Cycling as a Cure for Creative Block: A Charming 1926 Case for Why the Bicycle Is the Ideal Vehicle for Writers
By Maria Popova
“Don’t cultivate a ‘bicycle face,’” an 1895 list of don’ts for women cyclists admonished just before the bicycle became a major vehicle of women’s liberation. That selfsame year, Bertrand Russell and George Bernard Shaw collided on their bicycles as each was making his respective trailblazing intellectual and creative contributions. In fact, the bicycle has a rich history as a witness to and comrade in revolutions both cultural and personal. (As a devoted cyclist myself, I have extracted from it both tremendous creaturely joy and an existential metaphor for my values.)
“When we have scraped together enough money, we can buy bicycles and take a bike tour every couple of weeks,” young Albert Einstein wrote in one of his love letters as he was incubating his world-reorienting theories — theories that would pave the way, among innumerable other things, for the invention of rockets, the first builders of which received their initial funding via bicycle, and for computers, which Steve Jobs likened to “a bicycle for the mind.”
Nowhere does the bicycle’s cultural role come more alive than in literature, where it endures as a beloved vehicle of writers as wide-ranging as Leo Tolstoy, Henry Miller, Sylvia Plath, and H.G. Wells, whose official biographer anointed him “the writer-laureate of the cyclists” and who is credited with proclaiming, “When I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair for the future of the human race.” (It is perhaps not coincidental that the very first line delivered in Wells’s visionary novel The Time Machine comes from a man on a bicycle.)
But no one captures the bicycle’s writerly sacredness more vibrantly than journalist, essayist, novelist, and poet Christopher Morley (May 5, 1890–March 18, 1957) in an essay titled “Wheels on Parnassus” — a play on the title of Morley’s debut novel, Parnassus on Wheels. It was originally published in his wonderful 1926 essay collection The Romany Stain (public library), which was printed in a limited illustrated edition of 365 copies, each signed by the author.
The bicycle, the bicycle surely, should always be the vehicle of novelists and poets. How pleasant if one could prove that a decline in literary delicacy followed the disappearance of the bike from American roads… In a car you are carried; on a bike you go.
It is in moments of artistic stagnation and creative block that such goingness becomes most essential, and it is for such moments that Morley prescribes the bicycle as a most potent cure:
An odd feeling comes sometimes to a writer who has long carried in the knapsack of the mind some notion that he was to put in ink. It is a sensation I can only describe as Getting Ready to Write. Those phantoms of imagination, so long halted frozen in mid-gesture, begin to show marks of animation. In my particular case, it is now four and half years that I have seen them sitting in their absurd unchanged attitudes. No wonder they are stiff: one of them (what a dear she is!) told me her foot had gone to sleep. They are sitting round a table; it is a birthday party. You would think that the cake must be very stale by this time, the little red candles guttered out. But no: I can see them burning steadily, the bright untrembling candles of a dream. Even in the puppet postures where I left them I can see those phantoms strangely show an air of expectation. Something must be done about it.
In these moods bicycling seems perfectly the right employ. It is all very well to say to yourself that you are not thinking as you wheel serenely along: but you are, and that sure uncertainty of the cyclist’s balance, that unconsciously watchful suspension (solid on earth yet so breezily flitting) seems to symbolize the task itself. The wheel slidders in a rut or on a slope of gravel: at once, by instinct, you redress your perpendicular. So, in the continual joy and disgust of the writer’s work, he dare not abandon that difficult trained alertness. How much of the plain horror and stupidity is he to admit into his picture? how many of the grossly significant minutiae can he pause to include? how often shall he make a resolute fling to convey that incomparable energy of life that should be the artist’s goal above all? These are the airy tinkerings of his doubt; and as he passes from windy hill-top to green creeks and grazings sometimes the bicycle sets him free. He sees it all afresh; nothing, nothing has ever been written yet: the entire white paper of the world is clean for his special portrait of all hunger, all joy, and all vexation.
I was led to this forgotten treasure of a book through an oblique mention in Diane Ackerman’s fascinating inquiry into the evolutionary and existential purpose of deep play, of which cycling is no doubt a prime example.
Published August 22, 2016