From the archive: The French Experts

Last weekend I went from my home in the foothills of the Pyrenees, into the high mountains of the neighbouring department of Ariege.

I had appointments with two expert animal trackers. I wanted to learn more about ‘wildness’ in order to go deeper into my work with ‘wild words’. My first meeting was with Serge, a wiry, self -effacing man in his fifties, sporting a moustache and 70’s shades. He’s spent twenty years tracking the Pyrenean brown bear. His job is to mediate, and to try and diffuse tensions, between the bears and the local shepherds, who regard the sheep as a threat to their flocks.

My romantic images of Serge the solitary tracker, running barefoot through the forests, were quickly dispelled when I discovered that the bears are tracked via a series of cameras.  ‘This is the only way to do it’, he told me. ‘Unless you want to stay up all night’ (they are nocturnal), ‘and unless you want to risk your life’.

It’s certainly true that most of the cultures where tracking was practiced extensively are dry earth, or desert-based, aboriginal Australians being an example. Animal prints are much easier to see in sand. In your average forest, strewn with leaf litter, sticks, and leaves, tracking not an easy task.

I then met Ernest. He’s an ichnologist. That is to say, he specialises in the science of animal traces. His house is an Alladin’s cave of casts and other art works that put into solid form the wanderings of animals over our earth.

This is a man who spent three months living on a frozen lake. This is also a man who is about to take his wife and five children to spend two months in the Brazilian rainforest. I was swept up into a brave new world by his stories.

Driving home I stopped by a man-made lake. It was deserted. The tourist season hasn’t begun here yet. Walking across the volleyball court to get to the café, I saw several clear sets of tracks in the sand. During the previous night deer had skipped through. Wild boar had lugged their heavy weight across too.

I might not be up to the facing the deserts of Australia yet, but the sand- based culture of the volleyball courts of Southern France, I can do that.

The Weekly Prompt

Find an area of sand, or fine soil. This might be loose sand on a building site, a children’s’ sandpit, the sediment left by a river, or a beach.

Go to this place in the early morning. Write about what you find. Who, or what has left its mark overnight?

 

This article was first published April 24th 2013

Working With Block and Flow

The words flow within supportive limits. They move as appropriate, to most powerfully affect the listener or reader. Broad, deep, wide, extreme, emotive. They carry the receiver with them. Sweeping them ever onward.

Tracking The Wild Words

Now we’re going to gather together a tool kit that you can have at your disposal, whenever you write. It will help you to counter anything that might block or restrict the flow of your writing. 

Storytellers use the terms writer’s block and creative block. Human animals in general, refer to feeling blocked. These terms refer to an inability to express, or to complete a creative process. Block is usually frustrating, and sometimes agonising. It can finish careers and sabotage relationships.

If we are ‘natural storytellers’, how is it that somehow, when we choose to become ‘A WRITER’, 'A STORYTELLER' , or 'A POET', and sit down in front of that blank page, we can lose touch with our innate ability to tell good stories?  The problem is that we get in our own way. We trip ourselves up, time and time again.

Psychotherapist, and originator of Somatic Experiencing, Peter Levine, describes how the freezing of body and mind, is a life-saving strategy used throughout the animal kingdom if the flight and fight responses are not possible. However, he notes that in human beings, in certain situations, it can become “inextricably and simultaneously coupled with intense fear and other strong negative emotions.” Energy becomes trapped in the nervous system, and the cycle of activation through to discharge is unable to complete. This is block.

When storytellers are inhibited in their ability to tell a story, I often observe a freezing of the body, and mind, characterised by stilted sentences, and tense muscles. They frequently report feeling a sense of helplessness. As the course facilitator, my first awareness of their block usually arrives via how I feel in my own body, known as the transference. I find myself inexplicably feeling stuck in various ways. I note I am holding my breath, or tensing my muscles. Sometimes my thoughts are fragmented and I struggle myself to form words.

Interruptions To Contact

To be blocked is to experience the flow of thoughts or words as interrupted. Interruptions to the ability to tell stories often originates from our needs and desires having become fused over time, with the needs of others. Not infrequently, the other was a caregiver in childhood. In the storytelling group, participants may initially repeat the stories that they feel they should tell, as well as defining themselves in self-limiting ways through their stories.

My work with ‘Jed’ illustrates this. Jed approached me two years ago. He was a stooped 27 year-old man, presenting with writer’s block as well as physical health complaints. He told me that his father was a well-known poet. “I’m scared that I will never write poetry as great as my father’s” he said, “and it’s ceasing me up”. I guided him through body awareness exercises. He became aware of where the block was located in his body, as well as where he could touch into flow. Moving between the two, he found ways of “chipping away” at the block, until it dissolved into flow. I also employed narrative-making techniques. Through these he explored his sense of self.  After the fifth session he phoned me, very excited. “I’m writing. The words won’t stop coming! But now I have another problem, I’m writing a comedy screenplay, not poetry. I’ve realised that poetry isn’t my thing. It never was.”

