Apr 07, 2013
Do the Locomotion
Brennan K Peel
Writing may be tough work but rarely is it physically taxing. Sure, writers often suffer our own vocation-driven afflictions: carpal tunnel, bleary eyes, that idiosyncratic aversion to waking up early or using Microsoft Word that manifests in panting, moist palms, palpitations or worse: But for the most part we don't have to sweat or bleed or carry heavy things or perform labor under a broiling sun. For the most part, as writers our task is to write; which for most of us means to sit in front of a keyboard--and for some, with paper and pen or typewriter or sidewalk and chalk--and think. That means, for the most part, writers's work is sedentary. The chief tasks are moving fingers--and really, when you're struggling to produce 500 words a day, how much typing are you actually doing? As noted before, writers are people, and people have lots of selves within them. Indeed, writers aren't sedentary all the time. Lots of writers do things, fun things, exciting things, healthy things. But on the whole, writers have a track record of being a pretty unhealthy group. Among our most notable are alcoholics, addicts, manic-depressives, and just plain depressives. Mrs. Torrance suddenly wishes she and Jack had gone hiking more often. Lots of writers do things, fun things, exciting things when not writing. But what if we did things whilewriting? This month, my goal has been to write while walking. Not sitting at a desk or in a coffee shop or on the floor in my underwear. Outside. En route. With pants. I had two aims with this goal:
(1) Get moving. Moving gets the blood flowing, which sometimes gets the writing muscle going. It's also healthier than staring at a blinking cursor for minutes on end; and (2) Get writing. Writing does not exist in the vacuum of our apartments or our minds. It is borne from, and ultimately a gift to, the outside world, the place our friends and family and neighbors inhabit, those people populating the places passed through during a neighborhood stroll. Writing while walking is, I figured, a way to do and write at the same time, a simultaneous hybrid of researching and reporting.
Consider the health benefits of walk-writing. A typical person can burn about 100 calories an hour typing. That's continual typing--not henpecking for a few seconds then thinking for fifteen minutes while you get another coffee (or bourbon). There are no reliable data on how many calories are burned in an hour of chain smoking, pulling out tufts of hair, burying your face in your hands, or feverishly striking the backspace key to delete whatever word monstrosity you just created. But it's indubitably fewer than a typical person burns during an hour of walking. There is historical precedent for the relationship between writing and walking. William Wordsworth went on a walking tourof France, the Alps and Italy. Less than a decade later he took a walk and wrote a poem, memorizing the entire thing as he went. Then he wrote it down. From that poem, the not-quite-euphoniously titled "Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798":
Therefore let the moon Shine on thee in thy solitary walk; And let the misty mountain winds be free To blow against thee: and in after years, When these wild ecstasies shall be matured Into a sober pleasure, when thy mind Shall be a mansion for all lovely forms, Thy memory be as a dwelling-place For all sweet sounds and harmonies; Oh! then, If solitude, or fear, or pain, or grief, Should be thy portion, with what healing thoughts Of tender joy wilt thou remember me, And these my exhortations! Many other writers have used walking as a jumping-off point for their writing, or the outright subject of their work, among them J.M. Synge, Yeats, Dickens, and Thoreau (in his aptly titled essay, "Walking"). Phillip Lopate pays homage to walking around Manhattan in Waterfront, a book whose introductory chapter pays homage to Robert Louis Stevenson's famed walks around France with his donkey. And really, going for a walk is nothing more than going on a short journey, a narrative pattern with a rich literary history. I don't know that walking has magically improved my writing this month, but it has forced me to alter my routine, and I feel healthier. Composing on the move does have its challenges. It is difficult, for instance, to remember many sentences of dense prose after several long blocks when the Houston humidity is somewhere between sauna and dog's breath. I've really had to think about what I'm trying to say to keep things clear in my mind; and that chore, I've learned, has helped me trim much of the fat that would have made it to the page if I were hunched over my computer in a dark room. I also have to transcribe anything I compose while writing after I'm back home; but it's typing, not writing, and it's over quickly because all the grunt work is already done. Do yourself a favor and go for a stroll. There are likely formal walking tours in your neck of the woods. And if not, then strike out on your own around the block, across town, to another state. If needed, channel your inner Stevenson and get your own donkey to join you.