The Writer’s Toolbox: Walking


One of the number one requirements of a commercial fiction career is that you must reliably produce good material, year in and year out. Reliable and good are not always an easy combination. To do it, a writer has to take care of her body, her mind, and her spirit.

Over the years, I’ve found many ways to do that, but the mainstay is walking. I walk every morning, and take long walks on weekends and evenings; I walk around the cities I visit when I travel. I’ve done a marathon and a half over two days (Avon walk) and twice now have walked over a hundred miles in the course of a week. Walking is my passion (which you might have guessed from the title of my blog, A Writer Afoot).

There is a long history of writers and walkers—Wordsworth is said to have walked 175,000 miles in his lifetime and Thoreau was given to 20 mile rambles through the forests and over the hills. Walking is done at human speed. It gives us time to see, to think, to ponder and wonder. It gently releases endorphins and keeps the joints fluid. Brenda Ueland wrote:

If you would continue to be alone for a long time, amblingly swinging your legs for many miles and living in the present, then you will be rewarded: thoughts, good ideas, plots for novels, longings, decisions, revelations will come to you

In other words: walking fills the well.

I spent the winter and spring writing a book that tested me, made me reach harder and higher than I ever have, and by the end of May, when I finished the last of the revisions and finally polished it to the place I wanted it to be, I was bone-dry. The girls in the basement crashed, refusing to give me one more word.

So, as planned, I spent the month of June wandering and walking. I followed the public footpaths that loop through the English countryside, and across grassy meadows started with tiny yellow flowers. I admired a white horse, and had time enough to notice the details of gardens in the villages and the quiet haze of light over velvety hills. On the west coast, I walked on the beach and thought about the faded midcentury culture of seaside towns and walked the steps to the top of Glastonbury Tor to ponder Arthurian legend; on the east coast I shivered deeper into my coat and picked up fossils.

I did not think on these walks. I tend not to. My brain falls into a meditative state that is hard for me to achieve without physical movement. My senses gather details and I muse over things that are not very important.

By the time I arrived to walk a portion of the Camino de Santiago, an ancient pilgrimage route, the chatter part of my brain had gone quiet. I walked for days on end, only walking. Some distant part of me kept wondering if characters or insights or something should be shaping up. Instead, I listened to the songs of frogs and followed the ghosts of pilgrims and babied a sore knee when I could.

The girls rode along on my shoulders, first this one, then another absorbing things she liked. One took notes on recipes. One shot endless photos of skies and trees and windows (I don’t know why she takes so many pictures of windows, but there they are, every time). One listened to conversations and practiced cadences under her breath (“Buen DI-a!”) and took notes on the culture of the Road itself.

When I returned home, with strange strips of sunburn and the knowledge of stinging nettles written across my ankles, I’d walked for nearly a month, days and days and days and days of walking. I had to sleep for a couple of days when I returned, but the well was so full that I have been working in shifts ever since—mornings on the main project, afternoons on side projects, Saturdays for research on yet a third. I have enough material for six books right this minute, all from a month of walking.

I believe in daily walking, too. Every morning, my dog and I head out right after breakfast for a loop around the neighborhood. It’s never very long, a half hour or 45 minutes, but before I leave, I will put a thought in the back of my mind: when I come home, I will work on _____. Then I strap on my shoes, grab the leash, and off we go. I don’t consciously think about the problem, just let it bubble and brew. Usually by the time I get home, I’m ready to dive in.

Walking is also good for us physically. I was forced to stop dancing for a few months because of a knee injury, but I’ve been able to keep walking throughout. Most people can manage a walk, for one thing, unlike running or mountain climbing or even yoga. It gets oxygen flowing through the heart and brain, and if you walk briskly, it works the body into a light sweat, which is the ultimate state of perfection for the body. It burns a few calories and helps keep back, abdomen and leg muscles strong.

Now that I’ve heard about Wordsworth’s totals, I have a clear goal—to perhaps beat that record by the end of my days. If you’ll excuse me, I think I need to get a couple of miles in before the rain begins….

Do you walk or have some other practice of physical movement that you find helps you in your writing?

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About Barbara O'Neal

Barbara O'Neal has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life, which landed her in the Hall of Fame. Her latest novel, The All You Can Dream Buffet has just been released by Bantam Books in March. A complete backlist is available here.

Comments

  1. says

    I take a walk every afternoon (weather permitting). I often observe everything around me: colors, sounds, textures, scents, city life and/or suburban life etc. Not only does walking get me fresh air and exercise, it usually inspires me.

    I’m actually about to take my dog out for a quick walk right now. :-) Early morning offers the best “still” time in our environment.

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  2. Jeanne says

    I’m with you on this. I’ve even gone for a walk during a blizzard and marveled at the soft quietness of the snow falling through trees. Running never cleared the mind the same way for me.

