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16 Apr, 2023

Creative Walking

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Arthur Sparrow wishes to make it clear, that this is an informal opinion piece not an academically peer-reviewed essay.

I’m walking backwards for Christmas
Across the Irish Sea
I’m walking backwards for Christmas
It’s the only thing for me
I’ve tried walking sideways
And walking to the front
But people just look at me
And say it’s a publicity stunt – to quote The Goons.

To be creative writers we need to be creative walkers.

Walking goes hand in hand with nature and travel writing. Writers of this genre walk to explore, to seek inspiration and observe the world, producing field notes as a basis for writing a first-hand account for their readers. Many claim that walking is meditative, creating an ‘inner monologue’ that provides space to think, and a metronomic rhythm that generates ideas. According to O’Mara It improves our ‘moods, clarity of thought, our creativity,’ as well as “our connectedness to our social, urban and natural worlds.’ (2019, p.4) Minshull, in his book Sauntering, feels that ‘the world comes our way’ when we walk … ‘and our senses sharpen: the sights, the sounds the aromas; everything heightened, everything felt.’ (2021, p. xiv). The popularity of walk-based non-fiction is echoed by the growth of activity holidays, outdoor based recreation, the health benefits of walking and the appreciation of the natural world as a source of well-being. New nature writing is often viewed as a merging of travel and nature genres of which journeying by foot is a key element. We can say that walking powers new nature writing.

This essay considers how, as aspiring writers, we can walk, and in doing so, infers that there are a range of options we can call on. Any walk we decide to take, with the aim of seeking new source material, will usually have a specific aim and outcome – to explore and describe the North Kent marshes and so forth, and we adapt our way of walking to fit the subject and the situation. Each walker on a route will record it differently – ‘who we are, and what we’re thinking, inevitably influences what we see’ (Ulin, 2020). An author writing a country diary based on their local patch will slowly amble along in contrast to say, a writer on a rigorous ascent of the Dolomites.  Age, mobility and experience will also determine our writing and how much ground we cover. However, if we consider some of the diverse approaches to walking used by previous writers and artists, then there may be an opportunity to add an extra dimension to our observations in the field, boosting ideas and creativity. Before embarking on a writing career, it makes sense to be bold and experiment. No matter what the subject, changing the way we walk may change the way we see, think and write, potentially providing new horizons and audiences.

Readers are generally attracted to work that offers a novel subject and writing style. To the novice walker writer, walking through a much-loved place and ‘being at one’ with nature may be the obvious route to follow, and a convenient starting place. But there is always a need to ask, ‘has this been done before?’ Rachel Bowlby in an essay entitled Talking Walking believes that ‘large swathes of the new (nature) books are taken up with going over the same grounds as …. earlier writers.’ (2022 p.7). Tim Dee commenting in The Guardian (1st July 2012) recognises that, ‘There is barely a scrap of ground that hasn’t been walked into words.’  Our culture is in constantly developing and writers need to be mindful of changes in society and shifting demands. In particular, the diversity agenda, and the fact that 80% of the population live in urban areas is especially pertinent here. We need to continually branch out to attract a new readership and in doing so, spread the environmental message to a wider audience.

On a personal basis, researching and writing this essay will enable me to gain a better grasp of how I want my writing to evolve and how walking can best fuel my creativity. In doing so it will draw on approaches adopted by writers, past and present, psychogeographers and walking artists, and include reference to my direct experience of creative walking. To quote the writer Tanya Shadrick, ‘Give your ideas molecules,’ (2022) before that, we should give our walking molecules too.

