To Become a Better Writer, Be a Frequent Walker
Stuck for writing ideas? Try taking your brain for a walk.
Posted March 28, 2016
Novelists and poets have long held that walking and writing are closely connected. Now there’s research to back up that claim.
Among the past literary luminaries known to be avid walkers were Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf and Henry David Thoreau. But perhaps the most celebrated walker-writer was William Wordsworth, who always seemed to be ambling down country lanes, hiking up mountains or wandering “lonely as a cloud.” His friend, essayist Thomas De Quincey, estimated that Wordsworth “must have traversed a distance of 175 to 180,000 English miles” on foot.
Following in Their Footsteps
Susan Froetschel, author of the critically acclaimed novel Fear of Beauty, counts herself among the current generation of perambulating writers. “As I walk along familiar streets in my neighborhood, I think about my writing and observe my surroundings, gathering descriptions of trees and sky and weather,” Froetschel says. The mental impressions she collects may eventually find their way into descriptive passages in her books.
Yet walking does more than just provide her with opportunities for observation. Perhaps even more importantly, it seems to open her mind to inspiration and creativity. Froetschel says, “I let my imagination roam free and plan story lines, deciding where the characters should head next.”
Froetschel takes daily three-mile walks — a routine she keeps up even through the cold of Michigan winters. The characters in her novels tend to walk a lot, too. In her latest novel, Allure of Deceit, Froetschel describes one character’s habit of walking this way: “… when sleep failed and weather allowed, he walked the familiar path outlining the perimeter of the village to order his thoughts.”
Going for walks serves a similar purpose in her own life. Froetschel says, “When I’m stuck on something, I’ll go out and take a walk, and that will often loosen up the ideas or trigger a new approach.”
The Path to Inspiration
Research suggests that Froetschel is on the right path. A study from Stanford University showed that, when people tackled mental tasks that required imagination, walking led to more creative thinking than sitting did.
The study’s participants were asked to do the kinds of mental tasks that are typically used to test creativity, such as thinking of unusual uses for common objects or coming up with analogies to express complex ideas. Across four experiments, from 81% to 100% of participants produced more creative ideas while walking, as compared to sitting. What’s more, when those who had walked sat down afterward, the creativity boost lingered — great news for anyone who takes walking breaks and then returns to a desk.
But was it walking or being outdoors that gave rise to more creative thinking? To explore that question, the researchers compared walking outside, walking inside on a treadmill, being rolled in a wheelchair outside and sitting inside. They found that participants who walked, whether indoors or out, came up with more creative responses than those who sat. In other words, there seemed to be something specific about the act of walking that got people’s creative juices flowing.
Thinking on Your Feet
In the study, participants ambled along at their own natural pace. When you’re hoping to spark your creativity, that may be the best approach. Other research suggests that the ease of such walking may free up more of the brain’s attentional resources for cognitive processes. In contrast, walking at a challenging pace may require the brain to allocate more resources to directing your movements.
The best place to walk seems to be a matter of personal preference. In a study from Scotland, volunteers wore portable EEG devices resembling headsets as they walked around Edinburgh. Their EEGs revealed that walking on a nature path induced a calm state of mind, while walking along city streets amped up engagement. Depending on your personality and the type of writing you do, either might prove beneficial.
Whether you choose to walk alone or with others is something else to consider. For her part, Froetschel enjoys taking walks with her husband and grown son. Yet she notes, “When I’m working out something in a novel, thinking about it requires a certain level of introspection and being alone with my thoughts.” At such times, she says, a solitary walk is often the fastest way to get from plot point A to plot point B.