Monthly Archives: February 2013

A  quote from Mike Sharples’ How We Write to make you feel better about starting the week with a jug of coffee – it seems to work! The last sentence is also interesting in relation to my recent post about unconscious creativity: we may tend to concentrate when we write, but it doesn’t necessarily always help. 

An extensive survey of the habits and rituals of writers was carried out by Ron Kellogg. He questioned 121 science and engineering academics and compared their responses with their writing productivity, measured by the number of reports and publications they had prepared over the previous three years. This is a measure of quantity rather than quality of writing, but it may at least give an indication of habits that produce words.

Walking and coffee were the two most frequent accompaniments to writing. Although many of Kellogg’s respondents drank coffee while writing, there was great variation, with some writers drinking it frequently and others never touching it. Vigorous exercise was the only habit associated with productivity, though this does not necessarily imply that exercise causes creativity. It may be that the most productive writers were also the youngest and healthiest! Kellogg also found intense concentration to be the most frequent mental state while writing, but that no state of consciousness was more productive.

(Sharples, Mike. How We Write: Writing as Creative Design. London: Routledge, 1999: 119.)

Here’s my poem ‘The Path that Follows the Traveller’, reprinted from Their Colours and Their Forms: Artists’ Responses to Wordsworth, eds Carol McKay & John Strachan (Wordsworth Trust, 2013). Ostensibly it’s an elegy about Wordsworth’s growing conservatism, but it’s also about how simultaneously wonderful and wearying it can be to trudge on under rain. Umbellifers are plants with umbrella-like branching stems, like cow parsley.

The path that follows the traveller

‘It is not my intention to be illiberal’
– Wordsworth, ‘Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff’

The rain is proof. The rain offers
baptism to those who would fulfil
their responsibilities as gardeners, as dog-walkers,
as students of the terms on which one man
might cross the land without salary or retinue.

Only when your felt hat melts, when you taste
salt on the face’s shore, and a thorn wind,
do horizons sink behind the mist
to take in continents. I mean cold solitude
taught you togetherness. And the rain grew your beans,
each brown brain soaked in northwesterlies
until pod parliaments of foetuses
began to greenly form and wait.

In the rain you grew old. Let those who preen
and pine to die immaculate
mock your tiredness,
your bracken beaten down by rain recanting.
You turned to firesides and silk to soothe
your shrivelled old been in the rain too long
fingertips. To have stayed where you were
was against Nature.

All travelling goes somewhere, out of the sublime
view, out of the valley of light, towards the grave,
towards the glass grave of fame
and so much water that even
the umbilical cord of your signature risks
dissolution like the stone of your beloved hills.
It is enough that you passed through,
snapping umbellifers as you went, to show the way,
leaving little lakes in the prints of your boots.


It’s been my experience that ideas – we could call them ‘creative thoughts’ to represent the fact they’re thoughts about writing – come to me while I’m out walking. I don’t often write on the hoof in the sense of composing specific strings of text, but I do think through plot, conceits, scenes, images. Sometimes that’s what I’m trying to do; I take the dogs for a walk and deliberately mull over a creative problem. But just as often, I’m not consciously thinking about writing at all – I’m thinking about that hedge, or picking up the dog’s poo, or paying the car insurance – and a solution, or step forward, or idea, comes into my mind unbidden.

Talking to other writers, that seems to be a common experience: that we make creative advances unconsciously, when we’re concentrating on something else, or on nothing at all. I don’t think it’s limited to walking, but I do think walking is a particularly fertile activity for having those thoughts, maybe because the body is active and the mind is pretty idle. (Other suitable activities might include running, swimming, washing up, hanging the washing out, shopping, and so on.) And, just as walking isn’t the only activity to encourage unconscious creative thoughts, the thoughts themselves aren’t limited to writing, but occur across the range of human practices.

There’s a well-known story of the mathematician Poincaré making a big advance in his thinking while out on a geological jaunt:

The incidents of the travel made me forget my mathematical work. Having reached Coutances, we entered an omnibus to go someplace or other. At the moment when I put my foot on the step, the idea came to me, without anything in my former thoughts seeming to have paved the way for it, that the transformations I had used to find the Fuchsian functions were identical with those of non-Euclidean geometry. (quoted in Arnold H. Modell, Imagination and the Meaningful Brain, 28–9)

There’s also a story that Peter Higgs thought of the Higgs boson while out walking in the Cairgorms (see here and here), although the truth seems to be a bit messier than that. Buthe point is that not only artists but also scientists may have ‘creative thoughts’ arriving unexpectedly in the conscious mind, and that walking seems to be an activity likely to foster such experiences. And in fact neither artists nor scientists should be thought of as special: the geographer Jennie Middleton has reported that people walking to work may have similar experiences. One respondent said that:

“It’s amazing how I suddenly start conceiving ideas about work whilst walking along, even without realising it” (quoted in Jennie Middleton, ‘“Stepping in Time”: Walking, Time, and Space in the City’, 1946).

So much for the rarefied Romantic writer–walker receiving special insights; creative thinking is available to anyone.

I’m not a neuroscientist or a psychologist either, so I need to be cautious here, but the simple phenomenon of finding oneself making an advance in thinking without conscious effort seems to be one of the forms of creative thinking outlined by Arne Dietrich in his article ‘The cognitive neuroscience of creativity.’ Dietrich describes how both conscious and unconscious creative thoughts might be mapped on to brain function. (Of course ‘creative thoughts’ in this context means something much simpler than the complex processes and practices of high-level artistic and scientific work – one example of the need for caution.) Most interesting for me is Dietrich’s assertion that unconscious creative thinking is less bound by our existing structure of knowledge – less policed by consciousness, as it were – so the thoughts that come unbidden may be riskier, more radical, more creative than those that are willed. So taking the dogs for a walk – or going for a swim or a run ‘to clear the head’ – might help us to achieve different and better creative work than chaining ourselves to the desk.

I’d really like to hear from you, whether you’re a writer or not, about whether you experience unconscious thinking when walking or undertaking other mundane activities. You can comment  on this post or email me at

A clear sunny day promising Spring. I’m about to take the dogs for their lunchtime walk. This morning they ran and ran after two red balls till they were so tired they had to lie down in a puddle and drink it up from round them. We can’t leave the house yet as one of them has his eye on a blackbird bathing in the water collected in the back of a tricycle.

Exciting developments for the project this week: I had a meeting and first walk-through with Alan Fentiman, who’s going to make a documentary film about walking and writing with me. It’s early days, but we’re thinking there will be five films, each recording one of my Monday–Friday walks and focusing on a different aspect of the research. 

Alan has produced a number of documentaries focusing on artistic processes, for example this one on the Witness project, an elaborately fascinating musical version of Chinese whispers. I’m hoping to convince him that our film should include a Bouncer’s dream type sequence.

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