Keep on Running

In his essay My Pace Provokes my Thoughts the poet Edward Hirsch associates his life’s work with walking. ‘Time is suspended so that poetry is written from the body as well as the mind, and the rhythm and pace of a walk – the physical activity – can get you going and keep you grounded. It’s a kind of light meditation.’ (2011, para. 1) Similarly, the poet Paul Valery recognises that ‘there is a certain reciprocity between my pace and my thoughts – my thoughts modify my pace; my pace provokes my thoughts’ (2007, p.22). Pace can be influenced by a range of variables but there is a case for experimenting with pace in a deliberate way, to assess whether this impacts our thoughts and the generation of ideas. In what ways will walking briskly as opposed to slowly, affect how I observe, record and reflect on my journey? Walking 30+ miles a day along the Ridgeway long distance path as I did in the 70s, was about endurance with little time for observation or lyrical thoughts.

Now partly because of age (there’s no longer a need to rush) but also due to the pleasure gained from close observation, I walk slowly, and this aids the acquisition of knowledge and creativity, my train of thought and therefore, my writing. To quote the much-quoted famous pioneer walker Henry David Thoreau ‘There is in fact a sort of harmony discoverable between the capabilities of the landscape within a circle of ten miles radius, or the limits of an afternoon walk, and the threescore years and ten of human life. It will never become quite familiar to you,’ (1992, p.79). According to Hirsch, Wordsworth composed many of his poems ‘walking back and forth in his garden using a sing song voice at a chosen rhythm’ (2011, para 11). This contrasts with his longer walks; his four day walk from Tintern to Bristol, for example, will have provided him with first hand observations and ideas.

On a recent field trip to Corsham I had to walk across a ploughed field as part of my route to class in Corsham Court. The field walk was something of an epiphany, an experience I had not realised that I had missed since leaving England for Ireland, and it formed part of my written submission. I took my time and revelled in the walk each day and revived my interest in ‘field walking,’ the slowest form of walking, head bent scouring the field for ancient artefacts. I was reminded of some of the basic elements of walking; how walking a path in reverse provides contrasting views, how changes in light colours the landscape, how varying weather impacts my behaviour and mood, and how walking at night sharpens ones senses. 

Dawdling along a route allows the writer to stop and stare and to enter a sensory world where, as John Donne once noted, ‘interinanimation’ (Hirsch 2011 para. 10), the crossover of nature to self, can take place. Stopping and using the senses to interpret a place, whether urban or rural, is a key skill for any writer and demands acquisition of knowledge and field craft. The faster we walk the less detail we observe and the less we can communicate a sense of place to the reader. Inevitably, however if you’re crossing dangerous terrain, stopping to be at one with nature is not something your reader would look for. 

Whistle while you walk

I have never walked (cycled or run) listening to music, like so many do with the advent of ear buds, partly because I like to listen to the sounds around me. But will listening to Vaughan Williams, Sibelius, Beach House or Spiro, with their varying tempos and rhythms, raise my spirits and affect my walking pace and the resulting prose? Conversely, musical composers have used walking to seek inspiration and as an aid to composition. Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Mahler were all avid walkers and Benjamin Britten was quoted as saying that his walks were ‘where I plan out what I’m going to write in the next period at my desk,’ (Hirsch 2011 para. 14). I received some ear buds recently from someone who felt that they might help prolong my life, so this is a dimension I need to explore. I’ve yet to see any new nature writing based on ‘power walking’ but there are a number based on running. To quote the preamble for Richard Askwith’s book ‘Running Free: A Runners Journey Back to Nature, is an eloquent and inspiring account of running in a forgotten, rural way, observing wildlife and celebrating the joys of nature.’ (2015) My memories of hash running at night, through the Devon countryside with a crowd of other eccentrics, could well form the basis of some light-hearted memoire in future.

I Love the Way you Walk

The way a person walks can provide subject matter for the writer, and as Hirsch states, ‘Walking is marked by age, by gender, by race, by region, by class. In a street we read other walkers with remarkable fluency. We interpret (and misinterpret) them at a glance’ (2011, para.13) In this regard, John Travolta expressive musical gait, at the start of Saturday Night Fever and of Charlie Chaplin’s stylised tramp walk, come to mind. The way we walk, as with our stance, may be affected by our mood, injury or energy levels, and can constrain what we achieve as writers. Depending on our remit, as social walkers, we may need to project a certain demeanour, dressing appropriately and smiling and greeting people, and this may be especially pertinent to travel writers who want capture stories from local people. 

