Ten Experiences of Wild

The Red Admiral butterfly flitting on to my hand, and settling a moment to dust his wings. Feeling touched by magic….

The sound of the Wild Boar cracking fallen walnuts and snorting, close to the house…

The necklace of Lapis Lazuli I was given by my boyfriend. It’s silver veins sparkling like sunlight on water. Feeling loved…

The warm wind from the tropics whipping round me, caressing my skin, and spinning golden autumn leaves into a whirlwind…

Standing in the Negev desert, when there was nothing but gently undulating sand in every direction. Nothing had ever seemed so vast…

Diving into a wide river, my whole body being gently pulled and pushed by its flow, and the duck gliding serenely past…

Lying down in a wildflower meadow in the mountains of the Pyrenees, and the shock of smelling strong wild garlic…

In France, hearing a high yelp from above me. My head snapping up to see a huge golden eagle circling in the limitless sky above, eyeing me up as prey…

The delight of the moment when they delivered the new coffee table to my first house. Running my hand along the grain of the wood, and smelling pine…

Standing, awestruck, in Devon, in the dark of the night, close to the roaring sea. The waves rearing up before me at twice my height. The moonlight catching the spray that flicks, cold into my face…

Photograph courtesy of Peter Reid.

This article was first published on December 20th 2012

A Room of My Own: Alice Penfold

A room is far more than four walls.

It is only the combination of physical room (a calm and creative environment to encourage words to emerge) with emotional room (time and space of mind to allow ideas to flourish) that a writer can truly begin to be.

That phrase, ‘A Room of My Own’ inevitably makes me think of Virginia Woolf: her passionate essay, ‘A Room of One’s Own’ (1929) remains one of my main inspirations, as a feminist, a writer and a feminist writer. Her ‘room’ was a cry for women to have the physical space and financial means to pursue writing careers, as well as the metaphorical room to become writers in the context of a patriarchal society.

Although my definition of a writer’s ‘room’ is extends beyond Woolf’s twentieth century context, I still draw inspiration from her magical way with words. Like Woolf, I need a literal room of my own. A designated physical space will not be the same for every writer; many writers (myself included) may write in multiple spaces, from silent desks to chatty coffee shops.

What is essential is that a writer sets aside these locations to give writing a chance to grow away from the pressures and pace of everyday bustle.

Woolf’s inspirational nature imagery, peppered throughout her essay, helps me to understand the more abstract meaning of a room. Writing, Woolf believes, allows us to “dream over books and loiter at street corners and let the line of thought dip deep into the stream Woolf’s “stream”, like the concept of a “room” itself, is both literal and conceptual; we must allow time and space to fully observe every colour and detail of our natural world in order for creativity to fully flow.

A mind extends beyond four walls. A story is like a human; it needs air to breathe and the opportunity to develop. We can wander through the natural world, soak up every sensual detail, before returning to our physical, designated writing locations.

A Room of My Own is a place to physically play with stories and sentences, as well as a metaphorical place, giving the mind time and space to properly see the inspiration of our surroundings, setting aside the distractions of modern life so our writing can blossom. Fiction is, in Woolf’s words, “a spider’s web”: easy to break, hard to make, yet undoubtedly worth the work.

Using The Senses

The Wild Words on the page use a range of sensory data: colours, smells, tastes, sounds, textures.

Colour does not predominate, but takes its appropriate place. Like the experience of watching a film, the world created is vivid and alive. The words stay true to the writers’ maxim ‘show, don’t tell’. Using sensory detail is one way of ‘showing’ events, of enabling the listener or reader to feel they are there, experiencing what the narrator is experiencing. In doing this, the scene and characters imprint powerfully on the page and on the readers’ mind.

‘The Waves’ by Virginia Woolf, includes fabulous use of sensory impressions.

Flower after flower is specked on the depths of green.  The petals are harlequins.  Stalks rise from the black hollows beneath.  The flowers swim like fish made of light upon the dark, green waters. I hold a stalk in my hand.  I am the stalk.  My roots go down to the depths of the world, through earth dry with brick, and damp earth, through veins of lead and silver. 