The internalising of other’s viewpoints may manifest as negative or critical internal voices. Examples of this are looping lines like ‘You should do something more sensible with your life’ or ‘pull yourself together and get on with it’.

Sometimes we don’t hear them as voices at all. They can become part of the very fabric of our bodies, manifesting, for example as a sudden physical recoiling in the face of certain stimuli.  If the great aunt who was unkind to us always wore yellow, we might, for instance, find that we recoiled from yellow.

In the case of emotions that were not contained or allowed by caregivers, there can be a ‘hole’ on the page where they should have been at their height. Here I’d like to cite the example of a storyteller who came to a Wild Words course.  I’ll call her ‘Sue’. She was dispirited by her lack of success as a writer. We looked together at her unpublished novel. What I noticed was that every time a plot line called for anger, just before she reached the climax of the conflictual event, she cut away from the action, and began a new scene. For historical reasons, she was unable to tolerate the feeling of anger in herself, and therefore unable to write to the heart of the action. I supported Sue to learn to use the page as a vessel to contain the strong feelings in her body. When she could do that, she was able to channel anger on to the page, powerfully and vividly. 

The Fear On The Page

We can observe how blocked words jerk out on to the page. They are stilted. They shuffle along. They squeeze themselves through narrow, uninspired channels. Suddenly key points in the plot are summarised, or skimmed over. Or the plot diverges altogether. The listener or reader disengages from the story, thus mirroring the teller’s experience. When a flow is momentarily found, it is stopped dead in its tracks. Just when the reader allows themselves to be taken, they are pulled up abruptly, shockingly. They don’t dare to trust again.

Becoming The Wild Writer

Our embodied experience is the starting point for freeing up block, and coming back to a ‘natural state’ of storytelling, one of flow, creativity and ease. My workshops are called ‘Wild Words’ because, in the wild animal, the body and mind work as one unit. This enables the animal to thrive, and achieve its aims. This is what we must learn to do as storytellers. When information from our senses, body sensations, and emotions informs our storytelling actions, when the thinking mind supports and contains rather than taking over, only then can we truly unwind creative block, and find creative flow.

What we must do is to separate out the voices of others, from the expression of our own needs and desires. We must bring into awareness those aspects of self that have been disowned. What emotions have you, the storyteller, forgotten how to feel because they were unacceptable to family, friends or society at large? What emotions are you afraid to contact because you don’t know how to contain them and therefore fear being consumed by them? As Peter Levine says, the storyteller must “safely learn to contain” his or her powerful sensations, emotions and impulses without becoming overwhelmed.

The aim is for the individual to be able to tell their story whilst staying in steady contact with the emotions involved, at an appropriate level of detail, and without either diverging from, or drowning in them.

Unwinding Resistance

However the voices of others manifest now, they were often originally well intentioned. And even if they weren’t, it’s helpful to remember that they were most likely a reflection of that caregiver’s strategies for surviving themselves. Sometimes those voices have been passed down through the generations, and it’s near impossible to trace their source. Luckily, we don’t need to know the answers to any or all of these questions, in order to work with our behavioural responses.

If you were maltreated at the hands of another, I’m not suggesting that you forgive what you do not feel ready, or able to forgive. That’s a separate question, and a personal choice. Here we’re looking at practicalities. How can we gain awareness and understanding, in order to work with what arises in any given moment in our story process?

We can choose to assume that the original intention of the message or instruction was wholly good. We can re-frame our view of the caged words and treat them as ‘evidence of positive strategies’ rather than ‘problems’. This doesn’t immediately change what happens on the page. However, that re-framing, from a negative to a positive effect, makes a huge difference in how we go about addressing them. Regarding them in this light is important because it stops us meeting them with anger and resistance. It stops us hardening in their presence. It stops us declaring war on them. We don’t want to go to war with them because resistance just breeds more resistance. The more we harden, the more they will too, and the more difficult it will be to find a way through to wild writing.

There’s a natural metaphor that I find helpful with regard to choosing to see obstacles and limitations as positive, rather than wholly negative. Think of a lake or river. It is made up of water, as well as those things which contain, channel and sometimes block the water. The banks and bed of the river, the rocks, as well as any build up of sticks, are often helpful for guiding the flow, and for giving character to the body of water.  Here we see that it’s a positive thing that the body of water is sometimes limited, curtailed, or shaped. Sometimes, it’s true, the blocks can seem too big and restrictive. A logjam can stop the flow completely, for example. But the most creative choice here would be to reposition the offending branches, leaves, silt. If we remove it completely, we remove the character of the river.

