I’ve written many articles and over a dozen books and readers often remark on my imagination with something akin to awe and incredulity. I often get asked where I get my ideas. Let me tell you a story first…
A Toronto friend—himself a prolific letter writer—shares that his ideas come to him during his daily walks (you’ll find his witty, humorous and somewhat pithy letters in the National Post, Globe and Mail or Toronto Star … almost weekly). David Honigsberg doesn’t use his car (that’s reserved for when his son is in town) and he walks every opportunity he gets, whether it’s a short jaunt to the coffee shop several blocks from his work place or a long trek to his home in Mount Pleasant after a lunch engagement near Bloor and Yonge. He tells me that he uses his phone to capture his “eureka” moments in what may now be considered unorthodox—he doesn’t make digital notes (it’s not that kind of phone!) but instead leaves a series of voice mails on his home phone. When he gets home, David replays his messages and writes out his letter to the editor.
What Dave does is not new to creative thinkers all over the world and throughout time. He shares great company with people who used walking as a venue toward creative thinking (and writing); people like Aristotle, Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, Ludwig van Beethoven, Friedrich Nietzsche, William Wordsworth, Henry David Thoreau, Steve Jobs, and Soren Kierkegaard—just to name a few. All great walkers.
Aristotle conducted his lectures while walking the grounds of his school in Athens. His followers, who chased him as he walked, were known as the peripatelics (e.g., Greek for meandering). Darwin refined his ideas on natural selection and other topics during his frequent walks along his “thinking path”, a gravel road called Sandwalk Wood near his home in southeast England. Dickens walked for miles each day and once said, “If I could not walk far and fast, I think I should just explode and perish.” Beethoven often took solitary walks. He strolled the Viennese woods for hours, finding inspiration for his works and jotting them down on a notepad that he carried with him. Nietzsche loved his walks in the mountains. He wrote, “it is only ideas gained from walking that have any worth.” For Wordsworth, the act of walking was one in the same with the act of writing poetry.
Both involved rhythm and meter. Henry David Thoreau was known for his great walkabouts. Walking through nature for Thoreau was a pilgrimage without a destination—more discovery and rapture. “Taking a long walk was [Steve Job’s] preferred way to have a serious conversation,” wrote Job’s biographer Walter Isaacson. Writer and avid walker, Soren Kierkegaard writes:
“Above all, do not lose your desire to walk. Everyday, I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.”
In the April 2014 issue of the Journal of Experimental Pshychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, Stanford researchers Marily Oppezzo and Daniel L. Schwartz demonstrated that walking boosts creative inspiration. Using the Guildford’s Alternative Uses Test they showed that the act of walking, whether inside or outside, significantly increased creativity for 81% of the participants. Oppezzo and Schwartz were able to demonstrate that the creative ideas generated while walking were not irrelevant or far-fetched, but innovative and practical.
In the September 3 2014 issue of The New Yorker, journalist Ferris Jabr describes why this is the case:
“The answer begins with changes to our chemistry. When we go for a walk, the heart pumps faster, circulating more blood and oxygen not just to the muscles but to all the organs—including the brain. Many experiments have shown that after or during exercise, even very mild exertion, people perform better on tests of memory and attention. Walking on a regular basis also promotes new connections between brain cells, staves off the usual withering of brain tissue that comes with age, increases the volume of the hippocampus (a brain region crucial for memory), and elevates levels of molecules that both stimulate the growth of new neurons and transmit messages between them.”
It isn’t just strolling or sauntering that stimulates the creative mind to new heights.
Stoking the creative artist inside you may be as simple as giving your mind the chance to wander—and taking the time to pay attention. In her book The Artist’s Way Julia Cameron talks about how “rhythm” and regular, repetitive actions play a role in priming the artistic well. She lightheartedly describes how the “s” activities work so well for this: showering, swimming, scrubbing, shaving, strolling, steering a car. I can testify to the latter—how many great plot ideas have I cooked up while driving to work! Filmmaker Steven Spielberg claimed that his best ideas came to him while he was driving the freeway. Negotiating through the flow of traffic triggered the artist-brain with images, translated into ideas. “Why do I get my best ideas in the shower?” Einstein was known to have remarked. Scientists tell us that this is because showering is an artist-brain activity.
The magic part in this is to pay attention. Pay attention to your life experiences; don’t ignore them. Sit up in the bus and watch people, play with the images, sounds and smells. Get sensual and let your eyes, ears, nose and limbs delight in the world. It’s amazing how interesting the world becomes once you start paying attention.
So, to answer the question above about where I get my ideas: in one word, everywhere.
Of course, I find those “s” activities mentioned above very helpful in quieting my mind to “listen” to my creative spirit and see; they calm and focus me. I would add another “s” word–scrawling–to the list. While Dave sends a voice message home on his phone when he gets an idea, I carry a notebook with me to jot down my eureka moments. I find writing by hand additionally helps in the creative process. What works best for me is a walk in Nature. Nothing beats that…having a dialogue with the wind, or the chiming birds and rustling trees, the gurgling brook or surging sea or tiny insect, the soothing sun…rough bark of a fir tree… The texture of the world…
“The texture of the world, its filigree and scrollwork, means that there is the possibility for beauty here, a beauty inexhaustible in its complexity, which opens to my knock, which answers in me a call I do not remember calling, and which trains me to the wild and extravagant nature of the spirit I seek.”—Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Cameron, Julia. 1992. “The Artist’s Way”. Penguin Putnam Inc., New York, NY. 222pp.
Dillard, Annie. 1974. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Harper Perennial. 304pp.
Downden, Craig. 2014. “Steve Jobs was Right About Walking” In: The National Post, December 23, 2014.
Munteanu, Nina. 2013. The Journal Writer: Finding Your Voice. Pixl Press, Vancouver, BC. 170pp.
Oppezzo, Marily and Daniel L. Schwartz. 2014. “Give Your Ideas Some Legs: The Positive Effect of Walking on Creative Thinking”, Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, Vol. 40, No. 4: 1142-1152.
Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press (Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” will be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in 2020.