The Walking Writer

Daily walks have long been a part of my writing process, not that there’s anything special or unique about this habit. In Charlotte Wood’s collection of interviews titled, The Writers Room, Tegan Bennett Daylight says, “Scratch a writer and you’ll find a walker.” In contexts, Daylight was discussing how daily walks are a vital part of her writing process as they assist in the unlooping of her thoughts. Though she uses walking as a way to stay fit, this particular form of daily movement has had a positive impact on her writing craft, especially when she encounters creative problems, “Almost everytime I go for a walk on my own, it brings me the solution I was looking for.” In terms of problem-solving, outlining, plot development or a simple deepening of understanding regarding one’s own work, Daylight believes that these insights occur because walking allows oneself to become “distracted enough from yourself to let the creative play start to happen.” Daylight is not alone in this opinion. Anecdotal evidence from both contemporary authors and literary juggernauts has long connected the usefulness of aerobic exercise to creative writing.

If you’re wrestling with a difficult manuscript, taking a break in the form of a short walk may be more useful that you think. I’ve often solved troublesome plot holes and generated fresh approaches to structural issues while walking my local bush track. As Daylight says, “Maybe it’s because you’re distracted enough – because you need to look around when you cross the road or whatever – you’re distracted enough from yourself to let the creative play start to happen, and then your mind just goes, ‘Here’s the thing you’re looking for.’” Daylight goes on to hypothesise that these moments of insight may be brought on by an increase in endorphins. When the body relaxes, the mind is allowed to open up to “new possibilities.”

It is the potential to discover “new possibilities” that keeps writers on the track.

In his memoir/craft manifesto, On Writing, Stephen King says he experienced his first bout of writers’ block during his initial draft of The Stand. It was during an afternoon walk that a solution – that had been evading him for weeks – suddenly popped into his head and he was able to finish writing the first draft.

Beyond spontaneous insights and the space for mental clarity, walking – especially outside – can be a useful way to gather inspiration and stimuli that can fuel the creative process. Australian author Sarah Schmidt, often documents her daily walks by taking photos and posting them on her blog. The often eerie and unsettling images mirror the mood of her equally eerie and unsettling (though engrossing) debut novel, See What I Have Done. The photographs complement the mood and imagery of Sarah’s work, thus supporting her creative process, but the walk also grants her the time to contemplate her novel on a deeper level.

“I’m one of ‘those’ writers. You know the kind: fidgety, annoying, needs to walk out their thoughts, sees something along the way and thinks, ‘now that’s interesting. I wonder if…’ takes photos of it and then just stares at said photo for hours. I’m also desperately, heavily reliant on nature to help me write.”

In a study conducted by Stanford University in 2014, Marily Oppezzo and Daniel L. Schwartz found that creative ideation increased during and shortly after walking. In a ‘meta’ moment, the idea for this experiment arose while Marily and Daniel were out on a walk. The study featured four experiments that tested participants creative divergent thinking by having them complete the Guilford’s alternate use (GAU) test. Their convergent thinking was tested using the compound remote associates (CRA) test. The study compared the effects of walking on a treadmill, sitting then walking, walking then sitting, walking outside and being pushed in a wheelchair outside. Following a walk, 81% of the 176 students had an increased improvement on their GAU score and 23% on the CRA test.

However, the study found that walking lessened students’ performance when the task required laser thinking. Oppezzo hypothesised that walking proved counterproductive in this instance due to the minds tendency to drift while walking. “If you’re looking for a single correct answer to a question, you probably don’t want all of these different ideas bubbling up.”

Fresh ideas, solutions and the ability to see “new possibilities” occur more frequently when a person is in an aerobic zone. Neuroscientists have discovered that this increase in creative thinking occurs when the mind is allowed to go into a non-thinking default state of consciousness. Many creatives tell anecdotes of how a fresh or exciting idea spontaneously popped into their mind when they were busy doing something else. As Henry Miller said, “Most writing is done away from the typewriter, away from the desk. I’d say it occurs in the quiet, silent moments, while you’re walking or shaving or playing a game or whatever.” Though some may be tempted to give all credit to the muse, the catalyst behind these spontaneous insights is physiological and psychological: there is an increased supply of oxygen to the brain and the mind is free to wonder.

Writing could be described as a conglomeration of personal experiences, observations, external stimuli consciously or subconsciously absorbed and the occasional random insight. These different sources of information settle in our brains, as Ann Patchett describes, like a “mental compost.” It’s through the act of walking that an author is able to shake free this compacted knowledge and discover something useful. This can only occur, however, if the mind is unclamped or enters a non-thinking state. A fact about heart disease read weeks ago and promptly forgotten may reappear while trekking a deserted bush track. Suddenly, the writer is able to fix that drab scene with their overweight, over-aged protagonists by transforming it into a medical drama!

Not all writers are walkers, yet many are. Though some see this casual form of exercise as nothing more than an excuse to take a break, some view it as a potentially useful practice for unlooping thoughts, for others, it is an essential tool in their craft kit. A daily walking habit will not turn an emerging writer into a best seller, but the endless author anecdotes, scientific proof and the basic physiological evidence allow for one solid conclusion: walking can help some writers some of the time, but you can’t make an ‘A-ha’ moment happen.

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