How Walking Helps Me Write
“Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.”
Henry David Thoreau
There is currently a trend within non-fiction for books about walking. Writers such as Robert Macfarlane (with his elegiac modern classic The Old Ways) and Cheryl Strayed (whose hiking memoir Wild was made into a Hollywood movie) have spawned a veritable subgenre of books about why walking is good for the soul. And good for creativity – in particular literary creativity. This is nothing new, of course. Back in the eighteenth century Jean – Jacques Rousseau’s beautiful Reveries Of The Solitary Walker was a homage to wandering alone, while biographers have calculated that Romantic poet William Wordsworth clocked up 180,000 miles on foot in his lifetime.
Perhaps it’s frivolous, inconvenient – since walking is very time-consuming – but walking is absolutely essential to my writing process. To every stage of that writing process. Why?
Walking is when we do our best thinking, and that’s a biological fact. When we walk, the heart pumps faster, circulating more blood and oxygen to all the organs, including the brain. It improves memory, and stimulates new neuron connections. But unlike other forms of exercise, or driving, we don’t have to devote much attention to the act of walking. Our minds are gloriously free.
There’s a difference between the effects of urban and rural walking too. To ‘flaner’, or to wander aimlessly in the city, is an act of wide-eyed stimulation. Whereas to trod a well-known country path is to relax your mind, free from distractions.
When I was a child my family did a lot of hiking in the Lake District, and we would often walk in amicable silence, lost in our own thoughts. I came up with all sorts of abandoned childhood novels that way, but my first book, Reprobation, came to me aged 38 while I was alone in one of my other favourite walking places – Crosby Beach in Liverpool.
Location research is a great excuse to go for walks! My books are set in a real-life place, Liverpool, so it’s important that my locations, their descriptions, and the distances between them, are accurate. Before writing Sound, I spent many happy hours walking around central Liverpool, calculating how long it would take my villain to flee from Duke Street to Lime Street; whether you can see the Kingsway Tunnel vent from the Liver birds, etc etc. In a more general sense, it helps to just ‘be’ in different parts of the city, to get a feel for it.
I noticed that my characters do a lot of walking too; for example Darren on Crosby beach, Helen in the Formby pinewoods. It’s an opportunity for the characters, and therefore the readers, to process their thoughts. It’s also an opportunity to map out locations and distances for the reader.
The writing stage itself is very intense, and emotionally exhausting. Even at your most inspired, you are rarely going to write more than 3000 words of new stuff in a day. And while the physical act of doing that doesn’t take very long, there’s a necessary amount of faffing about that has to go on for the rest of the day. And it’s far healthier to faff about walking than faff about on social media. Although I do treat myself to a bit of social media too, to reconnect. I usually write out of the house, in coffee shops, so I plan my little walks with a destination in mind – the next coffee shop for example. This gives me a goal, something to look forward to, and when I arrive at the new change of scenery, my mind is fresh for the next onslaught.
A walking-reading list:
Jean-Jacques Rousseau ‘Reveries Of The Solitary Walker’
Henry David Thoreau ‘Walden’
Cheryl Strayed ‘Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail’
Geoff Nicholson ‘The Lost Art of Walking’
Rebecca Solnit ‘Wanderlust: A History of Walking’
Robert Macfarlane ‘The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot’
Stephen Graham ‘The Gentle Art of Tramping’
Lauren Elkin ‘Flaneuse: Woman Walk The City’
Kate Humble ‘Thinking On My Feet’