In my late teens I suffered the rite of passage that is the Leaving Cert. I have had to learn more since, I've had to take harder exams, and I've had to spend more hours at my desk. Yet this remains the most stressful challenge I've ever experienced. I suspect that, wherever you come from, your twilight years of schooling felt similar. And so my coping mechanism was to walk. I walked every night, sometimes twice or three times in an evening, down to a nearby lake and back. It was probably just a mile or so, but I found it calming, and whatever I had tried to cram into my brain during the day seemed to sort itself out on the way. I thought of my brain as a box of lego, being shaken about so each piece could settle into place. As I remember it, these walks always took place in night-time darkness, and I'd pace along with my silver Discman (how I loved it) and one of two albums; Tracy Chapman or Up. I'd like to say I selected these albums specially, but in fact I wasn't really one for music, and I think these CDs were lying about in our house. They became the dedicated soundtrack to my evening journey through repeated usage, and if I closed my eyes the track I was on could tell me how far I was from home.
Recently I've been coming to the end of another project. The walking has started again. I was surprised how the same feelings of clarity returned to me so easily. I've heard dedicated runners talking about the 'zone' they enter when they run - I had never really understood it but I've always thought of it as being akin to meditation. Perhaps I'm simply much less fit than my marathon-running friends, so counter-intuitively I'm finding my way to the zone with much less effort. Whatever is happening, it works. My brain feels more rested after a decent length walk, with music or a good podcast, than after hours of sleep. Mens sana in corpore sano I guess.
I had heard of Dickens' long walks (apparently you can follow them if you wish), and as a child I was a great fan of a children's version of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. I've studied Chaucer's pilgrims for years without paying much attention at all to the walking itself that underlies their pilgrimage. If you look for it, walking is a very common theme indeed in writing, and there's a nice article here and a fantastic blog here on the subject. Walking is one of our fundamental activities, so it is no surprise it brings us comfort. I like to think the great road song is just an extension of the walking verse - perhaps that explains why Fast Car suits a long walk so well.
Walking and writing are good analogues for one another. Your progression is linear, you're often alone, you arrange your thoughts along the way, you build up a rhythm, and more often than not you'll find yourself back where you started.