Dangerous Pedagogy: Ambling Invention

A writing lesson that takes writers out of the classroom

Photo by Matt Flores on Unsplash

Most people will tell you they come up with some of their best ideas by walking. But most of the time when we teach writing, we force students to sit in their seats and stare at the expanse of the blank page or screen. Why not acknowledge and accept walking as part of this writing process?

The theme of my latest writing instruction has been to think about the ways the ancillary parts of the writing process ARE the writing process. That writing is a lifestyle. So far this semester, we have explored various ways writing happens when you are not sitting down in front of a sheet of paper or computer. As we continue to explore the world of “actual” or “real-world” writing strategies, I want to honor a favorite writing invention strategy that we don’t always think of as part of the writing process, and that is walking around .Here’s an invention exercise built around walking as an acknowledged part of invention.

The Premise:

Do you ever find yourself coming up with ideas for something to write about when you’re walking around? Why don’t we accept that as part of the writing process? We have been learning from neuroscience and psychology about the mind-body connection. Why not embrace that aspect of writing?

Here’s a version of the exercise we tried out during our semester in quarantine, which was the perfect opportunity to taking writing instruction out of the classroom and into the outdoors.

This homestay business is for the birds. Actually, the birds have it better. They can fly around and look at the world through their eponymous birds-eye perspective. So, let’s get out. For this writing exercise, I’d like you to walk around for 20 minutes. Now, if you’re in a place where that is not possible due to quarantine, you can just walk around your house or apartment. If you cannot walk, then find a way to move around a bit. You don’t have to walk continuously. You can stop to write down ideas as you come up with them. When you’re done, sit down and free write a blog post for 10 or so minutes. (You are just drafting, no obligation to post — and if some other writing comes to you, try that.)

Then, come back here and post how it went. What sort of thoughts did walking about, moving about, unlock. Did different locations unlock or produce different ideas? Did you have more ideas at particular parts of the walk?

Post a picture from your walk. Something you saw, especially something you couldn’t have imagined or didn’t expect to see.

Student Feedback:

Students seemed to enjoy this exercise. They had already told me how important walking around was to their writing process, but this exercise confirmed that.

One student wrote:

Walking around actually helped me A LOT, in a way that no other practice we have done before has. I actually did it in the early morning instead of during class because today is the first day of Ramadan so I was already awake at like 4am-ish and it’s super hot in LA and I can’t go out in direct sunlight right now while taking Accutane so I went before the sun fully rose. It was nice to enjoy nature and come up with possible ideas about what to write on and my blog theme in general. I was listening to some music before but once I began to hold onto a tangible idea, I had to turn it off so I could process my ideas. I typed most of these ideas into my notes app on my phone and then began writing my blog post when I got back to my aunt’s house.

The path is not always direct. Another student wrote:

I went on a long walk with my dog around my neighborhood and it was nice to be able to get fresh air and get my body moving. I found myself stuck in a routine of just staying inside for the past couple of weeks and it was nice to finally find enough motivation to get outside and be active again.

Focusing on writing while walking does not do the trick. However, the walk then frees things up:

I found that the walk was really nice to be able to clear my mind although I found it equally hard to generate ideas for my blog. I felt that thinking too hard about generating good ideas distracted me from enjoying the walk. The walk did make me appreciate the outdoors and got me thinking about goals I want to achieve in this social-distancing period, so I suppose that could be my next blog topic.

These early results suggest that we’re heading some place fruitful as we seek out the aspects that truly inform our writing practice, and my suspicion is, it has very little to do with the vision of writing we have in our heads.

Check out some of our previous experiments:

writer/researcher of emerging digital writing forms. Prof of Writing @ USC, Dir. of Com. for ELO, Dir. of HaCCS Lab