Wordsworth did it. Rousseau. Blake. Hemingway. Woolf.
Science fiction writer Orson Scott Card even recommended it to aspiring writers back in 1990, saying:
“[It’s] worth the time to take an hour’s walk before writing. You may write a bit less for the time spent, but you may find that you write better.”
And now the advice is old hat. The New Yorker explains scientifically “Why Walking Helps Us Think,” and Merlin Coverley wrote an entire book about it (The Art of Wandering: The Writer as Walker).
So why do so few writing courses recommend a good long walk in the fresh air?
I was first introduced to the idea that exercise had a role to play in developing the mind through a scholarship application.
The Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford (which I didn’t get, by the way) is named after Cecil Rhodes, a British businessman who strongly believed that physical development (through the “manly sports”) went hand in hand with intellectual endeavor and public spirit.
I could see his point, but for me, the primary reason I exercised was endorphins. Exercise made me feel great and look great – what more reason did I need?
If I needed to write a college paper, I certainly didn’t go for a walk; I sat down at my computer and started writing like everyone else. Writing was work and exercise was play, and the two spheres were completely separate.
Today, writing isn’t the hard work it once was, and exercise feels less like play than it did for my 20-year-old body.
Whereas I used to struggle to write an essay, putting pressure on myself to get the words down in a way that revealed ideas of (what my professor would consider) sheer genius, I write almost casually now, confident that whatever ideas emerge will be the right ones.
Part of that confidence comes from having learned that my greatest ideas don’t come from me – they emerge from the writing process itself. My job is to get out of my own way and let my fingers tap away.
Those times when I get stuck – and I do get stuck, at least once a day – it’s time to close the brain down completely.
The best way to shut the brain down?
Go for a run.
God, I love to run. I’ve always loved running, ever since I discovered it in college.
I love the way one’s mind soars above the pavement, floating beyond the cares of the world, while the breath pants and feet pound.
Running is an incredibly powerful tool to develop ideas.
If I’m stuck with anything, whether it’s a business project or personal problem, all I have to do is go for a long run. (It seems to only work with long runs rather than short ones.)
As I stop thinking, because thinking is too hard to keep up in the effort of running, my mind opens up to download insights from the universe.
That sounds mystical, but I can literally feel ideas sliding down from my open crown chakra into my consciousness. They arrive fully formed, perfect solutions to problems I may not even have realized I had.
Often, when I get back from a run, my mind is brimming over with so many ideas that I have to immediately go to a pad and pencil to write bullet points down; otherwise, I’ll forget them.
I wish I’d known this secret back in college.
That I didn’t have to think hard to write a paper, or come up with the answers myself.
I wish I’d known there was an infinite source of wisdom out there with all the answers I wanted, available for the simple cost of a bit of sweat in the fresh air.
I should have paid more attention to Wordsworth.