The Writer’s Walk: Nurturing Creativity in Difficult Times
Every day, as part of my writing process, I take a walk outside among Joshua Trees and, in spring, golden California poppies. Often a writing problem weighs on my mind: an opening that’s not quite right, a subplot that’s stumbling, a structure that’s just not working. As my feet pound the ground, my brain is only partially occupied by the scurrying rabbits and calling quail. My mind wanders just as I do. And in those moments I often have a breakthrough, an “aha moment” that leaves me eager to return to my manuscript.
We are living during a difficult time when so many of us are encouraged to stay indoors to keep ourselves, our friends, and neighbors safe. Yet one thing we are still allowed to do is to go outside for exercise. And we need to. Humans have a symbiotic relationship with nature. We need nature, and it needs us.
Even before I read Melissa Koch’s FOREST TALK, one of the books on this month’s booklist, I knew humans had a symbiotic relationship with trees. We breathe in oxygen released by trees. Trees use the carbon dioxide we exhale for photosynthesis. But here’s what Koch wrote that astonished me: “Trees don’t just make people physically healthier. They also improve our spiritual well-being.”
Koch goes on to cite several studies that show being among trees or even simply seeing trees out a window helps us heal faster and reduce stress, blood pressure, anxiety, and negative thoughts. The Japanese government even coined the term “forest bathing,” which involves walking in the woods and using all your senses to take in your surroundings as a way to improve mental health.
I’d argue this symbiotic relationship holds the key not just to our sanity but to our creativity too.
Starting a Writer’s Walk Practice
There’s no time like the present for starting a writer’s walk practice. Before you do, a few ground rules.
- First, leave your headphones at home, so your senses are fully engaged with the world around you.
- Leave your notebook at home too. The idea is to keep your body and your mind moving.
- When you begin, focus your attention on a few deep breaths in and out. Notice the feeling of the ground beneath your feet.
Eventually, your mind may wander. This is good. When it does, magical things might happen. Things like:
- Story sparks – As you walk, observe animals, even little insects. What kind of bird did you hear? Why is the sky suddenly filled with butterflies? What makes those wispy, thin clouds? Back home, that wondering might turn into research and even writing about a new topic. But there’s no pressure if it doesn’t.
- Storing up sensory details – Use your walk to closely observe your surroundings. Note not only the sights, but also the smells, sounds, and textures. What do things look like and sound like? Can you think of analogies? Now file those details away for future use. One day when you need to capture how the leaves rustled or the birds called, you’ll remember, and these details will reappear in your writing.
- Poem practice – I love poems for their ability to capture a single moment in exquisite detail. When you observe something interesting on your walk, maybe an autumn leaf floating in a rain puddle, challenge yourself to craft a little poem in your mind. No need to write it down. It’s just an exercise in paying attention and noticing small details, a way to remind yourself to focus on individual moments and concrete details in your writing.
- Solving problems – I can’t tell you the number of aha moments I’ve had during my daily walks. The key for me is to think about my problem right before I begin. Then I clear my mind and focus on my breath, the feel of my feet, letting my mind wander. If and when my brain is ready, it might wander back to my story and play with the problem.
So, if you are allowed, get outside and take a writer’s walk. Your mind, your body, and your writing will thank you!
O.O.L. F (Out of Left Field)
Can’t get outside right now? Relax by watching a nature webcam here.
Experience California’s golden poppies live on their own webcam:
The app Headspace is offering free meditations during the pandemic, including a 10-minute walking meditation, perfect for a writer’s walk.
ReadWriteThink shares a wonderful Poetry Walk lesson from Patrick Striegel.
Read more about how walking boosts writing with this article from Publication Coach.
The New Yorker reports on how walking helps us think.
Kirsten W. Larson used to work with rocket scientists at NASA. Now she writes books for curious kids. She’s the author of WOOD, WIRE, WINGS: EMMA LILIAN TODD INVENTS AN AIRPLANE, illustrated by Tracy Subisak (Calkins Creek, 2020), THE FIRE OF STARS, illustrated by Katherine Roy (Chronicle, Fall 2021), along with 25 other nonfiction books for kids. Find her at kirsten-w-larson.com or on Twitter/Instagram @KirstenWLarson.