“It is undeniable that the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other has been an impetus for artistic expression throughout the course of human evolution.”
– The Joy of Walking, Suzy Cripps
by Elizabeth Jannuzzi
I’m a WALKER. I used to be a runner, in my twenties and thirties. I’m also a hiker. But first and foremost and hopefully for the rest of my life, I identify as a walker.
I’m also a WRITER. This is difficult for me to say out loud, to proclaim it as my identity. But I’m trying.
The Walker/Writer identity is nothing new. So many authors, from Henry David Thoreau to David Sedaris, have extolled the creative connections between the two acts that numerous books and articles have been written on the subject.
One could even roll their eyes at the cliché of the image as Michael LaPointe attempts to do in his Atlantic book review article, “The Unbearable Smugness of Walking.” However, at the end of the article, he admits that much of his essay was conceived while walking!
Here’s how the writing/walking scenario goes for me:
I’m walking—either through my neighborhood or on a trail in the woods. I have headphones on, listening to music, a podcast, or an audiobook. The noise in my ears is there to help me detach, to force my brain to stop concentrating on stupid petty things like: “Are the neighbors judging me?” or “Are the mountain bikers going to annoy me today?”
One foot in front of the other, I plod away on a familiar route. The familiar is key. I don’t want to think about which turn to make. My body knows, my mind doesn’t have to decide. A nugget of a thought bounces around my head. It may have been there for a couple of days but on this walk, I have the space to let it bounce.
The nugget grows and my mind is fully engaged with this thought. I may have turned off the music or if I haven’t turned it off, I’ve tuned it out. I’m not aware of the traffic around me or, if in the woods, the logs I walk over. My mind acts like a child creating a snowman. It takes the nugget and rolls it and rolls it until it forms a larger ball of thought. The beginning of an essay, perhaps, or even just a Facebook post. Once it is big enough, like the bottom ball of a snowman, my mind is excited. I’m eager now to put this thought onto paper.
I cut my walk short and hurry home. I sit at my desk, sometimes without taking off my coat first. I pull the thought from my brain through my hands typing on the keyboard and finally onto the page. And there it is, the thought nugget I had on my walk has turned into a draft of something on my screen.
“And with leisure and my thoughts, I walk the fields, unfettered by bounds of
space or time.”
– Glimpses of Bengal: selected from the letters of Sir Rabindranath Tagore, 1885 to 1895
In reviewing this scenario, I realize what’s important about walking to my writing process. It’s the space. Mental space from other thoughts and physical space from other people. If I were to sit down at my desk to attempt to force my nugget into a larger ball, maybe I’d get there. But more often than not, a need from a child would interrupt me or an idea about ordering something on Amazon creeps into my mind and redirects my thinking.
Making space to let the mind wander is one benefit of walking for writers. But in my experience, there is another.
Being out in the world, whether in nature or amongst people, sparks my creativity. I will see something or hear something that stands out to me, either as a universal connection to humanity or an unusual way to regard something. For example, while walking through the city of Princeton, I heard a woman say to her companion: “There are two things we are not going to talk about. The first is my parking.” That snippet of an overheard conversation turned into a flash nonfiction piece. Or one day while walking through a neighborhood, I saw a tree root push and warp a slate sidewalk. I was immediately transported back to my childhood when I would ride my bike over these cracks and pretend I was jumping a horse. And voilà, a potential scene for my memoir emerged. A cool old building, an interaction between two people on the street, a twisted gnarled tree branch—all these things I witness on my walks can help foster my creativity and my writing process.
To recap: the act of walking, getting out of the house and putting one foot in front of the other, gives me the physical and mental space to grow my creativity as well as provides fodder for my writing either through being a witness to humanity or finding my muse.
So lace up those walking shoes and hit the trail or the pavement. Move those feet to grow those thoughts and spark your creative process!
Want to read more about walking and writing? Check out:
- “Walking,” by Henry David Thoreau, The Atlantic
- “Why Walking Helps Us Think,” by Ferris Jabr, The New Yorker, September 3, 2014
- “The Unbearable Smugness of Walking,” by Michael LaPointe, The Atlantic, August 2019
- The Joy of Walking, by Suzy Crips
- Beneath My Feet: Writers On Walking, by Duncan Minshull (Editor, Introduction)