I’m going to walk my way to my next novel. When I write it, of course, I will plant my butt in my chair and go head-to-head with the blinking screen of my laptop. But each word I type there will first take shape when I’m putting one foot in front of the other, when I’m in motion.
I discovered the power of walking to help me write last year when I set out to walk fifteen miles a week or roughly eight hundred miles for the year. I didn’t make it. At four hundred and twenty miles for the year, I didn’t even come close. Nevertheless, those four hundred and twenty miles established a habit which in turn has fed my writing in ways I never could have predicted.
When I set out in 2015, I was inspired by the Cheryl Strayed’s hike along the Pacific Coast Trail (Wild), a small, independent movie called Redwood Highway, and Alex Kates Shulman’s memoir Drinking The Rain. Each story showed a woman who set out alone on a journey that made no promises about what it would deliver. Each woman’s journey put her into direct, unshielded contact with nature, humans, and her own demons.
That sounded great to me. After ten years of spending most spare moments at the computer to write and sell my first novel, I was vibrating with pent-up energy and a desire to plunge myself directly into the world with all its solidity, colors, smells, sounds. I wanted to inhabit my body more fully. I wanted contact.
But I also needed to focus on the launch of Casualties. I needed to get started on the next project. This was, after all, the work I’d wanted to do since I was a kid and I wasn’t getting any younger.
So, I didn’t aim for the wilds of the Sierras, I headed for the neighborhood library, the post office, the dry cleaners or, if no errands needed to be done, I headed down the hill to the cliffs overlooking the Pacific and walked along the edge of the world.
For two to four miles at a time, I walked unplugged. No music, no phone, just my old iPod touch for photos and to track my miles. I looked. I eavesdropped. I met people. I met dogs. I learned that pelicans may share a rock with cormorants but rarely gulls, and that the gulls would really rather the pigeons stuck to their own garbage can. I learned that moving through the world one step at a time offers a perspective that just isn’t available any other way.
Then, to my delight and surprise, I found that all of this helped me write.
Setting a goal for walking actually reinforced the importance of setting a goal for writing. Not making that goal also did. When I started writing Casualties, I often despaired when I didn’t produce a solid page of work after hours of plugging away. When it became clear last year that I wasn’t going to make eight hundred miles, I found I didn’t mind. I was already walking more than I ever would have.
Without realizing it, I began to internalize that way of thinking. It began to spill over into my writing. Every step counts. Every word counts.
The promise of a walk when the day’s work was done kept me going. Walking unlocked my hips, relieved the pressure on my spine and let me loosen my aching wrists and hands. By the next morning, I was ready again.
Walking reminded me how to pay attention. Smells, snatches of conversation, sounds, the feel of the ground beneath my feet — each step yielded possibility, sometimes material I could use right away. Other times, these glimmers sank into my subconscious where they waited until I needed them.
I learned that walking even a small distance was a chance to let go for a while. Yes, writing has been my dream, but even dreams can be heavy to haul around. Writing is great but wanting to “be a writer” triggers anxiety and can set my thoughts spinning in ever-contracting circles. It’s not until I return to my desk that I realize how much better I feel. My thoughts are calmer, my body is happy, and the muddle on the page I’d left has sorted itself out.
The year ended. A new one began, bringing with it wild swings of emotion when Casualties was released. The best way I’ve found for navigating is to keep walking, and keep writing. One step, one word at a time.
Elizabeth Marro is the author of the novel, Casualties, the story of a defense executive who loses her son just when she thought he was safely home from war. Now, she must face the painful truth about her past, her choices, the war, and her son. Selected as a finalist in the 2014 San Diego Book Association Unpublished Novel Contest, Casualties was published in February 2016 by Berkley. Her essays and articles have been featured in the Gloucester Daily Times, The San Diego Reader and LiteraryMama.com. She is a dedicated walker who loves to share what moving across the planet by foot reveals and how it helps her write. You can read about that in her blog. Find her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagra
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- Walking And Writing: Step By Step, Word By Word | WordHarbour | March 27, 2016