Why Writers Should Consider the Habits of the Flâneur

Foggy Trees

photo by Nell Boeschenstein

Note from Jane: Today’s guest post is by Nell Boeschenstein (@NellBoe); next month, I’m hosting her online course focused on the personal essay. Find out more.


Although the wisdom of it took me years to fully appreciate, the best writing tip I ever received branded itself onto my brain when I was an undergraduate studying poetry. One day, my professor—a tall woman with wild hair and a Louisiana accent—happened to mention that her best lines always arrived unexpectedly during walks alone around campus or with her dogs near her house outside of town. These lines rarely, if ever, she said, presented themselves while she was consciously writing. Rather, one minute her mind would be concerned with the grocery list and the next minute a fragment of imagery or insight would float through the antimatter of her brain on its way to oblivion. Ideas, she said, come as quickly as they go. It’s up to you as a writer to catch them while you can. If instead you put it off and vow to record a thought when you get home, nine times out of ten that thought will have dissolved into the ether by the time you remember to try to remember it. In other words, passing thoughts are precious things. I had my doubts. About both the preciousness as well as the possibility that any writing worth keeping could ever arrive or disappear so easily. My memory then was young and ignorant.

Of course words don’t come easily.

Until they do.

When it comes to writing advice, perhaps no tips are more tired than the ones that articulate some variation of “Sit your butt in the chair” or “Writing is 90 percent showing up.” These platitudes aren’t necessarily lies, but they do minimize the necessity of allowing time for your butt to get out of the chair. A few weeks ago, a friend remarked that the thing about writing is that, unlike most pursuits and in some cruel reversal of the rules of practice and experience, the more you do it the harder it gets. I laughed. Because she was right. As the years have gone by, the correlation between my creative output and the time I have spent at my desk has been inconsistent at best. Instead, what I’ve found to be more true, is that the time I’ve spent away from my desk is at least as important as the time I’ve spent with it. Specifically, the time I’ve spent away from it and walking.

The advantages of walking are well-known and long-heralded. Likewise delightful, the urban perambulatory habits of the flaneur. Less touted perhaps are the practical creative benefits of stretching one’s legs with neither exercise nor aimlessness in mind. About walking, Max Beerbohm wrote, contrarily, “My objection to it is that it stops the brain….Experience teaches me that whatever a fellow-guest may have of power to instruct or to amuse when he is sitting on a chair, or standing on a hearth-rug, quickly leaves him when he takes one out for a walk.”

With all due respect to Mr. Beerbohm, I beg—and vehemently—to differ and to say that my poetry professor was right after all: it turns out that my best thoughts have arrived to the beat of my footsteps.

The kind of walking I have in mind is not quite meditation. It is about about solitude, yes, but it is not about emptying the mind so much as it is about distracting and relaxing it. “Meditative” is the better word. The point is to get outside and occupy your body and your mind more equally and in tandem than we are otherwise acculturated to do as we sit at our desks or purposefully exercise. For some people it is city walking and for others it is country walking. Either way, it is walking and it keeps the blood from coagulating in the heart or the head.

For me, it’s a walk up a small mountain a five-minute drive from my house. I head there about four times a week, usually in the mid-to-late afternoon. That is the point by which I’ve spent a few hours working and the inevitable blooming resistance of my brain to the formation of coherent, cohesive sentences has begun. It is the moment when the worst thing I can do for myself is to keep writing, to keep trying to solve the problem. To do so often results only in my brain clamming up with renewed determination. I’ve learned (or rather, am learning) to recognize this feeling and, at its first warning signs, to save whatever work I have done, back my chair away from the computer, grab my keys, headphones, and phone, and go for a walk up the mountain down the road.

Once there, I plug into some music, open an email to myself, then settle into the old rhythm of one foot and then another that can knead the knot that has taken hold in my brain. The music is a supplementary distraction. For me, it is crucial. Soon, I am walking through the forest, listening to someone other than myself (yesterday, April 21, as I was beginning this post, it was Prince and will be Prince and only Prince for days to come), and I can palpably feel the sensation of my brain breathing out the breath it has been holding. Suddenly, there is space in my mind to make connections, identify failures of logic, concoct images that pique my curiosity. Into the clearing offered by a little literal distance from one’s writing can come rushing words you did not even know you were looking for.

The open email is to catch whatever thoughts I think might be worth keeping. The point while I’m walking is not to worry about the quality or quantity of these thoughts but to simply let them happen. The walk takes about an hour. This has, for me, proven the magic allotment—not too long to sap the day but long enough for my brain to relax its neurotic grip on my ability to string sentences together. At the end of the hour, I send myself that email regardless of what it contains. Sometimes, back at my desk, I’ll read the fragments of images or ideas that found their way to me as I walked and discard them all; sometimes I’ll keep a few and toss the others; sometimes each jotted tidbit proves worthwhile and eventually finds a place for itself.

That advice I received as an undergraduate has come full circle. I now teach my own students and one of them—a wonderful young writer with an exceptional ear for language—struggles with creative anxiety. She tells me she can sit for hours at her desk and write only a single sentence. What have I told her in response? I have told her not to sit there, stare, and will unwilling words to appear as if by alchemy. I have told her to get up and go for a walk. To go for a walk and to see where that takes her.


