9 Reasons Why Walking Can Help Creative Writers and Thinkers
How Walking Can Help
- From Aristotle to Steve Jobs
- Walking for Inspiration
- The Beggar and the Tramp
- On Going a Journey
- Walking and Nature Writing
- Walking to Heal
- Novelists and Fictional Walking
- Robert Walser
The simple act of walking is one of the best ways to stimulate creative thoughts and ideas. Whether it's a short stroll around the block, or a more dedicated hike out into the great outdoors, there's no better way to get the creative juices flowing.
Wanderlust can be put to good use and it seems that writers in particular can benefit greatly.
I know from personal experience that a daily walk along a lane and a footpath or two here in the UK not only helps maintain physical health but can enlighten the mind, refresh it. And longer walks are a way of exploring and reviewing previous plans and plots for stories or poems.
When you're out and about on a walkabout your senses change somehow - you begin to notice things and your mind treats them in a different way. A walk can become a little like a dream sequence, your imagination can take over and transform the shortest of strolls into a line of poetry or an idea for a story.
Recent studies at Stanford University in the USA confirm what walkers have always known - that walking boosts creative inspiration. In an article titled Give Your Ideas Some Legs, (Journal of Experimental Psychology) Marily Oppezzo and Daniel Schwartz observed 176 people using proven measurement tests for creative thinking.
They found that the people who had walked before answering questions gave consistently more creative and imaginative answers compared to those who had been seated throughout the experiments.
Whether or not you're a budding poet, a writer, a Zen practitioner, a painter, a doodler, a dreamer, a schemer, walking can be like having a best friend by your side quietly cajoling you into creative mode.
1. From Aristotle to Steve Jobs
Writers and thinkers have long known about the intuitive relation between walking and writing. Going back thousands of years to the Greek philosophers and their peripatetic mode of teaching - Aristotle would teach walking up and down, going from place to place - the idea that your mind could be creative whilst mobile has travelled well over time.
Just look at Steve Jobs, the mind behind Apple. He liked to hold meetings whilst taking a stroll so that fresh air and movement helped contribute to ideas and plans.
When you go for a walk you naturally increase the amount of oxygen in your body. Your heart pumps faster because your legs demand more blood, your brain gets more fresh fuel and in return becomes more active.
I think that walking out in fresh air, in green spaces, can help even further. If you can escape from the roar of traffic, the clutter of the street and the general hubbub of modern life, a space is created in your own mind which you can fill with positive ideas.
I'm not a great believer in the concept of writer's block but I do know that when I need fresh impetus or inspiration for a story or article or poem there is no better way to achieve 'break through' than with a walk. Ideally a meandering, slow walk that gets me out and about close to the trees and the birds and the landscape.
As Rachel Solnit observed in her book Wanderlust: A History of Walking, 'Language is like a road, it cannot be perceived all at once because it unfolds in time, whether heard or read. This narrative or temporal element has made writing and walking resemble each other.'
It's fascinating to think about the act of writing as being a kind of walk across the page or screen. Letter by letter becomes step by step, paragraphs the distance covered in miles or kilometres, the rhythm of those steps becomes poetry as the walker's feet negotiate the terrain, and the mind starts to explore.
In the end you 'read' your walk by looking back, taking mental notes, absorbing the whole.
2. Walking for Inspiration - William Wordsworth
The English poet William Wordsworth walked hundreds of thousands of miles during his life. He was one of the first writers of note to take walking seriously and used his long rambling walks through the Lake District to compose his poetry and to gain inspiration.
But before settling in the north west of England Wordsworth had visited the continent and walked many a mile in the Alps. In August 1790 he teamed up with Robert Jones to hike over the Simplon Pass which connects Switzerland to Italy.
He used this experience to write part VI of The Prelude, his most famous poem. There's no doubt that the poet, immersed in the mountainous terrain, had what might be called moments of spiritual truth
when the light of sense
Goes out in flashes that have shewn to us
The invisible world. (VI 534-36)
Basho the Wandering Haiku Poet
In Japan the tradition of the nomadic poet has been upheld for hundreds of years. The most famous is perhaps Basho (1644-94), master of haiku, the short, precise three line poem that so beautifully reflects nature.
He spent the majority of his adult life walking the roads when he wasn't at home in his Basho huts, living the life of the Zen monk, with few possessions, always immersing himself in nature.
First winter rain -
I plod on,
Traveller my name.
His final poem written just before his death leaves us in no doubt about his love of walking through nature.
Sick on a journey -
over parched fields
dreams wander on.
In a sense both poets, Wordsworth and Basho, were writing about the same thing albeit from different perspectives: the mystical element in nature, the invisible 'eternal wrested from the phenomenal world.'
