Monday, November 06, 2017

Step away from the keyboard!

I love walking. Not your power or ultra extreme stuff, just your straightforward amble in a wood or meander along a shore. But until not so long ago, I used to feel guilty whenever I set off. If I was walking, I wasn't writing. This meant valuable creative time was being wasted. Now I know this was the thinking of the ill-informed. 

Let me explain. As you all probably know, walking makes the heart pump faster. The faster the heart pumps, the more blood and oxygen is sent to the muscles and the organs, including the brain. This helps keep us fit and healthy, and fit is always good. But guess what? Regular walking also promotes new connections between brain cells. These connections stave off the usual withering of brain tissue that comes with age and increase the volume of the hippocampus (a brain region crucial for memory), elevating levels of molecules that both stimulate the growth of new neurons and transmit messages between them. What’s not to like about preventing brain tissue from withering at any age, but especially if you are a tad older, like me?

And there's more. As we saunter alongside that murmuring brook, or stroll through that wooded glade, our mind is free to float from one sensory experience to another and our “attention” is replenished. You see, it turns out that “attention” is a limited resource. It drains throughout the day, and especially after concentrated effort, like writing a book for six hours. Sleeping helps replenish attention, of course, but so does walking, especially walking in a park or forest. In Japan they call walking in green spaces ‘Shinrinyoku’ or ‘forest bathing’. It’s a recognised relaxation and stress management activity. 

Better still, allowing our mind to wander and drift, or daydream, is also believed to stimulate our slumbering creative subconscious, the place where ideas come from. It's got to be one of the great paradoxes of being a writer that while it involves hard work and concentrated effort, the light bulb moments tend to come when we are are not focusing on being creative. Ray Bradbury explained this rather neatly in his book, Zen in the Art of Writing, when he said you have to treat the finding of ideas in the same way you treat cats: “If you try to approach a cat and pick it up, hell, it won’t let you do it. You’ve got to say, ‘Well, to hell with you.’ And the cat says, ‘Wait a minute. He’s not behaving the way most humans do.’ Then the cat follows you out of curiosity.” 

So, it turns out that stepping away from my keyboard and going out for a walk is as helpful for my writing as keeping the seat of my pants to my writing chair. To be honest, I'm not surprised. I've always known that if I go for a walk, especially when I'm stumped, ideas will suddenly appear. As Henry David Thoreau once famously said, “Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.”

What about you?  Do you turn to walking for inspiration or do you prefer to stay put and daydream, or something else?


Aline Templeton said...

Love the thought of the Muse pursuing you out of curiosity, Marianne! And yes, the best ideas do come when you're not pursuing them too vigorously.

Sybil Johnson said...

I take a walk or do some physical activity whenever I feel like I'm stumped. Invariably I figure out a solution or some new idea for the story. I didn't realize there was science behind this! I love the bit about the cat. So very true.

Rick Blechta said...

A very thought-provoking post.

My wife and I love walking and have done a fair bit of it in the UK which offers some of the best walking on the planet.

I definitely think more efficiently when I'm out walking -- assuming I don't have to concentrate and what's beneath my feet, which can happen here in Ontario more than I'd like -- especially on the Bruce Trail.

Marianne Wheelaghan said...

Ha ha ha, Aline, I'm chuckling at the thought of the muse pursuing me out of curiosity, if only ;)

Sybil, I love reading about the science behind creativity and how both exercise and concentrated mental effort influence our thought processes. The hippocampus seems to play a pretty crucial role. The good thing is that while it tends to atrophy as we age, both physical exercise and cognitive stimulation (mental exercise) can slow that shrinkage and, at times, even reverse it! Very exciting!

Rick, I looked up The Blue Trail, and ohh, it looks lovely. And yes, I can imagine some walks require more care than others. I recently read that South Koreans have gone hiking mad. In a typical month, about 1 in 3 Koreans goes hiking more than once. The mountainous national park north of Seoul attracts more visitors annually than the Grand Canyon. I'm not sure how "tranquil" such walking there would be but the scenery looks stunning.

Eileen Goudge said...

I go on daily walks when I'm in the country. I agree with you, Marianne. It's a must for every writer. It clears my brain and allows new ideas to flow in. When I'm at home in the city, the treadmill in the gym is my daily walk, but even that allows to my mind to roam. I couldn't function as a writer without it.

Marianne Wheelaghan said...

Hello Eileen! Oh, yes, if i couldn't go for a walk or pop into my zumba class, I'd struggle to write.