In the experiments this month we’re going to look at ways of moving from block to flow. This journey is beautifully illustrated by the path of writer Susan Griffin in her book, What Her Body Thought.

...you shudder as you become aware of the others. A sea, an obdurate mass, a jeering crowd disappointed with your feeble efforts.”

Then,

 ...slowly, by almost imperceptible degrees, the gaze of the others no longer troubles you. Not because you are pleased with your efforts—you are still erasing, adding, altering—but because you too have joined the audience yourself. Curious and attentive, you too are watching, eager to see how the plot proceeds. 

When we can tell our stories, unashamedly, we are able to stand proudly in the fullness of who we are. That also enables us to delight in the potential of who we might become. We can then relate authentically to others, and to our world. We discover a quality of connection that we could previously not even of dreamed of.

 

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: Sharpham House

On Friday we went in search of our Wild Words at the magnificent Sharpham House, two miles upstream from the town of Totnes, in Devon.

The famous architect Robert Taylor designed the house and the great landscape architect Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown is thought to have landscaped the extensive grounds.

We moved fluidly between our base camp, a room where the log fire warmed our bones, and explorations of those grounds. We dodged the raindrops, and luxuriated in the moments when the sun peeped through the clouds.

We gazed down on what is, I believe, one of the most wonderful views in the country. The fields and wooded slopes fall effortlessly to the banks of the River Dart.  We felt the slow passage of time in the way that, since the ice age, the river has pushed its way through the landscape. That river became the main artery for goods going to the thriving market town. Now it enjoys a lazy role as the ambassador of fleets of summer pleasure boats.

We tapped into the rich history of the inhabitants of the house, and found a wellspring of stories. There was the ‘mad hermit’ Willelmus in the 14thcentury.  There were wealthy merchants, politicians, and due to its proximity to Plymouth and Dartmouth, naval heroes too. Captain Pownoll was a high seas adventurer who made his name in 1762 by capturing a Spanish treasure Galleon.

We explored our fears of the wild, and were inspired by it too.

The cat dissecting the bird. The snake-like river. Exploring those qualities of ‘wild’ led us to think about how what we considered ‘natural’ had mostly been cultivated, planted, tamed, as well as exploited and abused, by the human hand. Except perhaps for that river…

Some hours after the workshop had ended, those wild words were still reverberating through me. A friend phoned, and told me that he’d found a dead peasant that had been hit by a car. ‘A road-kill bird will lie there by the side of the road all day, and no one will stop for it. What a waste’. He’d picked it up and cooked it. So we enjoyed peasant casserole that evening. A taste of the wild? Or just another victim of the human species? Both, I suppose.

Weekly Writing Prompt

What do you know about the inhabitants of the building that you are in at this moment? What are their stories? Write about one person who has lived there, or the procession of dwellers through time. If you don’t know the facts, use your imagination. 

This article was first published in April 14th 2013

A Storyteller's Process: Michael Jarvis

LW ME mist.JPG

I’ve been writing poetry since I was a teenager and stories for twenty years or so, but it’s only in the past few years, in my sixties, that I’ve tried my hand at nature writing.

Everything that I write starts from a moment looking out across open air, at a specific place, time and state of the weather. From that moment comes an idea and, usually, some fragmentary words. It would be good to sit down immediately and start writing, but often I can’t, being on the move. If I can, I begin to write later that day, either at home, or on a bus perhaps, or just sitting on a rock. If I leave it until the next day something is always lost, and I’m aware that what I’m writing is detached from the moment that I’m writing about. A couple of days’ delay and the idea is gone completely, such is the state of my ageing memory.

At first I just wanted to attempt some ordinary nature writing. But I spent my working life as a scientist and, somehow, the science nearly always seems to take over. I was fortunate enough to teach and do research in areas of science that connected with what was around me when I walked in the mountains or beside our local loch, and these connections are still built into my way of seeing. Elsewhere is an exception, in fact almost a rebellion against that habit. Or a kind of antidote.

Michael was one of the three runners-up in the Wild Words Summer Solstice Writing Competition 2017, with the following piece. 

Elsewhere

The dog and I walk down towards the loch in the January dawn. As the daylight strengthens, long parallel rolls of cloud appear, running to the horizon like an ocean swell, each roller softly lit from behind. The geese are in the air, in small groups and larger Vs, talking among themselves as if discussing where they should go for the day. A single goose passes ahead of us, low and quite close. Just for a moment it stands out grey-feathered against the softness of the backlit clouds. You might say that the goose is sharply drawn, but drawings don’t fly.

