Walking to Wonder
And to wander
Let us take a walk together.
I’m fascinated by behaviors that changed because of the pandemic, and one big change I noticed in myself and others is that we became walkers. As we were forbidden to exercise in gyms and couldn’t gather in bars and restaurants, the best way to exercise and socialize took on an ambulatory flavor. My week’s social calendar increasingly took the form of walks with friends, and, in order to establish a regular exercise routine, I set a goal of 10,000 steps per day.
I’ve always wanted to make walking a part of my writing routine since I read how Wordsworth walked in order to write. He famously ambled through England’s Lake District, walking as many as 175,000 miles according to his friend Thomas De Quincey. His poems are full of hikes up mountains and over dales, through forests, and along public roads.
“The act of walking is indivisible from the act of making poetry,” he said. “One begets the other.”
Walking is writing. When I walk, I feel the borders of myself change with my steps. I lose my role, my status, and even the borders of my body. With the rhythm of my steps, my body merges with the undulations and textures of the land I'm striding. I gain oneness with my surroundings, especially when I don’t have a destination because, without a destination, there is no point in hurrying, no overlay of a timeline.
Walking holds a significant place in the history of thought. “All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking,” wrote Friedrich Nietzsche. Henry David Thoreau thought that his ideas began to flow the “moment my legs begin to move.” Jean-Jacques Rousseau said he could “meditate only when I am walking. When I stop, I cease to think; my mind only works with my legs.”
Baudelaire conceived of the artist as a “flâneur,” which means stroller. A flâneur is a connoisseur of the streets, walking into crowds as a bird flies through the air and becoming “a botanist of the sidewalk,” a “passionate spectator” who resides in the ebb and flow of the movement of the city.
Walking leads you to see a wider world than most others. In Wordsworth’s case, he encountered poor vagrants and fellow wanderers who he portrayed not for their picturesque or more pitiable qualities, as others of the time did, but with voices and spirits and stories.
Walking led Wordsworth into a more casual poetry, its stride more of the world than of the parlor, full of the musicality of conversation. He wrote poems such as “The Leech Gatherer,” “The Female Vagrant,” and “The Old Cumberland Beggar.” His walks guided his aesthetic, leading him to democratize the language of poetry by making it plainer and easier to understand.
When you move your legs, you move your mind. Your words and your steps are like siblings. Each step creates a flow that allows the new wisp of a thought to drift out of its hiding place. The cadence of walking guides the rhythm of your thoughts, bringing on a meandering drift of time, a meditative state that can be almost like a dream. You don’t have to devote too much of your brain’s attention to the act of walking, so your thoughts become free to wander (and wonder). The conscious and unconscious co-mingle.
Another great advantage of walking is that it is slow, allowing you to experience a place rather than just passing through it. When you’re immersed in the widening space of the world, your thoughts naturally expand into that space.
Writing and walking are similar in that when we embark on a path, our brain must survey the surrounding environment and create a mental map—a narrative that guides our footsteps through the terrain of the world and our minds. Your story, which might be a compressed knot in your mind, has a chance to loosen and expand as you traipse through the rustling murmurs of all that’s around you, whether you walk on a busy city street or in verdant nature.
Channel your inner Wordsworth to wander the world. As he wrote in Tintern Abbey:
“Therefore let the moon
Shine on thee in thy solitary walk;
And let the misty mountain-winds be free
To blow against thee:”
“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where—” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
“—so long as I get somewhere,” Alice added as an explanation.
“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”
Because Quotes Are Nice
“The patterns of our lives reveal us. Our habits measure us. Our battles with our habits speak of dreams yet to become real.”
Because a Haiku
And there you are—
smiling so nicely
at someone else
Because Fun: A Literary “Clock”
You can tell time, minute by minute, through literary snippets.
Warning: this is addictive.
Because We All Get Rejected
A writer lives according to the metronome's tick of rejection.
Which is why it’s important to put rejection in a larger context, as Barbara Kingsolver says:
“This manuscript of yours that has just come back from another editor is a precious package. Don’t consider it rejected. Consider that you’ve addressed it ‘to the editor who can appreciate my work’ and it has simply come back stamped ‘Not at this address.’ Just keep looking for the right address.”
If you're looking for a textbook example of how a story is enhanced and heightened through omission, I recommend Jacqueline Doyle’s “Little Darling.”
It's also just a classic. It should be on every writer's reading list.
Because a Prompt Takes Us to New Places
What story do you see in this photo?
Use this photo as a prompt, as a random catalyst, as an igniter for any writing project you’re working on.