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Wander to Write Better: Why Aimlessly Wandering Around Helps Our Creativity

By Tim Mathis


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The most important thing in the writing life is just wandering around looking at things.


Malcolm Gladwell will tell you that if you want to become an expert at something, you need to spend 10,000 hours doing it.


I’m here to tell you that if you want to become an expert at writing, you need to spend 10,000 hours wandering around looking at things.

We’ll get to the data, but I have to be honest that it’s personal experience that’s convinced me.


Here’s my story:

I’m older now, but I spent the last five years of my 20’s writing a memoir about my relationship with religion. I was working as a minister in the Episcopal Church at the time, and the relationship was troubled to say the least. In a lot of ways it was anxiety that drove the writing. I didn’t feel comfortable in the life I’d built and I needed to figure out what to do with myself. The book was a way to process. Putting my thoughts on paper helped me sort through my feelings and make sense of my experiences. It forced me to turn my internal mess into a coherent story.


I wrote most of the book by the time I was 29, but I couldn’t figure out the ending. Both literally and figuratively, I didn’t know how my religious story would finish. I put the project aside for a year while I got more and more dissatisfied with life.


It was wandering around looking at things that finally broke the dam.

During the 10th month of my 29th year, a job that I’d depended on in the church started to implode, and I now had an impending career catastrophe to complement my long, slow existential crisis.


So, almost every day for a month I walked loops around my neighborhood in Seattle. One or two hours at a time, burning off anxiety trudging aimlessly through November drizzle, letting my mind work.


I don’t know why. I just felt like I needed to walk - over and over and over.

One day, on an hour and a half wander at my favorite place in Seattle - a place almost too appropriately named Discovery Park - my anxiety and ennui suddenly congealed into a coherent thought that I hadn’t had before.


I could just quit.


I was walking along a bluff, looking out over Puget Sound. It was a crisp, clear winter day - one of the rare few that Seattleites really treasure. The air was still, the sun warm on my face.

The idea felt like it came from nowhere, although in retrospect it’s strange that it wasn’t something that I’d consciously considered before. At that point I’d spent almost 30 years in the religious world. I had a Masters degree in Theology and I was approaching a decade of profession experience in ministry. I’d also been dissatisfied for almost all of it.


I’m sure I teared up, which is embarrassing in a busy park. I was cursing under my breath a lot those days, inadvertently - the pressure of not knowing what to do forcing out profane little bursts of frustration. That day though, I wasn’t angry. I remember laughing while I was crying. I’m sure I looked like a madman.

I don’t know if it’s appropriate to call it a revelation when you realize that your religion is the problem, but that’s what it felt like. With this thought everything fell into place. I could quit my job and do something else. I could quit the church even. I didn’t have to keep going down this path.

This was a life decision, but I also knew immediately that it was the correct conclusion for the book I’d been writing. I’d thought that the memoir would end with me being ordained as a priest but I’d suspected that didn’t make sense with the rest of the story. After my moment of clarity, I continued walking for a few more miles. I realized that leaving was the logical ending. It was the conclusion that naturally followed from all of the other experiences that I’d constructed in my rough manuscript.


This was a creative revelation as much as a personal revelation. A new idea, based on old ideas, but building beyond them. It was an end to my writers block, as well as the end of a life chapter filled with bad personal decisions.


Thank god for that walk.


When I was done walking, I immediately started writing. First, I wrote an email to my boss and told them I was going to quit when my contract was up in a month (regardless of whether the job was available).


Then, I finished writing the book. After a year of frustration, across the next few weeks I blazed through the final chapters, my new clarity providing an obvious path towards the story’s resolution.


Finally, I wrote a letter to my bishop.


I typed “The End” on my book, and I left the church.


Walking is the Essential Companion to Writing

If you’re a writer, you probably feel like writing helps, right? It helps you make sense of your story. It helps you figure out what you think.


It’s true, but for me, walking is an essential tool to accompany it. It allows you to come up with new ideas. It allows you to break creative block, and it gives you the opportunity to move beyond the boundaries of the laptop and the keyboard and the conventions you’ve set for yourself.


Walking is a reliable shortcut to creativity.

That seems too simple, but it’s not.


Maybe I’ve just been paying more attention, but it seems like there’s been a lot of talk about this dynamic recently. The writer and actor Andrew McCarthy wrote a recent article in the New York Times about walking and creativity and the solutions to all of life’s problems, and he cataloged a list of creatives who’ve evangelized about the value of just walking around: Kierkegaard, William Blake, Bill Bryson, Rousseau and Nietzche.

Haruki Murakami - who is among the most brilliant living creators - is documented to prefer running, but the point is the same. He’s said that he runs 6 miles a day on average, in order to maintain his level of creativity. He runs marathons so he can write masterpieces.

And Wordsworth in particular was legendary for walking around looking at things. He was a prolific hiker in the Lakes District in England, and it’s been suggested that he walked up to 180,000 miles across his lifetime. That sounds pathological to me, but the guy helped launch Romanticism and was one of the greatest English-language poets, so who’s to say how much walking is too much?


The anecdotal evidence is strong, but in recent years there’s also been developing science around the value of just wandering around.


Most notably, a 2014 Stanford study confirmed suspicions and concluded that people do better on tests measuring creativity if they take them while they’re walking. Wandering around looking at things doesn’t help with focus, but it does help with the type of thinking that integrates a lot of different ideas into new ones. That is, it helps with creativity.


Why? As with most things related to human psychology, it’s not entirely clear, and when people try to explain the dynamic they seem to naturally drift from scientific language into poetry. In a discussion of the study in The New Yorker, the science writer Ferris Jabr said

“Perhaps the most profound relationship between walking, thinking, and writing reveals itself at the end of a stroll, back at the desk. There, it becomes apparent that writing and walking are extremely similar feats, equal parts physical and mental. When we choose a path through a city or forest, our brain must survey the surrounding environment, construct a mental map of the world, settle on a way forward, and translate that plan into a series of footsteps. Likewise, writing forces the brain to review its own landscape, plot a course through that mental terrain, and transcribe the resulting trail of thoughts by guiding the hands.”


No respectable researcher would use such a metaphorical description in an academic study, and maybe it’s predictable that creative-types would be incapable of sticking to the science. But the point is valid: don’t let anyone tell you that wandering around with your head in the clouds is a waste of time. You may not find God. You might have to spend hours on your feet. But eventually walking around looking at things provides a reliable path towards creative breakthrough.


Tim Mathis is a writer, hiker, and psychiatric nurse. He publishes new articles regularly on TimMathisWrites.com, and is the author of two books - The Dirtbag’s Guide to Life and I Hope I Was Wrong About Eternal Damnation: An Absolutely True Memoir. He’s on Instagram at @dirtbagguide.


 

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