Tag Archives: Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes

Steps to improve your Writing

What if it were true that by going on walks you could improve your creativity? What if someone told you that by walking you would become a better writer? Would you walk more often, for longer, or in different places? Or just put it all down to some new age piffle? Well this idea does have legs. Many great writers are or were practitioners and research confirms it.

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Writers who walked

Among the great writers of the past, who were also walkers, we can name Virginia Woolf, who frequently paced the streets of London as well as walking in the countryside around Monk’s House in Sussex. Several of her characters walk in London: Mrs Dalloway of course, and Helen at the start of The Voyage Out walks with her husband towards the Docks. Virginia Woolf published six articles in Good Housekeeping in 1932 called The London Scene.

273 VW London scene

Dickens was a great walker, again in the streets of London. WG Sebald walked in Europe and East Anglia. The Rings of Saturn (1995) is structured around a walk in Suffolk. Wordsworth was a great walker, yes wandering lonely as he did.

In 1878 Robert Louis Stevenson bought a donkey, Modestine, and together they walked in the Cevennes area of South France. He walked without purpose, although he was suffering from a broken heart. He explained his attitude in Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes:

For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly; to come down off this feather bed of civilisation, and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints. Alas, as we get up in life, and are more preoccupied by our affairs, even a holiday is a thing that must be worked for. To hold a pack upon a pack-saddle against a gale out of the freezing north is no high industry, but it is one that serves to occupy and compose the mind. And when the present is so exacting, who can annoy himself about the future? (12)

Writers and the walking metaphor

To conjure up the process of writing the metaphor of a path, walking, a journey is frequently used. Annie Dillard, in A Writer’s Life is creative with her ideas.

When you write, you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a wood-carver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it, and it digs a path you follow. Soon you find yourself deep in new territory. Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject? You will know tomorrow or this time next year.

You make the path boldly and follow it fearfully. You go where the path leads. At the end of the path, you find a box canyon. You hammer out reports and dispatch bulletins. (3)

Annie Dillard’s observations of the natural world are breath-taking. If you enjoy that kind of thing read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), which the author describes as a non-fiction narrative. You can find her own website here. Her collection of essays, The Abundance (2016), is nearing the top of my tbr pile.

Robert Macfarlane’s in The Old Ways (2012) explores some similarities between writing and walking, likening the creation of a path to writing in the landscape. He follows the paths of animals in the snow, or ancient ways such as the Icknield Way and the footsteps of Edward Thomas and other walkers. The Wild Places (2007) he records other adventures in the British Isles. Another book nearing the top of my tbr pile is Landmarks (2015). I have given away several copies of Holloway (2013), which is a joy of a book.

273 Wanderlust

Rebecca Solnit has lived the connections between writing and walking. Writer, historian and activist she wrote Wanderlust: a history of walking (2001). Brain Pickings captures the explorations of this book in her beautifully observed blogpost: Wanderlust. And the title of In The Faraway Nearby (2014) describes what can happen with your imagination when you walk.

The Research

Stanford University researchers have published an article called Give your Ideas some Legs: the positive effects of walking on creative thinking. Marily Oppezzo and Daniel L Schwartz conducted several experiments from which they made their case, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

Walking opens up the free flow of ideas, and it is a simple and robust solution to the goals of increasing creativity and increasing physical activity. (1142)

And by the way, it’s worth knowing that you get the best effects from walking outside and that it wont help improve your creativity if you walk with your face in your Twitter stream or with earphones linking you to a stream of sound. I can’t imagine why you would want to accompany your walk with other than natural sounds anyway.

273 signpost

There may be a chemical explanation for the connection, or a psychological one, or simply a common-sense explanation that by walking your mind is freed of other considerations. Or perhaps it helps because walking organises the world around you, including any writing projects.

Walk on

So I walk on, hoping it encourages my writing. Walking certainly encourages my reading as you can see from this post. I am hoping to explore more writing-walking connections in the next few months, beginning with an account of my participation in a community walk/write project next month.

 

Related posts

Travels with Robert Louis Stevenson in the Cevennes in June on Bookword.

Why Walking Helps Us Think, by Ferris Jabr, in The New Yorker in September 2014.

The Slow Death of Purposeless Walking, by Finlo Rohrer, on the BBC news magazine in May 2014

On the Creative Penn blog, nine lessons learned about writing from walking 100km in a weekend. Makes sense.

Elizabeth Marro writes about walking and writing on Book by Women blog, step by step, word by word.

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Travels with Robert Louis Stevenson in the Cevennes

256 RLS coverIn the autumn of 1878 Robert Louis Stevenson set off with his donkey Modestine, spending 12 days travelling in the French region of the Cevennes. This is a mountainous area north of Montpelier. They covered 120 miles together, travelling south from Le Monastier (near Le Puy) to St Jean du Gard.

Last week (May 2016) I travelled, in much more luxury but also on foot, from Ganges to Millau. This route took us further south, crossing from East to West. My companions were 13 walkers, guided by a professional tour leader, looked after by a wonderful tour manager. No donkeys, but a lonely cow, with bell joined us for an hour one day.

