Walking Is Writing

Go for a walk. Like Bilbo.

by Ethan Gilsdorf

People ask if I have advice about writing. What works? What tips and tricks can you teach me? "Do you know what you're going to say before you sit down to say it?" they ask. "Do you know where you are going?"

I rarely know. Mostly, writing feels like a blind journey each time I sit down. I can see just faint shapes in the distance, but I know if I keep writing and moving towards them, that those shapes will come into view and I'll see if they are friendly creatures, if I want to talk to them and get to know them better, and decide if I want to include them in my writing. Or keep moving forward to discover other shapes.

But the idea of motion to describe my writing process isn't just a metaphor. I also recommend actual moving around to get writing. Moving through the real world.

People ask, "What is your writing schedule? How much time do you spend writing each day?" And I tell them, "It varies." But what never varies is my need to actually get up and get away from my desk and take a walk.

Of course, writing only happens when you are sitting at your desk -- what I call the AIC Principle (Ass-in-Chair: the more time sitting on your ass at your desk or wherever you prefer to write, the more likely writing will happen). But what I also tell my students is: After a writing session, get up. Move around. Walk down to your favorite coffee shop (mine is True Grounds in Somerville's Ball Square). Go for a walk.

I'm not a physician or a kinesiologist. But I strongly believe that ideas and solutions come to the body as much as they come to the brain. So if you're stuck, get up. Walk outside, feel the air on your skin. Even the cold February air. And ideas will come to you.

Good things will come to your writing brain (or heart, wherever the impulse lives) simply from the act of getting your eyes to adjust to a focal point not 18 inches from your head -- your computer screen -- but feet and yards from your head. By finding your body again, in a world of sense, smells, colors, depth, corners, turns, ins and outs.

So, when you finish a draft of a poem, story, essay, chapter -- put it aside. Get up. Stretch. Touch your toes. Twist your neck. Then, walk out your door. And bring a pen and notepad or other hand-held device with you. (Don't be like me and write everything down in black ink on the palm of your hand, although that can work in a pinch.) Ideas will come. So be ready to write them down.

“It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door," Bilbo Baggins once said. "You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

Good luck with your writing. And may it sweep you off to lands, shapes, ideas, creatures, you never knew existed.

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About the Author

A GrubStreet instructor since 2005, Ethan Gilsdorf is a journalist, memoirist, essayist, critic, poet, teacher, performer and nerd. He is the author of the travel memoir investigation Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms, named a Must-Read Book by the Massachusetts Book Awards. His essay "The Day My Mother Became a Stranger" was cited in the anthology Best American Essays 2016. His fiction, poetry and essays have appeared in Poetry, The Southern Review, The Quarterly, Exquisite Corpse, The North American Review, The Massachusetts Review, New York Quarterly and dozens of other literary magazines and in several anthologies, and he is the winner of the Hobblestock Peace Poetry Competition and the Esme Bradberry Contemporary Poets Prize. Gilsdorf got his start in journalism as a Paris-based travel writer and food and film critic for Time Out, Fodor's and the Washington Post. He has published hundreds of feature stories, essays, op-eds and reviews about the arts, pop, gaming and geek culture; and media and technology, and travel, in dozens of other publications worldwide including the New York Times, New York Times Book Review, Boston Globe, Boston Globe Magazine, Boston Magazine, Wired, Salon, WBUR's The Artery and Cognoscenti, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and Art New England. A regular presenter, performer, and event moderator, he frequently appears on programs such as NPR, The Discovery Channel, PBS, CBC, BBC, and the Learning Channel, and also lectures at schools, universities, festivals, conventions, and conferences worldwide, including at this TEDx event, where he nerded out about D&D. Gilsdorf is co-founder of GrubStreet's Young Adult Writers Program (YAWP), and teaches creative writing at GrubStreet, where he served on the Board of Directors for 10 years. He teaches essay, memoir, journalism and other workshops, and is also the instructor of GrubStreet's 8-month Essay Incubator program and serves as coordinator of GrubStreet's Providence program. He’s also the lead instructor for the Westerly (RI) Memoir Project. He has led writing workshops for non-profit social justice organizations and also teaches writing and Dungeons & Dragons classes for younger students, in schools, libraries and community centers. He had also served on the Boston Book Festival Program Committee and as a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. He received his BA from Hampshire College, and an MFA in Creative Writing from Louisiana State University. Follow Ethan’s adventures at or Twitter @ethanfreak, and read his posts on Grub's blog, GrubWrites.

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