The Los Angeles Public Library hosts a reading series called Aloud. The last time I went, two known authors—Vivian Gornick and David Ulin—were interviewed about their habit of walking, having each completed a book related to the topic. Walking in New York for Gornick, in L.A. for Ulin—two towns, two universes, giving to the same action a completely different meaning.
The debate turned out to be brilliant, further blooming through the round of Q & A. Though the interviewer’s approach touched at various aspects of the ambulatory, city scouting, and authoring businesses, the towns stole the limelight and never let go of it. It was to be expected with metropolis of such personality, so diverse, both opposite and complementary.
Walking in New York is a close up on people’s truth, abruptness, variety and unpredictability. It means stepping into humanity, rubbing against it, sometimes bruised but always with a thrill of sorts. Walking in L. A. is being washed upon by people’s absence, by layers of ghosts, strange interpolations of present and past. The audience couldn’t stop comparing, juxtaposing their personal experiences to those of the authors. First of all because we were in L.A.—but then who, in Los Angeles, hasn’t been in New York, didn’t come from New York, isn’t wishing to move to New York?
I enjoyed the conversation, but was left with a question I chose not to ask, because out of topic. What I had in mind and decided to stick in my pocket was unrelated to towns, only regarding walking. It’s a subject—rather an activity—I am passionate of. And I was—still am—pretty curious about what walking—no matter wherein or whereto—does to writers. About how walking and writing interfere. Do writers need walking for job related reasons? The question sounds silly. It is not.
Of course Baudelaire was mentioned en passant during the Aloud reading. I was glad—Paris Spleen is as a permanent feature on my bed stand. The connection between walking and writing was set in concrete by reading that slim tome, in my twenties, over and over and over. But the book is about Paris, and I lived in Paris when I made its acquaintance. Thus again an overpowering city is involved, adding too strong a color to the equation.
I think walking does something to the process of writing, very important. I am not sure what exactly—still searching. In my case, as soon as the body is set into motion, the mind slips into narrative mode and gets its work done. Without conscious decisions, of course. My mind, like a dog, wags its tail as it sees the master grabbing her keys, next to the front door. If my body goes for a walk my mind wants to go along, simultaneous taking its own sort of exercise. Everything I ever wrote created itself while walking—somewhere, sometimes. Then I put it on paper and fixed it, usually sitting down though not always. Is it just my personal take? I doubt it.
I chanced upon a book by Haruki Murakami, What I’m talking about when I’m talking of running. Please admit the title sounds promising in regard to my quest. I warmly recommend the read. Easy, smooth—a pearl of condensed wisdom and beauty. The author analyzes his lifelong habit of quasi-professional running, training for marathons he then successfully performs. He is so candid in the account of his up-and-downs, hopes and disappointments, drawbacks and successes, the book feels like a diary—certainly not an instruction manual. It vaguely reminds of Zen and the art of motorcycle some of us have treasured in our youth. The author draws explicit parallels between his running and writing selves. It is more a relationship than an analogy. There are features common to both practices—or identities. Skills developed here can be of use there and vice-versa. Writing, like running, is a solitary endeavor, only implying competition with/within self. Goals are internal ones and so are victories. Satisfaction is an intimate deal, linked to the fulfillment of self-addressed promises.
I was curious, of course, about further entanglement. But the author is clear—he does not think of his novels when he runs. He thinks of nothing. He’s not even sure he sees the magnificent Charles River on whose banks he often trains. One could argue he thus clears his mind of the multitudinous, minute rubbish impeding writing from flowing. But he doesn’t say so, and such stretch of the imagination doesn’t advance my thesis.
What I’d like to believe is walking sets our mind in narrative mode. I don’t mean story telling per se. Let’s say Aristotle, for instance. It is said his disciples needed walking around while learning philosophy. I was taught this in school, though it is probably untrue—the Peripathos being only the colonnade where the class reunited. But my schoolmates and I couldn’t ask better than equating philosophers with hookers—in my language also named peripatetics. Anyway, we were made believe major philosophical truths, in ancient Greece, could only be absorbed ambulating. It still makes sense to me.
