I work as a content writer for a company in Lewisville, Idaho, population 476. Each day I end my hour-long lunch break with a twenty-minute walk around the neighborhood. I get some sun, some exercise, and I get to read. I started “read-walking,” as I call it, several years ago while walking to my contemporary literature class. As an English major, I generally had more to read than I thought possible, especially for a slow reader like me, so I crammed in a few extra pages every day as I walked. Even on snowy winter days I would read, clumsily turning pages with gloved hands, occasionally wiping snowflakes away from the paper.
Now that I’ve graduated and work full-time, I still read as I walk to help fit reading into my busy schedule. I’m a firm believer in the idea that you have to be a good reader to be a good writer. I used to walk aimlessly, distractedly reading as I explored this little town with its square, cinder block library, its tiny post office, and its “park” that doesn’t have so much as a bench. But now I’ve narrowed my walk to a specific route around the block. It’s familiar enough now that it doesn’t distract me from my reading, and I can do it in twenty minutes or less.
After arriving at work one April morning, I walked into the customer service office, and one of the girls who works there said, “Okay, I have to ask. Why do you walk around town every day?” She proceeded to tell me that her father had seen me walk past his house a number of times, taking pictures of the town with an iPad. “He looks like he works for Google,” he purportedly said, though I’m not sure why walking around with an iPad I don’t have would make me look like I worked for Google. I reassured her that no, I was not wandering around taking pictures of people’s houses. I was just exercising and reading—two perfectly ordinary things that apparently become out of the ordinary when you put them together.
My route takes me south, parallel with the train tracks. On my right is the LDS church—one of the largest buildings in town. On my left is a pasture with sheep, a llama, and sometimes horses. I turn the corner and walk along a fairly ordinary stretch of rural neighborhood, then take another turn. It’s on this stretch that I pass the house with the dog, the one whose bark is truly worse than his bite. He’s some kind of terrier, with big, fluffy whiskers. Almost every day, he bolts out of the house and charges me, barking savagely, insisting that I leave his self-proclaimed territory. I don’t even look up from my book. He won’t bite. He keeps his distance and barks out a “That’s right buddy, just keep movin’. Get out of here!”
During one of my recent walks, I passed this house, as usual, and over the usual canine cacophony I caught pieces of an unusual conversation between the owner of the house and a man who had pulled up on a four-wheeler. I didn’t hear much, only a few words really, but it was enough to know they were talking about me.
“Everyday . . . reading,” the owner of the house said. “Everyday. . . .” He sounded bewildered and annoyed, probably because I incite barking from his dog. I can understand how odd I must look, walking past his house every weekday at nearly the same time, always with my face stuffed in a book. In a small town where everyone probably knows everyone, he doesn’t know me or why I behave the way I do. He need only ask for an explanation, and he would probably decide that I’m not as crazy as I look.
I was a little embarrassed by the situation, even though I tried not to be. The next day, I considered taking a different route to avoid aggravating this man and his dog. I wondered if he might call the police. But even if he did, they wouldn’t do anything. Walking down the street isn’t illegal. I decided to keep my route, and I still walk past that house every day, and that man can think I’m loony if he wants to.
I recently read Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, a deep book with a lot of layers. Though the story is simple, reading it was like trying to solve a mystery. Each character, each symbol, and each metaphor is a puzzle to unlock, a revelation waiting to be understood. As with many of the books I read while I walk, I often had to stop walking and stare at the page, as if to consult a map. I underlined text and took notes, sometimes turning the open book to get a better angle for writing, like turning a map to align norths.
I took one such stop a few days ago. I was almost directly across the street from a middle aged man doing yard work at the edge of his lawn.
“Must be good,” he said, referring to the book. I looked up, a little surprised someone was talking to me.
“Yeah,” I replied as enthusiastically as I could. I wish I had said something nicer than “Yeah,” but that’s all that came out, and that was the extent of our conversation. I finished annotating the page and resumed my walk, a smile on my face.
At least someone understands, I thought.
If there is any meaning to glean from my experience, it’s this: writers are weird, and that’s okay. We’re not crazy; we’re just different.
Brian Doyle, author of Grace Notes, stares at dragon flies until people stare at him. Annie Dillard, Pulitzer Prize winning author of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, reads books about Eskimos, watches trees, and puts spider egg sacs in her pocket. Terry Tempest Williams spends 111 pages of her book Finding Beauty in a Broken World describing 13 days she spent in a tower observing prairie dogs. And I read-walk around the block each day on my lunch break.
All these things might be a little odd, but they are the pursuit of passion, not a symptom of insanity. Nor are they the pursuit of trends or fashions or social acceptance. Good writers must shrug off the stares and scorn of people who don’t understand. Good writers must be willing to let go of self-consciousness in favor of self-discovery.
Doing this isn’t easy, but when is writing ever easy? Writing is a struggle! But therein lies the beauty of it. Through mindful attentiveness we learn to see the miracles of the world, and we struggle and strain and strive to capture their essence on the page. And if in the process someone raises an eyebrow or scratches their head when they see what you’re up to, who cares? When you become a witness to the miraculous, none of that matters.
What weird, creative quirks do you have? Tell us in a comment below!