About a week ago, I was sitting at my desk at home when I had a rather horrifying realisation.
It had been a long day – I had worked steadily at my computer from seven-thirty in the morning until six at night, without stopping for lunch. My head ached, my shoulders were cramped, and my jaw was clenched from the kind of nervous tension a looming, capitalised Deadline brings. I had sat back in my chair and was gazing at the screen. My ideas seemed weak, strung together in limp sentences across the page, threatening to fall apart at the slightest critical prodding. Dread gnawed at my gut. It wasn’t good enough. My piece looked like it would be dead on arrival. Looking around my bedroom/office, I felt the prickling of hysteria: I fought the sudden urge to scream and repeatedly headbutt my desk.
It was then that I realised I hadn’t really left my bedroom/office for over thirty-six hours.
My room is usually a lovely space to be in. Books line the shelves and light spreads across the polished floorboards in the late afternoon. In a sharehouse that is, well, very much a typical sharehouse, my room is a clean, bibliophilic sanctuary from the dirty dishes, sticky floors and unknown guests sleeping off their hangovers. But after working the previous day until midnight, and then, after waking, taking the three short steps from my bed to my desk and typing for another ten and a half hours, my room felt more like a cell in Alcatraz.
This is ridiculous, I thought to myself. This is not healthy. I felt depressed, stressed and trapped. You need to step away from the desk, I told myself sternly.
What about the Deadline? A voice immediately wailed back.
I stared at my computer screen. The very sight of the open document made my mouth dry with anxiety.
It can wait, I thought. I grabbed my keys, quickly changed out of my pyjamas and stuffed a pen and notebook into my pocket, before stepping out the door and locking it behind me.
Outside, the world seemed gloriously new. I paused outside the gate and blinked in the fading sunlight. There was a cool breeze, and everything seemed lush, and green, and calm. I began to walk. I treaded slowly through the streets, breathing in the scent of my neighbours’ roses and listening to the familiar sounds of suburbia: the cooing of pigeons, the cheers of kids playing cricket in the road, the drone of a lawnmower, the call of a mother to her young offspring – ‘Get into the car! Get into the car NOW!’ Gradually, my mind began to clear and I began to relax.
The benefits of walking are well-known to many writers. Authors, from Samuel Coleridge, to T.S. Eliot, to Charles Frazier, have recommended long walks in the countryside, around cities, through the suburbs, for inspiration, contemplation, and the alleviation of writers’ block. Henry David Thoreau was a ceaseless walker. Henry James loved a brisk stroll through London. Charles Dickens and Joyce Carol Oates have written essays on the subject, and Sarah Waters has said that ‘the absolutely best way to get things moving is to leave the desk and go for a walk’. It’s something to do with the rhythm, they have all said, the movement, and the knowledge that other people’s lives and other people’s stories are being carried on around you.
After only ten minutes of walking around Adelaide’s suburban roads, I felt calm and reflective. I began to think of the piece I was writing at home, and, for the first time in days, the thought wasn’t met by a deep tug of anxiety. How could I be anxious on such a beautiful evening? I pulled out the notebook I had brought with me, and scribbled down the ideas that, when in my room had seemed so inchoate, so reluctant to come, were suddenly so easy to articulate, so simple, so incontestable. I walked slowly, writing as I went, ignoring the curious stares of my neighbours. It was remarkable. A few hours ago I had sat at my desk typing furiously, desperately, coughing up clumps of poorly constructed sentences, my thoughts muddying and my mood darkening by the minute. Yet now, strolling in the twilight, I reveled in newfound clarity. This was what I needed to say. This was how I was going to say it.
After an hour of walking I knew what I had to do to fix the open document that awaited me at home. The Deadline that had seemed so imminent retreated into the distance. Satisfied, I pushed the notebook back into my pocket and walked home, enjoying the evening, and letting my imagination regenerate from the stimuli proffered by the suburbs. Little piles of hard rubbish, set out on the footpath for collection the following morning, hinted at the kinds of lives that were being led inside the houses behind. Disparate smells of dinners being cooked wafted out of screen doors. A man opened a car door and unclipped his toddler from the safety seat. Another was watering his lemon tree. Dogs barked, and somewhere, someone was laughing.