There’s something about this momentary conjunction of goose and cloud, something that brings to mind the word ‘significant’. Only significance means a sign, pointing somewhere, elsewhere, and right now there is no elsewhere. Once I’d have felt tempted to invent a connection, a direction; a significance. But the dog is content to be here, just where we are, and that seems like a good idea.

 

Holistic and Instinctual

Let’s start by defining the term wild’.

Instinctual, intuitive, embodied, sensuous, emotional, spontaneous, sensual, powerful, connected, in-tune, flowing, textured, rhythmic, ever moving, ever changing. Alive.

When we dive below the surface of these inspiring but somewhat abstract words, we find a more complex, but richer definition of the functioning of the wild animal, the wild writer or the wild words.

To act according to your nature. Allowing the holistic orienting towards health and wellbeing. Flexible contact with all parts of the organism, and all aspects of experience, as appropriate to survive and thrive. Ability to return to equilibrium after disturbance to the system.

Animals in nature are designed to firstly survive, and then to thrive. They know the world via their senses: sight, smell, taste, sound, and touch. The stimuli register in their bodies via various internal sensations. These sensations narrow and become more intense. This is emotion. Emotion fires an animal’s muscles to take action. They fight, flee or play dead.

They make contact with all aspects of their functioning- senses, bodily sensation, emotion, imaging etc. as appropriate, in order to access information to enable the best outcome. The animal must be a creative, flexible system that reacts appropriately to its needs. A ‘conscious’ process of getting in touch with each aspect and ‘deciding’ what to do next would be too slow. They must, of course, act in the blink of any eye. Therefore, all the knowledge about themselves in relationship to the environment is processed and acted upon in an instant. This is instinct. The animal’s head and body seems to move as one unit, effortlessly.

Instinct in the wild animal is as much learnt as given. All animals are born with predispositions to certain behaviour. However, these must be practiced, and skills honed, to be able to act upon them, instantly and unselfconsciously. This ensures the best chance of survival. Most animals have been observed to play, to some extent or another. Through play, they practice survival skills. A Lynx bats at tree leaves waving in the wind. A seagull repeatedly drops and swoops to retrieve a stick. In playing, an animal tunes each part of its organism to respond effectively to the requirements of the environment. Marc Bekoff, a University of Colorado evolutionary biologist, describes how play helps animals learn to improvise and switch between all behaviors more effectively, to be prepared for the unexpected. 

The Wild Words

 What happens on the page is a reflection of the behavioural patterns that the storyteller demonstrates in other areas of their lives. We can therefore think of the wild words as being the tracks the wild writer leaves behind, the clues to its functioning. We can trace the ink marks back. Each print we locate takes us one step closer to understanding the source of wildness, and makes it easier to put more of it on to the page next time, or perhaps, just to tell our story to another. This seemingly small act is not to be underestimated. When the story has remained untold for years, as some of you will know, this is the equivalent of putting your flag on the summit of Everest.

On The Page…

Wild words unfold organically. They flow. They have a distinctive voice. They are passionate and powerful. They pour out on to the page wriggling with life. They roam free, are expansive on the page. They bring a world vividly to life by the use of smell, taste, touch, sound, and textures of touch. These sensory impressions ground the writing. It’s then up to the storyteller how much they spice the work with their imaginations. As readers or listeners, we feel we walk in the character/narrator’s shoes through the description of bodily experience.

The storyteller conveys a range of emotions, ever changing, ever surprising, wonderful, or horrifying. The words do not run away with themselves, but stay focused and energised, containing and channeling emotion. The deepest emotions are often most powerfully shown by the smallest actions. The words take risks, they play, they move and have rhythm. They lead us fluidly between different viewpoints, varying our distance to the action as appropriate. The Wild Words on the page, or falling from quivering lips, are a whole animal. The story is fully formed, rounded, cohesive. It evolves according to its nature. When we’ve finished listening, or reading the words, we’ve been on a journey.

The Wild Writer

Skilled writing is an embodied experience; the mind and the body must work in unison. The storyteller must first closely observe the sensory data from the world around her. She must know the impact on her bodily experience- the sensations it arouses in her body. She must also know how, and when, emotion swells in her. That fires the movement of muscles, the lifting of the pen, the hovering of the hands over the keyboard. In the good storyteller, the words seem to rise up through her body and pour out on to the page. The way her fingers or pen move is different according to what is being felt and conveyed. It is slow when she writes about sadness, and fast when she describes happiness and excitement. She simultaneously re-lives the feelings she describes.

