[TIPS OF THE TRADE] Stuck? Go for a Walk!
Written by
Ellen Cassedy
January 2015
Written by
Ellen Cassedy
January 2015

We’ve all been told that the secret to writing is simply to sit down and write.

Every day, we’re told, we must chain ourselves to our desks and not get up until our daily quota of 500 or 1,000 or 2,000 words is complete. 

The German word “sitzfleisch”—literally, “buttocks”—means the ability to persevere, to stick with a task, no matter how difficult, until the job is done. 

But now comes new scientific evidence that long periods of sitting may be exactly not what we most need as writers. Getting up from the desk , researchers have found, is important both for health and for the creative process.

Henry David Thoreau seems to have figured this out back in 1849. “Methinks,” he wrote in his journal, “that at the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.”

Researchers Marily Oppezzo and Daniel Schwartz of Stanford University measured creative thinking in people who were sitting and people who were walking. The walkers were able to generate 60 percent more creative ideas.

Walking, it turns out, is a great way to boost “divergent thinking”—that is, to increase our ability to come up with lots of alternative ideas, lots of solutions to a problem, lots of different ways of looking at something. Walking is good for thinking outside the box—coming up with ideas other people might not think of.

For more focused thinking, however, it’s better to sit down. “Convergent thinking”—coming up with the one correct answer to a problem—works out better when you’re seated, the researchers found.

It didn’t matter whether the walkers were treadmilling in front of a blank wall or strolling through a beautiful green landscape. To the researchers’ surprise, it was walking itself, not the surrounding environment, that made the difference. And the effect persisted—for a while—even after the walkers sat down. 

Why walking helps us think isn’t clear. Dr. Oppezzo hypothesizes that since walking improves mood, that alone may help you think more freely. Or, she suggests, walking might loosen the mental strictures that would otherwise hamper your imagination. But she doesn’t really know (she told a reporter she was planning to go for a walk to brainstorm more possible explanations).

In my experience, writing requires a variety of different kinds of thinking.

When I need to scribble down a lot of ideas at once, I’ll often stand at, or walk on, my recently acquired treadmill desk. (A treadmill desk is great, but there are cheaper ways to spend some of your writing time on your feet. I used to keep a couple of cardboard boxes on hand to elevate my keyboard and screen on occasion. Or I’d take a brief walk around the room when I got stuck.) 

If what I need to do is not brainstorming but tuning inward to listen for precise ideas and exact word choices, I tend to sit down. There are even times when I abandon the keyboard and use a pencil or pen.

Trees are also in the mix for me as a writer. In Japan, shinrin-yoki is the concept of “forest bathing.” A short walk on a tree-lined path is a proven stress reducer, as the walker takes a rest from the human-made world and inhales the essential oils emitted by wood.

Here again Thoreau got it right. “I frequently tramped eight or ten miles through the deepest snow,” he wrote, “to keep an appointment with a beech-tree, or a yellow birch, or an old acquaintance among the pines.”

It’s hard to imagine a literary project that doesn’t involve at least some time sitting at a desk. But more and more, I value the benefits getting up and getting moving—whether to meet a friendly tree or not.

Sitting, standing, walking—what helps you keep your creative juices flowing? Join the conversation! 

* * *

Ellen Cassedy’s book is We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust (Univ. of Nebraska Press, 2012), which won four national awards and was shortlisted for the Saroyan Prize. It’s now available in audiobook format as well as paperback and e-book. Ellen’s first post for SheWrites was “Who Cares about Your Family Story? Ten Tips to Ensure Readers Will ...” Her [TIPS OF THE TRADE] series appears monthly. See all of Ellen's Tips for Writers.

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  • Ellen Cassedy

    Thanks to Cate Warren for saying how swimming helps her think!  Can anyone solve the problem of how to jot down ideas in the pool?

  • Ellen Cassedy

    Great to hear that walking helps Anita Goodfellow generate solutions for her fiction writing.  Here's another tack:  My mother, author of children's fiction and poetry, could often be found standing at the kitchen sink with water running over her hands, looking out the window, lost in thought.  The water, the view of the trees....  She also talked about how ironing helped her.  Not sure anyone irons anymore though.

  • Anita Goodfellow

    Walking works for me to generate ideas or problem solve.  Usually, I'm walking along when suddenly I have the answer to a short story or chapter that I have been struggling with.  I’m not evening thinking about it, but in the story creeps.  I happen to love walking too!

  • Ellen Cassedy

    Cate Warren reminds us of the many ways a writer can benefit from taking a walk.  Some will surprise you.  And Patricia Robertson tells us that the renowned German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was also a believer in the power of walking.

  • Patricia Robertson

    Never trust a thought that didn’t come by walking.  Freidrich Nietzche

  • Ellen Cassedy

    Everybody, live like Gale Bates!

  • Gale Bates

    I loved your post as I'm an avid walker.  It is my time to think through the maze of a busy life.  I have one special corner I turn and I know the light bulb will go on with another bright idea.   Thanks for a great post.