BOTH SIDES OF INERTIA

What happens when the unstoppable force of Kathrine Switzer meets the (apparently) immoveable object of the 1967 Boston Marathon officials and centuries of sports misogyny? Kathrine Switzer completes the Boston Marathon, the first woman to do so as a registered participant.

Check a thesaurus for words related to inertia. You’ll find plenty of alternatives, from attitude to Newtonian physics. 

  • Apathy
  • Indolence
  • Idleness
  • Languor
  • Lassitude
  • Laziness
  • Lethargy
  • Listlessness
  • Oscitancy
  • Passivity
  • Sloth
  • Deadness
  • Dullness
  • Immobility
  • Immobilization
  • Inactivity
  • Paralysis
  • Sluggishness
  • Stillness
  • Stupor
  • Torpidity
  • Torpor
  • Unresponsiveness

Indeed, the first dictionary definition (n) is a tendency to do nothing or to remain unchanged. 

If you ask a physicist (or any one in a beginning physics class) you get a less one-sided view:

Inertia noun

In life in general, including one’s writing life, the remaining-at-rest side of inertia is typically a hurdle to overcome. In its simplest form, the longer one goes without writing (or scheduling a doctor’s appointment, sending condolences, making an apology, weeding the garden, etc.) the more effort it takes to make it happen. 

Newtonian and social inertia at work:
Despite all the anatomical evidence available, crash test dummies used in car safety tests are modeled on an average male body from 1976. That might be why female drivers are 73% more likely to be seriously or fatally injured in a car accident.

Procrastination is a bear of not getting off the mark.  Researchers suggest that it takes approximately 18 to 250 days to train yourself to a new habit. The first 21 days are said to be the most difficult, especially for a physical habit (regular exercise, quitting smoking, etc.).

This holds true for habits of thought, too. It’s a little more difficult to get precise numbers in this area, but studies show that you can train yourself to meditate, think positively, stop apologizing to everyone, even improve your memory. The brain, like the body, wants to remain at rest.

For humans, the continuing movement side of inertia, it seems to me, is both rarer and more beneficial. I think of it as being on a roll

If you are on a roll, you may be having a run of good luck. (This expression, which alludes to success rolling dice, dates from the second half of the 1900s.)  Enjoy it while it lasts, but the nature of luck is that it’s beyond one’s control.

Inertia, as explained by Bill Waterson

Alternatively, being on a roll can mean enjoying a success that seems likely to continue. Continuing in the same habits will likely lead to a series of successes. This is true of everything from an athletic success to the first book in a popular series.

Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise du Châtelet, a French physicist whose postulate for energy conservation in inertia I don’t even pretend to understand.

Being on a roll also means a period of intense activity. This building momentum side of inertia comes to the fore when meeting deadlines, whether work or social (like Halloween preparations).

The outside force part of the physicist’s law of inertia is where a writer’s free will comes into play. There are all sorts of things you can do to overcome inertia in your life. Identify and remove triggers for a behavior you want to change. Set reminders on a timer or a note taped to your wall.

Those outside forces can be the basis for a character’s motivation in your writing as well. Perhaps an overheard comment sparks a character’s curiosity to begin a massive research survey. Perhaps a health scare inspires a character to change jobs and move to the opposite side of the globe. Perhaps new of impending alien invasion encourages an entire planet to move all habitations below ground.

BOTTOM LINE: If you understand both sides of inertia, you can make it work for you!

In honor of International Women’s Day (March 8th), check for biases in your life, in your thought patterns, even in your writing. At its core, bias is often just mental inertia.

ROUTINE, GOOD; RUT, BAD

Pretty much everyone has routines. They are often enjoyable. At the very least, they provide predictability, and thus security. Routines are efficient.

But most people want to get out of a rut. Being in a rut means one’s life isn’t going where one wants it to, but there is no perceived way to escape. Dr. Vance Havner, of North Carolina, suggested that a rut is just a grave with both ends knocked out.

Writers: Mine your characters’ routines and consider the usefulness of ruts in raising tension.

There’s a fine line between a habit and a routine. For my purposes, a habit is something a character does repeatedly, often without conscious intention, and it’s over pretty quickly. For example, most people habitually put the same leg first in a pair of pants, put a sock on the same foot first. 

A routine would be a bunch of habits strung together. For example, a woman getting ready for the day.

  • Gets out of bed
  • Use the toilet
  • Take off her sleep clothes
  • Wash her face
    • Shave those pesky middle age whiskers
  • Apply astringent to face and then neck
  • Apply moisturizer with sunscreen to her neck
    • Apply moisturizer with stronger sunscreen to her face
  • Apply deodorant
  • Put on underpants
  • Put on long pants
  • Put on shirt
  • Arrange hair
  • Puts on jewelry
    • Earring first
    • Then pendant
    • Rings and bracelet last

Thus, routines can extend over time, encompassing multiple behaviors. They can cover days, weeks, months, or even years. Properly planned routines are rooted in meaning and purpose, and they keep us moving in the direction that we think best. They are good when they give order to our lives.

Routines become ruts when they become stale and empty. At that point, they become roadblocks to growth. A rut is a narrow or predictable way of life, set of attitudes, etc.—dreary, undeviating routine.

Writers note: One person’s routine can be another person’s rut.

In 2005 the Chrysalis Reader Embracing Relationships, included my short piece “Solid Line.” Here is the opening of that piece. 

Isobel cuts into the fried egg and pushes the bits around her plate.  “We need to think of something different for breakfast.”

Ray always makes breakfast.  “Like what?” he asks.

“Oh, I don’t know. Something. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday we have an egg. Every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, we have cereal. On Sundays we have pancakes and two strips of bacon. It would just be nice to have something different sometimes.”

Ray points out that he makes eggs five different ways, including omelets. That they have six kinds of hot cereal and four kinds of cold cereal, plus homemade granola. That he sometimes makes muffins with the Sunday bacon. That they always have fresh fruit—bananas, grapefruit, oranges, or melon, depending on the season—sometimes a fruit cup. That they even alternate coffee with a dozen kinds of tea. That if she asks for an English muffin or a bagel with cream cheese or something, he makes it.  “I think we probably have more variety than most people. But if you want something else, tell me what it is.”

Isobel bites into her half slice of toast—Ray always makes toast in half slices. She says nothing. Why does so much variety feel so predictable?

Bottom line for writers: Pay attention to the way habits, routines, and ruts can up the tension and enrich your plot!