Instinct

The term ‘instinctual’ often scares people. It is equated with a way of being and writing that is ‘big’ ‘loud’ ‘angry’ or ‘explosive’. In people who have experience of therapy or counselling settings it sometimes conjures up images of cathartic techniques that left us feeling exposed, or vulnerable.

The words ‘wild’ and ‘instinctual’ are closely related. As you’ll realise, having read the opening of this article, none of these effects are our definition of the word ‘wild’ or ‘instinctual’. It may be, that when you write from Wild Words prompts, that the words do come out big and loud, or angry. That will result in good writing if its source is the connection with your innate ability to tell stories as an aid to surviving and thriving- your instinct. It will result in not-very-good writing if it comes from a place of disconnection between yourself and your environment.

You’ll be relieved to know that instinct in the storyteller, the development of the writer in-the-wild, and the ability to write wild words, can be learnt. As we’ve seen, nature has provided the predisposition- we are all naturally good writers. But making the most of it is a two-fold process.

Firstly, we have to bring some of the instinctual urges, (those things we do without the need for conscious thought), into awareness. We have to see which of these are helpful to our storytelling process, and which hinder us. Secondly, we have to consciously practice and hone certain skills until we become ‘unconsciously competent’, that is, until we can do them without thinking and they become instinctual.  These skills include making contact with all aspects of our experience, as well as expressing and channeling them into various forms.

And here we see that we’re no longer just talking about instinct. The thinking mind is also coming in to play.

The Mind

The human animal that writes is the same as every other animal, in that we will function most effectively if we utilises all parts of ourself. All are called upon as appropriate, to support the process. This means that no aspect of functioning is excluded- including the mind.

When I described the basic functioning of the wild animal, I didn’t mention the mind. Whether animals think, and if they do, how, and how much remains a hotly debated subject in zoology circles. Whatever the truths of that, it’s clear that human animals think, and enough to make up for all the other animals put together!

The adjustments we make, in the balance between the use of mind and body when we become writers in-the-wild, does not mean that we throw out, or disown the important part that our thinking minds play, in the writing process. Quite the opposite. Our mind is a valuable tool that has evolved in human animals to enable us to survive and thrive. It’s a tool that we often don’t use very well. It's about going back to evolutionary basics, to look at how we can make the best use of this gift of nature, the ability to symbolise in letters.

When we looked at instinct, we talked about making the instinctual, conscious, and then the conscious, instinctual (unconscious).

Here, we can regard the role of the thoughts as that of a container. We carefully choose the thoughts patterns and individual thoughts that will aid the storytelling process- that will support emotional expression, and help us to be fearless. For example ‘I will remember to use strong verbs and not prop up weak verbs with adjectives’. We first place and use these products of the thinking mind consciously, to channel the expressive flow (the largely instinctual aspect of the process). When we do this enough times, the container becomes part of the contained. We operate instinctually. Expression does not work without a channel into which to put it. Equally, the channel is useless, without the expressive flow.

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: Writer's Block and The Beetle

As he was crawling round the kitchen this week, my eleven month-old nephew found a beetle.

With its scarab shape, hooked legs and black casing, it looked like a relic from Egyptian times. He poked it once with a podgy hand, and then steered a straight course directly over it, one knee steam-rollering the poor thing into the lino. It lay there motionless, legs splayed flat under the shell. I was about to sweep the corpse outside, when, in miraculous fashion, it hoiked itself back on to its legs and began plodding away, as if nothing had happened. I remembered that, of course, if a wild creature cannot flee, and cannot fight, its last ditch effort to save its own life is to play dead, in the hope that the attacker will eventually give up and go away. This immobility response is always time- limited in animals, and does not result in any lasting damage.  This is not the case with human beings.

When something comes into our writing environment and threatens our creative process- for example the telephone ringing interrupts us mid-flow- what happens?

Ideally, we freeze momentarily in the shock of the interruption, before taking one of two equally good, pro-active measures. Either, we move to answer it, inform the caller that we’re busy, and go back to work, or, we choose not to answer it and keep working.

But instead, something else often happens- our complex rational mind kicks in and tries to second-guess our way out of danger. Should I answer it? I wonder who it is? If I answer it I might be stuck on the phone with my mother, but if I don’t answer it, Sheila next door might think I’m rude… Repetitive, anxious thoughts cause our fear levels to rise and the flexible, appropriate immobility response becomes a semi-permanent paralysis. Our writing ceases up, sabotaged by our mind. This is the infamous ‘writers’ block’.

The way out of writers’ block is to reconnect with a way of being that is more instinctual, to act more often from an embodied place than from the rational mind. Our body knows what to do. It knows the story we are trying to tell, and how to tell it. We need to trust it.  We need to get out of our own way, to stop tripping over our own feet. This is wild writing.

