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A blog for everything bookish

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Reflections on writing: go for a jolly good walk

I’ve always liked to walk. As a child I used to walk to school or across the fields and in the hills. The town I grew up in is in a sharp valley in the Peak District and it was never possible to walk anywhere without encountering an incline of some description. My parents didn’t own a car, so if I wanted to go anywhere it was by my legs or, on rare occasions, by bus. In winter heavy snowfall made the roads impassable and it was uncommon for the school to close so I would often tramp the mile or two to school across fields deep with crisp, untouched snow, or in summer thick with meadow grasses and bobbing yellow buttercups.

At some point this became a pleasure, I began to walk for the love of it. Often as a teenager I would climb to the top of the hill behind my house, winding my way through housing estates until the pressure of housing thinned and the path broke out into open moorland, tangled with woody heathers and bilberry bushes with their tiny purple fruits. Then there would be no sounds of cars or people chattering, no lawnmowers, just the drifting notes of birdsong and the bleating of sheep and the wind in my ears and, sometimes, the cry of a bird of prey scouring the bleak hills somewhere. When I crested the rise of the hill the fields opened out onto a broad valley with the thin streak of a road splitting it like a grey gash down the centre, too far away to carry any sound, and the great empty hills grazing the sky in the distance. I would lie down on the rough, thin grass avoiding the clustered pellets of sheep turd and watch the clouds pass. It was the most peaceful aspect of my childhood, the moment when I felt most complete and most myself, untouched by the tainting influence of other people. I’d grown up in a large family, one which had become distended with extras: the in-laws and the nieces and nephews and cousins, and it was often hard to find a moment in which I, the youngest child, could start to untangle who I really was from the narrative of what everyone expected me to be. 

I have maintained that relationship with walking, though I have moved away from the valley (how I miss it at times) and life and responsibilities mean that it is harder for me to go walking freely as I used to. I also have problems with my feet, which it turns out were not really designed for walking, so my ability to walk distance is not what it used to be when I was a tiny stripling of a kid, light as a leaf. Lack of familiarity with my new surroundings has also been a barrier: no longer do I have a stomping ground of familiar trails and with limited time it is hard to discover new ones. I am not a fan of walking in urban or suburban environments, though I don’t mind talking a stroll around the village now and again. My childhood spoiled me, I think. I am not satisfied without greenery, without wildness. I well understand the power of the moors on the work of the Brontës, how it became a kind of character in its own right much as Tove Jansson’s island does. I want a confusion of birdsong and the gurgle of a swift-running stream; I want great lakes shielding secrets in their placid waters, hills like a rumpled quilt left behind by passionate lovers. The city doesn’t do that for me, not quite.

That being said, there is value in walking. It is not just physically beneficial, but also supportive of the writerly lifestyle. I don’t mean as an affectation, but rather as a tool. Exercise of any description releases endorphins, a chemical change which has a significant impact on the mindset. Yet unlike cycling or swimming, running, football or hockey, walking absorbs the body but not the mind. When you walk, the mind is free to wander. This is a great opportunity for budding (or experienced) writers to explore ideas or seek inspiration, to puzzle out a difficult scene. At a recent short break in Wales I had only to walk for 10 to 15 minutes on the banks of a lake to generate two good ideas for stories and to puzzle out an understanding of imagery which had eluded me.

Unlike most other physical activities, walking doesn’t require a high level of physical fitness. You don’t have to walk fast, you can amble or stroll. You don’t have to walk far or with any particular purpose in mind. Just move your feet, one then another then another, and let the mind roam free. Or observe intently, letting the environment inspire and prompt you.   

It is, perhaps, not surprising then that there is a connection between writers and walking. There are innumerable examples of writers who are/were regular walkers. Virginia Woolf, for example, was a frequent walker exploring the banks and the countryside surrounding the River Ouse close to her home at Rodmell. William Wordsworth’s famous poem ‘Daffodils’ came out of a walk. Then there are writers who write about walking: Henry David Thoreau, Bill Bryson, W.G. Sebald, Sheryl Strayed, Olivia Laing, Simon Armitage to name but a sampling. The connection between the activities is strong.

It is not just writing that walking aids, but any problem that requires thinking. If you have a knotty personal problem to iron out, take a hike up into the hills feeling your lungs fill with air and strain against the effort, walk until your body is tired and your mind subdued and then, perhaps, a path to resolution will become evident. Much is said about mindfulness in these enlightened days, and a mindful walk can be a great way of breathing presence into the present moment: that flower growing from the crack in the pavement, the way the discarded lumps of chewing gum form a crazy multicoloured pattern, the splash of streetlights on a wet pavement, all these things can remind us how we are here and how life, in all its complexity and chaos, is still beautiful. Walking in the rain can be soothing or exhilarating. Walking in a storm can be terrifying. Walking, whatever the weather wherever you are, makes you feel something which is invariably better than feeling nothing.

It’s a great, big, beautiful world out there. Take a walk in it. Who knows what you’ll see.