Z.W. Bates: because I walked

“Solvitur ambulando”.

Whether Saint Augustine said it first or he repeated what he had overheard elsewhere, it is true, things can be solved by walking. It is not that all problems can be solved by walking away from them, but there does, more often than not, come a point when sitting looking at something does not improve it, but walking does.

Autumn leaves

I was writing a book last autumn. (In fact I was writing two books, but that’s another story.) Each morning I typed away diligently. As the day wore into the afternoon I collided with that point when getting up from my desk and walking away was the best thing to do.

I had travelled to Iceland and Ireland, researching my book. I had spent two weeks on a containership in the north Atlantic and nearly a month making notes at the fringes of American university libraries. Now each afternoon walking out of my front door after a morning of typing was not the start of an unusual journey to a remote or esoteric destination, but an essential part of my writing routine.

There was no planning needed to go for my daily pavement walk. I did not need to consult timetables. Nor did I need to consult others.

I put one foot in front of the other, enjoying what was left of the sun’s warmth and scuffing in the autumn’s leaves. I took pleasure in my connection with childhood memories of past leaves, noticing the still-flowering front gardens and an over-flowing skip or two, perhaps the flowerings of economic recovery?

I put one foot in front of the other, wondering about the mystical patterning of spray-painted symbols on the road ahead of me. Did they precede yet another hole being dug for one of the utility companies?

Walking shoes

Walking was a daily physical exercise, but it was also a time of not thinking about what I had just typed or not typed. It was not thinking about what remained to be typed. I was walking, just that, nothing more complicated than noticing the everyday world, minutes from my front door. I was giving myself space to let in new ideas. Sometimes the ideas that came while I walked were about what I could write on my return to my desk; sometimes they were about what I too might try planting in my garden next year.

We have all heard of “five a day”, (or has it officially increased to seven now? And did I hear someone say that potatoes counted too?). There is a less-publicised mental “five a day”: Exercise, Give, Connect, Learn and Notice (from the UK’s Government Office for Science, Foresight Project on Mental Capital and Wellbeing, published in 2008).

It is a mixture of the inward (notice and learn) and the outward (give and connect), that is bound together with the ancient wisdom of a healthy mind in a healthy body, ignored as old-fashioned at our peril.

While I might learn sitting at my desk, not a lot of exercising or giving, noticing or (dare I say it as a child of the twentieth-century) connecting would be going on. For that I needed to be up out of my chair and away from my desk and screen.

Unless I took regular breaks, looking beyond the computer screen, that screen would never see the 80,000 words of my first working draft, the start of the journey to holding my book in my hand.

If I did not stop writing and go for an afternoon walk, then the next morning the words would hide from me. There would be nothing waiting to type.

I kept typing day by day. And day by day I kept walking to keep typing.

And now my book exists, because I walked.

Sunlight on the Garden: Travelling with the poetry of Louis MacNeice by Z.W. Bates is available from YPD Books for £11.99 (ISBN 978 0 9929201 0 4)