Sunday, 8 April 2012

Writing blindfold in a soundproof box

‘There is a Latin tag, solvitur ambulando, which means, roughly, that you can sort it out by walking...’ This is one of the observations made by Richard Mabey in Landscape into Literature: a Writers’ Anthology. Published by Green Books in 2005, Landscape into Literature features evocative, thought-provoking essays by many fine writers (Roger Deakin, Brian Patten and Richard Mabey among them) as they explore their own relationship with landscapes and the relationship between landscape and writing. One of the recurring themes in the book is the importance of walking as an activity for writers. Walking provides both a break from the internal mental activity of writing and an extension of the writing process into the external physical world. To me it seems obvious that walking is beneficial for mental and physical health and that it can be key to stimulating creativity and unblocking creative blocks.

Ronald Blythe's contribution is an essay on the poet John Clare. We learn that it was while ploughing in a cornfield that Clare ‘began his “muttering”, 'his softly speaking aloud of the rhymes which he would later write down...’ This may have been the start of John Clare’s poetry but it may also have been the beginning of his mental illness. As Blythe puts it: 'Boys sang, they did not mutter, and eyes would have been upon him, this child talking to himself, a sure sign of something being wrong or different...' I wonder how much Clare's "mutterings" could be seen as a sign of his emerging mental illness (a sign of 'something being wrong') and to what extent they could be seen as a sign of his creativity ('a sign of something different'.) Talking to oneself is one thing, speaking aloud rhymes is another; but then speaking aloud rhymes that you later write down is something else and, when these rhymes are published to great acclaim, that is something else again. Claire was, at various times, a young boy making up rhymes to amuse himself, someone who suffered serious mental illness to the point where he spent years in an asylum -- and a successful poet. Had he been allowed to roam free, one wonders if Clare might have been able, to some extent, to ‘sort it out by walking’.

Also included in Landscape into Literature is an essay by Penelope Lively, in which she returns to what she calls ‘the abiding relationship between walking and writing.’ She jokes that ‘the Lake Poets set the pace, I suppose, literally...’ and goes on to make a serious point eloquently. Walking, she writes, is 'a good healthy escape from an otherwise sedentary way of life, but there's more to it than that. Writing takes place in the head; theoretically you could write blindfold in a soundproof box. But this solipsism generates an intense need for an alternative, a need for the eyes and ears to take over the mind, a need to look and listen and wonder what kind of tree that is, and why that field is shaped thus -- a need to stop writing, in fact, except that of course in a subliminal way you are not; any or all of it may be grist to the mill, in ways you could not possibly anticipate.'


  1. In the 70s, I read a book about the Findhorn community which I think was written by Richard Mabey, all about growing your own veg (and other plants?) on sand dunes. I must have been in ALP mode at the time (alternative lifestyle period...)

  2. Richard Mabey also wrote a wonderful book in 2005 called 'Nature Cure' that I would highly recommend.

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Tony Gillam is Senior Lecturer in Mental Health Nursing at the University of Wolverhampton, a freelance writer, trainer and musician. He is the author of 'Reflections on Community Psychiatric Nursing' (2002) and 'Creativity, Wellbeing and Mental Health Practice' (2018).