How Walking Sparks the Imagination

Gap of Dunloe

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

In this article, I want to tell you about one of my favourite pastimes. It’s a great way to stimulate your imagination and to get some mild exercise in the process: going for a walk.

I’ll touch upon some of the physical and mental benefits of walking, and I’ll share some of my own experiences – from a storyteller’s perspective. At the end, I’ve added some practical tips and advice (really though, it’s quite simple, just go for a walk).

It’s good for you

If you type in health benefits of walking into google, you’ll get a long list of pages that list various ways in which walking is good for your health. Let’s leave it at that, and move on to how walking benefits us writers – and other creative types.

Walking improves your creativity.

Cork, Ireland
Cork, Ireland

I know more than one fellow writer who’ve said they’ve had some of their best ideas while out walking, and I’m sure many of you have experienced the same thing. There’s plenty of empirical evidence to support that walking helps you come up with great ideas, but it seems that it’s not a topic that’s been widely studied.

There has been some research though, and it actually supports that walking improves your creativity – I’m not just making this up. If you’re interested in the details, you can read more about this particular study here:

Stanford study finds walking improves creativity

What should be pointed out is that according to the study it doesn’t matter where you’re walking. You’ll gain the same boost to your creativity from walking on a treadmill at a gym as you do from walking through a beautiful countryside.

According to me… Well, I know what I prefer.

It’s good for me

Like I mentioned at the start, going for walks is one of my favorite pastimes. I also live close enough to where I work that I can get home by foot in half an hour.

In short: I do a lot of walking.

Dunworley Castle, Co. Cork, Ireland
Dunworley Castle, Co. Cork, Ireland

…and yes, I’ve had some amazing ideas come to me while out on my feet, often completely unexpected and while thinking about something entirely different.

It’s a great experience. I’m walking along, looking at the scenery, thinking about this or that, and all of a sudden the muses spring an ambush on me. Some little detail switches my train of thought on to another track and starts a chain reaction of ideas falling into place.

Suddenly, everything just works.

Admittedly, this doesn’t always happen; in fact, it’s more common that it doesn’t. Even so, I still walk, because I still enjoy it. It’s a great way to let my thoughts drift, make my mind relax, and detach from the rest of the world. It’s just me and the road.

Me, the road, and my thoughts – because even if the revolutionary ideas don’t show up, my characters and their stories are rarely far away. It’s easy for them to slip in and tag along with whatever else I’m thinking about.

Cork, Ireland
Cork, Ireland

Sometimes when I’m out walking, some character of mine just appears in whatever I’m thinking about – in a situation worlds apart from the story they’re involved in: Toini the paladin shopping for groceries, Roy the werewolf discussing microbiology with my brother’s girlfriend. It’s silly and unserious, often absurd, but it’s also a great way for me to spend time with my characters.

I get to know them a little better. I get more comfortable with who they are, and they carve stronger images of themselves in my mind.

This may sound like so much mumbo jumbo. In fairness, I guess it kind of does – but it still works for me. Try it yourself: go out your door, step onto the road, and let your feet do their thing. Who knows where your mind will be swept off to.

Okay, let’s try this

At it’s most basic, walking isn’t complicated. You put one foot in front of the other, and then you repeat that for as long as you’re comfortable with it.

I do have a few pieces of practical advice though, because in this day and age few things are as easy as making something more complicated then it needs to be.

Gamla Linköping, Sweden
Gamla Linköping, Sweden

First of all: if you’re not used to walking long distances, don’t do it.

Start out small. Walk a lap around the block, or walk for five minutes in one direction and then go back again. If you’re physically unfit, going for a ten mile hike can (and probably will) damage you, and that’s not pleasant. So start out by taking a short walk, and if you enjoy it, take a longer one another day.

Second: know where you’re going.

To be able to let your mind relax, it helps if you’re comfortable with where you are. You’ll want to be able to just walk, without worrying about where you’re going, or about getting lost (although that can be its own kind of fun).

It’s good to have a route planned. I find that knowing how far I have left to go helps me keep my pace up. Most phones these days come with a GPS and an app for showing a map of your surroundings. Learn to use it.

Cork, Ireland
Cork, Ireland

Third: wear good shoes.

Blisters hurt. Proper footwear is a good way of avoiding them. However, if you get up to walking longer distances you may have to worry about more than just blisters. The way you set down your feet will affect your joints and muscles in mysterious and complicated ways. It’s a science all its own, and way out of scope for this article. Good shoes really do help.

Fourth: take a break.

It’s only a race if you make it a race. There’s no harm in taking a break to stop and enjoy the scenery. It could be a beautiful view from a hilltop, or a new piece of graffiti you haven’t seen before.

Anything’s fine. If you feel like stopping, do it. While it may be scientifically proven that walking enhances creativity, the coming-up-with of ideas is far from an exact science. Enjoy yourself. Relax your mind and submit your body to some mild physical exercise. It’s fine to stop and smell the flowers.

Halleberg, Sweden
Halleberg, Sweden

Fifth: listen to music, or don’t.

This one’s really up to you, based on your personal preference. Personally, I very much enjoy listening to music while I’m out walking. However, I find that if I do take off my headphones, I’m often reluctant to put them on again.

What about you?

It should be clear by now that I enjoy walking, and that it works for me as a way of enhancing my creativity, but I can’t help but wonder, how about you? Scientific research is nice and all, but hearing about the experiences of others is great too.

Trollhättan, Sweden
Trollhättan, Sweden

In this article I focus on walking specifically, but it may very well be that it’s just mild physical exercise that require little to no thought that does the trick.

Have you used walking to jump-start the writing process? If so, tell us about your experiences.

Do you have any other tricks for boosting your imagination and creativity?