Charles Dickens died this day, June 9, 150 years ago. He gave many pieces of writing advice throughout his incredible career, the most famous, and probably best, of which was: “Make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait.” It was the motto against which he judged his own work.
He also recognized the toll writing can take on an author, the “wear and tear,” and saw the importance of taking a break from writing, of having distractions away from quill and ink, computer and keyboard.
You must remember that in all your literary aspiration, and whether thinking or writing, it is indispensably necessary to relieve that wear and tear of the mind by some other exertion that may be wholesomely set against it.
For many writers, that relief comes from walking. “Me thinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow,” wrote Henry David Thoreau. For Nietzsche, “Only those thoughts that come by walking have any value.” And JK Rowling finds inspiration in walking too: “Nothing like a nighttime stroll to give you ideas.”
There are many writers throughout history who were also walkers. So many, in fact, that author Merlin Coverley wrote a whole book about it, The Art of Wandering, and Duncan Minshull has edited two anthologies on the subject. And there were many walkers who wrote: Cheryl Strayed and Colin Fletcher, to name but two.
Research backs up the idea of walking to improve creativity. A 2014 study by behavioral scientists Marily Oppezzo and Daniel L. Schwartz at Stanford University stated that, “Walking opens up the free flow of ideas, and it is a simple and robust solution to the goals of increasing creativity and increasing physical activity.”
The study, entitled Give Your Ideas Some Legs: The Positive Effect of Walking on Creative Thinking, goes on to say that, “Walking improves the generation of novel yet appropriate ideas, and the effect even extends to when people sit down to do their creative work shortly after.”
Interestingly, especially in these times when many of us can’t get out to take a long walk in nature, the results were the same for those who walked indoors. And if it’s difficult for you in times of lockdown to venture beyond your garden, take some inspiration from Captain Tom Moore who, for his 100th birthday, walked 100 laps of his garden and raised more than $35 million to help the UK’s health service response to the COVID-19 pandemic. He now has a deal with penguin to publish his autobiography.
For a quick and illuminating summary of the Stanford paper, I’d highly recommend watching Oppezzo’s TED Talk. Her energy on the stage alone makes you want to get out there and get some ideas flowing.
One step at a time
There are many parallels between walking and writing. Just as walking is about putting one foot after another, writing is – in its very basic form – one word after another. Remembering that as you go for a walk, especially a long walk, can help you get over any blocks you might be experiencing in your writing.
Five, ten or fifteen miles can seem like a long way when you first set off, just as the prospect of writing an 80,000 word novel (perhaps more the equivalent of the entire Pacific Northwest Trail) can be daunting. But one foot/one word in front of the other eventually gets you there. And the sense of achievement at the end can be exhilarating. Even more so, I’d argue, when completing a novel.
So walking can help you break through that writer’s block, boost your creativity and even improve your health in so many ways: increase your cardio fitness, reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, strengthen bones, improve balance, reduce body fat and increase muscle strength.
“The sum of the whole is this,” said Dickens, “walk and be happy; walk and be healthy. The best way to lengthen out our days is to walk steadily and with a purpose.”
Does walking help you in your writing? Or do you enjoy the distraction it gives from sitting at a desk? For those you who cannot walk or prefer not to, what are your strategies for relieving the “wear and tear” of writing?