moments of inspiration that occur when the brain is distracted from the problem at hand – for example, when you’re showering,” Donaghy explains. I have no idea if this is a real term that any scientist outside of TV Land has ever used, but we all know there’s a certain truth to it. On my bike I have figured out how books will end and determined whether characters will live or die. My 2007 novel, “The Double Bind,” was born on a bike.
I always carry a small pad and a pen in my bike jersey pocket so I can scribble an idea or a rough draft of a scene.
But there is another reason why I believe bike rides have become so beneficial for my work: the tether that keeps me attached to the digital world is not quite so tight when I’m riding. The reality is that the Internet is largely inescapable, although many writers do try to escape it: I know one novelist who writes only on computers without functioning Wifi. I know another who has gone back to composing on an electric typewriter. I always have my phone with me when I ride and occasionally I tweet or post photos on Facebook or Pinterest. But I am less likely to check my email or see what other people are doing on the social networks when I’m taking a breather by the side of the road. As a result, my bike is one of the few places in the world where I am capable of dialing down my connection to the sound and fury and digital cacophony that marks the rest of my life.
Now, obviously I continue to write in the winter. My work is not a perennial that grows dormant. But over the last decade, I have felt a decided change in my seasonal rhythms. I tend to start more slowly in the morning in the winter; it takes longer to pick up speed and regain my narrative momentum. I miss the quiet that marks my rides and the fact I am so alone.
Yet I can’t imagine I’d ever move to a warmer climate just so I could extend my riding season. I love biking in Vermont. On any given day, I will see deer, alpacas, dairy cows, osprey, great flocks of Canadian geese, and even the occasional moose. Almost every road is two lanes. And there are general stores with wooden porches and great benches on which I can rest – and write.
Somehow the books will get finished. . .even in winter. Who knows? Maybe one December I’ll actually go for a walk.
(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on September 22. Chris’s new novel, ‘The Light in the Ruins,’ was published in July.)