Writers Should Walk. A Lot.
Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gary Snyder — still alive at age 89, and still writing — has offered some insight about living creatively:
Practically speaking, a life that is vowed to simplicity, appropriate boldness, good humor, gratitude, unstinting work and play, and lots of walking brings us close to the actual existing world and its wholeness.
I look at that list and wish I’d taken it to heart much sooner in my life. But at least I’ve done quite a bit of walking . . .
In younger days, I hiked halfway up a couple of mountains, the whole way across Manhattan, down many forest trails, and along a few ocean headlands. Occasional hikes are just that, though — occasional. A walking life unfolds day by day, and builds over time to change who you are and how you see the world.
I know this because I was lucky enough for several years to live where I could walk to a Starbucks, two grocery stores, the post office, a Home Depot, a pet store, the bank, Kohl’s department store — literally just about everywhere a person might actually need to go while living a reasonably simple, reasonably focused life.
And when I wanted to (or had to) go further afield, there was a neighborhood Avis right down the street.
So I accidentally had the pleasure of being primarily pedestrian, even though I lived in a pleasant, safe, and intermittently green suburban area.
Then I had to move to a different, more typical part of suburbia, which meant I had to own a car and drive around a lot. My whole rhythm of life changed — and at first this seemed like just another alteration of circumstances. But over time, I realized that I’d lost something very valuable.
I’m still struggling to regain the physical well-being and the sense of creative focus I had when walking was my only choice on most days.
For me, just walking around as a form of exercise isn’t the same kind of experience— I need the feeling of necessity, of achieving something, even overcoming something (like bad weather, or weariness). So I’m looking for ways to change my life again, and spend more time afoot.
But on the upside, pondering all this has made me realize how much walking a lot benefited not only my health, but also my writing. Here are some thoughts so far.
- Walking a lot makes you alert to your surroundings. If you spend much time crossing streets or parking lots, you learn to be aware of sounds and movements that might announce an oncoming car or unfriendly dog. If you walk through grassy fields, you soon realize that the ground is not necessarily as flat as it looks! Being “tuned in” to where you are at a given moment is a modest version of what soldiers, pilots, and ER doctors call “situational awareness.” They learn to use it in real time, to meet the demands of an urgent situation. But writers can cultivate sensitivity to the details of their surroundings and store their experiences for later use — or sharpen useful skills like precision, economy, and resourcefulness.
- Walking give you time to think. Your mind begins to settle down after a few minutes on foot, and ideas can form with a little less interference. You can also pursue a train of thought for a longer time, as there are fewer interruptions. The more often you walk, the more quickly you will be able to clear your mind of superficial considerations and everyday worries, to make room for deeper, more creative thoughts. My suggestion: Take a cell phone for emergency use and perhaps capturing a few notes, but walk away from communication connections for a while.
- Walking gives you time not to think. If you need to recharge rather than reflect, just attune yourself to the rhythm of walking and put on some headphones. There’s something about having sound delivered directly into your ears/brain that creates a feeling of alternate reality. A thought for music-lovers: create some playlists for different purposes (like energy, remembrance, or some particular emotion) so you can just choose a soundtrack and let it run. A thought for book-listeners: when you want to zone out rather than tune in, avoid suspense by choosing a story you know and love — something that lets you anticipate rewarding moments and enjoy the company of familiar characters.
- Walking can be another way to work. I do a lot of research, so I look for audio versions of informational materials, and employ some of my walking time to learn things I need to know. You can also use time on foot to sharpen your writing skills or find inspiration. Natalie Goldberg’s Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life is just one of many choices available from Audible.com. Another great source of audio that’s informative and entertaining is Malcolm Bragg’s BBC radio show In Our Time. There are many (many)podcasts available on their website for free download, and in each one, various experts gather to chat informally about a topic drawn from history, science, literature, philosophy — a whole range of subjects you may have been meaning to think about but haven’t got round to. Just a few of the most recent IOT conversations: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the planet Venus, novelist Edith Wharton, mathematician Emmy Noether, the Incan empire, Picasso’s Guernica, the philosophy of hope, Frankenstein, kinetic theory, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
- Walking makes you strong. A friend of mine once overheard the novelist Caroline Gordon complain that writing ruins your body. And it can, if you’re not careful. The physical part of being a writer requires flexibility, strength and stamina — all benefits of walking. But too often we spend hour after hour in some contorted configuration, ending up stiff and cranky. Good ideas: Stretch for a couple of minutes before and after walking, and keep your upper body involved while you walk. (Carry some groceries home, take a book in your backpack, or just poke things with a walking stick . . . )
- Walking shows you things. When you’re cruising along at three miles an hour (a comfortable pace for most people), you have more time to look around — and you never know what you might see.
And here is a thought to end with:
The benefits of walking come from walking. It’s the act, not the place.
Yes, it’s nice if you can do it on a beach, or in a forest, or up a mountain, or next to a stream. But don’t wait for picturesque surroundings. Just set out in some direction, and see where your feet take you.
If you need more motivation, consult Duncan Minshull’s entertaining/ inspiring compendium, Beneath My Feet: Writers on Walking.