This column explores the myriad ways we can — and maybe should — engage with our creative process beyond actively writing.
I started working full time in March of 2021, just into my second MFA semester. This is no woe is me statement; many of the people I go to school with work full time jobs. We attend a low residence program which makes that possible, but not any less daunting or overwhelming. Just, possible.
Before my final semester, I decided to go down to thirty hours a week. But one thing stayed the same: whenever I have a lunch break, I go outside and head up the sidewalk until it turns into a narrow bike lane and finally over the hill to a park I’m lucky enough to live by.
The daily constitutional started more as a way to get moving, a way to disrupt my otherwise incredibly desk-ridden life. A remote job, school work, and other writing endeavors all occur at my desk. Until starting up the walking, I would often spend more than ten hours a day stationary.
But the walks quickly became much more than a means to an end. Many literary legends know this — Virginia Woolf and Henry David Thoreou perhaps being the most notable. I’m not explaining anything new. However, I’m trying to instead register just how important these walks can be. And maybe affirm the decision to spend those thirty minutes away from work walking and not writing.
Much like Woolf and the character in her novel, “Night Haunting,” I like to wander. And while I may not have London to do it in — Woolf writing in her diary, “To walk alone in London is the greatest rest” — but I have a lake and skeleton trees and a rather large lake preserve that no matter the weather is always muddy.
By the time I log out for lunch, I’ve already gathered my boots, coat, hat, scarf (if necessary, as is right now), before my finger even touches that “lunch” button. Thirty minutes is a disastrously small amount of time to soak in nature, so timing my launch out of my apartment building is vital. Just getting to the preserve takes about five to eight minutes, depending on whether a car, garbage truck, a semi, or all three at once is taking up the bike lane. When this happens, I super-spy sneak along the perimeter, eyes and ears primed to hear cars racing by.
At the park’s entrance is a man-made waterfall. Right after a snowstorm, water rushes boisterous and hard down the cut through rock into a drainage pool that leads to sewers. There’s a bright yellow ball down there, and a cave that would perfectly fit a hobbit.
More than wander like Woolf, my walks include a lot of stillness. You may be thinking that’s counterintuitive to these walks’ initial purpose. You’d be correct. But stillness is what inspires and soothes me, it might be different for you.
What I do, is stand outside the faux breaking waves for a while before my boots turn and head down the overgrowth path. Here, I find wild onions sprouting among thorned brambles and trash. My fingers ache to nudge their bulbous bodies out from the dirt but I never know what exhausts they’ve inhaled, what weed killer the town uses. There’s quite a lot of dichotomy and conflict there, if you’re paying attention.
Past the parking lot where once there was a UPS van, an exterminator van, and a pet extremement pick up van and I thought now that’s a story opens up a gorgeous grassed square with a cobblestone pathway that winds around the space. Right in the center is a mammoth white flag poll. On especially windy days, the three flags — an American flag, POW flag, and town emblem flag — make thick whacking noises.
Part of my walk is refusing to look at my phone for any reason whatsoever. I set a timer before I leave my room, and only when it goes off do I reach down into my pocket and pull the contraption out. That’s part of this wandering/placidity practice. No phone. Just the echoes of children playing basketball across the lake and the hidden rustles of birds and squirrels in the dried leaves.
Walking for your writing is a sacred, subtle sport. You should not be thinking: How am I going to write something from this? Where is the metaphor I sent myself to find? What’s emotional in all this? That ruins everything.
Which is why stillness, emptiness, and calmness are keys to doing this successfully. After walking along the path, stopping at each picnic table to look out at the water, I will head into the trail’s head. I only ever have time for a few measly steps in and yet, the quiet that envelops me even as I can still see the cars in the parking lot is worth it every time. I stand there, close my eyes, let the birdsong and rustling take over my imagination. Sink into this other world. The air itself turns motionless.
In that moment, that rejuvenation, that rest — that’s where momentum begins. Maybe not a story or even an explicit idea, but your mind has gone quiet for just one second, your body’s edges melting into the ephemeral. What will happen when you open your eyes? When you’re stirred again? What is the first thing that comes into focus as you renter the present?
Alarm blares, head back to the apartment or home or office building. What images linger with you? Shocked you, moved you, seemed important? Once you’re back, and not any second sooner, then you can write it down. Jot notes. But more than anything, hold that feeling of just you and the woods. Try to find the words to explain it. That’s the feeling I try to capture when I write.