Craft Lesson: Under My Feet: Why Writers Should Walk

Craft Lessons

I rise before dawn and dress in the dark, so as not to wake my dog. This is my time. I dress for the weather, step outside and begin my morning walk. A while ago, I slipped on a rain-slicked sidewalk and banged my big toe. It wasn’t broken, but seven days went by before I could walk without pain. I felt like an addict in search of a fix.

Healed now, I power walk for an hour through my tree-shrouded neighborhood, swinging my arms high, as the sidewalks under my feet pass in a blur. Some mornings I listen to podcasts or audiobooks, but the best times are when I shut off everything but my mind. As the house, gardens and yards on either side disappear in a blur, I think about stories, those I’m working on, dream about writing or are stuck on. As the sun begins to rise, sentences sometimes take new shape. Puzzling leads tease their way to fluency. 

During the day, more leisurely walks also furnish opportunities for inspiration as my dog Leo leads me along the alleys that crisscross our neighborhood. Only when I feel a sharp tug on his leash do I realize I’ve been lost in thought; ruminating about pedestrian seeds that someday may germinate a story or help with a bedeviling rewrite. 

Walks, many writers have found through the centuries, are fertile drivers of the imagination, summoning forth the stories they want to finish, ones they want to start or to reconnoiter through all of their senses, collecting plots, details and characters as they move through the world.

“Walking, like reading and writing,” says columnist Danny Heitman, “is an unending source of surprise.”

James Joyce was an inveterate walker, roaming the streets of Dublin to map out where Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom went about their lives in “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” and “Ulysses.”

Virginia Woolf, the English novelist, loved tramping through the Cornish countryside and the Bloomsbury section of London where her literary circle gathered.

Charles Dickens’ legendary long walks—fact-finding missions to soak up the sights, sounds and smells of the streets of gritty 19th century London—usually measured 12 miles a day in two-and-a-half hours, his biographer Peter Ackroyd reports.

“Since at least the time of peripatetic Greek philosophers, many other writers have discovered a deep, intuitive connection between walking, thinking, and writing,” science writer Ferris Jabr says in “Why Walking Helps Us Think,” in The New Yorker

He quotes from Henry David Thoreau’s journal: “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live! Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.”

Methinks he was right. 

Science reveals, Jabr says, that changes in our body chemistry explain why walking triggers our imagination. Our heart pumps faster when we walk, sending blood and oxygen not only to our muscles, but all our organs, including the brain. 

Among the many health benefits, walking improves our memory and attention, studies show, protecting the hippocampus, a seahorse-shaped brain organ critical to remembering. 

Regular walks elevate “levels of molecules that both stimulate the growth of new neurons and transmit messages between them,” Jabr says. Even mild exertion, like my walks with Leo, studies show, helps with memory and attention.

Since walking doesn’t require much conscious attention, our mind “is free to wander—to overlay the world before us with a parade of images from the mind’s theatre,” Jabr says. “This is precisely the kind of mental state that studies have linked to innovative ideas and strokes of insight.” 

That was true for Virginia Woolf. In “Moments of Being,” a collection of posthumously published autobiographical essays, Woolf recalled a special journey: One day, “walking round Tavistock Square I made up, as I sometimes make up my books, “To the Lighthouse,” in a great, apparently involuntary rush,” an epiphany cited by Rebecca Solnit in “Wanderlust: A History of Walking.”

In “Beneath My Feet: Writers on Walking,”  Duncan Mishnull has collected 36 testimonies to the literary inspiration that walking provokes. 

“In a 1975 reminiscence about New York,” Michael LaPointe wrote in an Atlantic review of the book, “the novelist and essayist Edward Hoagland recalls how he stalked the streets of his hometown, first “to smell the yeasty redolence of the Nabisco factory” and then “to West Twelfth Street to sniff the police stables.”

The author was inhaling the raw stuff that would fuel creativity: “I knew that every mile I walked, the better writer I’d be.”

LaPointe also gives a satisfying summary of the salutary benefits of perambulation from “Walking: One Step at a Time,” by Norwegian explorer Erling Kagge, the first person to have completed the Three Poles Challenge (North, South, and Mount Everest) on foot, as well as underground journeys through the New York City sewer system. 

Kagge, who cultivates “inner silence” along the way, says he appreciates “a healthy stretch of [the] legs, a kick of endorphins,” his thoughts “bubbling between my ears, new solutions to questions that have been plaguing me.”

For writers who spend hours sunk into their chairs staring at a screen with an imagination deficit, a good walk, whether fast or slow, may be the best exercise to kick those endorphins into action and get your creative juices flowing. 

In a society dependent on cars for transportation and treadmills for exercise, a walk—long or short — gives writers the chance to stretch their imagination. The next time you’re wrestling with a story, or even a single paragraph, pull on your sneakers and go for one. 

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