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  3. says

    I am so happy to see someone blogging about this. We get very wrapped up in hours at the computer, writing, blogging, and so on. What about moving around, experiencing life, and getting authentic inspiration? I admit to being a bit of a gym junkie. Without that activity each day, I don’t have the energy or vibrance to be as effective in the rest of my endeavors. Thanks for a wonderful post.

    Marissa

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  4. says

    Barbara–putting aside your message for just a second, I was blown away by the simple beauty of your writing. I can only imagine what your books must be like, and won’t have to imagine much longer. I’m sold.

    Now as for walking, I am inspired to get out there more. I took a walk with my daughter through the woods last night and forgot how much I enjoyed it. Too much time is spent at my work computer, only to come and sit at my “writing” computer.

    Strapping on the tennies!

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  5. says

    I am also a meditative walker and runner. Those simple and practically thoughtless steps always allows my brain to turn inward and tackle projects left unfinished. I could never slip into that space of letting your mind envelop empty fullness while sitting, or even while holding yoga poses. But, get me walking or jogging… and I’m there within a half mile.

    Thanks for the post!

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  6. says

    I’m a long-time runner and I always get ideas and solve story problems while exercising. I think it’s the repetitive movement. Likely sweeping of bicycling or anything like that would do the trick. I really like the idea of giving your subconscious a specific directive. I’ll try that next time. I bet it works beautifully.
    Karin Gillespie´s last blog post ..How I Spent my Summer Vacation

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  7. says

    Thanks for an eloquent post, Barbara. I’ve written about running with a similar sentiment—and since I’m a new runner, a lot of my time is still spent walking. The productivity I’ve discovered by planting an idea and letting my subconscious do its thing is what I love best—the combination of physicality and mental energy really boosts creativity. I do some of my best problem solving on the path. Thanks for a lovely post!
    Cheryl Ossola´s last blog post ..Sometimes more is more—or less

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  8. says

    Yep, I get some great brainstorming done while walking my dog (3x each day, probably about 15 min each, more if I have time). I also find commutes to be similarly helpful for the brain, though not the body.
    Kristan´s last blog post ..Not a rant

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  9. says

    My husband and I have walked every evening–rain, snow, heat–for years and we were just talking last night about the difference we can trace in our lives from when we walked sporadically and now that we walk every day (about two years–it helps to have children who are older!).

    We talk to each other, we walk in silence, holding hands–the physical act of walking does amazing things to the brain in my opinion, including, as you so eloquently pointed out, easing it.

    But no I-pods allowed.
    Sarah Woodbury´s last blog post ..Pronouncing Welsh Words and Place-names

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  10. says

    Wow, I thought I was the only one! I have a little joke about all the creative juices draining to my feet if I sit still too long; I have to get up and move to get them to my head again! I find it interesting, though, that walking produces a meditative state for you. It’s quite the opposite for me, I’m suddenly able to think clearly and that’s when I do most of my heavy plotting. One thing I’ve learned: To be careful if I engage my creative brain while doing a chore. Too many times I’ve found the ice cream in the pantry three hours later because I’d so zoned out. XD

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  11. Christy Hayes says

    Barbara,
    This post proves why you are the official RWA-WF “Wise Woman.” Well stated and so very true!

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  12. says

    Wonderful, Anne and Erika–especially pleased that you would try one of my books after reading a blog.

    Yes, my runner and gym rat friends, those work equally well, but it really is important to leave the iPod off through the exercise.

    I would urge even other exercise fans to give walking a try now and then, specifically for this purpose. (My beloved Christopher Robin is howling at this, I promise, but even such a die hard runner sometimes walks the dog with me.)

    Sometimes, if I’m training for a very long walk and have to do long hours by myself, I’ll bring make playlists or listen to books, and I do have walking-brainstorm sessions for books in progress during which I will listen to the soundtrack for the book.
    Barbara Samuel O’Neal´s last blog post ..THE LOST RECIPE FOR HAPPINESS WINS GOLD!

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  13. says

    On leaving the iPod off…when I’m not walking with my girlfriends (we have an early a.m. trio) I run or walk and even do housework with my iPod earbuds in. I like the company, I think. But my mind still wanders to the book or the current plot problem, even when listening to an audio book! I often have to go back because I miss large chunks while thinking of my own work.

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  14. says

    I live right next to a walking/biking path that includes two duck/geese ponds. I love taking walks here in the evenings and try to do it 3-4 times a week. It is a glorious, glorious retreat for my mind, body, and soul.

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  15. says

    I find different kinds of exercise propel different writing actions. Walking with the iPod is good for raising energy — handy if I’m going to be doing less creative work, like rejigging a website. Walking without music builds contentment and confidence — best before I write. And I’m a dancer too. That cultivates playfulness and can help achieve a certain mindset/voice when required.
    Jan O’Hara´s last blog post ..I Want to Be One of the Anointed

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  16. says

    Yoga. Yoga is my walking. Yoga and swimming. Both have a fluidity and a rhythm that centers me in myself. I often get wonderful inspiration while I am swimming or practicing yoga. It quiets down all the white noise in my head that gets in the way of the prose flow.

