The Crime Readers' Association

Marianne Wheelaghan – Move Away From The Keyboard!

21st November 2014

There’s no way round it, writing is about us writers applying the seats of our trousers, or skirts, to the seat of our computer chairs. However, sometimes moving away from the keyboard is as important as being glued to it. For me, and as cheesy as it sounds, this involves going for a walk. It can be anywhere, to the shops, the local park, along a coastal path, but I especially love walking in woods.

My love of walking, I think, stems back to my childhood. Every day when I was wee, come rain or shine, Mum used to send me and my sisters out for a walk. We would have rather played but with no money and nothing to play with apart from one set of second hand roller skates between us. (Not the best way for three girls to get the most fun out of roller skates and we tried!  So, we walked. All over Edinburgh. Our least favourite place was the top of Leith Walk because the Leith Street gang used to hang around there (scary stuff, let me tell you!), and our most favourite place was Portobello beach and the fun fair. Then there were the hikes. Mum regularly dragged us all – me and my six sisters and two brothers – family Von Trapp style, across the Pentland Hills or up the River Almond.

I think Mum’s obsession with walking was possibly something to do with her being from Germany, a country where, in the early 20th century, youths rebelled against the restrictions of society by setting up the walking and hiking movement, Der Wandervogel  (Wandering Bird). Hard to believe that going for a walk in the hills was considered a rebel act. But The Wandering Bird partly inspired the hippy movement in America, and all those hippies were pretty rebellious.

So what is so special about walking that inspires some people to rebel and others like me, to write?

Well, you know, of course, that walking makes the heart pump faster, don’t you? And 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 what I didn’t realise until recently, is that 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, like me, you are in your fifties?

And there’s more. Psychologists have also learned that “attention” is a limited resource. It continually drains throughout the day, especially after concentrated effort, say, like writing a book for six hours. Sleeping helps replenish attention, as does walking, especially walking in a a park or forest. In Japan they call this walking in green spaces ‘Shinrinyoku’ or ‘forest bathing’. It’s a recognised relaxation and stress management activity. In fact, regular forest bathing can possibly help decrease the risk of psychosocial stress-related diseases. Again, what’s not to like about not being stressed? Some studies even suggest that forest bathing increases one of the components of the immune system that fights cancer. But I digress. Why does walking specifically help writers write?

Firstly, walking along the side of a murmuring brook, or up a dappled hill, does not require much attention. While we wander our mind is free to float from one sensory experience to another, we relax and our much depleted attention is replenshed. (It’s always helpful for a writer to be able to pay attention!) But, and here’s the really cool thing, freedom for our mind to wander and drift, or daydream, is also believed to stimulate our slumbering creative subconscious. And as crazy as it may seem, this is one of the best ways to find new ideas. You see, one of the paradoxes of being a writer is that while it involves hard work and concentrated effort, the light bulb moments tend to come when we are are not focussing on being creative. In fact, when we are doing nothing at all.  It’s to do with that Thomas Edison thing about creativity being one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration. Ray Bradbury, in his book Zen in the Art of Writing, explained being creative rather neatly. 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.”  As I said I love walking. Always have. And I find the science stuff behind why it is good for me fascinating. However, regardless of what research throws up, all I know is that whenever I’m stumped about what to write next, if I move away from my keyboard and go for a walk, ideas will come. As Henry David Thoreau once said, “Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.”

What about you? Do you agree that going for a walk can be a good way to replenish our depleted attention? Do you even like walking? Have you heard of “forest bathing”? And, if you are a creative person, do you believe that inspiration comes when we least expect it? I’d love to hear your thoughts, so please do leave a comment 🙂

 Marianne Wheelaghan is our Featured Author for November. 

Find out more about Marianne Wheelaghan 





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