WALKING AND WRITING (John Dougill)
At the end of March 2015, I attended a stimulating conference on Coleridge and Contemplation at Notre Dame University. A couple of the sessions were of particular relevance to a theme that has long intrigued me – the connection of writing and creativity. When doing my PhD, I was amazed to learn that Oxford dons of the nineteenth century regularly took afternoon walks of four to five hours through the surrounding countryside. Healthy body, healthy mind for sure, but there’s something more underlying the practice which has to do with what the Romans called ‘solvitor ambulando’ (it is solved by walking). How and why should this arise?
In his talk on ‘Walking, Contemplation, Writing’, Prof Eamonn Wall of the University of Missouri-St. Louis spoke of the formative effect of activities on the human mind. Nicholas Carr for example in his book The Shallows had demonstrated the deleterious effect of the internet on the way our brain functions, significantly shortening attention span by providing adrenalin rushes for the thrill of the new. The practice of deep reading can be presumed then to shape the brain in other ways, by slowly augmenting what is already there and allowing the imagination room to roam. ‘True enlightenment comes only through contemplation and introspection,’ claims Carr. Walking too can be a form of contemplation, which in turn fosters creativity as evidenced by such notable walkers as Rousseau, Kant, Nietzsche, Thoreau, R.L. Stevenson, Rimbaud, Kerouac – and most famously, Coleridge, Wordsworth and other Romantics.
For Coleridge walking was a primary way of engaging with the world, bringing mind and body into alignment as the pedestrian passes through the surrounding nature. Rather than being disinterested, the walker is immersed in the environment and constantly stimulated by the changing scenery. Moreover, the regular rhythm of the gait induces an almost hypnotic, self-absorbed state conducive to reverie as passing images become fused with the brain’s store of ideas and memories, creating new and liberating patterns of thought. The walking reverie is thus a means of tapping into the fertile realm of semi-consciousness. ‘An author who composes while walking .. is not the slave to other volumes, not swollen with verifications, not weighted with the thought of others,’ writes Frederic Gros in A Philosophy of Walking, before offering this advice: ‘Think while walking, walk while thinking, and let writing be but the light pause, as the body on a walk rests in contemplation of wide open spaces.’
Further rumination came from Prof David Cooper, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Durham University, who questioned the links of creativity and walking in a keynote address entitled ‘Meditation on the Move: Walking, Nature, Mystery’. His talk started by differentiating contemplative walking from other modes such as the mindful meditative practices of Zen or the spiritual exercises in pilgrimage. Contemplative walking was concerned with reverie, rambling, or wondering/wandering as promoted by Daoist thinkers. [Having an open mind and freeing oneself to follow ‘the flow of things’ is a characteristic of Japan’s zuihon style of writing.] But why should walking rather than other activities be associated with such states of mind?
Considerations raised by Prof Cooper included the rhythmic calm of walking, its automatic, unconscious character, and the ‘unselfing’ that comes through being immersed in an ever-changing environment. The speaker then went on to consider the connection with creativity. Movement of body leads to movement of mind, which is fed a constant source of changing stimuli through fresh perspectives. Using the example of Saigyo, he noted that walking was particularly suited to producing a sense of the unity of the world, as if the walker’s movement through the environment were like a thread weaving together a garment. Reverie, rambling and roaming are thus conducive to questions regarding the larger picture, such as the meaning of existence, for through the communion with nature comes a holistic view of the universe. For the ancients contemplation was a means of seeking ‘wisdom’, for Basho walking was similarly an opportunity for ‘fathoming truth’. The inspiration that ensues is mysterious and miraculous, a source of gratitude and an inexplicable ‘gift’.
For the writer then, walking is a path without end which offers an infinite source of material. The physical exercise is not simply an escape from the desk, but a vital means of fostering the writing process by allowing the mind space and time to ramble. It’s the fallow field that enables subsequent fertility. Contemplating self in relation to the world, and the world in relation to the universe, is a break from the deadening effect of mundane chores and daily exigencies. ‘The world is too much with us,’ as Wordsworth wrote.
You know it’s good for you – so what are you waiting for? Procrastination is the enemy of creativity; walk forth and write on!
See also this article on research at Stanford University that suggests walking increases creativity by 60%.
Also a book on the history of walkers and writers entitled The Art of Wandering by Merlin Coverley