How do you feel as you read the above extract? When we read something, the physical experience is no different from if we’d experienced it first hand. As the animal that we are, when we read a list, the Wernicke’s area of the brain, involved in processing language, will light up. But when we read a description containing all the senses, many other regions of the brain get involved, including the auditory, visual and olfactory areas. The listener or reader is offered a much richer and enjoyable experience when we bring the senses into play.  They also remember our words for a much longer time.

Tracking The Wild Words

As the storyteller, in order to track the wild words, we must practice to awaken all our senses, and then be alive to the data offered up to us by our environment. Separately, we must also work to expand our vocabulary of words that describe sensory experience. When we practice experiencing and fitting to language the vivid sensory impressions around us, then they take their place in our imaginary repertoire, ready to be called upon for any story occasion, fiction or non-fiction. We use them instinctually. Then our stories and writing start to behave like the wild animal, like The Cat. They are wild words.

Apart from the powerful effect it has on the reader, being aware of the sensory impressions around us, and using them in oral stories and on the page, has an important benefit for the storyteller.  As leading neuroscientists such as Jaak Panksepp now recognise, contact with the senses helps to ground and dissipate fears about the writing process. Fear is a product of thoughts about the past and the present. When we are literally ‘brought to our senses’, we are much less frightened. This is an important step on the road to being a great storyteller. So ground your writing, to ground your fears, and that, in turn will ground your stories further.

The Fears

As writers I believe we have a fear of being in the real world. The sort of person (and I include myself in this), who uses their imagination to escape when real life is too much, is the sort of person who becomes a storyteller. Nothing wrong with that, it’s a healthy strategy for keeping us safe when life is difficult. But to tell stories really well we need to cultivate the opposite also, to find a balance between the inspiration that comes from our inner worlds, and that which comes from outside.

Contact with the present moment is quite scary. We realise we can’t control it. We begin to notice unpleasant thoughts, and see and hear things that frighten us. We are afraid that we will be attacked and destroyed (by our memories as much as by external threats). We often choose to isolate ourselves, because we feel safer. It’s more comfortable to live in a place of mild (or severe) dissociation, or retreat into our imaginations. 

When we do this we’re no different to the caged tiger. His world is colourless and textureless. His sense of smell, taste, hearing, touch and sight are blunted by years of absence of stimulus. In the same way he no longer has access to the sensory clues that in the wild would keep him safe, we no longer have the vocabulary to describe our sensory experiences. We can fear confronting this truth. But, of course, we never will have the source material for the vocabulary, unless we go out and look for those wild words.

In order to avoid the fears, our rational minds tell us many things. We convince ourselves that we feel adequately in touch with senses as it is, or that there’s enough excitement in our whitewashed room to be going on with. Or, we tell ourselves that we’re just preparing to start writing for real, once we get the opportunity…

Fear On The Page

If we are afraid to experience and write about sensory impressions, it shows on the page. When we stop using sensory impressions, we are forced to fall back on stereotypes and clichés, to parrot what others have previously said and written. The same things happen in casual conversation, as well as oral storytelling and performance poetry.

How can we expect to create a world in full colour (smell etc.), either in fiction or non-fiction, when we don’t live in full colour (smell etc.)? Is it any wonder that our stories are dull, colourless, textureless, abstract and ungrounded? It’s time to stop believing the chattering mind. The opportunity is now. The wild world and the wild words are out there waiting.

Now it’s your turn to track and find this aspect of the wild words. I’m with you all the way.

 

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.

The photograph at the top of this article is courtesy of Peter Reid. 

A Wordsmith's Process

Being ‘a writer’ is a funny concept. I am certainly a communicator, an expresser, a wordsmith, a purveyor of poetry…

but putting pen to paper, (or fingers to keypad), is most definitely an afterthought, a documentation, of my process, rather than the process itself.

Words emerge in my brain, they linger there and tangle themselves up, repeating. Usually on walks, when there is a rhythm to meter-by and a safe-space for mental foraging.

