Roden
Issue 048
December, 9, 2020

Creativity Bootcamp and the Long Walk

Systems for creativity, using the body and mind



Roden Readers — 

Hello from the Shinkansen! That feels almost heretical to write. But it’s true: I am on a Shinkansen, hurtling back in the direction of Tokyo.

In case you forgot: I’m Craig Mod and I do a lot of walking. For those of you not following along on my Ridgeline newsletter, I just completed roughly 700 kilometers of walking over the last five weeks. 630 of those kilometers were along the Tōkaidō old highway connecting Tokyo and Kyoto. The Shinkansen I’m riding is called the Tōkaidō Shinkansen because it runs roughly the same route. It’s covering in two hours what took me four weeks to walk.

And what a heckuva walk it was. Hugely successful on a number of levels. But what I want to focus on today is the general rigor of creativity afforded by the rhythm and schedule of the walk. That is: Let’s talk about what I (we) made as I walked.


Routine

Each day on my walk between Tokyo (or rather Kamakura) and Kyoto I would cover, on average, twenty-seven kilometers over the course of seven hours. Some days I’d walk much more (the longest day clocking in at 43.5 kilometers) and some days would be “rest” days where I’d just walk five or six kilometers. But for the most part, I was spending a large part of my daily waking hours walking the old route. Oh, and carrying a pack with 11 - 14kg of equipment, food, clothes, snacks, water/coffee, et cetera.

As is my irrepressible wont, I photographed along the way, popped into intriguing looking barber shops and interviewed the owners and took their portraits. Produced a litany of notes about the road and towns as dictated into Things.app and filed as to-dos. I stopped and shot some sixty (publishing fifty-six of them) 4K-resolution, binaural “windows” looking out onto the road, the landscape, the highway, whatever happened to be of note (or of non-note) that day. And each evening I wrote an edition of Pachinko Road, the daily newsletter I sent throughout the duration of the walk. Oh, and I continued to publish a weekly Ridgeline as well.

In raw numbers, the work done within the framework of the walk was:

  • writing, editing, and publishing 22,000 words
  • shooting, culling, baseline editing 1750 photographs
  • shooting, editing some 60 videos at about 4 minutes each (240 minutes of video)
  • Recording some 240 minutes of binaural audio and editing it into SW945 podcast form

That’s … an absurd amount of work. That would be a huge month for me were I just sitting at home, never mind walking 630 kilometers. Not to mention this is on top of checking email, handling customer support for book sales, and generally making sure that Kissa by Kissa’s shipping was taken care of. Phew.


During the walk I’d wake up between 0730 and 0830 and be on the road by 0900. That would put me into my inn for the night between 1500 and 1800 depending on the day. Then I’d go into the evening routine:

  • shower / bath
  • laundry
  • figuring out food; eating at the inn or grabbing convenience store fare or, in some cities, Uber Eats (rarely did I eat out for dinner since it often takes a while (and time at night was limited) + it seemed prudent to avoid in light of COVID-19)
  • ingesting media — copying video, photo, and audio data off various devices and SD cards
  • editing media — quick passes over the photographs to nix obvious duds, select a few possible candidates for the Pachinko Road newsletter; syncing video + binaural audio, color correcting the video, light video editing, exporting + uploading to YouTube
  • writing Pachinko Road
  • and maybe — maybe — getting to a few emails beyond customer support if I had the energy reserves

Writing Pachinko Road was fascinating. My “theory” before launching was I would select one photograph and write a “small snippet” of text. I was building off my SMS experiment from 2019, and wanted to keep a similar ethos of simplicity and brevity while leveraging the ease of email. That theory quickly fell apart.

As we know, mediums define messages, and email seems to inspire the impulse to go longer than a few sentences. Also, unlike during my SMS project, I could see how many people were out there. A quick burst of 2,000 subscribers grew to 2,500 grew to 3,500 by the end. I definitely felt a subtle (self-imposed) pressure to “perform” considering the audience size. And so what were supposed to be 100-300 word emails ended up averaging around 600-700 words, often with four or five photographs.

In a sense, I ended up writing a Ridgeline every day for a month.

By the time I was done with the day’s work, it would nine or ten or eleven at night, and, if I was lucky, I’d be able to read three pages in a book before passing out.

But here’s the thing: I loved it.


Ultra-walking, Ultra-working

I loved it because it was timeboxed, had an end, and I could see that end, and was confident I could keep up the pace until the end. Without an end, I’d have never been able to do this much each day, every day, without any real breaks.

But why do this? First, it’s fun. It’s hard, but it’s fun. At least, it is in hindsight. In the moment, it’s often grueling and/or exhausting but there isn’t a day in the past five weeks I regret. As uber-athletes evince, there’s a joy in sussing out the edges of your physical capabilities. I wasn’t doing ultra-marathon running, but a few weeks into this Tōkaidō walk, Tim Ferriss linked to my WIRED piece about my mega-walk last year (on the Nakasendō), and he called what I do “ultra-marathon walking” and I think there’s something to that. A month of walking 20-40 kilometers each day while shouldering a big pack, often contending with elevation gains, and keeping a quick pace is a non-trivial thing to put a body through. My thighs and glutes feel like they’ve been stuffed with extra muscle, feel eager, hungry for climbs, walks, distance. And my toes are calloused over in pleasing ways. Most any fat I had before the walk has been burned off, replaced by lean muscle.


Full Days

Aside from the general “pleasure” of an ultra-walk, there’s the forging of an “archetype of fullness.” Meaning: You internalize what a “full” day feels like in your bones and in your mind. What does a day, two days, a week, a month of continued physical exertion (buoyed by a generally high-quality diet) feel like? How does it change your personality? And what does “producing” so much stuff each day feel like?

If you asked me a couple months ago if I could write Ridgeline daily for a month, I’d have been suspicious and pessimistic. But coming out of this walk I feel like — perhaps for the first time in my life — you can throw a deadline and chunk of “experience” or “information” at me and I can swirl together 500 passably-sequenced words for publication. Overall, I found the day-after-day grind of the walk-and-write caused me to be a much closer observer throughout the day. I noticed better and with more intention — how the hulking, violent highways and bypasses affected the tenor of the villages through which I walked, the subtle language changes as I crossed a mountain range from Mie to Shiga Prefecture, the rough vocal tone of a certain mochi maker or the distressed vibe of a third or forth generation barber at the end of his line. I took granular notes in ways I wouldn’t have otherwise. And as I walked I wrote, constantly, in my mind. Not in a bad or distracting way, but in a way that felt like it was communing with or was in deep conversation with the landscape through which I moved. These were all good things!

They were good because they signaled something: Control and ownership of attention. That is, I was in the moment, the place. Yes, thinking about the essay to be written in the evening, but thinking about it only as something to be wrested from the surrounding landscape and culture. I can say that for hundreds and hundreds of kilometers I was truly and fully there.


Strategy

This sense of being “there” is why I blackout social and traditional media during these walks. I block because they’re an escape hatch, and the last thing I want to do is escape. Also, even on their best days, seen in the most charitable light, they are fundamentally systems and programs built to steal attention. They feed on attention, die without attention, and as such do anything they can to keep you engaged. Or, at least this is my personal experience of using them.

This is why I didn’t Instagram Story the walk, or live-tweet it. As I’ve written previously, social media loops are too tight, too small, too tiny. They don’t afford a person much room to breathe or think. There’s always a like or comment to respond to, another hit in the feed, another story to catch up on. I find these loops or cycles to be incredibly intoxicating, and I also find them to murder creativity.

The most creatively fecund periods of the day were during the boring stretches of road, where I had been walking alongside the highway for hours and was forced to choose, once again, between McDonald’s or a chain ramen shop for lunch. Had I allowed myself the diversion of social media, I’d have spent that time glued to the screen, barely present. But instead I was forced to look, and looking gets the mind going — I became entranced by and obsessed with zoning, highway design, payouts (or the lack thereof) to folks with homes that land along a highway’s path, and found myself turning over the question of what keeps a person in an objectively miserable spot on the earth. I walked past a woman who was hanging out clothes and the only way we could have had a conversation would be to scream, so loud were all the trucks. I’ve never thought so much about the violence of infrastructure, and I wouldn’t have had I stuck my face in Instagram.

So the daily newsletter, much like the daily SMS last year, proved to be a good balance. I wanted to share the walk in pseudo-realtime in a way that allowed for some thinking space, but didn’t infringe on the “presence” of the experience. Pachinko Road allowed for just enough “oven time” for an idea to bake, which is, I’ve found, something creative work demands.


And Then You’re Done

But the twenty-nine missives I pushed out via Pachinko Road are drafts at best. The goal now is to go back over those, and look at all 3741 responses from readers, along with the 800 or so photos that were sent in, and consider how all of this can be in conversation with the history of the road. Spend the next few months trying to bang it all into the shape of a book and see how that feels.

Because, as I walked I felt firmly in conversation with the past — both in long-arc and recent timescales. The route I walked was walked by a dear friend forty years ago. We spoke on the phone almost every day about what had or hadn’t changed, and I couldn’t help wonder what banalities I was seeing that he, too, had seen. What man-made things had survived? Why? And what would become of them in twenty or thirty years?

And I read historical documents as well. So the conversation with the road went back hundreds of years. I stood in places where Hiroshige Utagawa had stood and even found a roof that had managed to survive the two hundred year gap between his walks and mine.

I’m still processing. The plan was to do more walking after the Tōkaidō, but after a perfect little coda, I came home early. The richness of what was produced during the walk seemed to demand attention. It felt foolish to keep going. Sometimes, it’s best to sit still.

As for my media diet, I’m happy to report I’m still largely off social and traditional media. I simply have too many other things to do than get sucked back into those loops. I’m barely even using any blocking software (someone recommended Leechblock, and it’s quite good — even just to have a counter countdown a set amount of time connected to a bundle of websites each day), relying on the scary beasts that are self-control and willpower.


By dint of Tim Ferriss having linked to my article (and the subsequent barrage of emails and messages because of that), I ended up checking out his website for the first time in a while. Turns out, he had just interviewed Seinfeld for his podcast (Seinfeld has a new book) — and it’s great. If what I’ve written above intrigues, then definitely listen to this interview. Seinfeld is known for his systems, and he doesn’t disappoint — systems galore. It got me thinking about weight training (something missing from my routine) and transcendental meditation (which has been recommended to me over and over by folks I respect). Stuff to chew on.

Pachinko Road is deliberately not archived anywhere, but I think I will give access to SPECIAL PROJECTS members in the coming week. Members also get access to the two video journals I did along the walk talking at length about some of the topics above.

Oh, and one last thing — I “touched” more video this past month than ever before, and so my YouTube channel has gone from a ghost town to something kinda active. Consider subscribing if you’re so inclined. Put on some headphones, go full screen, and spend a few minutes (or hours) on the road with me. (Related: I have some thoughts on the need for a YouTube alternative / self-hosted system I’ll write up another time.)

One last Roden later in December to cap off the year, and then hello 2021. Thanks for all your support these many strange months.
C


highway bypass