From the archive: The Beech Tree

Yesterday, I went for a walk. I came across the Beech tree that pulls my attention every time I walk past it.

Warmed by the sun, the slippery grey bark of that thick trunk smelt sweet. An abundance of verdant leaves jostled for attention in the breeze. That tree is a stunning example of the determination of living things to survive, and flourish. It doesn’t have the symmetrical shape of a storybook tree, but I can see that that is the template it is trying to match. It knows what it was born to become. However, it has met obstacles along the way, and has had to adapt. 

At the beginning, it was planted too close to an old stone wall and had to force itself into the cracks between the squared stones, in order to get breath into its ever enlarging shape. Now several stones are suspended like Christmas baubles, carried ever upwards and outwards by the branches.

At some point also, the ground on which it stood gave way beneath it, and it found itself hanging precariously from a cliff edge. Since then it has grown almost horizontal, prevented from falling by clinging roots. But still, it keeps getting bigger, orientating towards the light that it needs, sucking in nutrients from the soil through its stretched and straining roots.

What I see when I look at it is its drive to express itself, its flexibility to meet the challenges of its environment, and its ability to come back to equilibrium after violent interruption.

Standing there beside it, the steadfastness of its trunk giving way to the quivering leaves, I know that the writing journey is about allowing my innate knowledge of who I am and what needs expression, to guide me. When there’s that knowing in the woody core of my being, then my fingers in contact with the computer keys, the pen, and the page, are as released and open to the light as those leaves.

A writing prompt

Observe a tree, bush or plant. How does it embody its history? What do you notice about its growth process?  What has threatened it? What obstacles have got in its way? Now, stop thinking. Pay attention to how you experience the rhythm of its movement (or lack of movement), in your body. You might, for example, notice feelings of contraction or expansion. Write about your experience, and relationship to this living thing.

This article was first published on July 25th 2013

The Path Of Least Resistance

This month, some tips for helping you to begin to close in on what the one story is that you need to tell, as it hides in the undergrowth of your mind. And then a discussion about finding the easiest way through. 

1. One way to discover the story you need to tell is to think about what you want to achieve through the telling and work backwards. Do any of the following speak to you?

-I just love making things up.

-There’s a part of me that is always hidden away. I want to let it out.

-I want to feel creative, be creative.

-If I’m really honest, I just want to be published writer. I’d like that status.

-I get kick out of being on stage and performing my poetry.

-To express my feelings.

-I know through writing I try to bring order to my world, to feel in control.

-I’ve had a difficult time recently. I want to move on. If I write a story that’s based around my experiences, I think that will help.

-I’m an old lady now. I’ve got stories I need to tell’

-I’ve got to write reports for work. My colleagues are telling me they’re boring to read. I’d like to learn some techniques to make them entertaining.

-I want to improve my grammar and spelling in a way that keeps my interest.

-I’ve got a fantastic idea for a book/film/poem. I want some support to write it.

-I want to meet other storytellers.

2. The best stories are often the simplest. I began my writing career as a screenwriter. In screenwriting there is a term KISS- ‘keep it simple, stupid’. Myself, I’m not sure about the ‘stupid’ bit, but it remains broadly true. There is a difference between complication and complexity. Complications are plot twists and turns. Complexity is depth of character. If a story has too many complications there is not sufficient room for the characters to move through a range of emotions, and there isn’t time for the reader to experience those emotions and process them alongside the character.  Many new storytellers (and some old hands as well), try to put too much into their stories. Don’t be one of them. A good way to gauge if your story is simple enough is to imagine you are telling it to a child, (or find a real child to tell it to!) And complexity- well that’s welcome, but that’s for later in the process. As you choose your initial story idea all you need is the skeleton of the plot. For now, you don’t need more than that.

3. Choose an idea that’s ‘extreme’. When I say extreme, I don’t mean that it necessarily needs to contain battle scenes with thousands of soldiers. I mean emotional extremity. Make sure your idea has the potential for extreme emotions: happiness, sadness, jealousy, anger etc. It’s interesting to note that the stories with the fewest characters or the shortest timescales can sometimes be the most extreme in this way.

4. Choose an idea that has the potential for tension and conflict. Again, low level simmering conflict at the family dinner table is as effective as world leaders gathering to try to end a war. 

5. Pick an idea that screams for visualisation. You want your reader or listener to be able to see the story in their mind. So you need to be able to see it first.

