Writing in steps
“It is the movement as well as the sights going by that seems to make things happen in the mind, and this is what makes walking ambiguous and endlessly fertile: it is both a means and end, travel and destination.”
Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust
In my book Into the Heart of the Himalayas I recount a 2700-kilometer solo trek I made traversing the length of the highest mountains in the world. I started the journey knowing I wanted to write a book, but as the walk progressed I realized that the incredible interactions I was having with people and landscape were far beyond anything I had previously experienced. It took me years to understand why and how I had been gifted a glimpse of such beauty but even during the trek I knew that walking in a wonderful way was shifting how I perceived the world. I was a single man moving through deeply foreign cultures, the walking evolved as a meditation, it opened me up and enabled me to connect with communities and places I could never have imagined having access to.
“Walking became my filter – the goodness I experienced in the Himalayas came to me from the ground up.”
That walking meditation is something I’ve incorporated into my daily life and it’s now an integral part of my writing practice.
When I’m writing at my best I’m channeling the greater world through words; I’m giving form to stories that mine the collective and provide meaning to the way we live. And when I’m walking I’m connected, I’m an ambulating conduit between earth and sky, the gravel between my feet meets the heavens above. Writing and walking enable universal relationships and that affiliation means for me they are inseparable. The walking feeds the words and the writing gives shape to my wanderings.
But the relationship moves even further because walking has become a medium for me to experience and integrate those elements that we strive for in our writing and in our lives – Balance, Creativity, Spaciousness and ultimately – Grace.
“I can only meditate when I am walking. When I stop, I cease to think, my mind only works with my legs.”
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Confessions
Balance is something we take for granted until we lose it. As writers we see it everyday on the page, the slide towards overwritten dialogue or the subtle shift to too much ‘telling.’ When I sense such unbalance I think of walking because in our steps is a natural composure. On my daily strolls I slow down, find a quiet stretch of trail or path and let my steps gradually drop in pace until they move in sync with my contemplative breath. Then I try to feel the movement, starting with the equilibrium between my two feet – left and right, ying and yang, a line of stability hovering formidably, perfectly between. Then I shift my weight ever so slightly and the motion begins as if by magic. Breath in as I move the first foot forward, balance shifted but dynamic – and here I linger because although my body is hovering I have complete confidence it will return again through the centre line, effortlessly weighted, and then off to the other extreme. But I slow it again and let myself feel the muscles, tendons and myriad of elegant foot bones flex and absorb the weight and energy of that shift, then translate it into motion, from heel to flat to stretched arch and the gentle rock forward and off the transformed ball, toes lagging and wiggling – and then we’re flying again.
It’s here in the considered motion that I find the simplest link between the self and the greater world, because when I locate that balance and let myself follow it, not with analysis but with detached fascination, then the thoughts and discursive feelings, whether it’s parenting issues or the writing of dialogue, drop away and I experience true space.
Space within Time
“A walk expresses space and freedom and the knowledge of it can live in the imagination of anyone.” Richard Long
What I’m talking about here is not physical proximity but the luxurious space of being full in myself without the pressure of conforming – it’s the spacious knowledge of understanding I’m in the perfect place, time and space. Now, I know that seems like a big ask to pull out of a simple walk in the back blocks, but I can get there, almost every time, on my morning walks and that practice translates to the page because into that spaciousness come the answers that elude me in front of the screen. I am constantly amazed at how the problems that arise in my writing find their answers in my steps.
“…every walk is unreproducible, as is every poem… If a poem is each time new then it is necessarily an act of discovery, a chance taken, a chance that may lead to fulfillment or disaster.” A.R. Ammons, A Poem is a Walk
Being spacious, being true to myself, having confidence in my steps and ultimately in the words, it’s in this mind that I find myself at my most creative. That one meter space in front of my moving feet – ever changing, ever constant. I let the rocks and dust and dry grass crackle and crunch underfoot and inevitably, marvelously, I find that after twenty minutes of focused walking my monkey mind drops away, gets tired of beating its hyperactive head against the wall of my consciousness and slows its assaults. And with that space the thoughts I need start to rise. It’s astonishing how consistent this is. For precious seconds, sometimes minutes, the true story comes to me. There is truth to the thought that we are all intermediaries for life’s great stories. Believe in your steps, have faith in your words, time and practice will bring the rest.
“Should the guide I choose
be nothing better than a wandering cloud,
I cannot miss my way, “
William Wordsworth, The Prelude
When you have balance, space and creativity it’s difficult not to be imbued with grace. But there’s another element that helps foster the disposition we need to stride gracefully through life and that’s constancy – the will to push on, to move through, to face and face down everything that life puts in our way, because it’s how we deal with adversity that ultimately defines us.
For years after my Himalayan trek I tried to write a book that reflected the magic of those months, I researched and wrote on so many aspects of the mountains – flora, fauna, geology, politics, history, sacred landscape but none of them captured the essence of what I had experienced through those 2700 kilometers across the world’s greatest peaks. Yet I knew there was a story worth telling and so I kept trying, searching for a way into the heart of the narrative. Finally, some years ago in Kathmandu, after a critical reading of my manuscript, a friend emphasized how she thought something more was going on behind what I’d written and few days later while meditating on a section I’d been editing for the hundredth time the answer came in a flash of déjà vu. The trek and all the years of writing and research were in fact about coming to terms with the tragic death of my younger brother who had died a few years before my Himalayan sojourn. The essence of the story was not in the mountains but inside myself.
I’m convinced that the fifteen years of writing and research that brought me stumbling towards that discovery laid the groundwork for my revelation. Constancy – walking AND writing every day, rain or shine, whether life is with us or against us – are metaphors and mediums for the type of steadfastness we need to achieve our dreams, because in a way walking and writing both give us time. They let us understand the seasons and eventually ourselves. When we have enough energy to put one foot in front of the other and one word after the next and we follow those practices with mindfulness then we have grace, and in grace the work, the ageless calling to tell stories, is full of joy and wisdom and that’s the place I want to write from.
Range after range of mountains
Year after year after year
I am still in love.