A writer’s walk (what, so soon?)

I don’t normally send students out on a writer’s walk so early in their course. But what could we do: another group temporarily inside our (highly desirable) lab and all the Eastern Cape outside, shimmering with 38-degree splendour and a sky of fathomless blue. Clearly we had to go to Bot Gardens, where the grass that day was long and the shade was deep.

It is usual to see students in Bots servicing either their love life or their drug life. True, one sometimes finds botany classes there. And the drumming society makes circles there at dusk. Also lots of dogs with their people in attendance. But writing classes? Not so much.

What’s the point then?

A writer’s walk aims to sharpen awareness, to pay attention, to note telling detail – reporting requirements as basic as the five Ws and their assorted relatives.

Walking helps writers come back – to ourselves, and to ourselves in the world. It’s a way of feeling our own pulse rate. Call it centering or grounding. Fact is, as The New Yorker points out, walking is so amenable to thinking and writing for all sorts of reasons. One of these is the way walking connects our bodies with our minds

External pressures (grades, finances, appearances, campus turmoils) escalate the stress levels of our students. A pastoral stroll offers them space to breathe. If Virginia Woolf* walked to “spread her mind out” then so do we.

* In A Moment’s Liberty: the shorter diary, Sunday 5 September 1926 (edited by Anne Olivier Bell, published by The Hogarth Press, page 219)

The simple walking exercise I have devised is descended from Dorian Haarhoff’s and it never fails to astound me how lucky I am and how trusting the students are. Lucky to work on a campus that incorporates a branch of South Africa’s national botanical gardens. Lucky to walk through a park-like campus to get to the park. Lucky to be the one to endow these over-scheduled students with a slowed-down afternoon of breathing and noticing and quieting.

And how trusting they are, because they come. Under umbrellas, clutching water bottles, they wonder what the hell next but they come. And then, after their silent solo walks they come back. Okay, I am guarding their bags (i.e. phones) but still, they could turn left at the tree aloe and never return till class the following week. But back they come.

They come back from their walks, retrieve their notebooks, and start writing. No topic provided. Simply go away with your ears, your eyes, your nose, your skin turned up to high alert. Go away without your phone, go away without talking to others, go away for about 20 minutes. Then come back and see what comes out of your fingertips.

I have no idea what they write so I have no idea if this is a worthwhile exercise for them. This early in the year – week one, we barely know each other – I decide not to skrik them by asking volunteers to read. I just let them write and call time soon after the first few start fidgeting like those meditators whose knees hurt long before the gong goes.

I do have the idea that the atmosphere in the group is palpably quieter than 30 minutes ago. I saw words flowing. I saw the first half of an afternoon class well spent.


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