Edinburgh Festival of Cycling: Women’s Read, Ride and Write Tour. The plan was for a short ride round Edinburgh, with stops at bookshops and cafes for readings by endurance cyclist Lee Craigie, and writing exercises. This was my first writing & cycling gig, thanks to a cyclist friend who suggested that my Walking and Writing experience would work well on wheels. The Edinburgh Festival of Cycling, and Suzanne Forup from Cycling UK Scotland, were interested. Funding was, as so often, late to come through – a frequent source of frustration for freelancers, and the subject for another blog – but I regarded this as a taster, an experiment to see what could be possible.
Despite a spell of summery weather having broken just as the Festival of Cycling started, conditions proved pretty perfect. We didn’t ride far – just from the Meadows to Wordpower Books, back over the Meadows and Bruntsfield Links to The Edinburgh Bookshop, and down to Summerhall cafe – but it was an occasion, as much as a ride, and a celebration of women cyclists and of adventure, creativity and sustainability. Bookshop owners Elaine Henry at WordPower and Marie Moser at Edinburgh welcomed us and spoke on the importance of the independent and niche retailer, and answered questions about their views on a big online corporation with a bad track record for paying tax and looking after employees.
At each stop Lee read an extract from writing by a woman cyclist. First, from Juliana Buhrings’ contrasting beauty and pain in This Road I Ride; then Emily Chappell on energy surges and exhilaration and the experience of ‘body attached to bike and road’, and finally from her own unpublished account of her recent life-changing participation in Highland Trail 550, ‘a self supported bikepacking race over 550 miles in the Scottish Highlands’. Lee described gorging on a replenishing feast, depleted after a food-deprived day; and a magical encounter with a deer, after which she ponders its perception of the human creature (i.e. she switches point of view). This woman can write, as well as ride!
We did some short writing exercises – collecting what Seamus Heaney calls a ‘word-hoard’ – a vocabulary or diction resource, if you like; then making lists of things perceived by the sight and other senses. Later we took a phrase from Lee’s writing as a starting point for our own. Sometimes known as flow-writing, I often introduce this with reference to Paul Klee’s definition of drawing: ‘taking a line for a walk’. Does this need to be revised to ‘taking a line for a spin’ when the writer is a cyclist, I wondered?
These are good exercises to introduce beginners to creative writing, or for writers to use in an unfamiliar environment. They’re also good for cultivating the freshness of ‘beginner’s mind’, however experienced you are. Most of the participants here already wrote. I was curious to observe whether there were any marked differences from writing in other circumstances, when the writer had just stepped off her bike. I’d say there were more similarities, but this was hardly scientific, and I’m keen to experiment more! The main difference seems to be between writing at the desk / from the head, and writing after an activity, or inactivity, that alters the physical state. This can be cycling, walking, running or swimming, or it can be relaxation. Any relaxation of the conscious mental, cerebral processes that we tend to foreground when ‘trying’ to write, and focusing instead on the body, provides a shift whereby the unconscious can be more easily accessed and language released.
Say Cake! Writers & Riders at Summerhall Cafe
The walking-writing correspondence is well-known and well documented. As a fairly recent returner to cycling, I was especially interested to see conversations developing about the affinity between writing and cycling. Lee, with no time to stop to record on HT550, stored up and re-iterated words that poured out, like a release from trauma, on her return. Others spoke about mentally drafting ideas whilst pedalling; or the repetitive rhythm being conducive to composition. One woman said that, as a resident of a rural area where it was almost always more practical to drive from A to B, she cycled to justify her cake habit. Yup. As the former owner of an over-efficient metabolism, I used to struggle in winter to take in more calories than I could burn off, even when not being physically active. I’m 51 now, and it’s finally slowing. Cycling gives me an excellent excuse for cake, a cooked breakfast or a fish supper. It gives me new directions for my professional and writing life, too.