It's not shooting digital photographs (though I do that daily). It’s also not writing a page or three of notes every day (I do that too), nor drawing in a sketchbook or elsewhere (also a regular personal habit). Those are all wonderful tools for active thinking, for unearthing ideas and giving them form. But my best creative tool is simpler and far more effective.
My most vital, most important creative habit is motion. Specifically: walking. If I want to produce ideas (visual or verbal, big or small) nothing beats the simple experience of moving my body through space at normal human speed.
I’ve come across a range of evidence for the positive benefits of walking (including those walking-in-the-woods-is-good-for-you studies). But my personal theory is that wandering around on two feet is more than a healthy habit — it’s an instinctive part of human identity. We’re meant to actively experience the world, so when we roam around we feel more purposeful, like we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing.
In Italia I walk a lot every day, and have during my entire time here. But I walked plenty in Ohio before that, and Indiana before that, and New York before that, and Virginia before that. I’ve also been a runner for decades, but speed turns out to be a variation and not the core of the practice (so hurrying is optional).
That core is this: neither the Muse nor divine mystery nor my brain delivers ideas. My entire physical form generates ideas when it interacts with the physical world. The natural outcome of that interaction summarized in a single word is: “creativity.”
That statement may sound too wonky to you, and it’s certainly not scientific. So please test it! Here are the three kinds of walks I use (two per day, most days) — try one or all of them and see what you think (and create):
Take Ten (or so)
A classic “step away from the desk” (or easel, or work table, or whatever) ten-minute head-clearing maneuver. Best done outside, but I’ll also use an airport terminal or train station in a pinch. Ten minutes at sunrise and ten minutes at sunset provide bonus cleaning of my circadian clock. I’ve occasionally handed the “Take Ten” exercise to students mid-class, so I can testify that I’ve seen it break up stifling studio blocks in others, too.
There and Back
A walk to the store, to school, to the museum, to the station…if I can walk to a place I need to be, I’ll do it. It’s a cliché that “inspiration strikes when you least expect it,” but it’s nonetheless true. If the act of walking is itself a type of creative thinking (and my practice tells me it is), I don’t need to set out with a reason or purpose beyond “we need fruit for breakfast.”
Walking the Earth…
…y’know, like Caine in Kung Fu. Actually, like the famous (and infamous) genius walkers throughout history (including Socrates, Ludwig van Beethoven, Virginia Woolf, Steve Jobs, Rebecca Solnit, and Nassim Taleb). By their own reports, long walks (one hour or more) provide both inspiration and solitary working time. But I don’t even aspire to that much... I have only one goal when I walk the Earth, and that’s:
Bring back one interesting thing.
I noticed when I walked around Manhattan that I would see something interesting every day. That could be good interesting, bad interesting, or on rare occasion transcendent interesting. But the world delivers at least one interesting thing per walk, without fail. And for me that one thing is usually what gets a solid workday rolling.
All three immediately improve my brain, and that’s critical — I always feel better after walking, never worse. Creativity in general and visual art making in particular are solitary pursuits for me. Lots of solitude brings the hazard of getting stuck in my head with worry, pessimism, and dread. Again, I theorize that humans are meant to move, so when I move I think I reset my brain (or at least hedge against trouble).
Beyond that most important, first-order benefit, I tack on some extras that pair well with walking and don’t get in the way. I carry a camera, so the odds are that if the one interesting thing I find that day is visual, I’ll make some art before 9 AM. I tend to steer clear of particular programs of thoughts or problems to mull over, so on good days a long walk becomes meditative.
I’ve read more than a few rhapsodic testimonials about how walking is an analog cure for digital overload, how screens are poisoning our minds and nature is the best therapy. My honest, mercenary attitude is that if digital life produced the best ideas and insights, I’d stay glued to my iPad all day. But it doesn’t — walking provides superior creative results, so I stick with it.
Can walking provide you with those kinds of results?
But I’m willing to bet it’s the easiest (and cheapest) pro art technique you’ll ever learn.