By Lu Anne Stewart
To be productive as a writer, I’ve discovered that I don’t necessarily need to be tapping on a keyboard or holding a pen in hand. I can make good progress on whatever piece I’m working on by walking outdoors, letting my characters and plot rattle around in my head with each step.
Most mornings, I walk the same one-mile route through shady streets in my Florida neighborhood, where the twisting branches of ancient oak trees create a Tolkien-like landscape. With my ears full of birdsong and squirrel chatter, I’m quickly transported into a writing-while-walking state. I become more aware of each slant of light on the leaves, the telltale tap of the woodpecker, the way the Spanish moss hangs like a frayed shawl from every branch.
The uninterrupted time spent walking clears the head and helps me work out thorny plot dilemmas and character conflicts. But it also has value at a deeper level for me, helping reconnect me with distant childhood memories. So much time was spent outside then, walking and exploring. Now as I walk along the sidewalk, I suddenly recall details about the walk to elementary school with my best friend Joan, and the exact point halfway along where we would always leave the sidewalk to take a short and entirely pointless detour up a small hill, across a dusty path, and back down to the sidewalk again. Just because we were kids, and it was fun to get dust on our polished oxfords. Just because we could.
Sometimes small snapshots like those find their way into my writing. They’re what the amazing writer and teacher Heather Sellers calls “compost,” that pile of experiences and memories that accumulates as you live your life, layer upon layer, digesting and transforming itself into a rich, messy muck. Your best writing will come from your own compost pile, Sellers says, if you have the courage to dig into it.
Something about walking seems to open a window, not just to memory, but also something higher that’s just beyond my grasp. Thinking about these things while working on this post reminded me of a famous poem I read in a college course in British Romantic Poetry. Thanks to Google, I was able to track it down the other day. The passage I remembered was from Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey:
For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue.—And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.
At the halfway point in my walk is a round park, filled with those same venerable oaks. Each time, I climb the steps of a wooden footbridge that arches over a dry creek bed meandering through the park, designed to catch overflow from our next tropical rainstorm. At the center of the bridge I take a moment to pause before heading back. I hear a dove cooing and the air is sweet from some blossom I can’t yet see. It’s a good day to write.