Walking to Work
July 28, 2010
I once met a man on a plane [that sounds like the start of a salacious novel, but, no], a writer, who told me that he loved to walk to work. I didn’t know who he was, didn’t want to. Thought it would be an invasion of his privacy to ask. This, no doubt, because of an experience I’d once had at a party, when someone asked what I did, and I said, I write, and she said, “Should I know you?”, which struck me as the most ghastly thing you could say to a writer.
So, I didn’t ask the man, the writer sitting next to me, who he was or if I should know him. Instead, I asked him about his work habits, a question that I always ask writers when I meet them, partly because I think if I know it will unlock secrets about a writer’s work that I don’t yet know.
We talked about writing by hand, about backing up our work, about his liking to work on two projects at a time, and then he said, “What I love to do is walk to work.”
I thought our conversation would turn towards ecological considerations, about how walking was a way of saving fuel, and his comment made me assume he had an office outside his home.
I asked, “So, you have an office somewhere else?” I’d been thinking about how difficult it is to work at home. About how many distractions there are. About how the laundry calls, and the dirty dishes, and the fingerprints on the coffee table. About how tempting it is to run into the kitchen to bake a bread or whip up a soup. There are great things about working at home, don’t get me wrong — the integration of life and work. But there are challenges, too, especially for those of us, like me, who are easily distracted.
I assumed, because he had an office outside his home, that he had to be making buckets of money writing. Or that he was in a community that had space for writers for not all that much, and that he was a lucky man because of that. But I was wrong.
“No,” he said. “I work at home, but I walk to work.”
“You walk to work?” I asked. “But you work at home?”
He told me that, each day, after his breakfast, he took a shower, dressed, went outside, and walked to work. He lived in a small city — I don’t know which one — and he walked the same short route each day, around the block, and past a newsstand where he bought a paper, and past a deli where he bought himself a take-out cup of coffee (just like someone working in an office), and past a vegetable stand where he picked up something when he needed it. His walk took him fifteen minutes.
On his walk, he saw people on their way to work, and nodded at them. He was going to work, too, just like they were. On his walk, he thought about his day, just like they were. And walking to work reinforced that he was going to work, and not “just writing,” he said. Walking to work made his work seem, well, legitimate. (How many of us, how many of the people we know don’t connect writing with working?)
At the end of his walk, he was back at his house, in front of his door. He climbed the steps, unlocked the door, took off his coat (if it was winter), took his container of coffee to his desk, and began. To write. To work.
Wow! I thought, now if that isn’t a terrific idea.
I don’t know if you’re like me, but, when I’m writing, I can stay in the house for days on end, never seeing people, never changing out of the same ratty gear. I’m lucky if I remember to take a shower. I begin to think the world consists of the four walls of my study, and I feel oppressed, depressed, pissed off, even if my work is going well. Living like this starts to feel like solitary confinement.
But this was a whole new way of thinking about working at home. Just because we work at home, doesn’t mean we can’t walk to work, and by so doing, reap all the advantages that walking to work confers — a bit of exercise, a clear head, a chance to realize there’s a world beyond the pieces of paper we shuffle from one side of the desk to the other.
So I started doing it, started walking to work. My husband thought I was crazy, especially on rainy days. He thinks working at home must be terrific, but then again, he doesn’t do it. I can’t claim I walk to work every day like my anonymous seat mate on the plane. But I do it a lot. It means I have to get dressed. It means I learn whether it’s hot out or cold or humid or dry. It means I bump into people, that I see flowers in the spring and summer, leaves in the fall, snow in the winter. It means that, by the time I get to my desk, I have a clear head.
When I get to my desk, I don’t feel like a caged animal (the way I feel when I don’t go out when I’m writing). I feel like someone who has a stretch of good, solid work ahead of her.
I never asked the man on the plane whether he walks home from work too. And I’ve never done that, though I can imagine that would be terrific too and I can see the advantage in doing that. It would clear my head; it would mean that I wouldn’t walk around the house writing sentences in my head with that glazed over, quasi demented look in my eyes. So walking home from work is something that I just might do.
So, try it, and let me know how it feels.