When I first visited the Lake District and got lost on the scruffy side of a mountain surrounded by sheep droppings, I said some words. They just came out of my mouth. Then my friend and I walked toward what we thought was the Langdale Pike and the Great Gable. When it grew dark and we just couldn’t take another step, we sat down on a patch of dry grass free of sheep poo, ate some canned food we bought at a climbing shop, hoped that it wouldn’t rain and fell asleep.
Little did I know that this was the method by which William Wordsworth wrote some of the English language’s best nature poetry. Having been born in the Lake District, he was used to clambering about the rocky trails in good weather, torrential rain, deep snow, impenetrable fog, moonlight and utter darkness, not to appreciate what is now considered England’s most picturesque locale, but escape from an uneasy childhood (he was orphaned in adolescence and was raised by relatives who were not always happy with their extra charge) or just to wander from one place to another.
Having visited the Lake District twice, I remain astonished at Wordsworth’s stamina. I have gone on the occasional long walk, typically in cities, where the changing features of neighborhoods can be fascinating to observe. When I tried fell walking, as hiking is called in the Lake District, the frequently steep, confusing, here-and-back-again, up-and-downedness of the trails tired me quickly. What, on the map, was a two-and-a half-mile path to Beatrix Potter’s house became a work-out more punishing than anything suffered in an air conditioned gym, which, as we gym creatures know, is usually air conditioned, garnished with drinking fountains, lavatories and benches for the temporarily weary.
Not so in the landscape of which Wordsworth wrote, though the trails wind their way to quaint little towns where there are more climbing shops than tea-shops and pubs. Two centuries ago, such conveniences didn’t exist. You wore hand-made shoes without all the technological derring-do the shoe salespeople tell you about in REI. Nobody talked about blisters, the need to hydrate or the environmental discourtesies to avoid when one must make a quick run behind a bush.
On my second visit to the Lakes District, I walked near Wordsworth’s residences in Grasmere and was halfway up the peak called Helvellyn, where Wordsworth took his fellow literary buddy Sir Walter Scott when it began to rain. A thick cloud robbed us of all visibility. Wordsworth may have pressed on. I took the advice of a more seasoned fell walker and repaired to a pub.
As a writer, I couldn’t help but envy Wordsworth, who, after embracing the radical republicanism born from the French revolution (and leaving behind, in France, a woman he failed to marry and an illegitimate child), found inspiration, purpose and a passionate necessity living in the people and landscape of his youth. I bought a biography and discovered that Wordsworth’s preferred method of composition was not to lock himself into a room and chew over lines of prose (though he did this with a nervous intensity that brought on psychosomatic illnesses when he had to revise his work, or correct proofs for publication).
What Wordsworth liked to do–that is, his ideal means of composition–was to go on a vigorous walk in some beautifully natural place and wait for the words to come, which, I’m certain, were not angry, frustrated, what-was-I-thinking brain farts of yours truly, but the impassioned, idealistic gush of an endorphin-crazed outdoorsman.
He’d walk and talk and his sister Dorothy, who literally followed in his footsteps in fair weather or foul, would write it all down. At the conclusion of their adventure, Dorothy would transcribe her jottings and William would fret, fuss, revise and rework it into the great evocative poetry we have today.
Some have suggested that much of Wordsworth’s poetry was actually a collaboration with Dorothy, though my biographer, having seen Dorothy’s occasional poetic turns, believes that William’s voice was uniquely his own.
I have had that endorphin rush many times, usually when running. I’ve also experienced its opposite, when you’re sitting around, waiting, or doing something so simple that you don’t have to think about it. Your mind wanders and…suddenly you have the seed for a multi-volume fantasy series!
And, as many times as running, or an embrace of stillness, has brought inspiration, it hasn’t. I can’t tell you how often I’ve been in an ideal place, free of distraction, far from those who would want me to do things I wouldn’t want to do, with nothing more in front of me but a fabulous view of water, sky, mountains or desert, and the words don’t come.
So, having stumbled upon the Wordsworth way, and practiced it in youthful naivete and aged wisdom, all I can say is that, wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, you’re lucky when inspiration finds you. You may, as Wordsworth did, never complete what you had hoped would be your great work. Or you’ll discover how the tiresome goad of a deadline forces you not to care so much about getting it right, and that once you give up on perfection, you’re swept away by a wave magnificent creative energy.
Or you may find yourself on the side of a mountain with sheep chewing grass and asking, with their small, dark eyes what the hell you think you’re doing in their favorite restaurant. And all you can do is sputter a few choice words that, until the last century, were considered unprintable and beneath the dignity of a civilized human being.
And be grateful for it all.