    They are definitely my balance…especially because between writing and working I have a pretty sedentary day!

    Alicia
    Alicia Benedict´s last blog post ..What I Want To Read or not According To Michiko Kakutani- A Tale of Two Franzens

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  17. Pamela Toler says

    That month of walking sounds like perfect heaven.

    My best walking time is 3:00 in the afternoon, which is the armpit of the day as far as I’m concerned. Shakes the tension out of shoulders and butt and the cobwebs out of the brain.

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  18. says

    That month of walking *was* heaven. That’s really my idea of a holiday.

    Yoga is wonderful, too, Alicia. All meditative movement is great.

    Christie, that’s true: we all work in different ways. If the iPod works, by all means, use it.

    But I did have a conversation with someone about this recently, a professional on the publishing side, and she said she realized she’d just fallen into the habit of always having her music with her, and she was recently exploring what it was like to not always listen to it. To let her thoughts take shape without any directives at all.
    Barbara O’Neal´s last blog post ..THE LOST RECIPE FOR HAPPINESS WINS GOLD!

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  19. Julie a.k.a. @Writers_Cafe says

    What a wonderful story!
    And, the comments have been equally wonderful.
    How I would enjoy a 6-month walk around England! Maybe someday . . .
    Like Ms. Toler, I am an afternoon or early evening walker. Being very hearing impaired, my walks are essentially quiet-time. I even get relief from the nearly always present tinitis!
    When I first leave the house, I can feel the built-up tension flowing out through my feet. I relax and breathe deeply. At first, nothing, but it isn’t long before the thoughts start bubbling up.
    By the time I get home, I’m eager to jot down ideas, bits of dialogue, scene changes, whatever came to mind. Some people might bring a pan and pen with them, but I walk with the hiking poles, which I love, so I have to count on my memory.
    My walks, however, have NEVER netted me 6 books – I’m still working on #1.
    Loved your story, and loved the message. Thanks so much!
    Julie

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  20. says

    Walking and writing is great together. It’s the time I develop characters in my head and come up with different scenarios. Also its good for finding new characters and ideas. f I see a couple walking and holding hands, my mind starts asking questions and devloping their story.
    Kimberly´s last blog post ..Sharpen those pencils

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  21. says

    Thanks for the post. I’m just getting back into walking after a long respite from it. I, too, want to shoot for the Wordsworth total… Feel so much sharper after a walk.
    Lou Belcher´s last blog post ..Show the reader

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  22. says

    All the commenters seems to be happy walkers! I’ve been a reluctant walker for awhile. Foot-and-ankle arthritis make walking painful. Recently, though, I increased my medicine and now I can walk almost pain-free. Frees up my mind from “Don’t stop. You can do it–you’ve had eight root canals and three children!” to thoughts about writing. I don’t dread the morning walks anymore.

    But I cannot imagine a month of walking. I don’t even like to do the things I LIKE for that length of time!
    Valerie´s last blog post ..Never Mind

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  23. Thelma Mariano says

    A very useful post… I’ve walked for many years, usually an hour each day along the river where I live, which has rapids and a lot of atmosphere. It has certainly inspired my writing and also helped to clear my mind.

    I’m a long-time fan of Julia Cameron and her books on creativity, including a sequel to The Artist’s Way called “Walking in this World.”

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  24. says

    So glad to have found you. I’m a freelance writer. I’ve been blogging at The Moonboat Cafe for about a year, where I reflect about the connections between walking and writing, among other things.

    This past January, my husband and I set a life time goal of 1000 Day Hikes. I’ve been writing about that, too, and an Asheville newspaper picked up the piece and recently carried an article about our project.

    I love to walk. I love to write. I love your idea of just walking for days. Maybe I’ll try it some time.
    Cassandra Frear´s last blog post ..Window Views- A What

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  25. says

    This is a lovely, lovely post. I hadn’t read it fully until just now, when I needed the cadence of these words. And you know what? I’m going out for a walk after lunch. Thanks, Barbara.

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  26. says

    I agree totally. I think every writer needs to push away from their desk, go outside, and breathe in some fresh air. Without fail, when I don’t think I have another idea left, a brisk walk in the park fills my head with all sorts of great ideas.

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  27. says

    What a great post!
    I’m lucky in that I live in the hills and have two dogs who take me out for two good walks every day. I couldn’t get interested in a gym or running, but I love walking – rain or shine.
    I find that my conscious self switches off and my subconscious goes to work. Many is the time I’ve solved plot problems in my novels or come up with good ideas while out in the hills with the dogs.

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  28. says

    I love this advice, and the post itself is lyrical, thank you so much for sharing. I’m absolutely inspired to get back to walking again! I’ve quoted and linked this piece in my blog to share it with others.

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