I have just returned from walking the last leg of the South West Coastal Path. It took nearly two weeks and I covered over 130 miles. It has taken me five years to walk the whole path, which is 630 miles long, not including the distance to walk to and from campsites or B&Bs, or getting lost. I did it in sections: Minehead to Bude, Bude to St. ives, St. Ives to Falmouth, Falmouth to Exmouth, and just now Exmouth to Poole.
As a result of this last 2-week walk, I have almost finished hand-writing novel number 2 (working title was “I Castrati”, but is now “Song of the Nightingale”). I am absolutely amazed at the amount I have written in this relatively short time. If I hadn’t gone on this walk it would have taken me many months to write the same amount, and to be honest, I don’t think i would have been so inspired. I definitely had my muse packed in my rucksack!
So, the point of this blog is to share some of my musings that I thought of as I walked along, and to recommend long-distance walking to all writers. There are not many occasions when you can just focus on your writing for hour after hour, day after day. So here are just a few thoughts:
- Accept that it may take a day or two to clear your mind of your non-writing life – replaying the conversations at work in which you wish you had (not) said something; planned what you are going to do on your return, the next month, year, rest of your life etc. Only then can you lose yourself in what you are currently writing. On one of the days it was cool, windy and damp but my head was in sunny Florence in Italy – the imagination is a powerful thing.
- You will have to change your approach to writing. My normal approach is to write at the weekends. I live alone, so I can just sit in my study and write, write, write straight onto my laptop. I am a Planner and so I know roughly what scenes I want to write. I am the sort that likes to get a sentence right before proceeding so I take my time but I rarely go back and re-write a section. (There is not. of course, a right or a wrong way of writing, it is just my way.) As I was carrying all my camping equipment there was no way on earth I could carry my laptop with me so my writing approach just had to change – which in itself is quite a traumatic experience and takes some getting used to! So my new routine was to break camp in the morning, scoff a bacon and egg bap (that’s what they call batches down south), then spend the better part of the day just thinking about the next few scenes I wanted to write. I almost wrote the whole scenes in my head, working on phrases, getting bits of conversation to my liking. I didn’t think too far ahead – just the next couple of scenes. I don’t dictate into a machine (most people think I am mad walking alone in the first place, they would be convinced if I appeared to be continuously talking to myself), nor do I make notes as I walk – it’s hard enough and takes long enough just walking up and down the multitude of steep inclines that make up the SWCP, without stopping to make notes. Then at the end of the day, once the tent is up, I find somewhere to sit (preferably where I can get a cup of tea and a slice of cake – I deserve it!) and I just write everything down in a sort of literary diarrhoea. Just a small point – you also have to learn to write again – when was the last time you actually hand-wrote more than a few sentences??
- One major lesson – don’t dither, just move on. This is one of the hardest things, for me, anyway. With a laptop you can play around with words, cut and paste, use the on-line Thesaurus, google something. You just can’t do that with pen and paper. I learned, eventually, just to write and if I wasn’t sure of something just put an * and make a note – but move on. I didn’t re-read what I had written, I just wrote what was swilling around in my mind. This is how some people write anyway, but I am a Planner and it took me out of my comfort zone. Just as an example – I wanted my main protagonist, Philippe, to explain to two young boys a way of memorising the Latin words of a hymn. If I had been at home I would have first of all found a Latin hymn, and then googled for different ways of memorising words – and then I would have put the two together. But this time, all I could do was put my * and move on. It is hard for someone like me to be vague and not finish the detail, but it is possible!
- Linked to the previous comment is that as a long-distance walker who also camps, the iPhone must be used sparingly as there are rarely places where the battery can be charged. Therefore I always switched it off during the day and only switched it on in the evening to send a quick message to my children & sisters to tell them where I was and that I hadn’t fallen off a cliff. Therefore I didn’t access the internet as it would have used too much battery. Mind you, being away from e-mails, FaceTime and Twitter is one of the huge benefits!
- Another hint – take your watch off. Not only will you not get a white band if you are lucky enough to get sunshine, but really, what does it matter what time it is? You have no meeting to get to, no appointments – just a place to reach when your legs get you there.
- My personal recommendation is to walk alone. I think this is quite rare and I certainly didn’t see many solo walkers, but how can you imagine yourself to be a character in your book whilst someone is wittering in your ear about the size of their blisters? Note – buy decent walking boots, then you won’t get blisters.
- Don’t think about your writing all the time. I did stop and enjoy the view, smell the roses (literally), admired the colours of the butterflies, looked (unsuccessfully) for dolphins and, as the path I was walking was along the Jurassic Coast, kept my eyes open for dinosaurs.
- Don’t forget to say a cheery “Hullo” to everyone you meet. After all, they may be writers too.