6. Above all, remember that you are a natural storyteller. If there’s a story that swills round your brain and keeps coming back and back, there’s probably a reason. It’s probably a story that needs to be told, and a story that will work. And that’s regardless of any doubts that your rational mind hurls in your face. 

Words Are Clay

It can also be useful to remember that wild words are living, breathing creatures, adaptable and evolving. (Just like the wild animal. And the wild storyteller). Follow in the footsteps of Herman Melville when he says,

‘God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draft- nay, but the draft of a draft.’                                                                        -Herman Melville Moby Dick

You can’t get it ‘right’ or wrong’, there is only engagement with an ongoing process.

Try to view words as physical substance (again, more closely related to your body than to your mind). The most important post-war Italian novelist, Italo Calvino, did just that. In a letter to one of his critics, he explained how to view his work:

The written page is not a uniform surface like a piece of plastic; it is more like the cross-section of a piece of wood, in which you can see how the lines of the fibers run, where they form a knot, where a branch goes off. 
-Italo Calvino Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985

Your job is to play with form. Stay light around the process. Treat it as clay to be formed.

 

The Path of Least Resistance

In the opening of his book ‘The Path of Least Resistance’ Robert Fritz tells us an interesting fact about the city of Boston. ‘The Boston roads were actually formed by utilizing cow paths. The cow moving through the topography tended to move where it was immediately easiest to move… Each time cows passed through the same area, it became easier for them to take the same path they had taken the last time, because the path became more and more clearly defined... As a result, city planning in Boston gravitates around the mentality of the seventeenth-century cow’.

He takes this fascinating fact as a starting point for a discussion on how we can create pathways to achieve our personal and professional goals.

The challenging terrain of our lives can include mountains of expectations, rivers of anxious thoughts, and the bogged ground of habits. There is an art to moving with ease, and navigating with flow. It makes sense to put in place a structure that supports us to find the easiest route through.

Often, we need to start by being really honest with ourselves. For example, I think I want to write words that are brave, and vivid, but when I look closer I realise that I have great deal to lose by writing in a way that challenges society, or my family. Until this conflict is resolved, the energy will not move along the path I intend, because it is not the path of least resistance.  If I keep trying to meet an unrealistic target, and continually fail, my confidence will spiral downwards.

To see the Writing Prompt that accompanies this article, you'll need to sign up on the Wild Words website homepage to receive the Monthly Newsletter, or join the Wild Words Facebook Group.

Photograph courtesy of Peter Reid.

From the archive: Urban Green

I left London when I was 30 because I was desperate for my eyes to be able to swivel their whole arc, to see wide and distant views, to smell clean air, and to rest in silence.

The other week, almost exactly ten years since I left, I went back. I spent two days walking the streets in search of a wild green space in the heart of the city. I was on a quest for a location for the ‘Wild In The City’ weekend workshops that are starting in the spring.

Twenty-five percent of the capital is made up of public green space, and the variety is tremendous. I saw the most regal royal parks, the most ragged parts of Hampstead Heath. I went into community gardens smelling of lavender and tomatoes, and locked myself into the seclusion of a private square in Bloomsbury.

Each one of those green spaces had a very different feeling, but all of them held a certain power. Their power derived from their juxtaposition with the concrete, metal, and glass that loomed over them, and from their ability to keep human progress at bay.

Suddenly there seemed to be so much space and silence in the city. And so many stories.

In Nunhead Cemetery, ghosts rose from the overgrown graves. In St James Park, the pomp and ceremony of monarchs came alive. In Greenwich Peninsular Ecology Park, tales of working in the gasworks in the 1880’s, and roars of victorious Olympians, seemed to hang in the air, even as butterflies, newts, moorhens and reed warblers went about their everyday business.

Not everything in cities is controlled by human beings. Not everything plays by our rules. There is room for the unpredictable, for those who live by intuition. There are quiet, inspiring places for the writers who seek to create a space into which magic might come.

The Weekly Prompt

This week, instead of working at your desk indoors, write something outside. If you live in an urban area, take a walk into the unknown to seek out a quiet, green space. Learn something about the history of the place you are in. See what inspiration you find. 

This article was first published on 20th September 2013

From the archive: The Body In The Woods (Part 2)

That night, I didn’t sleep. A strange insect bit me. It itched like hell.

I scratched and scratched at it, obsessed by visions of poison seeping though my body. I reverted to biting my nails, an old childhood habit. I listened to the wild words rumbling in my head, like the variety of animal sounds outside the tent. I tried to differentiate between them. What was worth putting on the page?

