I got out of the Marines when the jogging craze was in full flower and it just seemed natural to go for a little run every day. I did that until I was about 35, when I realized that I really hated running.
I never got that vaunted “runner’s high” that people talked about. Instead, I got sweaty and I got sore knees. That’s when I started walking for exercise every day. It turns out that walking is great exercise.
Many research studies have linked regular walking to a host of health benefits. They include lower risk for diabetes and other diseases, stronger bones, and a more robust cardiovascular system. There’s also increased energy and reduced body fat. Those are good benefits, no matter who you are. But if you’re a writer, walking is even better for you.
Writers and Walking
19th Century writers, like Thoreau, Emerson, Wordsworth, and Charles Dickens all loved walking. In the 20th Century, Ernest Hemingway liked to go for a walk when he finished work or when he was trying to work something out in his mind. Science fiction writer Orson Scott Card wrote this in his 1990 book, How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy:
“It’s worth the time to take an hour’s walk before writing. You may write a bit less for the time spent, but you may find that you write better.”
So, your physical health isn’t the only thing that walking will benefit. Your brain gets a boost, too. One study has found that walking for at least 40 minutes three times a week improves the connectivity of important brain circuits and increased performance on cognitive tasks. Four studies by Stanford psychologists came to the same conclusion.
My dog, Toto (yes, like in the Wizard of Oz), loves our daily half-hour walks. But she also loves it when I’m having some trouble writing. Those are the times that I go for a walk to work things out, just like Hemingway. In my experience, there are a couple of ways that walking can improve your life and work as a writer. Regular walking, like my half hour a day, can help keep you healthy with a smooth-functioning brain. It’s also good stress relief.
When you stumble upon a problem in writing or anything else, a walk can help you work it all out. Here’s how it works for me.
Before I get into some of the benefits, let me clarify what I mean by walking. I’m not talking about speed walking, where your fitness is the goal. I walk at a natural pace that’s somewhere between three and four miles per hour.
Walking in the city doesn’t cut it. There’s too much noise and too many distractions. Your attention is pulled away again and again by having to watch where you’re going, look out for other pedestrians, and pay attention to traffic signals. You don’t have to walk in the country to get this benefit. Around my house, there are plenty of good walking opportunities where there are no street lights and not much traffic.
One more thing. When I’m on my regular daily walks, I often listen to a podcast or a book on tape. That’s fine for those walks, but not for the walks where you want to solve a particular problem or look for creative solutions.
Letting Those Ideas Flow
If I’ve got a general writing or business problem, I take a walk to get the ideas to flow. When I helped a major oil company develop a course in creativity and innovation, one of the things I learned was that there is a group of activities that are great for getting good ideas. They’re activities where the body is on autopilot and the mind can roam free. Walking around my neighborhood is perfect for that.
I usually don’t even try to concentrate too much on the issue I want ideas about. They’ll come up naturally enough. So, I walk, and the ideas begin to bubble to the surface of my brain.
When that happens, I have to catch them right away. If I don’t, I won’t remember them when I get back to the office. I’ve tried using index cards and a notebook, and those work in some circumstances, but not when I’m walking. For that, I need my trusty digital voice recorder, “The Idea-Catcher.”
What I’ve just described is what psychologists call divergent thinking. That’s what creativity is all about.
Solving A Particular Problem
When you’re trying to narrow down a bunch of ideas to choose the best one, or trying to work out a thorny problem, you should do a different kind of thinking. It’s the kind that psychologists call “convergent” thinking. This is more intensive brain work, and so, you’ll probably walk a little faster. When you do, you need a way to concentrate your thinking on the problem you’re trying to solve or the choice you’re trying to make. I do that by carrying on an internal dialogue.
I imagine myself having a conversation with someone else, where we each take up different points of view and argue them. That may sound hokey, but it works for me.
Walking is great exercise and it can also help you get more ideas and solve some difficult problems. It can make your dog happy, too.