Take a Walk
Try this underappreciated technique for better storytelling and improved mental clarity.
A while ago, I saw a unique documentary called The World Before Your Feet. It’s about Matt Green — a man on a mission to walk every block (including parks, bridges, etc) in all five boroughs of New York City. So far he’d covered approximately 8,000 miles and, walking every single day, the mission had taken him six years.
While Matt’s goal was extreme, much of what he observed along the way was beautifully mundane. His attention unearthed subtleties and human quirks — like the vernacular of barber shop signs, the forgotten history of cemetery plots, or kids playing in the snow. All things that would be so easily missed if we weren’t paying attention.
The film got me thinking about a lot of things, but perhaps most notably, the underappreciated value of simply taking a walk.
I have always loved to go for a walk. When I was a kid, a quiet evening stroll with my dad was a way to feel settled. Walking the neighbourhood blocks gave me a sense of space and serenity (and maybe a chance to pet a few cats.)
Back in February, I had the chance to enjoy some deep winter walks in Manitoba. Hearing the crunch and squeak of snow, and the crack of snow shoes as you tread onto a silent frozen lake at sunset? That’s a happy place for me.
Without a doubt I love to walk in nature — the deeper I can get into the backcountry the better — but I love walking in the city too. Walking is my favourite mode of transportation and my favourite way of seeing a new place: it allows me to connect with and understand a place far better than driving to and from each destination ever could.
A frequent ritual of mine is to take a weekly walk with a friend to a nearby nature path. When we walk, we straddle the natural world and city life. On the one side, our route takes us past a fast-running stream, occupied by ducks and the occasional heron, and into woodsy trails that reflect the changing seasons with their growth. Deer have run across our path once or twice.
But while the stream is on one side, the highway is on the other, not entirely blocked by a grassy hill. It’s hard to completely escape its hum, even as we walk deeper into the woods. The city never leaves us, not completely.
As we walk, we work on figuring things out. Walks have a way of letting us come out of ourselves a bit, revealing more to us about who we are, in this moment. And words, when you walk, have a way of settling.
When it comes to writing, taking a walk can give you two wonderful opportunities:
First, it can provide more clarity and mental refreshment that no amount of pounding away at the keyboard ever could.
I often write while I walk (sometimes taking notes with the voice memos app on my phone, but often just mentally.)
Secondly, walking can give you something to write about while also offering you the chance to refine your powers of observation.
Writing requires us to pay attention, look closely at things, and observe. In this respect, I think walking is closely connected with writing because it gives you a chance to properly look around.
This is important because in many ways, writing is about seeing what others miss, and bringing it to light.
In order to tell better stories, sometimes we need to change what we see.