Writers’ habits have always intrigued me—not superstitious ones that are unique to the individual, but ones that have an actual impact on the creative process. One of the greatest writer’s habits of all time is walking.
When Agatha Christie had gotten halfway through her first detective novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920), she seemed stuck, so her mother encouraged her to go away for a couple of weeks to finish it off. It was the middle of World War I, and she went to Dartmoor, a ragged, wild stretch of moorland in the south of England. She stayed in a dreary, old hotel that was sparsely occupied. She spoke to no one and spent her time three ways: writing, sleeping, and walking.
Here is how she describes her routine:
“I used to write laboriously all morning till my hand ached. Then I would have lunch, reading a book. Afterwards I would go out for a good walk on the moor, perhaps for a couple of hours.”
A couple of hours? This is some serious walking, and I cannot think of one person I know who does such a thing today. But in another era, it was commonplace. James Joyce used to walk 8 miles at a clip, sometimes as a way to spend time in conversation with friends.
On her walks, Christie had conversations with herself, in the guise of her characters:
“As I walked I muttered to myself, enacting the chapter that I was next going to write; speaking as John to Mary, and as Mary to John; as Evelyn to her employer, and so on. I would become quite excited by this. I would come home, have dinner, fall into bed and sleep for about twelve hours. Then I would get up and write passionately again all morning.”*
Walking improves cognitive function, working memory, and reasoning ability. It’s no wonder that writers find it a great release and a boon to creativity.
As for me, I’m a runner. The benefits of walking accrue to me as well (I hope), even if I am moving at a swifter pace. Many times, I must choose between writing or running, simply because the day is short and my plans are long. But on a good day, I accomplish both. On a great day, the two complement one another. I will write for a while, and then put on my running shoes and hit the pavement while I work out a snag in the process.
Whether I am in the middle of a writing project or not, running calms my mind. When I leave for a run, I am thinking about a million things, all battling against each other. When I return, perhaps three of them are left, floating around in peaceful co-existence. And everything else seems manageable.
*Agatha Christie, An Autobiography (New York: Dodd, Mead, & Co., 1977): 245.