Walking to Write: An Exercise in Observation and The Abstract

I'm sharing a writing exercise I'm giving to my writing students tomorrow.

I'll be taking the students into the woods along Brushy Fork Creek here in Berea, Kentucky. This is a quiet area (pictured here as it appears in early spring) full of old beech trees and the meandering creek that begs for people to wade in it, offering a music of running water that is instantly calming.


Once there, they will be given the following handout, which includes a prompt directing them to make a list of sensory details which they will use to write about an abstract emotion. I'm sharing this exercise because I want to encourage more people to incorporate walking into their writing lives. It is absolutely the door to all writing for me.

I hope you might print out the handout below and use it for your own writing exercise. And even if you don't, I hope you'll go into the woods, or walk amongst trees, wherever that may be.

Comments or questions are welcome in the comments section below.

Walking to Write | Silas House | ENG 382

I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil--to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society….I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least--and it is commonly more than that--sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements. Henry David Thoreau, “Walking

Nothing like a nighttime stroll to give you ideas. J.K. Rowling

Writing is one way of making the world our own, and… walking is another. Geoff Nicholson, The Lost Art of Walking

What is it about walking, in particular, that makes it so amenable to thinking and writing? The answer begins with changes to our chemistry. When we go for a walk, the heart pumps faster, circulating more blood and oxygen not just to the muscles but to all the organs—including the brain. Walking on a regular basis also promotes new connections between brain cells, staves off the usual withering of brain tissue that comes with age, increases the volume of the hippocampus (a brain region crucial for memory), and elevates levels of molecules that both stimulate the growth of new neurons and transmit messages between them…Because we don’t have to devote much conscious effort to the act of walking, our attention is free to wander—to overlay the world before us with a parade of images from the mind’s theatre. This is precisely the kind of mental state that studies have linked to innovative ideas and strokes of insight.
     Where we walk matters as well. A small but growing collection of studies suggests that spending time in green spaces—gardens, parks, forests—can rejuvenate the mental resources that man-made environments deplete. Ferris Jabr, “Why Writing Helps Us Think,” The New Yorker

This will be an exercise not only in observation and capturing sensory details but also in articulating the abstract emotions that are so important to writing.

· Observe in silence.

· Explore the woods. You don’t have to walk far (unless you want to), but move around for a little while, walking along the creek or on the paths.

· Make a list of sensory details. Look around and list what you see, fear, taste, feel, and smell. Heighten your senses, getting closer to things to get their full sensory effect. Actually touch trees, mosses, water, etc. Take deep breaths to smell properly. And so on…

· Be still for a time, studying things.

· Allow yourself about 15-20 minutes to write, focusing on capturing an abstraction through your observations. I’d like for you to imitate this passage from Their Eyes Were Watching God wherein Zora Neale Hurston does a remarkable job of exploring the abstract. Imitation does not need to be exact but keep in mind the way Hurston is doing this and come up with your own way of imitating her device (or stick closely to the way she’s done it...up to you):

So Janie began to think of Death. Death, that strange being with the huge square toes who lived way in the West. The great one who lived in the straight house like a platform without sides to it, and without a roof. What need has Death for a cover, and what winds can blow against him? He stands in his high house that overlooks the world. Stands watchful and motionless all day with his sword drawn back, waiting for the messenger to bid him come. Been standing there before there was a where or a when or a then. She was liable to find a feather from his wings lying in her yard any day now. She was sad and afraid too. –Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

Here are a few partial sentences that could be possible prompts:

o Death is like the woods on spring day

o God is the trees

o Belief is a creek in March

o Sadness is the color of moss in early spring

o The beech trees are doubt

More Examples of Expanding the Abstract Emotions

She tried to go on with her letter, reminding herself that she was only an elderly woman who had got up too early in the morning and journeyed too far, that the despair creeping over her was merely her despair, her personal weakness, and that even if she got a sunstroke and went mad the rest of the world would go on. But suddenly, at the edge of her mind, Religion appeared, poor little talkative Christianity, and she knew that all its divine words, from 'let there be light', to 'it is finished' only amounted to 'boum'. Then she was terrified over an area larger than usual; the universe, never comprehensible to her intellect, offered no repose to her soul, the mood of the last two months took definite form at last, and she realized that she didn’t want to write to her children, didn’t want to communicate with anyone, not even with God.—E.M. Forster, A Passage to India
(boum is French for “a party,” “a tremendous success,” or “a loud noise”—Forster’s meaning is left up to our own interpretation)

The earth was warm under me…queer little red bugs came out and moved in slow squadrons around me. Their backs were polished vermilion, with black spots. I kept as still as I could. Nothing happened. I did not expect anything to happen. I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. –Willa Cather, My Antonia

At the center of his own faith there always stood the convincing mystery--that we were made in God's image. God was the parent, but He was also the policeman, the criminal, the priest, the maniac, and the judge.--Graham Greene, The Power and The Glory





(c) 2016, Silas House
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