Walking in France

RLS was suffering from a broken heart when he set out. He was 27 years old, already a veteran traveller, and destined to go on travelling, ending his life in Samoa. He came from Scotland, son of a lighthouse builder.

RLS was also a writer, and most people first meet him as the author of Treasure Island or Kidnapped. [Pause for people to mutter Aaah Jim lad! And Black Spot!] He published his account of his trip with Modestine in the year after his journey: Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes. He gave no reason for his journey, being a devotee of travel for its own sake.

Why any one should desire to visit either Luc or Cheylard is more than my much-inventing spirit can suppose. For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly; to come down off this feather bed of civilisation, and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints. Alas, as we get up in life, and are more preoccupied by our affairs, even a holiday is a thing that must be worked for. To hold a pack upon a pack-saddle against a gale out of the freezing north is no high industry, but it is one that serves to occupy and compose the mind. And when the present is so exacting, who can annoy himself about the future? (12)

Cevennes

RLS’s present was very exacting and he experienced many ‘needs and hitches’, not least in his relationship with Modestine. Most of the time he was on his own (except for the donkey) and at night, if there was no convenient auberge, he slept under the stars. He spent one night in a Trappist monastery. Trappists take a vow of silence. As he approached, with some trepidation, he met Father Apollinaris near the monastery, Our Lady of the Snows. They walked and conversed together.

‘I must not speak to you down there,’ he said. ‘Ask for the Brother Porter, and all will be well. But try to see me as you go out again through the wood, where I may speak to you. I am charmed to have made your acquaintance.’

And then suddenly raising his arms, flapping his fingers, and crying out twice, ‘I must not speak, I must not speak!’ he ran away in front of me, and disappeared into the monastery door.

I own that this ghastly eccentricity went a good way to revive my terrors. (18)

256 Gorge

He describes the details of his adventures with wry good humour. More than once he sleeps outside, rarely disturbed by people in this remote region. One night he leaves the village of Bleymard and camps among the pines. In the night he awakes.

256 travels-with-donkey

The stars were clear, coloured, and jewel-like, but not frosty. A faint silvery vapour stood for the Milky Way. All around me the black fir-points stood upright and stock-still. By the whiteness of the pack-saddle I could see Modestine walking around and around at the length of her tether; I could hear her steadily munching at the sward; but there was not another sound save the indescribable quiet talk of the runnel over the stones. I lay lazily smoking and studying the colour of the sky, as we call the void of space, from where it showed a reddish grey behind the pines to where it showed a glossy blue-black between the stars. …

As I thus lay, between content and longing, a faint noise stole towards me through the pines. I thought, at first, it was the crowing of cocks or the barking of dogs at some very distant farm; but steadily and gradually it took articulate shape in my ears, until I became aware that a passenger was going by upon the high-road in the valley, and singing loudly as he went. There was more of goodwill than grace in his performance; but he trolled with ample lungs; and the sound of his voice took hold upon the hillside and set the air shaking in the leafy glens. (55/56)

RLS the Walker

Map of RLS's route, licensed by Creative Commons

Map of RLS’s route, licensed by Creative Commons

It struck me that RLS does not report those things that occupy most walkers: feet, especially any blisters, tired legs or knees, whether the weather will hold, the next meal, all matters physical. Rather he focuses on Modestine’s limitations, which are great. Some ascents are too steep for her. Sometimes she refuses to walk. She meets a fellow donkey and wants to socialise. RLS has to learn how to encourage, entreat and provoke Modestine to carry his luggage: a switch, a goad, whistling, and pulling. It is a constant source of anxiety to him that he must treat this animal in ways he would rather avoid. Eventually, after 12 days, they reach St Germain de Calberte, but the donkey’s physical state means she can’t continue to Alais (today called Ales) as intended. So he sells her and she is gone before he realises that he will miss her, grieve for her.

He tells us about his struggles with Modestine, his luggage, finding the way, meeting various characters, the history of the region (known for being a stronghold of Protestants in a bloody struggle in the previous century) and innumerable conversations about religion. ßHe notes the telegraph wires, the railway, surveyors preparing for new tracks. But other signs of mechanisation are few.

Dartmoor Donkeys

Dartmoor Donkeys

His generosity of spirit, his belief in getting along with everyone, in the pleasures of travel for the adventures it brings, and his reluctance to goad Modestine, these are the charming characteristics of this account.

My journey

My journey did not coincide with RLS and Modestine’s. I went with no purpose but to enjoy the walking, the countryside, the company, the food and wine. I began to understand Modestine’s reluctance as we struggled up steep and rocky paths, and descended more of the same. Some tracks were forbidden to car and bikes, but there was no sign of any donkeys (except perhaps that pile of poo).

No entryOur journey lay over the high plateaux, in May awash with numberless wild flowers, overseen by larks and vultures. Our views were spectacular, the pine woods quiet and fragrant, our way up the slopes serenaded by nightingales.

And …

Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes by Robert Louis Stevenson, first published in 1879. The edition I used is published by John Beaufoy Publishing ltd, Stanfords Travel Classics. 95pp

There is a useful website on Robert Louis Stevenson here.

The next post on Bookword will look at other Cevennes-related reading.

 

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