Continuing our R+D season, crossplatform producer, writer and BlakeWalks founder Tim Wright argues that going for a stroll can play a vital role in the creative process
“One of the great things about a really great hike is it pushes you into the present; it’s so beautiful and so splendid, it’s so easy to get lost, that you’re brought entirely into the moment, like a really good game of tennis or chess.”
Writers and poets generally like walking – wandering lonely as a cloud, walking out one evening down Bristol Street, taking the path less travelled by, travelling with a donkey or a dog or a fridge. Admittedly it’s mainly the past time of male writers of a certain age (think Robert Macfarlane) up to Ian McEwan by way of Will Self. But for the rest of you (I’m a man of a certain age too), walking could also be a useful and productive exercise – even in a world full of such dangerously sedentary delights as Youtube, HDTV and Xboxes.
For a start, walking gets you away from your desk, away from the screen, away from the formal strictures of ‘work’. It allows you to plan things out in your head according to the gentle, slow rhythm of your body pacing across a landscape.
It unstiffens ageing bones, puts you in touch with your environment, can even gives you the sense of mission that comes from travelling from A to B. Or you might wish to surrender to that pleasurable feeling you get when you have no idea where you’re going or what you’re doing.
And then there’s the company you might keep.
Things happen when others join you on a walk, invited or otherwise. In particular things happen when your fellow travellers are *not* your fellow workers, but come from different professional and cultural backgrounds, people who have different skillsets and experiences, and, more than likely, have a very different agenda for the walk itself. (Ian McEwan, incidentally, quite often goes hiking with a neurophysicist.)
In my occasional series of BlakeWalks, I arrange to meet up with people I don’t know very well (or at all) and follow a set route around London, tramping out the shape of a letter usually and discussing a mutual interest in the works of William Blake.
We very rarely end up talking about William Blake, mind you. On various walks we’ve discussed the definition of failure, ‘scopic regimes’ and the ideal layout of a classroom, the point of small urban parks and gardens, the history of the bench, cures for depression, acoustics, employment in Portugal, paper weights…
On longer walks – such as the one I undertook across Scotland, mapping out RL Stevenson’s Kidnapped!, people sometimes joined me for days rather than hours and the conversation range wider and deeper.
A good walk will always involve interesting encounters, but more importantly it will trigger unexpected conversations – an exchange and flow of ideas that would not have emerged in any other way. Above all, it will usually supply a healthy dose of serendipity – a way of tapping into ideas and research materials that you simply would not bump into if you sat on your own at your desk, alone with your own creative agenda.
Technology has quite a big part to play in this kind of ambulatory research. The phones in our pocket now can take photos, record video and audio, and generally log a lot of data about any given journey. They can also tell everyone where you are all the time, and allow people to walk alongside you from a distance using social media services such as Twitter or Instagram or Soundcloud.
So the conversations can be both with people on the walk and with people far away who are ‘watching’ the walk.
At the moment when I walk I’m mainly logging images, short texts, video and audio and mapping these to my location, but already there are all manner of devices for monitoring other things – your health and sense of well-being, for example. Monitoring people’s physical and physiognomic reactions to where you are, and where you are going, can have interesting implications for how one might consider one’s surroundings.
I’ve always been an admirer of artist Christian Nold’s work (at http://www.sensoryjourneys.net/ for example), which often involves heart and stress monitors, used to identify places on a walk where people feel most relaxed or most agitated.
Unsurprisingly, urban planners, architects, police and politicians are getting interested in gathering up this kind of data. And now people like Andrew Stuck of http://www.talkingwalking.net are looking to organise events that bring together people all these different ‘walks’ of life (sorry), not only to have a chat as they amble around, but actually to plan and effect change in the way we create and manage public urban spaces.
Health professionals too are getting more and more interested in using mobile phone technology, and even gaming techniques, to help people stick to exercise plans, reinforce medication regimes and combat depression.
Zombies Run! is just one example of a walking/running game that claims to be good for you. I’ve personally been working with academics at Bournemouth University to think about how a geolocated walk across Hardy country could be enjoyed both as a literary pilgrimage and as part of a treatment plan for diabetics and/or depressives.
On the commercial side of things, advertisers and brand owners are starting to see if they can gauge your reaction to billboard ads more accurately by measuring things such as the strength of your smile or which part of your brain is being stimulated as you pass by each poster. Check out this list of devices and technologies I amassed last year and boggle at how much measurement and tracking you could bring to the simple act of walking the dog.
For writers then, walking could become the most important R&D you ever do. You meet people from different disciplines, you talk about subjects that had never occurred to you before, you remain alert to your surroundings, possibly even work with others to *change* your surroundings – and then you come home with a wealth of data that could be applied to your work – and that might even help you live longer.
In fact, walking could become your work. Now doesn’t that sound better than sitting alone in your study staring at a blank screen?