Walking can be a socially marshalled, ritualised activity, thus we see communities of interest walking in a way that befits an occasion. Festivals, funerals, pilgrimages, protests, displays of military might, are all cultural acts conforming to an agreed standard or mode of behaviour. For activists there’s the experience of walking in a march experiencing the feeling of being in a crowd, shoulder to shoulder with others. The pace and mood of a march can change and often there is an edge, an element of unpredictability and danger. Many tourists witness religious processions or celebrations when they visit Mediterranean countries and in certain circumstance can participate in the festival. A submission to the Bradt Travel Writing Competition in 2021 by Karen Christian provides a colourful account of the Marathon du Medoc – ‘the toughest fancy dress party in the world.’  Eighteen thousand runners and walkers covering a distance of 26 miles through classic wine country and imbibing wine at ‘wine stations’ on the way – ‘not a race for the health-conscious runner’ but rather than being an onlooker, directly participating in such a vivid community experience provides plenty of scope for the writer.  

When walking in a city we can become ant like, swarming and dispersing, maintaining the same hectic pace as our fellow walkers. Alexandra Horowitz analyses how our ‘step-sliding’ come ‘pedestrian jigging’ (2014 p.10) works in her book On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes, and how in such situations we have little time to focus on anything except avoiding the people around us. She also notes how ‘a new species’ the mobile phone walker, has changed ‘the dynamic of the flowing shoal,’ (2014 p.11) a nod to how technology is hindering or helping our walking. There’s a certain frisson to being part of a city rush hour that provides the writer with a complete contrast to the lonely rural idyll. Virginia Woolf in her diary, relished the creative energy of London’s Streets, describing it as ‘being on the highest crest of the biggest wave, right in the centre and swim of things.’ (Bowbly 2022 p.11) In an urban setting we can combine our observations of human diversity with, increasingly, more biodiverse places than we might find in many rural situations.

Walk Like an Egyptian

As a complete contrast, we may wish to draw attention to ourselves by following in the footsteps of Medieval troubadours or add an element of quirkiness to gain attention, such as happens on sponsored walks. Without his violin Laurie Lee may not have travelled as far when he left ‘One Midsummer Morning.’  Simon Armitage, the Poet Laureate, busked by taking his poetry on the road and Eve Carnall, dressed as a bee, walked 1500 miles across England on her Buzz Tour (2014) to raise awareness of bee conservation. Both produced books as a result. Annabel Streets in her book 52 Ways of Walking (2022) suggests ‘Sing as you Stride’ or ‘Take a Walk Dance or Dance – Walk’, and at yet another extreme, the comedian Tony Hawks, in his book Round Ireland in a Fridge (1998), created the desired rapport with the public by doing just that. One day I will describe walking at the head of a funeral procession (as a humanist celebrant) in deep and driving snow, across fields, to access a grave in a woodland burial site.

You’ll Never Walk Alone

Whether you walk in company or alone, not only depends again on what you are trying to achieve but also on the personalities involved and their motives. Walking alone you can focus on your subject, have no distractions and for many it’s an opportunity to enjoy solitude. For travel / adventure writers it eases assimilation into the communities they visit. William Hazlitt felt that it was impossible to think and talk at the same time (Ford 2011, p.20). In contrast Linda Cracknell, writing in Features Magazine states that, ‘A walk taken in company has another quality that we might want to capture in words. The social spirit of a group of walkers can be integral to the memory of a day out.’ (2017 para.10) The classic guided walk is hardly conducive to creative writing but when it comes to group walks there are exceptions. Paul Wood’s London Tree Walks (2020) was borne largely out of his passion for informing local communities about the special trees on their doorstep. Feasibly therefore, we can walk, educate the public and use the experience to write.  

