Monday, January 4, 2016
Writing and Walking go Together
I was surprised to read somewhere that the concept of walking for pleasure is reasonably recent. Recreational walking was only made fashionable in the nineteenth century, by writers such as Wordsworth, Thoreau and Baudelaire. Before then, apparently it was far more prosaic and purposeful. You'd walk to get from one destination to the next and not take a step further, no matter how picturesque the scenery. Can you believe that? I know people didn't have much free time in the Middle Ages or Industrial Revolution, but still!
Charles Baudelaire, the French poet, admired the type of person he called the 'flaneur' - one who strolls with no purpose in mind other than to observe his surroundings. Baudelaire's own Parisian environment, with its shops, and tree-lined streets and boulevards, was perfect for his purpose. It caught on with his admirers, took off across the channel too, and suddenly, walking became a leisure activity. Perfectly able-bodied young men acquired walking sticks to prove they were serious about their hobby. I still can't believe this wasn't always the case.
When I think back over the novels I've loved in the past, they are full of people who walked for pleasure in the same way they breathed. The young ladies in Jane Austen's novels wouldn't miss their constitutionals in towns like Bath, which would keep them fit with its steep hills. Granted, their underlying purpose may have been to catch the attention of the polished young gentlemen, but they were still doing it for fun. And over in cold Canada, the characters of L.M. Montgomery wouldn't be without their walks. Anne of Green Gables knew the sights of Avonlea like her own reflection almost as soon as she arrived. Others have written true life memories supporting this love. When Laura Ingalls Wilder was a girl, she'd stroll out onto the prairie with her sisters, being Mary's eyes, since Mary was blind. None of these girls were the sort of people who'd wait for permission, or latch on to fashion fads.
Charles Dickens became well-known for his long, nocturnal rambles through the streets of London, often out for no purpose other to observe the street life and watch people by moonlight. When asked, he expressed his belief that walking was the key to maintaining his sanity and providing inspiration for his writing. He didn't say, 'I'm just trying the most recent trend.'
I've been reading 'Henry and Banjo' by James Wright. I discovered that, as a boy, Henry Lawson loved to walk, whether or not he needed to get somewhere. 'Walking was freedom, his escape from the sad box he lived in.' The text goes on to describe how he valued his walks so much because they gave him time to think. 'The mind and feet travel together, as if one is peddling the other,' was young Henry's opinion. I totally agree with him. Fashion has nothing to do with it.
Surely an isolated ten-year-old in the Australian scrub, miles from fashionable civilisation, didn't set off on walks because some faraway British and European authors started recommending them. He wouldn't have had a clue what was going on over there. I'm sure walking is not a fashion so much as something many of us choose for our own benefit and joy.
I started thinking about the time I decided to take up walking more regularly. It was when I was a teenager, and my reason at the time was to stay in shape. I was serious about my writing aspirations back then too, but considered them two things I did separately. I'd go off for a walk to get fit and for a bit of relief from study and brain work. But I soon found out how closely connected walking and writing are. Using my own two feet to travel down a road or trail helps to pump ideas into my head, similar to what Henry Lawson said. Maybe they're sparked by some of the scenery along the way, or maybe it's because the rhythm of my steps cranks up my subconscious mind and helps ideas to flow. I'm sure getting more oxygen moving through my brain doesn't hurt either, especially when I return to my desk or reading chairs.
So walking and writing aren't mutually exclusive activities, but complementary ones which make us more effective the next time we decide to do the other. It's something we know deep down, and even if those trendsetters from the nineteenth century helped to make walking popular, it was surely because they knew the benefits too. In fact, I'm sure people from even earlier times got it too, even if they didn't call it by the names of leisure or sport. You can't convince me that Shakespeare's characters from plays such as 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' or 'The Tempest' weren't ever caught up by the scenery as they had their jaunts through forest or virgin island.