Afoot and light hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.— Walt Whitman - Song of the Open Road
3. The Beggar and the Tramp in Walking
Creative thinkers often have to become penniless when out walking, or set off on their walks with the intention of having nothing to do with money. When poet Vachel Lindsay set off in 1906 walking through Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky he paid for his food and lodgings mostly through giving poetry recitals of his own work.
The book he wrote, Handy Guide for Beggars (1908) became a classic. His follow up Adventures While Preaching the Gospel of Beauty (1912) continued the idea of leaving behind cities, money and baggage, this time from Springfield, Illinois to New Mexico.
British poet Simon Armitage has done a similar thing, recently walking to his home and away from home (Marsden in Yorkshire) and writing about the people and the landscapes. He gave recitals in exchange for food, a bed and beer. Pleasant enough ramblings.
Tomas Espedal, a Norwegian, wrote his bestseller Tramp: Or the art of Living a Wild and Poetic Life in 2006. This is an odd book combining travelogue, journal and interior musings mostly about landscape and life. He walks with a companion at one stage in Greece and Turkey which helps to animate the narrative but the idea of restless tramping persists. Here is man with a mission - to go somewhere, anywhere but home.
Interestingly Espedal writes:
' We think less when we're walking far, we slip into a walking rhythm and thoughts cease, become a concentrated attention that is turned on all we see and hear, all we smell; this flower, this breeze, these trees, as if thoughts mutate to become part of what they encounter: a river, a mountain, a road.'
Again, Espedal is describing the Zen moment, Wordsworth's timeless rapture, when our senses submit to nature and a true escapism is achieved. Tomas Espedal is a restless soul, he never seems to stay at one address for long.
I know that feeling all too well, when something in the bones starts asking questions such as, How come you're still living here? Isn't there somewhere else to go? Pack up and be somewhere different, you stay at home traitor.
George Borrow 1803-1881
George Borrow wrote several books during his unusual life, two of which were based on his travels in Spain and his time with the gypsy people there. Closer to home in Britain his 'walking book' called Wild Wales published in 1854, is a fascinating account of his long walks through countryside, village and town, meeting the people, having adventures. It is still in print.
4. On Going a Journey - Walking and the Essay
Many writers have walked and written essays about their experiences. In the USA and UK many took inspiration from Wordsworth's treks through the Alps and produced new work based on local and foreign travel.
Notable essayists and writers include William Hazlitt who wrote On Going a Journey in 1821 as part of his book Table Talk. He was a talented but erratic author, artist and journalist but this essay introduced the idea of walking as a sole act of pleasure for the first time.
'Give me the clear blue sky over my head, and the green turf beneath my feet, a winding road before me.....and then, to thinking.'
Hazlitt was greatly influenced by the French philosopher Jean Jaques Rousseau, author of Reveries of a Solitary Walker, a collection of essays written following persecution and exile, reflections on life, society and nature.
A collection of ten walks taken by the author in the last months of his life they were published after Rousseau died in 1788 and gave inspiration to Wordsworth and Baudelaire the French poet, as well as being amongst the first serious studies of walking and exploration of the self.
'These hours of solitude and meditation are the only ones in the day during which I am fully myself....'
5. Walking and Nature Writing
Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) is well known for his book Waldon, an account of the time he spent living simply in a shack close to Walden Pond out in the wilds of Concord, Massachusetts.
Thoreau was what you might call one of the early eco-warriors, an alternative thinker who brought to the attention of his fellow Americans the need for simple living. He was aware of the damage being done to the environment and sought to limit the notion of urban expansion.
He was also a great walker, writing a famous essay in 1862 which was published in Atlantic Monthly. In Walking he wrote:
'I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits unless I spend four hours a day at least - and it is commonly more than that - sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagement.'
Thoreau's influence continues to the present day. Little wonder really, there are now enormous pressures on creative thinkers to break free of our ultra high-tech way of life and simply take a walk, escape from all the entanglements of modern life.
One such writer is British walker Robert McFarland. His bestseller The Old Ways - A Journey on Foot is a beautifully written series of walks through what remains of the true countryside in the British Isles. Wherever possible McFarland uses centuries old paths, tracks, ways, lanes and holloways taking him through field, meadow and wood, following in the footsteps of the packhorse workers, drovers and pilgrims of yesteryear.
This book is a real gem and takes you deep into the heart of the lone walker.
John Muir (1838-1914) was born in Dunbar, Scotland but gained recognition whilst living and working in the USA, pioneering the conservation movement. A staunch environmentalist his voice was loud and clear when it came to preserving the vast tracts of wilderness in California and elsewhere.
