Thursday, June 19, 2008

walking home, writing home

There have been two interesting aspects to working with a small group of walking writers (or writing walkers) in my home town over the last 6 weeks.

One is that most of us have chosen to write about a walk we take habitually, or at least a walk in a landscape we have grown familiar with over time. The challenge is of course to see it and communicate about it with freshness. The main theme of my own piece, about a walk I often take from my front door, snuck up on me. I didn't realise until well after I'd taken the notes and made a visual 'map' of it, as we all did prior to writing, that I was really writing about a sense of home. It was about learnt history, things that have happened to me along the route, houses I've lived in that can be seen from it, stories I've heard. Thinking about the meaning I attribute to walking has also brought me into contact with a fascinating anthropology project based at the University of Aberdeen out of which a book is coming next month, Ways ofWalking, presenting studies of walking in a range of regional and cultural contexts and the variety of meanings it can embody.
My local walk became as much about the things I refuse to see as the ones I do see. I try not to notice the dog shit bags filled and then left hanging in trees, the pylons that stride through woodlands, the house in which lurk memories I don't want to reconsider. I learnt a lot about what I don't see from one workshop participant who always drew attention to the incongruous things - the ugly row of wheelie bins in the middle of an idyllic May evening's woodland walk, the soar and scrape of a concrete motorway over a path, which has somehow gone unmarked on his local walks map with its invitation into 'unspoilt countryside'.

The other thing that has struck me is the very different approaches each person has taken in their writing despite undertaking similar exercises in the initial workshops. One is argumentative - setting out to show that an acknowledged beauty spot is nothing of the sort; another is an engaging mix of authoritative information and knife-sharp observation; another walked a group of children through the land on their way to school 100 years ago, a walk on which finding a piece of ceramic plate sparked a complete short story; another was the simple delight of 'what I see, what I know, what it makes me think of, and 'what a surprise!''.

It's been a privilege to see the way that over the 6 weeks the unique insight of each person has shaped what might have been similar material. And it's always good to have other people doing similar things to yourself so you can pinch ideas from them!