I tried to write, but the fears were quite clearly restricting my words on the page.

I thought the wild words that night should be about my pained experience of being in the woods, but instead I found that I was writing an uninteresting summary. I was focusing on the more comfortable aspects of the story, like my preparation for the expedition, rather than risk getting too deep into descriptions of body sensations, or my fears. I wanted to sleep. I wanted to dream about those beautiful prowling wild words. Instead my mind always returned to its antithesis, the caged words, still trapped in his cage. In my half-awake, half-asleep state, I thought I heard the wild words, mewing plaintively, somewhere far away.

By daylight, my mind was worn out. My thoughts were tired, and seemed to be drifting into sleep, even if the rest of me wasn’t. I crawled out of the tent and stood in the cold. The fog had frosted around the trees, mummifying them overnight. I was a failure, I’d written nothing of worth.

I felt the reaction in my body, almost before I heard the sound that had caused it. It was like someone had put a large fist round my guts and squeezed them. The noise came from somewhere in the back of my mind, a scrubby, dark place, and it was, indeed, soft, mewing words. Words were coming, unbidden. Wild Words.

I moved towards them before I thought about it. I took my notepad out. But just as I began to write, the ideas evaporated away. Somewhere in my mind there was now a circular space where the vegetation had been flattened. It was a similar effect to when your pet cat lies in your Azaleas, but the imprint was much bigger. Steam was rising into the air. I felt the warmth. The words were no longer there, but had been there so recently that I thought I could still see their breath moving the grass of my thoughts.

I had almost got those wild words on to the page. It had been a near miss and I no longer felt like a failure. I realised that however hard it had been, I had stayed in that place, with my feelings and my notebook, all night. I hadn’t run away.  Despite the fact I hadn’t written wild words that night, I had got much closer. The next time, I felt sure, I would harness them on the page.

The Weekly Prompt: Taking Body Sensations Into Fiction

Take the body sensations on which you based your writing for last week (for Part 1 of The Body In The Woods) and write a fictional poem or story of up to 1000 words. None of the facts need to be the same as you experienced in that exercise, although they might be. Only the physical, bodily sensations must remain the same.

This article was first published on 29th June 2013

 

 

From the archive: The Body In The Woods

 I was spending the night in a tent in the woods. My notebook was on my lap; my pen was tucked into my hair for safekeeping.

My intention was to listen to the noises around me, and to focus on becoming aware of the most subtle reactions of my body to external stimuli. I hoped this training would help me to convey my experiences vividly on the page.

I was putting into practice what I already knew theoretically, that describing the body sensations of the main character/narrator in our writing allows the reader to feel into their experience, to live in their shoes. And that more broadly speaking, being in touch with our bodily experience can free something up in our writing, and help to release wild words.

In the small canvas space, I tried to stay with my bodily experience. Initially there didn’t seem to be much feeling there anyway, or not much of interest.  Then, as I tuned in, what I felt was only unpleasant. I was stiff and aching from sleeping on the hard ground, and the damp seemed to have got into my bones. My flat mate had primed me for exploration with homemade stew, made of God-knows-what. It was not digesting well, and my stomach began to ache.

Because, or perhaps despite of the physical discomfort, my mind kicked in. I don’t want to stop thinking. If I do, how will I keep my fear under control? Perhaps if I first make a plan to deal with the wild words if they attack me, then I’ll be able to focus on just being here. I realised how nervous I was, waiting for the wild words to emerge. What repressed stuff would come up from the powerhouse of imagination and memory? I was scared those words might tear at the tent and devour me.

I was becoming very aware of not only my physical, but also my emotional fragility. I was sure now that just one scratch from a wild word would be enough to finish me. Anxious thoughts snowballed. Would I even survive this night, let alone be able to write about it? Well, at least I was getting in touch with my present moment experience. That was what I wanted, wasn’t it? Yes. No. I had no idea anymore.

To be continued…

The Weekly Prompt

Create an intense bodily experience for yourself. If possible go into nature to do this. You could, for example: eat apples from a tree, swim in the sea, roll naked in sand, jump into a muddy puddle. Don’t worry if you don’t have access to a natural environment, there are plenty of opportunities in the town, even inside your house! You could: have a hot shower, record the experience of coming into a cool house from the heat of the day, feel delicious food go down your throat, or have a massage.

Spend 15 minutes describing in prose, or poetry, how the experience feels in your body. Pay careful attention to all the different parts of your body, the various textures, movements, and rhythms.

This article was first published on 21st June 2013