Partly, I think it’s a bad-habit; one that comes from a need to be distracted from presence or engagement in the moment; an absenting, that keeps me meditatively consumed with the puzzle of listing rhyme possibilities… But it’s also a tool for healing and processing, allowing new conclusions and perspectives to emerge, just by having an openness to which words arise and fit. I have often surprised myself with revelations of awareness, just for the sake of a punchline, the right metaphor or simply the right sound.

For me, it’s a game something like intellectual Lego.

I will get interested in some accidental phrase I overhear; “oh look, that’s been randomly abandoned” “it’s spread over various areas”; and that is all I need to set off… it’s something about my auditory tendancy, my capacity for memorising, and a love of playing with sounds and meaning; each phrase a conundrum of how to place the most pleasing phonics in pursuit of the underlying conveyance. And whaddya know, when I shared them, people seemed to like it! It was never intentional.

If you gave me a desk and an empty page I really wouldn’t know where to begin. Or, if I consciously wanted to work through an issue via poetry, my efforts would most likely be scratchy and unfinished cliché; doomed to get eternally-filed with other tedious and well-intended homeworks. My poems happen to me, like a hiccup. Before I can devise or command them. In this way they are like the mythical lightning-bolt of inspiration, and I envy those writers who have the craft at their own behest, able to produce in alignment with purpose or demand. I have had many a moment of inadequacy in my own workshops, when the work that comes to me under the pressure and limitations of exercises I myself have set, is so blatantly not representative of the public-face of my work...

So yes, come walking… share with me your most-satisfying juxtapositions of syllables…

but when I start glazing over and mumbling to myself, just don’t expect me to maintain a coherent conversation. Im probably thinking about ‘hoover manoeuvres’ or ‘runaway onions’ and apparently, that’s an artist at work.

From the archive: Wild In The City (Part 2)

I went walking througris in search of the wild. I stopped on Pont Neuf, and let the tide of commuters flow past me.  As I recited my mantra of the day ‘wild, wild, wild’, the strangest thing happened. A small brown mouse came out from under the bulwark of the bridge and sat by my feet, cleaning his whiskers. Where I live, in rural Southern France, a wild animal is gone if your tread snaps a twig, or even before that. But this was a town mouse, used to noise and bustle, fearless.

But there was another place I found wild in the city, and that was in one of the homeless people I saw on the streets. It was a head scarfed young woman, and she was turning circles in the street, shouting words I didn’t understand. A dog on a lead followed her movements, yelping excitedly.

You can spot the quality of wild by how we react to it. We are scared of it, because it isn’t kept in check by the straightjacket of the rational mind. It is instinctual, emotional, energised. That makes us nervous.

I knew the quality of wildness was present because I saw Parisians look at her as if she wasn’t there, or walk in wide circles to avoid her. I had difficulty not doing the same. I noticed I immediately judged her to be ‘mad’ or similar. Because if she was mad, then I was sane. She was doing life wrong, and I was doing it right.

And I asked myself: what aspects of myself am I not acknowledging when I locate all the emotional unpredictability, or all the madness in someone else?  How can I take back the parts of myself I’ve disowned, so that I can write from the broadest emotional spectrum? I want my writing can be mad and unpredictable when required, instead of always sane and predictable.

This article was first published on December 14th 2012

Preparing For The Arrival Of The BIG IDEA

The wild words on the page are a wonderful unfolding mystery.

Information is revealed, according to what will impact the listener or reader most powerfully. At times they are surprised and delighted. At times they are shocked and frightened. The words hook them and entice them onward, pulling them further into the created world, as they wait to see what will be around the next corner. Wild words contain moments of revelation, like the best Haiku (A poem of Japanese origin composed of three lines of 5,7 and 5 syllables).

If I’d the knack
I’d sing like
cherry flakes falling.
               -Basho ‘Haiku’

While the 'aha moment'- that moment in which we look in wonder at the world around us, is a defining feature of Haiku, those revelations occur equally in the epic novel or the autobiography.

