The smartest thing I ever did as a writer was hire a retired conservation agent to blaze a hiking trail for me. It's nothing fancy--just a narrow path that meanders for a little over a mile through the woods near my home. But that trail through the trees has become my therapist, my personal trainer, and my best editor.
I'm so convinced that hiking helps my writing that I recently decided to offer a series of hiking-writing workshops to see if others had the same experience. Here's what I've discovered so far:
1. Take it one step at a time. Kathleen, a devoted reader and grandmother, told me that writing a book had been on her bucket list for years, but she didn't know how to start. So on our first hike, I asked Kathleen and the others in the group to think about what they wanted to write. A novel? A memoir? A picture book? After 50 minutes of hiking, everyone had an idea for a book.
2. Keep moving. I don't expect anyone to write while we're hiking. That would be dangerous. But writing a book is just a matter of moving a story forward, scene by scene. There's something about literally moving the body that helps the mind move, too. Recent studies have shown that our creativity is increased by 60% when we're walking. I encourage my workshop participants to write at their desks but think on their feet.
3. Find your own path. "If the path before you is clear," said Joseph Campbell, "you're probably on someone else's." Our lives are filled with challenges. As writers, we must keep throwing problems at our characters. Conflict is the heart of good storytelling. Hiking in nature along a twisting trail can remind us what a good story feels like. It's the opposite of a treadmill--or an interstate highway.
4. Plodding helps with plotting. Every writer gets stuck. Courtney, who's working on a fantasy novel for young adults, found herself getting tangled up in a thorny plot sequence in the middle of her manuscript. After a one-hour hike, she found a way to get back on track. "Talking and walking helped me see all the fat I could cut from the middle," she said. "Now I know where I'm going."
5. You can change direction at any time. One of the hikers in our group thought she wanted to write a book of nature poems. She decided to change course and write a novel based on her father and the sister he left behind in Ireland. "This feels like a much bigger story," said Maureen, "but I'm more excited to write it."
6. Hiking lets your mind roam. "When I hike, I see things in a new way," says Ray Dolan, professor of neuropsychiatry at University College London, who has hiked countless miles with his friend, novelist Ian McEwan. "A fundamental thing we do as animals is create a map of our environment," explains Prof. Dolan. "Our day-to-day map can be very limited. Hiking provides a new landscape. You zoom out of life and reposition yourself. It allows us to make connections."
7. Eye contact is optional. One of the nice things about hiking is that everyone is usually looking at the path ahead. Ideas can be tossed around freely without the discomfort sometimes felt in a more formal setting. Even talking is optional. Prof. Dolan says when he and McEwan hike, they welcome the silence. "If we go for thirty minutes without talking, it's okay. The same scenario might be awkward if we were having coffee or lunch."
8. It's a hike, not a race. Virginia Woolf extolled the virtues of "solitary trampling" through the countryside. Hiking with a small group of writers can be equally delightful. Unlike traditional writing groups that can provide too much feedback or feel competitive, a hiking-writing group offers all the camaraderie with none of the conflict. People come to talk about their works-in-progress and to support others in the group.
9. Any trail will do. While I usually hike around my farm in the Missouri Ozarks, I led recent workshops on public trails in North Easton, Massachusetts, where I was serving as writer-in-residence at the Ames Free Library. Our hour-long hikes weren't physically challenging, but everyone agreed that walking and talking helped to jumpstart the creative process. As Henry David Thoreau said, "Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow."
10. The hero (or heroine) returns home changed. In many classic stories, a protagonist in conflict goes on a journey and returns home changed by wisdom gained on the journey. Hiking is a nice reminder of this. It allows us to leave our familiar surroundings, if only for an hour, and come back to where we started, changed by the experience. A book can do the same thing, both for the person who reads it and the person who writes it. As I told my new hiking pals, the person who begins to write a book is not the same person who will finish it.
After our group's final hiking-writing workshop, I packed my bags for a wedding in Jackson Hole. Months earlier, I'd received a save-the-date card with a watercolor sketch of the millennial couple in hiking boots, standing in front of the Grand Tetons. Might this be the generation that gives us the Church of the Sunday Morning Hike? Walking meetings have become popular. How about political summits conducted while hiking? We all love TED Talks. Why not TED Walks? (Or maybe Tread Walks?)
I'm going to think about this on my next hike. Then I'm going to figure out where I can lead my next series of hiking-writing workshops. Anyone care to join me?
Kate Klise is an award-winning author of 30 books. When she's not busy writing, Kate leads workshops around the country for aspiring authors of all ages. Learn more about Kate Klise here.