Walking and writing part 1

Every year on the first of January I like to go a long walk. It’s a great way to blow away the cobwebs of Christmastime, burn off a few mince pies, and take stock of the past year and the year to come. As my feet fall into the rhythm of the walk my mind inevitably turns to writing. This isn’t a conscious decision, but I can’t stop ideas from quietly taking root at the back of my mind. I try to make walking part of my regular routine as a writer. In a pair of blogs I’d like to share some of the reasons why.

Clearing your mind

Have you ever been half-way through writing a new piece and got stuck? You look at the words and become convinced none of them make sense. You take out a comma, and put it back in again. You can’t get the dialogue at the end of your story to seem natural. Your sonnet has too many lines. The best solution? It’s always to take a break and clear your head.

Going for a walk is my favourite kind of break. Many other writers recommend it too, including anthropologist Tim Ingold, who suggests that walking ‘gives thought room to breathe’, and Rebecca Solnit, the author of Wanderlust: A History of Walking. Solnit argues that ‘walking allows us to be in our bodies and in the world without being made busy by them […] moving on foot seems to make it easier to move in time; the mind wanders from plans to recollections to observations’.

But of course there are lots of possibilities for clearing your head, and they don’t all involve walking. Do the dishes. Give the cat some attention. Take a shower. The important thing is that you move away from your desk, and away from the internet, Minesweeper and other computer-based distractions. Ideally, do a manual or semi-physical activity – while your body’s occupied with a simple task, your mind is free to wander. Many writing problems are solved while you’re doing something other than staring at the page. Spend some time figuring out what activities help you to think. Just make sure you have a notebook with you.

Wandering feet, meandering thoughts

Before going on a walk I take off my slippers and put on my shoes. I give some thought to where I’m going to go, the people I might bump into, places I’ll pass. There are plenty of decisions I take before going on a walk, but these aren’t set in stone. Once I step out of the door, everything changes. Every step offers a chance to change course: to rest on a park bench, to pop into a shop, to chat to a neighbour (or avoid them). I could stop to feel the texture of a tree’s bark; I could listen to a busker or hurry on past. I could admire a view, listen to birdsong, or plug in headphones.

This constant decision-making, evaluating my route and changing direction depending on how I feel at any given point, is rather like writing. I make a decision to sit down and write. I open a notebook or a Word document. I have a rough idea of what I want to achieve. But along the way I change direction, doubling back and rephrasing something I’ve just written. Or I stop, look around, and follow the digression suggested by the last phrase I put down. I avoid thorny subject matter, or decide to charge head-first into it. Writing is a way to discover what you think, and the words as they take shape on the page can often surprise you. I’m always asking myself ‘did I really write that? Where did it come from?’ The American poet A.R. Ammons wrote an essay in which he claimed that ‘A Poem is a Walk’. I’m inclined to agree, but I’d add that any form of writing can unfold like a journey on foot, surprising its author.

So how might your own writing head off down an unexpected path? Try throwing a new character into a slow scene, and see how your other characters respond. Make each line of your poem a leap into the unknown, like W.S. Merwin does in his poem ‘Animals from Mountains’. You don’t need to have your mind made up about everything before you sit down to write – step into the unknown and see where you end up.

Image of feet © Garry MacKenzie

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  1. Barbara Henderson 7 January 2019 at 9:35 am

    Lovely post and wise advice!

    1. garrymackenzie 7 January 2019 at 4:33 pm

      Thanks Barbara! Another walking and writing post will follow soon…

  2. Liz Cashdan 7 January 2019 at 2:14 pm

    I’m with every inch of the way, walking and writing. There’s another way of walking too for a writer and that is footstepping. I’ve footstepped Coleridge on the Quantocks and Mary Wollstonecraft round Norway, Sweden and Denmark. You can footstep another writer or anyone else who might inspire you: I guess it’s a good idea to choose someone who’s dead because you don’t want to become a stalker!

    1. garrymackenzie 7 January 2019 at 4:38 pm

      You should check out Carol Kyros Walker’s books about the journeys Keats, Coleridge and the Wordsworths took around rural Scotland. They’re photo essays of the places they visited, accompanied by the journals, letters and other records from their trips.

      I suppose this might be an acceptable place to mention that my book ‘Scotland: a Literary Guide for Travellers’ contains much potential footstepping material too…

    1. garrymackenzie 9 January 2019 at 10:24 pm

      What an interesting blog, thanks for sharing the link and Andrew’s work!


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