Note to Self – Don’t Call This Entry ‘A Walk Down Memory Lane’

Yesterday, a pal had planned to come and visit me, but she had to call off through ill-health. I used the time instead to go for a long walk, which ended up being more than 11 miles.

I’ve always found walking to be useful for sorting out ideas, but when wandering around certain areas, I also remember fragments of what happened there. Sometimes it’s a conversation with a primary school teacher, or where I first heard a certain song, or a memory of what the place formally looked like. There’s even an area of town I associate with Moby-Dick because I regularly read it on the bus while travelling through.

As I talk about all these memories, it also strikes me that while they’re reasonably interesting snippets, few of them hold enough substance to be an anecdote in their own right.

That’s one of the key differences between nostalgia and memoir. Nostalgia can be as simple as a reminiscence about a happy time, whereas memoir typically tells a story.

One of my favourite memoirs is Toast by Nigel Slater, where each vignette is titled as the food he was eating or cooking at that period in his life. All the stories are strong enough to be self-contained while still sticking to the subject.

That’s not to say my wandering memories are completely useless. If I were in a writing class, and the prompt warranted it, I could pick one of these as a starting point for a poem or a fictional story, just not a biographical one.

When The Muse Strikes

As I sit down to write, it feels like a continuation of the last entry, where I talked about inspiration appearing at 5am. This time, however, the inspiration happened near the end of the day.

I’ve been asked to provide a poem for a 12 Days of Gratitude project. As late as Saturday of last week, I’d absolutely run dry of ideas. There were plenty of people to thank, but nothing that fitted into a structure.

While I do find walking helps with the process, I wasn’t having much luck – and over an hour later, I thought of my first line and the structure. I even took a couple of pictures to document this. It’s rare that I would show such an incomplete draft so early, but it happened by surprise.

Half-completed villanelle about gratitude
Half-completed villanelle about gratitude

My walk had taken in river views and grassy areas, but when I wrote those lines, I was probably the least inspiring place I’d been that evening: behind the Mecca Bingo.

Picture of Mecca Bingo where villanelle was written
Picture of Mecca Bingo where villanelle was written

What I need to do now is finish the piece and make a recording of it, but arguably the hardest part is over, so the rest should be plain sailing.

The Evasive Verse

This week, I’ve been trying to write a piece for my poetry circle. Specifically, it had to be in some way related to the author Robert Duncan Milne, a forgotten contemporary of H G Wells.

As the reading for this has taken up so much of my time, I don’t have a full-length entry for this site.

However, I’ve often advised that going for a walk is a great way to sort out the ideas in your head, and that’s exactly what happened here. After days of reading, and trying to tie together a few of Milne’s concepts into a single verse, it was a lunchtime trip outside that gave me the final verse.

I’m about to read it over just now, maybe tweak it, and send them my work.

Local Motion

If there’s one activity that unites writers other than producing words, it’s a tendency to go for long walks, an endeavour that seems to help organise the thoughts. I aim for 21,000 steps every day – a 20,000 target, plus a 1,000 margin of error – so I’m on my feet for a lot of the time.

Over the last few months, I’ve been catching up with a podcast on my walks. it started five years ago, so it’s been quite amusing recently, as the hosts and guests lay out their plans for 2020, assuming live gigs and workshops would be going ahead as normal.

I’m now only about six months behind, but I’m finally feeling the fatigue of consuming so many episodes on the trot. I’ve therefore made a conscious decision to ease up on my listening for the moment, and I’ll catch up when I’m ready to dive back in.

Now I’m back to using the time to organise my thoughts – just like I used to – and it’s helping me produce more work. Long may that continue, even when I start my podcast again.

For instance, I wanted to write a piece for my poetry group to include in a pamphlet, but I couldn’t strike the right tone. After a few walks, I managed to sort it out and make a submission.

It Would be Clichéd to Use the Title ‘Poetry In Motion’, so I Shan’t.

One of the best-known verses in the English language is I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud, written more than 200 years ago. I can hardly compare myself to William Wordsworth, but a couple of days ago, I took my own walk with the aim of writing poetry.

Since 2017, I’ve been a member of the Wyverns poetry group, which has been meeting by e-mail rather than in person for most of the year. There are, of course, better solutions than e-mail, but that’s the way we’re stuck with for the moment. As such, I’d missed the theme for this month and I didn’t have much time to write it.

So I headed up the Law Hill in Dundee with the intention of writing in the forms of a tricube and a ghazal. Unsurprisingly, at 572 feet above sea level, the poems ended up being about a hill.

The connection between walking and writing has been known for centuries, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that Wordsworth was so gushing about his daffodils.

And yet the other classic piece of advice to writers is the very opposite of going for a walk: to keep a pen and paper by your bed for ideas. Apparantly, the limboland between waking and sleeping is a good place for them to materialise, but that doesn’t work for me.

I need to be moving around, pencil and paper at the ready, just in case I spot golden daffodils.

Knowing How to Start

Although you see a new blog entry here every week, it isn’t always an easy business knowing how to start writing them. Sometimes, I have only a vague idea of what I want to say; other times, there might be two topics of equal importance that don’t link into each other or sit well together.

There’s no good answer to either of these problems, but one technique is to start writing anything, whether it’s a fragment, a plan, someone else’s words, or even a load of nonsense. After a few minutes of non-stop writing, I find this has the effect of turning on the tap so a structure begins to flow.

Another good method is to head out for a walk or a run, depending upon your preferred speed. A few years ago, I was struggling to write a short story about a man with an excellent memory but limited social skills. I went for a walk in the rain, writing down fragments in my notepad in bus shelters. The moment I had the line, ‘Anger can do in five seconds what a shrink can’t do in five years’, I was ready to write the rest of it.

At times, of course, there will be nothing pressing to say. It’s more difficult to start from a blank slate, but the above techniques can be used in the same way.

Input vs Output

There won’t be much of an entry this week. I’m still busy chewing over the wonderful shows from Edinburgh last week; at the same time, I’m struggling to commit a couple of poems to paper.

Instead, let’s both go for a walk, albeit in different physical places. That always helps me loosen my mental sawdust, and I hope it does the same for you.