A Writing Prompt

Look out for examples of animals coming in and out of the immobility response- a cat freezing in headlights, a fly staying still on a wall as the shadow of your hand passes over it…

Then when you’re next writing, notice any times that your body tenses or freezes, and try and ease it back into flow. Visualise the wild animals in your mind- how easily they enter and exit immobility.

This article was first published on August 9th 2013

Writing The First Draft

Out on the trail. New terrain opens up in every moment and the wild words explore it. They are precise, vivid, awake. They flow, unfurling and expanding as they go. There are no stilted or jerky expressions- there are dramatic pauses and sharp sentences purposefully placed to affect the reader in certain ways. When the words are in short tight form, they are channeled faster and must be contained more strongly. When a longer form is chosen the words have time to meander and weave. Here they must be held from dispersing over too large an area.

Tracking The Wild Words

You have an idea. You know it's the story you need to tell. Now it's time to write it. 

The below points will guide you as you go out into the wilds with your project. They will show you how to tell the story you need to tell. You also have a template here that can be used for any future project of any length or genre.  

The Writing Environment

-Create a private writing space for yourself where you will be undisturbed.

As you prepare to write the first draft, the first thing to do is to set up your writing environment. Build your writing nest, tree house, den, or dray. Take care of this space. Decorate it with flowers, or pictures, or quotes from storytellers, whatever will remind and inspire you. Explain to those you live with the purpose of the space, and what you need from them to sustain it. Remember that anyone who sits down at his or her desk for a period, regularly, and makes the commitment to go into that place of imagination and research, deserves to be called a storyteller or writer, and to be supported by others in that role.

-Make a timetable

Remember the importance of choosing a project length that fits with the time you have available to write. As long as it’s realistic, in a way it doesn’t really matter what your timescale is. A timescale focuses the mind, and provides a sense of containment for the work. When you’ve decided on a do-able timeframe, pin it above your desk, or on the wall in your tree house.

-Find a regular slot for your writing

Decide how much time you can give to your writing. It’s helpful to have a regular slot in your life, be that a couple of hours a week, or full time.  Again it’s very important that you’re realistic. This will give you a rhythm, and allow your instinctual self to work unconsciously between writing sessions. Some writers prefer to write only spontaneously, when they feel inspired. There is nothing wrong with that if you wish your writing to be an occasional pastime. If you want to complete a novel or full-length autobiography, only writing when you feel like it probably won’t be sufficient.  In my opinion, the major downside of writing only when the inspiration grabs you is that you will often avoid facing fears. Often the most satisfying experiences of the writing process arrive on the days when we have to drag ourselves to the desk and write through fear, anger or jealousy. When we stay steady in the face of those feared emotions, we come out into the light strengthened and empowered by that process.

-Once you’ve decided to commit that time to writing, just do it. Don’t beat yourself up that you can’t do more. Let your only expectation of the process be that you will fulfill your promise to yourself and sit down at your desk, on your tree stump, (or wherever you’ve chosen your dedicated writing space to be), for those hours. If you don’t feel creative, sit there anyway until the time is up, even if you don’t write (I’ve done this many times and always ended up writing something!)

On some days, the journey of the writer is to try and find a form and containment for fictional characters and a world that seem uncontainable. At other times, when our fictional world refuses to come alive at all in the way that we would wish, our job is just to keep plodding on and not give up.  What ever the day brings, you will cope. More than that, you will thrive. You were built to do so!

Tips For The Writing Process

-Chunk the process down

It’s not uncommon that even just the idea of sitting down and writing that autobiography, novel, short story, poem, screenplay, or article, can immediately send us into overwhelm- characterised by an inability to think clearly, and to sit down to the task in hand. So, go step by step, with bite-size pieces, so that you feel confident and in control of the process.

-Use your structure

You’ve got a setting, hero, objective, opponent and disaster. You’ve given consideration to a premise. You know how many pages, or words, approximately, you can envisage your story running to.  You know, give or take a few pages, where the end of act 1 will fall.  You have good idea of what the event will be that sets your hero off on her or his journey to achieve their goal for the rest of the story (acts 2 and 3).  You understand what will enable the high point of tension. And you know what will lead to the fall in tension, and fortunes of your hero. Perhaps you even have an inkling as to what will happens at the end (although that’s not something you necessarily need to know yet).

-Then just write it

Once those structural markers are in place, write from instinct, trust your natural storyteller, and tell the story without consciously using writing techniques or tools. Make occasional reference to your markers to see if you are on course. Focus on connecting with your passion for the story. And just write. And just love the story, unashamedly, obsessively.  