The walk can be as much an exploration of the other persons character and their contrasting perceptions, as about the journey. Your project could be interdisciplinary, walking with an artist as an acute observer of their subject, a scientist whose understanding of the natural world elevates your writing, a historian and so forth. How could walking through an agricultural landscape with a farmer influence our opinion when nature conservation is our subject matter?  A companion can be an extra pair of eyes, can provide fresh ideas and a new source of inspiration and if there is a biographical element, then the act of walking can relax the interviewee. On occasions I took a blind student as a companion on walks who had an acute sense of hearing and was able to pick up and identify birds from the faintest bird sounds, including nestlings, considerably raising my aural acuity. On one occasion I took him to a site known for breeding nightingales, a bird he had yet to meet, and he stood silent and entranced, leaning on his stick for ages. 

Walking Back to Happiness

In Walking for Recovery Reading and Moriaty, both of whom were in remission from cancer, ‘chose to walk and talk about our creativity and decided to use this engaged and active process to identify possible solutions to our personal and creative crises.’ (2022, p.1) In doing so they hoped that ‘the mixture of voices, memoire, poetry and painting can offer an insight into this complex time, and the process we used to move past it,’ (2022, p.10) As a writer and an artist, they decided to walk ‘together to tell an interdisciplinary story about our work as interdisciplinary researchers’ and as they put it, ‘to rewild themselves.’ (2022, p.149) Walking together created a platform for dialogue, interdisciplinary experimentation and eventually, their recovery. As writers, walking can improve our own mental and physical health and thereby, aid our creativity. McFarlane in the Guardian alludes to the fact that writing about the recuperative effects of walking is something of a UK speciality and highlights international differences in ways of walking. ‘In America’ he says, ‘it’s about discovery: in Britain, it’s about recovery’ (2008).

Downtown

To quote Rees, ‘If you look closely enough, all landscapes can be fascinating and any object, no matter what its material can be freighted with meaning’ (2020, p. xx); a case of in the eye of the beholder, and this is part of the mantra of the urban walker or flaneur. Bowlby asserts that the present flood of walking books has resulted in a different kind of walking history, that of the flaneur or city walker, being marginalised (2022, p.8). She goes on to say that:

The flaneur is not really a philosopher or thinker, unlike his country counterpart; instead, he is out to experience whatever is offered by the city around him. He takes it in, and he may reflect on it, but his pleasure in his walk is not primarily intellectual. And whereas the philosopher rambler will use the rhythmic action of walking as a spur to his thoughts or a way of bringing them out or working them through, the flaneur is not interested in the regularity of the physical movement, let alone getting some exercise. On the contrary, he is much more likely to pause and stop en route; he has no particular destination in any case and that indeterminacy is part of the very definition of his enterprise (2022, p. 9 – 10).

The idea of drifting mapless, appeals to me, either in a rural or urban setting. Going somewhere without any prior knowledge or preconceived ideas, and perhaps, for fun, rolling a dice at each junction. The flaneur according to the essayist Walter Benjamin, ‘savours estrangement and surprise, the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent and later surveys the world from a café where he tries to turn what is transient into something permanent, immutable,’ (Bowlby 2022, p.9).  Arguably, any element of surprise is diluted in a location with set trails and for that reason I would, as a creative writer, avoid contrived over interpreted settings.

There are a number of contemporary manifestations of city walking pioneered by authors Ian Sinclair and Wilf Self, seeking out obscure environments and life at the margins. Their work has appealed to urban based artists who seek to include walking as a part of performance, often with the involvement of their local communities.  One arts-based initiative developed by Wrights and Sites in Exeter in 2003 resulted in the publication of An Exeter Mis – Guide, an anarchic tongue in cheek approach to walking. The Guide, they state, is ‘for everybody to play at being a tourist – or an explorer, an archaeologist, a spy, a fugitive … you choose’ (2003, p.2). Thus, there are, amongst others, the following walks on offer:

Dog-leg – Borrow a dog from a friend. Let it take you for a walk.

