“When I Need to Write, I Always Walk First”

From a story on lithub.com by Katherine May headlined “On the Very Human Importance of Walking: A Reading List”:

When I need to write, I always walk first. It seems to me that the two are inextricably linked: the pounding of feet on solid ground coaxes reluctant words out of me. It’s not that my brain becomes more active; instead, it quietens, and I begin to uncover insightful thoughts beneath the busy, mundane chatter that usually fills my head.

Walking can lead to great personal revelations, too. As I document in The Electricity of Every Living Thing, walking England’s South West Coast Path made space for me to unravel decades of tangled experience and to realize, finally, that I’m autistic. I’m not sure it could have come to me through any other route. I needed the physical exhaustion to crack me open, make me ready to let in new understanding and ways of seeing.

That is what walking does: it opens the channels between mind and body. It is no surprise, then, that so many of the books in this list talk about change, whether that’s processing major life events, coming to terms with trauma and crisis, or accepting new states of being. But these books also show how we merge with the paths we choose. Walking is an act of defiance against a world that’s forever in a forgetful hurry. These books invite us to take the slow way around.

Cheryl Strayed: Wild

This is probably the best-known walking memoir, and the one I turned to when I was wondering how to write The Electricity of Every Living Thing. I so envy Cheryl Strayed’s spare, elegant style, which perfectly captures the grand, inhospitable landscape of the Pacific Crest Trail. That very directness allows us to walk through some uncompromising emotional landscapes, too, as she explores the aftermath of her mother’s death.

Sylvia Townsend Warner: Lolly Willowes

I increasingly think that this novel should be issued on prescription to every woman approaching middle age. Through her protagonist Laura Willowes, Sylvia Townsend Warner seems to be answering the question of how to find a good life after youth has left us. Laura’s answer is to cast off her familial responsibilities and to seek solitude—and witchcraft—in the Chiltern hills. To find her new place in the world, she walks, and asserts her right to be fearlessly alone and without men, who always need to be fussed-over and listened-to. “That sort of thing settles down on one like a fine dust,” she says. Being fully alive within her landscape, knowing and naming the plants and animals that inhabit it, seems to shake off that dust.

Virginia Woolf: Street Haunting

“Street haunting in winter is the greatest of adventures.” In this 1930 essay, Virginia Woolf embarks on a walk to buy a pencil, and along the way, meditates on “the greatest pleasure of town life in winter—rambling the streets of London.” In the city, she finds endless fascination and detail, endless people to observe. As the cliche goes, all human life is here, but the true invitation of this piece is to inhabit the author’s mind, the way she projects herself into all the people she passes, and the way she constructs her own, idiosyncratic meanings from everything she sees.

Anita Sethi: I Belong Here

“What does it mean to belong?” asks Anita Sethi. Following a racist attack in which she’s told to “go back to where you’re from,” Sethi asserts the right to be a brown-skinned woman in the northern English landscape, and to explore the deep sense of belonging that she feels there. As she walks the Pennines, she examines the trauma of being an unacknowledged, unwelcome inhabitant of a place you love, and the persistence it takes to put down roots.

Rebecca Solnit: Wanderlust

Rebecca Solnit’s radical history of walking points us to the restive, disruptive energy that brings our feet to the ground. In an era in which walking has been pushed to the margins—rendered unnecessary by cars, tamed by social media, made the province of the disenfranchised—choosing to walk has a subversive power. But as Solnit shows, walking, thinking, and culture have always been linked, connecting us to our evolutionary origins and propelling us into hidden places and slower rhythms. It’s hard to finish Wanderlust without becoming convinced that walking is a necessary act of rebellion.

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