Walk Like a Writer

What is it about walking, in particular, that makes it so amenable to thinking and writing? 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. —Ferris Jabr in The New Yorker

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I power walk for exercise. I walk to unwind after a stressful day.  But the walks I treasure most are the ones where I amble in an attempt to discover the world around me.  Some might call me a flâneuse. Regardless of what I am, I like walking, often without a purpose, just to see what I see.

One of my favorite things about teaching in Manhattan was taking walks with my students. Once parents granted permission for their children to leave the building with me, I was able to take students on walks around the neighborhood. Sometimes we walked with a purpose in mind (e.g., to visit Museum Mile), while other times we headed to Central Park with our writer’s notebooks, paying careful attention to the world around us.

I wish I’d had Ask Me by Bernard Waber and Suzy Lee back when I was teaching. This newly-released book from Waber (who passed away in 2013) resonated with me immediately. It’s about a father and a daughter who walk through their neighborhood.  The little girl implores her father to ask her questions, which he does dutifully without losing patience (even when she when she questions him incessantly). They take in the world around them — watching geese fly, observing butterflies fluttering, eating ice cream cones, tramping through leaves, and resting in piles of leaves — while having a conversation.

There are no quotation marks in this plotless book. Instead the text changes color when the speaker changes. And while I wouldn’t use this book when I conferred with young writers, I think it is an excellent read aloud to inspire young writers.  First, it shows the power of a special relationship where the child feels safe to ask any kind of question. Some children have this at home. For those who don’t, Ask Me can be the way to help your students understand you will be that safe person to whom they can ask questions. Second, reading Ask Me sets the stage for any kind of neighborhood walk/writerly exploration you’d like to do with your students.  It shows the power of conversation and close observation while illustrating how silence can be savored. Third, the book shows the power of close observation, discovery, and wonder. All three of these things are important for writers if they’re going to write with precision. (See the links at the bottom of this post that deal with the power of walking and writing.)

Here’s a look at a few page spreads from ASK ME by Bernard Waber (Boston: HMH, 2015):

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I encourage you to venture outdoors with your students once you have your rules and routines established. Read Ask Me. For your first walk, you might engage in a back and forth conversation with your students, allowing them to ask questions while you relish the world around you.  On the next walk, you and your students can bring your writer’s notebooks so you can sketch and write about things that catch your attention while you’re out for your walk. Be sure to make time to share at the end of the walk!

More on Walking…

Giveaway Information:

  • This giveaway is for a copy of Ask Me by Bernard Waber and Suzy Lee.  Many thanks to HMHCo for donating a copy for one reader.
  • For a chance to win this copy of Ask Me, please leave a comment about this post by Tuesday, September 15th at 11:59 p.m. EDT. I’ll use a random number generator to pick the winners, whose names I will announce at the bottom of this post, by Wednesday, September 16th.
    • NOTE: Anyone may leave a comment, but only people with USA mailing addresses are eligible to receive a copy of this book.
  • Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so I can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win.  From there, my contact at HMHCo will ship your book out to you.  (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you leave it in the e-mail field only.)
  • If you are the winner of the book, I will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – ASK ME. Please respond to my e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. Unfortunately, a new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.

Comments are now closed. Thanks to everyone who left a comment on this post. Heather’s commenter number was selected so she’ll receive a copy of Ask Me. Here’s what she wrote:

I think it is a great idea to go for a walk outside.  I remember my college professor, for a creative writing class, having us go to difference places to observe.  The movement is also good for all students.  It would be great for students to try to focus on their different senses to capture the moment.