Sex walk – stopping off at a sex shop before wandering further to ‘find sensual buildings and erotic landscapes.’ And finally, ‘cruise a little …. pick someone up.’

Angry Walk – ‘Follow an old Inuit tradition and walk until your anger runs out. Then mark the spot.’

Water Walk 1 – ‘Walk on opposite sides of the river to each other, maintain contact with each other at all times. Possible ways of maintaining contact; sight, voice, semaphore, flares.

Walking the Line

Can walking writers learn by cooperating with other artists / creatives? Tanya Shadrick (2022) recommends this approach having been mentored by the land artist David Nash. This interdisciplinary approach needn’t just be confined to artists. As Borthwick et al state in the introduction to their book Walking, Landscape and the Environment:

Walking negotiates the intersections between the human self, place and space, offering a cross-disciplinary collaborative method of research which can be utilised in areas such as ecocriticism, landscape architecture, literature, cultural geography and the visual arts (2019, p.10).

Creative writer / walkers, whether absorbing landscape or townscape, can learn from how visual artists view, interpret and communicate place. Taking time to try and see what the artist sees in his work can offer new perspectives and ideas; and what can writing say that painting cannot, and vice versa? Ford sings praises to artists paintings that helped him look at the Australian landscape with greater sensitivity (2011, p.46). Walking artists, something of a UK speciality, seek to gain direct physical engagement with the landscape. The main exponents are Richard Long, Andy Goldsworthy and Hamish Fulton, all of whom have heightened interest in the more sensory aspect of walking, experimenting with site specific work and the crossover from the human to the natural world. Andy Goldsworthy has been successful in selling books which document his work, so there may be opportunities for some writers to integrate visual work into their walks to heighten their connection with place, and to add such visual elements to their published work.

The walking artist, Hamish Fulton aims to ‘unite two apparently incongruous activities: walking and art’ (Cumming, 2012) and this often involves performance. I accompanied him and 196 others on a performance walk in 2010 around a concrete boating pool on Margate beach and a year later with 100 volunteers on a Boulogne dockside. Fulton’s output from his walks is minimal. After scaling the world’s sixth highest mountain without oxygen, the only words he used at an exhibition were Brain Heart Lungs. Maybe that’s enough for the audience to relate to his experience. Perhaps his best-known work was Slowalk held in the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern in 2011. It was described as a meditative experience where members of the public were asked to walk slowly in a form of silent activism in support of the Chinese imprisoned artist Ai Weiwei, so ‘the participants are both art and viewer on a communal journey’ (Cumming, 2012).

Let your fingers do the walking

I would like to walk in the footsteps of the Barefoot League by spending a hot day exploring Murlough Nature Reserve’s sand dunes, and the sea, shoeless, or enjoying the sensation of warm estuarine mud or cold sphagnum bog between my toes. I want to walk silently around a cathedral cloister and emulate a monk, and then orchestrate ‘a day in my life’ walking sound diary, around a part of Liverpool. I’m not keen on the idea Nordic walking but a blackthorn walking stick dictating my pace, parting vegetation, may be a good move.

This essay illustrates some of the diverse approaches that new nature writers can take to the seemingly fundamental act of walking to help enhance their writing.  A number of websites enable the writer to find out more about creative approaches, and to develop their own walking routes that others can follow, some of which are listed in the Appendix. Whether the journeying writer is, by way of example, increasing the appreciation and awareness of the fragility of nature or reporting the impacts of climate change or campaigning for land reform, then one can say their writing has ‘weight’ and purpose, beyond say, describing the sentimental and picturesque. Let us walk and write and create opportunities for our readers to connect with the natural world, ever mindful however, that, as Macfarlane states, ‘the real subject of landscape writing is not landscape, but a restructuring of the human attitude towards nature—and there can be few subjects more urgent or necessary of our attention than this,’ (2005).    