-Look out for those voices, or ‘people’ inside you who may try to sabotage your work. You can spot them by the messages they keep repeating, which are designed to subdue or belittle you. 

-Turn your opinionated thinking mind off, completely. Despite your valiant attempts it may still try to get in your way, hurling out undermining messages.

If that happens, do the following:

1. Thank the voice for trying to help you.

2. Tell it very firmly but non-aggressively to go away and leave you alone.

3. Reassure it that you will be open to hearing, at length, what it has to say when you come to the second draft 

4. Come back to your experience of your body in your writing space. Look around. Engage your senses, Can you feel your bottom on the chair. What colour are the walls? How does the room smell? How do you experience the texture and temperature of the writing materials?

-Recognise that not all of the first draft writing process involves physically writing.

One of the most difficult things as a writer is to know when to take breaks. How can we tell when we’re semi, or unconsciously trying to run from fear, and would therefore benefit from staying with it? Conversely, how can we judge when a break is a positive move on the part of our organism to resource us, or restore equilibrium? The truth is, we can’t always know. But each of these monthly newsletters includes an experiment to help you to have increasingly greater awareness around this, to be more intuitive.

It can be helpful to move from your writing space at intervals to give your unconscious space to work. Hold a question in your head, for example ‘where would that character go today?’ then do manual tasks. Try washing up, or walking. It’s very important however, that you don’t start mentally doing something else e.g. thinking about what’s for dinner. Remember, you are still writing. Hold the mental space clear for answers to rise up. (If you cage a bird it might stop singing, but when you let it go free it may well come back and sing at your window. It’s a bit like this.)

-Set yourself up for the next day

Before you leave your desk at the end of a writing period, decide on your task for the next session e.g. to ‘write from the high point in act 2 to the end of the act’. When you come to your writing space again, do the assigned task. Nothing more. Nothing less.

-Remember. There is nothing to ‘get right’.  And there’s nothing you can do wrong.

The point of the first draft is to get the fundamentals approximately in the right place. Always make sure your first draft is about the right length, otherwise you’ll find it hard to gauge if the plot points are in the right place. Also, try in the first draft also to get the sense of the dialogue in, and to make sure the right people are talking to the right other people. If you’re feeling tired one morning and just can’t think of a good piece of speech you might just put in,

Rod tells Tim the story of how he was attacked.

Don’t beat yourself up about the fact you couldn’t think of something better. You can replace it in the second draft.

You Are Not Alone

 

 

Remember, you are not alone when you sit down at that desk. Many thousands of others have taken the same journey before you. Many others are doing it right now (you’ll find some of them in the Facebook group). And yet more will come after you, walking in your footsteps, grateful for the path you’ve laid. I’d like to share with you the words of Hannah Kent, from her book Burial Rites. Her willingness to lay bare her vulnerability within the storytelling process can help us to feel less alone.

Finally in possession of the facts I had yearned after for two years, I no longer had any excuse not to write my book. Even as I write this article, my hands grow sweaty in remembrance of the trepidation and terror I felt. People speak of the fear of the blank canvas as though it is a temporary hesitation, a trembling moment of self-doubt. For me it was more like being abducted from my bed like a clown, thrust into a circus arena with a wicker chair, and told to tame a pissed-off lion in front of an expectant crowd.  Sure, I had written short stories before. But that, to me, was no consolation: just because I was a cat-person did not mean I knew how to conquer a beast.
…Publication certainly hasn’t extinguished my fears about writing. But these fears have by now become so familiar, that, rather than inducing creative paralysis, they light a fire under me. It is writing, after all, which keeps me burning. Yes, it terrifies me, and it vexes me, and there are many days when I will actively sabotage my own practice. Some days writing is no more than a repeated chorus of muttered expletives, and a hammering of the ‘delete’ button. Yes, there are days when I am able to somehow sever myself loose from the temporal world and fully enter the lives of the characters. Sometimes I do feel that I am putting the best words I can think of in the best order possible, and there are moments when the writing comes swift and thick and pure. I am grateful for these times. But most days fear is my shadow. It drives my writing as much as my love for it does. Perhaps it’s supposed to be this way. Perhaps the only fiction worth reading-the writing that ensnares you wholly, that lays siege to your heart-is that which is born of love and terror, slick with the blood of it’s creator.