In his book From Molecule to Metaphor, Jerome Feldman promotes an embodied source for human verbal abilities. The text isn’t an easy read, in spite of the care the author takes of offering a step-by-step, friendly approach. Backgrounds in neuroscience and/or cognitive psychology wouldn’t hurt, still going from beginning to end would require endurance—not unlike running a marathon. But the effort is rewarding—Feldman’s points are quite interesting. Abstract language as well as all abstract functions—he says—are derived from motor neural circuits first established by our brains. Concrete action schemas underpin language… they also permanently inhabit it. All abstract thinking could be simplified to match basic motion patterns. The most common would be source/progress/destination, followed by subject/grasp/object. Those are among the first skills a baby learns to enact, and almost simultaneously name. They function as molds for future cognition and verbalization, no matter how elaborate and remote.
Narrative as a motion from source to destination… why not? I believe when legs are ready to go, minds also take off. They also wish to see places, stop running in circles, stretch out.
I hold dear a well-known Native American say—walk away from the problem. Though the wisdom of it seems to be ‘don’t act or discuss under pressure; let the issue settle; take your time, relax and calm down; count to seven before replying’, I have always been magnetized by the walking part. Doesn’t it seem logic in the light of Feldman’s hypothesis? Leave the knot your mind is entangled within over there. Put it down. Attach it to something strong—a pillar, a pole, or a tree. Nail it. Take an end of the yarn and unspool it while you go. Your thoughts literally will unscramble themselves, loosen up with each of your steps. Other neural connections will be found. You’ll embark on a different path of reasoning. And the labyrinth will be straightened up. At least you’ll try another exit.
My dad wrote daily for his job, sitting on an armchair so worn it almost shone—though it was made not of leather, but of very cheap velvet. Only, no fabric was left. Threadbare doesn’t convey the state of that poor piece of furniture. Dad, a short and round man, ensconced himself in the seat, pulled a portable desk in front of himself, getting squeezed into the smallest possible cell. Then he wrote for hours, starting at 4 a.m. An early riser myself, sometimes I got a glimpse of his predawn activity. I saw him but he didn’t see me. His absorption was eerie, almost shocking. I could say, without much altering the truth, a purple halo surrounded him. I’m not sure you believe me.
Thus my dad is the blatant disproof of my walking theory. I am not sure of this either.
I don’t know if to mimic dad, or to beat him, I started doing my writing at 3. I love feeling the night slide into day. Love when day comes and finds me alert and awake. Don’t like to be surprised by tomorrow. When I sit down at 3 a.m. there is no much of a landscape around me. I’m often right in my bedroom. Yet—as I have said—I don’t properly write. I only transcribe, that I can do sitting down. I’d like to believe this was true for father as well. I’d assume he had thought things over the day before, during his aimless, lazy walk on the bridge, along the river bank, past the following bridge, back on the opposite bank. Under canopies of gorgeous murmuring sycamores, seagulls yapping in the background. Or taking detours, getting lost into the tiniest of alleys, poking into antique shops or smelling fresh bakery. Buying fruit and fish, carrying it home in brown paper bags.
This is nothing but speculation, of course. There must be magnificent writers who can’t walk or do not like to. What about them? I suppose the mind has a million ways to shake and jump on the spot. Maybe it can perform yoga postures. Walking might be just a pet of mine.
By the way I also like lying down, supine and perfectly still, especially when I take an impromptu nap—when I slip back in bed after my nocturnal typing, to get a dab of rest before official activities start. A small bonus track.
In such state of heavenly calm stories are whispered into my ears. Not dreams—stories. Ideas come vivaciously and wild. To be true, I don’t feel I am lying down… my body seems to levitate. It is like a suspension. Like flying. Everyone has experienced similar nirvanas, sometimes—on a beach, on a lawn. You can travel that way, without muscular effort. Journey through space and time, see the unknown.
The uncanniest place for writing is truly my desk. Or a classroom, or anything of the kind. At my desk I can only perform quick transcription, can I? All the good stuff happens in freedom land. Out there. On the road.
Aloud, Los Angeles Public Library events series curated by Louise Steinman
Gornick, Vivian, The Odd Woman and the City
Ulin, David L., Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles
Murakami, Haruki, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
Feldman, Jerome, From Molecule to Metaphor: A Neural Theory of Language