I’ve written already about the wisdom of walking for the creative life.
No reason why I shouldn’t repeat myself, of course. Especially now we are in a new year, with new Intentions and new opportunities. I have promised myself I will walk more this year. Sometimes, this is not an easy promise to fulfil. There are appointments to be met, after all; there is the filthy English weather (and believe me, filthy is what it is at present), and then there are my physical limitations.
Yet, in spite of the mud and the commitments and my low energy levels, I am trying to get out most days.
And there are so many things to see. Some of the best walks I’ve ever had have been the repetitive ones to and from work, or school, the continual plodding on the pavements that sets up a meditative rhythm. This time of year, walking home in twilight is especially evocative. Not only can you see into other people’s houses as you pass, because many people don’t draw their curtains too early, but the landscape changes when industrial lights are switched on.
As a teenager, my walk home from our nearest bus stop was a route that skirted fields and woods. Behind those woods, though, lay a huge industrial area, lit by massive floodlights in the dark hours. The entire night sky glowed with this statement of manmade power over the environment. To me, it looked uncannily like one of those landing pads on strange planets from the Star Wars films, and it fuelled my imagination continually.
Walking is not the only way to travel home from work, of course. Sitting on a bus is great for inspiration too. You can see so much more from the height of a bus seat, and not just into people’s windows, and thus into little vignettes of their lives. Tableaux of office workers frozen in time as you pass their workplaces will catch your eye: someone handing over a file as the recipient reaches out to take it over a low desk partition; a group of besuited workers sitting around a conference table working out details of a deal; a pile of files teetering in an in-tray. What are they talking about, these people who are so busy? Whose lives will be changed by the outcome of that meeting, for better or worse? What details, sinister or otherwise, are contained in those files – the potential for a fraud conviction, or the much-cherished hope of an adopted baby?
On a train, disparate people gather together and ignore one another. They listen to hissing music on iPods and phones, tap at laptops or iPads, read books and newspapers, stare out of the window or fall asleep. Each one has a story. Can you be Sherlock Holmes and deduce their tale?
Viriginia Woolf, my heroine of writers, snatched up just such an opportunity in her short story, ‘An Unwritten Novel’, in which the narrator sits on a train and tries to guess the tale of a woman sitting in her compartment. If you have never read it, I enthusiastically recommend it, not only as an example of how you can take a moment from your everyday life and make a work of art from it, but also for its fine stream-of-consciousness style and its sheer wit. People’s occupations on trains may have changed since it was written, but the way we react to them, I should hazard, probably has not.
How do you travel to your daily occupation? Do you take the bus, train or Tube? Do you cycle or walk? Whichever you do, you may view it as a necessary evil, a time to catch up on your email, or some extra sleep.
What about reframing that view?
What if your daily commute to work, college or school became a special time set aside for creativity?
You could take a sketchbook and a biro and draw portraits of your fellow commuters. This might develop into a whole series of painted portraits that depict your daily travels and those who accompany you on your journey.
You could compose a story about them in your head, and use it as the basis of a short story or novel, as Woolf did.
You could even go all ‘Brief Encounter’ and come up with a passionate love story between two of your fellow travellers!
(Probably best not to do this so much if you drive. A vehicle is a life-threatening weapon, so you need to be alert and aware when you are in charge of it. But maybe at traffic lights, you could look into other people’s cars and see what they are up to – applying mascara, fiddling with the radio, texting or picking their noses!)
What do you see as you travel? What landscapes or buildings do you pass? What could be going on inside that floodlit brick bunker that looks like a government establishment? What story is being lived out on each floor of that block of flats you stomp past every morning? (I recommend Alaa Al Aswany’s superb novel, The Yakoubian Building’, for an example of this.)
Take your writers notebook and make notes of the ideas that come to you. Make this time a time for your imagination to be unleashed. Make a chore, a daily misery, into the highlight of your working life.