Words on the Street, Revisited #16: Go Outside!

Bi-weekly chatter about how looking closely at some of the most common expressions in everyday life can prompt new ways of thinking about our writing.


Back in May, when New York lilacs were blooming I began my column with this line, “It’s lilac season here in the Hudson Valley.” But now it’s November, the month of marmalade skies at sundown (no tangerine trees required) and leaves, leaves, leaves.

Leaves on trees—reds, yellows and browns. Leaves on the ground—crunchy, slippery and sometimes swirling up just a few inches off the street, in windy twirls. Leaves with veins and stripes and torn stems.

And the November air moves from being what, in the early part of the month, we call “crisp” to downright cold by Thanksgiving. Usually.

Whether it’s unseasonably warm or completely appropriate to break out the down jacket, flannel scarf and wool beanie, being outdoors is typically a good idea. For me, it’s a particularly good idea if I’ve been hunched over a desk all day sucking down stale coffee and chewing Tic Tacs. (No, I will not dwell on anything else that might, in fact, have the potential to get sucked down, too, this time of year. Leftover Halloween candy, anyone?)

And it’s an even better idea if on that same desk sits a screen or a notebook that’s either blank or contains words and phrases that I wrote but feel absolutely no connection to at all. Does this sound familiar? It’s not clicking, I have no idea where I am taking this sentence or paragraph or word and I haven’t found the beat. (Yet!)

It’s time to take a break.

“Get out,” my mother used to yell, if the tv was on too long or I was sitting at the kitchen table pouting because no one was around to play. “Go outside and get some air. Take a walk! Ride your bike!” This order, I have come to see years and years and years later, was one driven by great big love and a homegrown knowing: being outside is good for the soul. Creative parts, included.

Walking as a salve, the upside of being outside and how autumn prompts wonder about the writer’s vulnerability are ideas that many thinkers and doers, both notorious and unnamed, have considered in all sorts of work. Here are three offerings on these topics that guide me when my mind is cluttered but my page is still blank:

  • Rebecca Solnit in The History of Walking: Walking, ideally, is a state in which the mind, the body, and the world are aligned, as though they were three characters finally in conversation together, three notes suddenly making a chord. Walking allows us to be in our bodies and in the world without being made busy by them. It leaves us free to think without being wholly lost in our thoughts.

  • From David Strayer, cognitive neuroscientist and researcher: “If you’ve been using your brain to multitask—as most of us do most of the day—and then you set that aside and go on a walk, without all of the gadgets, you’ve let the prefrontal cortex recover,” says Strayer. “And that’s when we see these bursts in creativity, problem-solving, and feelings of well-being.”

  • Pico Iyer in “The Beauty of the Ordinary”: Growing up, I thought a writer was obliged to write from strength and show off all the things that he could do with more authority than almost anyone else; as autumn draws on, I begin to think that anyone’s strength is only what unites her or him to everyone else in shared experience, and often vulnerability.

 These days I walk and my sneakers glide through sometimes dry and sometimes soggy leaves. They pave a path forward, the one that takes me up a steep hill, past horse stables, then down through the local cemetery. I added this last stop to my walking route during the pandemic and have no regrets at all. I’ve made many new friends: on the ground, in the ground and hovering above.

When I let the air and sky and wind and trees guide me, that same path takes me home, back to the page. It may still be blank but on these better days it’s filled with fresh promise. Words flow.

And that pout? It may even start to fade.

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