Tracking The Wild Words

To track the wild words we must shape our words into narrative. But at first we have just a sense of the potential, of the drama that will play out on our page. It’s elusive. A shadow in the trees. Exciting and enticing because it is unknown, ungrasped.

Eugene Gendlin, the founder of ‘Focusing’, talks about,

‘Spending time with something in your experiencing that’s not yet clear’

The free storyteller, like the free wild cat, has a vast world to explore- the world they create (or remember) in their head. The process of writing should also feel like driving a car in a dark lane. We see only what the headlights reveal and illuminate in each moment. When the wordsmith feels surprised, and delighted by the process of living, the words reflect that, and in turn surprise and delight the reader. When they feel the wonderful mystery of the unfolding of the creative process, the words are transcendent, imbued with that mystery. When they are scared of what will come next, or shocked by the characters revealing information to them, so too is the reader.

It’s about being taken by the world we create, rather than having to coerce and bully it into existence. It’s about allowing the characters to come and tell us their stories, rather than forcing words from their mouths.

The Fears

So much for the aspiration to be a wordsmith who meets the unknown with the countenance of a fearless warrior, but that’s not always our story- or not yet. To do so, we have to be willing to let the whole of our embodied experience show us the way, not just our heads. That can seem new and strange. The idea of returning to a way of functioning that is more instinctual scares the rational mind. It is terrified of not being in control. After all, if our thoughts, those chattering words in our heads, weren’t telling us what to do- who would be in control of what happened next?

What do you think would happen if you unlocked the cage of a circus tiger, and threw open the door? I’d like to imagine it would bound out and turn ecstatic circles, overjoyed to be free, before sniffing the ground until it got a whiff of the jungle, and high tailing it back to the wild, eternally grateful to its liberator. The reality, I think, would be a little different. Unnerved by the change in circumstances, the tiger would either cower in the corner of the cage, frozen with fear, or, its fear would flip into anger, as it attacked the threat- you. Like any captive animal, the tiger is terrified when its cage is opened. It fears the unknown of the free world. After all, the cage is all it knows.

Us caged writers are no different. We think that we want to escape the frustration, anger, and disappointment that accompany not the being the wordsmith we aspire to be, but we cling to those familiar feelings, even if they’re unpleasant. We yearn to write in a way that’s unfettered, spontaneous, and more instinctual, but it’s unfamiliar and therefore terrifying.

Fear On The Page

When we look at our writing, we can spot the outcome of a fear of going into the unknown.  Do the words on your page seem predictable? Do you know what’s going to happen at the end before you’ve got halfway through the writing? Is there an absence of surprise and delight on the page? Or conversely, of shock and horror? Are you yawning as you write? Might the yawn of the agent or publisher explain your struggle to get published? Might the yawn of your family explain the ‘polite’ response to your memoirs?

Becoming The Wild Writer

Don’t get me wrong, some level of routine and familiarity is essential to being a good storyteller. I’m not suggesting that you throw the baby out with the bathwater. We all have our odd little habits that provide safety and containment to our writing process. To give you an example from my own process: unless it’s boiling hot, I nearly always wear a hat when I write. Cosy-ness around my head helps me to relax :-)

When I talk on this subject at writer’s festivals, I’m often assailed by the following cry: How do we know what’s what? Can’t you just tell us which habits and routines support us, and which are undermining our stories? Most writing teachers, in most situations, would do just that, and tell you. The problem with this approach however, is that there is no one correct answer, no one medicine for all. Every storyteller requires a different remedy, or at least a different dosage. Anyone who tells you differently is fooling you, and possibly themselves as well. What I can do is to point you in the direction of the work you need to do to find out for yourself what works for you. I can also support you on the journey. We need to experiment. We need to try things out. We need to see how the changes make us feel, and then work with the emotions that come up.

If you have experiences of failed publication, if your storytelling is uninspired, or uninspiring, if you have six unfinished novels in the bottom drawer- this is certainly the right time to change your habits. And in fact, any time is a good time to try doing things differently. Without trying different approaches, we’ll never know what works for us and what doesn’t, what makes us a better storyteller and what makes us a worse one. Being a good storyteller is as much about knowing ourselves, as about know writing tools and techniques.

