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?


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.