Creating on the Move

Barbara McAfee Posted by Barbara McAfee.

Barbara McAfee is a musician, coach and consultant with over twelve years of experience in organizational change.

It all started at the lake.

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