Walking is good for lots of things. Getting from here to there and back again. Building up bone. Seeing the things we miss when we're driving or even bicycling. Slowing down. And it's good for writing.
I first read the word flâneur in Edmund de Waal's The Hare with Amber Eyes, a memoir of a family's netsuke collection. I had to look up the word and found that it means "a man who saunters or strolls around observing urban life." Characters in this story, particularly when in Paris, did just that. Frequently. When I ran across flâneur again, it was in the Sigrid Nunez novel, The Friend. There is a passage in which a male writer speaks about going about as a flâneur when his writing is not flowing. He speculates that women writers can't be flâneurs because they will be interrupted too often in their pensive strolling by males in pursuit of them.
I, however, a female writer, dispute that writer's off-putting statement with some prickliness, having often engaged in flânerie precisely when I've gotten gummed up on a page. Strolling is one of the very best ways to jiggle my thoughts loose.
Seized up or not, when I'm writing, I habitually set my timer for 30 minutes, go for a ten-minute walk, come back for another 30-minute composing stint, and so on, for the first seven or eight hours of the day. Aside from not letting my body turn into a pretzel, this also keeps my mind limber.
I often have the most trouble getting started. The beginning, we're told, must be just right, must pull the reader in; this, of course, sets us up to get stuck right off the bat. But I can get jammed anywhere along the way, feeling as if I can barely trudge on through words as thick as oatmeal. The conventional advice then is to write badly in order to write well. A professor of mine called it "writing your way there," an expression that's a bit like strolling, and I like that way of thinking better. Nevertheless, the lines may refuse to shimmer. Or the angle is somehow cockeyed.
Turning myself into a flâneur at that point is a little like giving up, which turns out to be the necessary surrender. I don the appropriate clothing and footwear, and step outside. Walking in a forest, a desert wilderness, or on a prairie is always lovely. But it is not necessary. In fact, part of the original definition of flaneur has to do with sauntering through an urban setting. Usually my flânerie will take place for five minutes, beginning at my front door, include a turn-around, and then take five minutes back. Amazingly enough, that's usually the right amount of time to give my mind a good wiggle.
At the outset, I might plan to simply stroll. I observe the available bits of nature on some commonplace street—the iridescent green, blue and black beetle clinging to a hollyhock stalk, the little white bindweed blossoms with their small heart-shaped leaves.
And then, without premeditation, my attention turns to that congested passage. The thoughts stroll through my mind, and, on one unremarkable step forward, I know that the passage needs to begin in an entirely different spot than I first thought. A kind of settling takes place within me, an inner smile. There might be a smile on my face, too, but I'm not aware of that. I once had a student accuse me of smiling too much. "No one's that happy," she said. I think that means I'm mostly not aware of smiling a lot of the time when I am.
Back at home I remove whatever outdoor wear I'd donned. I feel a level of excitement, of purpose that is now possible. Flânerie has proffered a slant entry into the piece, and that makes it fun, tantalizing. There's a spark now in place of the lackluster, the pedestrian.
The word walk has been brought to you by Catherine Robinson, coauthor of my next book, who walks far more now than she did when I first met her.
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