And how do we know that we’re making a real change, rather than just moving the furniture around in that room? We know because we feel like we do when we follow the tracks of the tiger- excited, wowed, and a bit scared, not comfortable and lazy like we’re sitting in our favourite armchair. We feel like we want our reader to feel.

The important thing to remember is that you can always retrace your steps.

You can always go back. If you try something and it doesn’t work, then revert back to what you did before. No problem. No loss of pride. Being an explorer is all about trying things and seeing what happens, then re-evaluating and taking another step. Sometimes we take the next step in the same direction, sometimes in a different one completely.

Certainly, you’re already on the right path. In the very fact that you’re engaged with Wild Words, you’re doing something new, and going into the unknown. Pat yourself on the back, explorer.

 

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A Day In The Life Of A Writer: Jane Eastwood

My biggest issues with my writing are DISCIPLINE and CONFUSION! 

I have so many ideas/projects swimming about it my head that I tend to let them do just that – “swim” and postpone “I will do it tomorrow”.

This is a BIG mistake on my part.  I write better first thing in the morning. That’s okay you might say but if I go to my solitary confinement room (which is essential to me, I can’t cope with interruptions OF ANY KIND when writing) at that time I end up being there sometimes all day long and nothing else gets done.

Consequently – I have an additional“guilt” factor running around in my mind too.

I think “Must get the hovering/washing/ironing” done BEFORE I write which is FATAL as by the time I have done all the menial tasks I am way beyond wanting to write anything at all.

During household chores I try to simplify the confusion of “where to start” and “categorise” these projects – I want to write a book about my disability which is profound deafness. I am also currently “blogging”.  My youngest son will be forty soon, I have had a family tree made so imminently the PRIORITY is that I MUST write an accompanying history of the family to complete the birthday gift.

I tend to work much better with this kind of “deadline” which comes back to “discipline.”  I know I will discipline myself to complete that project because in my mind I “have to do it”.  I get lazy about the blog and don’t keep up with it regularly enough so when I update that it tends to be an all day project.  That leaves little time for my book on disability.

I benefitted so much from working with Bridget on courses exactly because there were deadlines to fulfil.

I need to make rules and I need to adhere to them for example, I could set aside certain days of the week for writing.

That said I find “spontaneity” is an essential tool for my writing so once again I am confronted with another dilemma, discipline and rules versus spontaneity.  Tricky.

The strangest phenomenon of all is totally inexplicable to me. Writing is the EASIEST PART! When I write it just “flows” and all gets poured on to the page with ease.  Getting my head around all these other challenges is what “blocks” me. 

A Storyteller's Process: Vanessa Horn

With ‘Tints and Tinges’, I wanted to explore the theme of communication without words;

if someone was let down badly by the spoken exchange, was it possible that they might look to another form of perception as an alternative? In the case of the protagonist, she substitute words for colours. However, she eventually trusts these to such an extent that they begin to dominate the way she feels and thinks, eventually leading her to rely purely on them and refusing to speak.  

I like to write at my desk in the music room, as it is at the front of the house, enabling me to ‘people watch’. However, this summer I am having a log cabin built in my garden and I am expecting this to become my new writing sanctuary, where I will hopefully be visited by the hedgehogs and foxes which frequent the area.     

Vanessa Horn,  one of the three runners-up in the Wild Words Winter Solstice Writing Competition 2016, with 'Tints and Tinges'. This is her winning story:

Tints and Tinges

I was about eight years old when I realised that words couldn’t be trusted. It was first thing on a bright June morning when my mother, limited in pleasantries and cavalier in manner, announced, “Your father has moved out.” The language itself was simple – comprehensive - but the sensations I received from her were not. No, these took the form of colour: pulsating, vibrant shades of red which were as blistering as the centre of our hearth fire, flames licking at log-edges, waiting to erupt and scald any innocent passer-by. Communicative. Dramatic. It was then that I recognised it was colour which expressed the truth. