Creating on the Move

It all started at the lake. A big one.

Rainy Lake is huge body of fresh water that reaches from the border of northern Minnesota well into Ontario. I retreat to a small, rocky island near the Minnesota shore most summers to write songs with other musicians.

The cabin with the piano is usually mine. It is a repurposed gambling boat from the time when the lumberjacks were clearing the northern forests of their tall trees. Now it is up on stone pilings right over the water.

When I first started retreating to the island, I was fairly new to songwriting and admittedly a little neurotic. I’d get stuck in the writing process and just sit at the piano tense and fuming with a head full of recriminations. One day in the thick of frustration, I leapt up from the piano bench and just jumped into the lake. Paddling around in that cold, fresh water reset my imagination. By the time I emerged, I had the next lines of the song.

From that day on, songwriting and swimming became beautifully entangled.

Seven years ago I was invited to write a book about my voice coaching approach. As I began the writing process, I felt that old familiar creative anxiety return. I’d never written a book before and the very thought of it made my brain freeze up.

This time I knew what do. I’d write as long as I could, then head out the door for a long walk along the Mississippi River or a ski through the wintery woods. The movement helped unlock my thoughts. I’d return from my jaunt with the next chapter swirling in my head.

Last year I began composing all of my keynote speeches while on the move. My 18-minute TEDx talk ( was conceived and rehearsed while walking. (I learned to wear my ear buds as a way to become more comfortable with talking to myself in public. Everyone assumes I’m on the phone!)

On a recent retreat in Mexico, I composed an entire poem by walking along the beach and talking to myself. I committed it to paper only after I was certain it was finished. The thing seemed to emerge out of my entire body and the beauty around me instead of merely from my thinking mind.

Movement has become essential to my creative process. Something about the repetitive movement and the presence of nature unlocks a well of fresh ideas.

I wonder how many students would benefit from learning on the move? What if business teams had walking meetings outside instead of the ones around long tables in fluorescent-lighted rooms? What becomes possible in our creative lives when we walk out the door and take that first deep breath?

Here is a song by guitarist Glen Helgeson and me that emerged from the cold, clear waters of Rainy Lake many years ago.  Click here to listen

About Barbara McAfee

Barbara is a voice coach, singer/songwriter, keynote speaker, and author who merges lessons from 12 years in organization development with the transformational power of sound. Her book, Full Voice: The Art & Practice of Vocal Presence (Berrett-Koehler Publishers) was a #1 Amazon bestseller in Business Communication. The book is based on her 25 years as a voice coach, supporting people from many professions in learning how to access the full power and expression of the voice in service to their work and relationships. Barbara’s musical keynotes blend practical content, sophisticated humor, and thought-provoking questions on topics including voice, leadership, and engagement. She was “the band” for Margaret Wheatley’s Women’s Leadership Revival Tour, which visited 15 North American cities. She also appears with authors Parker Palmer and Peter Block. Barbara has produced seven CD's of mostly original music and is founder of the Morning Star Singers, a volunteer hospice choir in the Twin Cities. She lives across the street from the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA.
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