The writing process is terrifying and exhilarating in equal measure. The bad news is that my experience is the same as Hannah’s, that the terror does not get less the more you write. The good news is that neither does the exhilaration! Increasingly we understand what happens in the brain during the creative process. I’ll leave it to James Zull to explain…

…Dopamine is released in the newest region of cortex, the part that we use to create ideas, make decisions and plan our action Thus, we feel rewarded when we create new objects or actions. And since creativity is based on the decisions made by the creator, the reward system kicks in when we are in control and inventing things that we have thought of ourselves. Freedom and ownership are part and parcel of the neurochemistry of the arts.

-James E Zull‘Arts, Neuroscience and Learning’

The Balance of Structure and Content

Having pinned down a basic structure before you started writing, it’s important to know that it is still ok if things change. The structural markers we’ve put in place are friendly guides to point the way. They are there to nudge us back into the flow of the creative stream if we get beached on the bank. They are there to re-orient us when we lose our way. When, however, they become points that are so fixed that nothing will shift them, we’ve got a problem. If that happens, we’re no longer going into the unknown. Then our story dies on the page. 

So, despite the narrative arc you’ve carefully constructed, stay open to the idea that things may change. Information may end up being revealed in a slightly different way, or at another time to that which you’d envisioned.  Act 3 may be longer, or shorter than that one-fifth ratio. You may have told your lead character to go one way, only to find that they choose their own route as the story unfolds, and you are required to follow. 

Stick to the structure, but don’t stick to it- I’m not making things very easy am I?!  It’s a balance, and we can only learn it by practicing it. If you find, in a first draft of a project, that you become a little inflexible and your supportive container (that flower pot brimming over with fragrant sweet peas), becomes a cage with iron bars, just learn from it. Say never mind and resolve to do it a little differently next time. Conversely, if the pot of sweet peas gets out of control and you trip in the tangled stems, or if you are lost in the sheer rampaging abundance of it all, and almost faint from the overpowering fragrance, again, forgive yourself and adjust the balance in favour of a bit of strong fencing.  Make pro-active choices with each new piece of information that comes in. Never beat yourself up, about anything. It’s utterly counter-productive.

You are an animal, and nothing if not flexible, adaptable and able to learn. It will be different next time, and the time after, and the time after that.

And if the idea of having to carry on writing and writing and writing in order to learn, seems too much, or uninteresting, perhaps it’s time to re-consider your life path as a storyteller. Whereas, if the idea of taking the material that is words, and shaping it, appeals to you, well, this storytelling lark is most definitely for you. Do it for the sheer love of the materials in your hands, and the joy of the surprise of every new form that emerges.

All good wishes for the writing of the first draft. Trust that the animal that is your wild words knows who it is. It knows its territory. Don’t think it’s either all your responsibility, or all your fault. Neither are true. You’re just along for the ride. Hold on tight.

Why not post a victorious photo of yourself in the Facebook group, clutching it in your hand! 

 

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

What Are Your Wild Words?

Wild words are the words that want to be heard and seen - as opposed to the ones that you want to write.

They are the ones you keep caged in the depths of your soul. They are the ones that you sometimes hear crying, or, even worse, which have forgotten how to cry. They are the words which leak out, or which sabotage your life, in so many realised and unrealised ways. They are as often words of joy, and peace, as they are words of sorrow or anger. The wild words are the one story that needs to be told, the answering call to the yearning of your heart and soul. There are as many kinds of wild words as there as creatures on this earth. They vary as much in looks as the elephant and the mouse, and behave in as many different ways. Wild words are not necessarily big and loud and emotional. They might cause a stampede when they arrive. But it’s equally likely that they’ll slide in quietly, flutter their way on to your page, or jostle at your elbow.

Wild words are fiction and non-fiction and transcend the two. They are poetry and prose and transcend the two.

Wild words can be, but are not necessarily, profound. Sometimes they prefer to be shallow, fickle and superficial.

They do not take any account of ‘the market’ (but then the greatest novelists never did either). They do not necessarily use the writing tools that you’ve been taught. Nor do they necessarily follow ‘good’ writing practice (although strangely they often end up as ‘great writing’ without all those supports). Sometimes it is agonising and exhausting to give birth to them, but equally often it is a joyful experience as they slip out almost unaided.

The one thing you can be quite sure of is that they won’t be what you expect. What you expect is what your thinking mind is encouraging you to write. The thinking mind likes tame words because they are no threat. They allow us to stay well within our comfort zone. Writing truly wild words involves facing fears. What the thinking mind fears, it won’t support you to conceptualise. That means we have to find a new approach.

For now, the only thing we can know for sure is that to undertake a mission to meet and reclaim the wild words is to go on a journey into the unknown, with all the associated hopes and fears.

The Weekly Prompt

Think about what you expect your wild words to be like. What would be the opposite of those expectations? Allow the answers to find you, rather than hunt them down.

This article was first published on July 18th 2013