Want to work with Nell on the craft of personal essays? Learn about her course starting next month.

Posted in Creativity + Inspiration, Guest Post and tagged .
Nell Boeschenstein

Nell Boeschenstein

Nell Boeschenstein has an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Columbia University and a BA in English from Dartmouth College. She currently teaches essay, memoir, feature writing, and criticism at Sweet Briar College, where she also serves as the Interim Director of the Creative Writing Program. She is currently at work on a collection of essays—personal, reported, and lyric—themed to the idea of “lost colonies.” She offers editing services, in partnership with Emma Rathbone, at Huckleberry Writing.

Join the conversation

21 Comments on "Why Writers Should Consider the Habits of the Flâneur"

Notify of
avatar
Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
trackback

[…] The time away from my desk has proven at least as important as time spent sitting at it. The time away from it spent walking, specifically.  […]

Florence Osmund

I love this article. “I can palpably feel the sensation of my brain breathing out the breath it has been holding,” said it all.

Will Bontrager

Wonderful, Nel. You corroborate what I’ve found for myself. Although I’ve been taking it a bit further. A small-dimension but thick notepad with pen is always near me when I’m not at my desk. Thoughts related to current writing projects and ideas for future projects present themselves during meals, in the loo, while spading the garden, in any situation where the mind is *not* on writing projects.

Some are inane. Some are real gems.

The more I write them down, it seems, the more pertinent the ideas and language constructs become.

Maybe I’ll write a book about it 🙂

Will

Diana Dye

Thanks for the confirmation. This has been my habit for nearly 2 years. Never heard about anyone else doing this so I thought maybe I was a little weird. Some of my best material comes during those daily walks.

Harald Johnson

Great guest post (and nice lead photo selection)!
Anything that includes the word “Flâneur” in the title always gets my attention.
My version includes swimming and mindless outdoor property chores like sawing wood.
And with a small notebook and pen stuck in my back pocket (not when swimming :).
Reading this is a nice way to start the day. Thanks.

Nita Leland

Time for me to get back to this. Back-to-back projects are wearing me down. Thanks for the reminder.

Shirley Showalter

Lovely post. I immediately thought of Wordsworth, whose poetry arose out of his walks in the Lake District. And of Thoreau’s essay “Walking.” I look forward to a semester at the Collegeville Institute in Minnesota where writing, walking, and the monastic rhythms of community will be protected.

Robin E. Mason

oh my goodness yes!!! i sometimes forget the value of “just” sitting, preferably out on my porch doing “nothing” but looking at the trees. i love love love to go for long walks (on hiatus since i had knee replacement) the things my brain does, the things my Muse stirs in me when i’m outside—takes the writing to a whole new place!! truly, takes life to a whole new place!

Amy M. Reade

Wonderful post! Hard to force myself to get up sometimes, but I’m always glad when I do. Your words have a lyrical quality to them that is engaging and beautiful. Thank you.

James More

I say lines all the time and now this guy, Mark Manley, who writes a screenplay comes over, asks me questions and then rushes to go write down what I say and I feel like he is robbing me because he has done this several times.

Jill Engledow

As a writer of mature years (shall we say), now plagued with back problems from years of sitting, I can tell you this is also very important to your health. Getting up to move around is vital to the spine. I’m now hampered in my writing by the inability to sit for long periods and am going to buy a rather expensive stand-sit desk because I also can’t stand for long! All due to sitting too much. Move!

Michelle Arbeau

Great article!!!

Ann Stephens
This is sort of hilarious…I came across this after coming back from a walk. Although I do walk to benefit my physical health (sitting too long is unhealthy, I need some kind of weight-bearing exercise, blah blah blah), much of Nell’s article resonates with me. The mental benefit from walking, for me, is to imitate Max Beerbohm’s guest and let my mind go blank. However, I find that simple household tasks do wonders to help me think about my WIP. As she points out, giving the body something easy to do seems to set the mind free. I may have… Read more »
trackback

[…] Source: Why Writers Should Consider the Habits of the Flâneur | Jane Friedman […]

trackback

[…] Why Writers Should Consider the Habits of the Flâneur […]

Carol Buchanan
I did my PhD dissertation on the poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850), who suffered an antipathy to handwriting that may have been almost a phobia. He never composed at a desk. Instead, he walked. And walked. In all weather, up and down the hills (fells) of his home country, the Lake District. He composed in blank verse to the meter of his feet, and he chanted his poems out loud to their tempo. His neighbors remarked on “Old William” who went “Booin’ about the neighborhood.” He had a prodigious memory, because he had his poem in his mind by the time… Read more »
Richard Nash

Although i’m not really a writer, I work on the creative see of the business of media, publishing and culture, and I’ve taken, in the past couple of years, to do most of my conference calls and one-on-one calls while walking through the city or aimlessly around my urban neighborhood. It offers a particular kind of half-focus, not quite as dreamy as what Nell describes, but nevertheless a little more creative than multitasking at a table. Or even single-tasking at a table.

trackback

[…] Regular readers here know I pay attention to what’s going on over at Jane Friedman’s blog, and a month or so ago she featured a guest post from writer Nell Boeschenstein called “Why Writers Should Consider the Habits of the Flâneur.” […]

trackback

[…] Why Writers Should Consider the Habits of a Flaneur […]

wpDiscuz