A vagabond in his younger days he walked for 1000 miles from Kentucky to Florida in 1867, gathering notes and ideas along the way. A book was published in 1916 A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf .
After a bout of malaria in 1868 Muir decided to return to San Fransisco and headed straight to the wild areas of Yosemite to start his adventures and pioneering work.
He is famous for establishing the boundaries of Yosemite Park in California, where he lived and worked on and off from 1868-74. His many articles and natural enthusiasm for the wild helped secure the creation of the National Park Service in 1916, two years after Muir's passing.
His legacy lives on today.
'Everyone needs beauty....places to play and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike.'
6. Walking to Heal
Walking for some is therapeutic, it helps heal emotional scars. Creative thinking comes out of the act of movement away from situations and events that have become unbearable or toxic.
You could say this is a very modern phenomenon, the walk being a cathartic exercise where hurt and pain are somehow transformed into self discovery, ideas and finally written text.
Take author Cheryl Strayed for example. She walked 'in order to save myself' and to try and make sense of her life. Her 1100 mile trek along the Pacific Crest Trail resulted in a book Wild: From Lost to Found.
'Hiking the PCT was my way back to the person I used to be.'
I would say that this is a case of long distance and wilderness being integral to the process of writing and creative thinking. Perhaps no healing would have occurred if Cheryl Strayed had walked, say, a thousand times round her local park?
7. Novelists and Fictional walkers
Whilst many authors have taken to walking for inspiration and ideas, there are also fictional characters in novels and stories who walk because it's a vital part of their character, integral to the story line.
James Joyce wrote the fat novel Ulysses, published in 1922, and shocked a gentile Edwardian public. His erratic, changeable writing style, the use of internal monologue techniques, the obscene descriptions of bodily functions and the puzzling non plot all contributed to mixed reviews for this artistic experiment.
Leading figures Stephen Dedalus, teacher and would be writer, and Leopold Bloom, a Jewish businessman, walk through the streets of Dublin for 24 hours, their lives unravelling during a series of mundane and mythological scenarios.
8. Robert Walser - The Walk
Swiss author Walser spent much of his adult life in a psychiatric hospital but managed to compile a considerable amount of written work during this time. Although written in 1917 The Walk didn't appear in English until 1955.
It's a collection of short walk stories which are fascinating, detailed observations of ordinary people and places. Walser himself liked to walk and said -
'Without walking and the contemplation of nature which is connected with it, without this equally delicious and admonishing search, I deem myself lost, and I am lost.'
9. Guy-Ernest Debord and Psychogeography
Guy-Ernest Debord, a Marxist film-maker from Paris, introduced the idea of 'free associative wandering' - drifts - through urban areas of cities and towns. This idea, put forward in a 1955 essay Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography, became known as psychogeography.
Debord wanted people to wake up to the fact that the places they lived and worked in were becoming desolate and dead spaces, a result of the capitalist system. He was a founding member of the Situationist movement.
Two Books On Walking, Thinking and Creativity
Jon Cotner and Andy Fitch - Ten Walks/Two Talks
Conversations and walks in and about New York city from two clever and witty authors who combined talents to produce observations, opinion and philosophical meanderings.
Will Self - Psychogeography
Mr Self, a novelist and columnist, delves deep into the labyrinth of his entangled mind via a series of walks in various countries and environments, notably London, his home town. Satirical, ironical, he takes the original Debord idea and produces a Selfie with it. Recommended.
The common ground here shared by all of the books and writings we've been looking at is the simple act of legging it, of putting one foot after the other and following the beaten track, or just off the beaten track.
This pure and mechanical action can lead to all kinds of creative writing; from novelist to Zen poet, from the idealist to the broken hearted.
Walking can open the doors of a uniquely individual space within our minds that ordinarily we don't have access to. Science can only go so far in explaining the chemical changes within our brain that take place as soon as our legs start to bend and move.
Once we're mobile, perception combines with a momentous energy in an almost alchemical way to produce refreshment for the often beleaguered spirit.
Because many writers are alone when working the need to burst out of that labour intensive bubble and float around becomes overpowering. Some make do with pacing the room, or jollying off to the kitchen to make buckets of tea and coffee; others head for the front door, open sky, urban backstreets, country lane.
The creative thoughts and inspiration are best left unexplained - only the thoughts, ideas, texts and writings are what matter.
Norton Anthology of Poetry 2005 Norton publishers
On Love and Barley Basho 1985 Penguin
Leaves of Grass Walt Whitman 1979 The Franklin Library
© 2015 Andrew Spacey