Bibliography

Askwith, R. (2015) Running Free: A Runners Journey Back to Nature. Vintage Publishing

Barefoot League (https://www.barefooters.org/the-barefoot-league/ (2023) Accessed 17 Jan.

Borthwick, D. Stenning, A. Marland, P. (Eds).  (2019) Walking, Landscape and Environment. Routledge

Christian, K. (2021) Walking Through Space and Vines – Bradt travelling writing competition entry

Clotti, G. (2014) Beethoven’s Daily Habit for Inspiring Creative Breakthroughs. Psychology Today 31st July

Coverley, M. (2012) The Art of Wandering. Oldcastle Books

Cracknell, L. (2017) Putting Walks into Words. Features Magazine. 5th March

Cumming, L. (2012) Hamish Fulton: Walk; Turner and the Elements – review. The Observer Newspaper 29th January

Dee, T. (2012) Scarp by Nick Papadimitriou; Walking Home by Simon Armitage – review. The Guardian Newspaper 7th July

Ford, F. (2011) The Art of Mindful Walking. Leaping Hare Press

Grod, F. A (2011) A Philosophy of Walking. Verso

Goon Show Site (2023) http://www.thegoonshow.net/songs/im_walking_backwards_for_christmas.asp

Hirsch, E. (2011) ‘My Pace Provokes My Thoughts’: Poetry and Walking. The American Poetry Review

Horowicz, A. (2014) On Looking: A Walker’s Guide to the Art of Observation. Scribner Book Company

Lewis, T. (2020) Ai Weiwei: An artist must be an activist. 22nd March

Macfarlane, R. (2005) Only Connect. The Guardian Newspaper. 26th March

McFarlane, R. (2008) I Walk Therefore I Am. The Guardian Newspaper. 30th August

Minshull, D. (2021) Sauntering – Writers Walk Europe. Notting Hill Editions

O’Mara, S.  (2020) In Praise of Walking. Vintage

Pujol, E. (2018) Walking Art Practice. Triarchy Press

Reading, C. & Moriarty, J. (2022) Walking for Creative Recovery. Triarchy Press

Rees, G. (2020) Unofficial Britain – Journeys Through Unexpected Places. Elliot & Thompson

Shadrick, T. (2022) Guest Speaker. Bath Spa University 29th November

Streets, A. (2022) 52 Ways to Walk. Bloomsbury

Thoreau H.D. (1862) ‘Walking’ in Nature Walking. Introduction by Elder, J. (2012). Beacon Press

Turner, C. Hodge, S. Persighetti, S.& Smith, P. (Eds) (2003) An Exeter Mis-Guide. Wrights and Sites

Ulin, D.L. (2020) How Walking Changes Us. The New York Times. 12th May

Valery, P. (2007) Poetry and Abstract Thought. The American Poetry Review. March-April, 2007, Vol. 36 Issue 2

Wood, P. (2020) London Tree Walks. Safe Haven Books

Appendix

  • Walking Artists Network –  https://www.walkingartistsnetwork.org/
  • For those ‘interested in the idea of walking as a mode of art practice.’
  • Slow Ways –  https://beta.slowways.org/
  • ‘Help create a national walking network’  – connecting all Great Britain’s towns and cities
  • Museum of Walking – https://www.museumofwalking.org.uk/
  • ‘Develop and deliver walking events with a creative twist.The art is in taking part which we call walking creatively.’
  • Walk.Listen.Create  https://walklistencreate.org/  
  • The ‘Home of walking artists and artist walkers.’
  • Excellent list of walking publications
  • Discover Britain https://www.discoveringbritain.org/ 
  • Royal Geographical Society using Geography ‘to help us explore, understand and enjoy our landscapes.’ Welcomes contribution of new walks.

APA style reference

Sparrow, A. (2023). Creative Walking. walk · listen · create. https://walklistencreate.org/2023/04/16/creative-walking/

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A gentle walk: Sall we geng fir a daander doon da rodd?

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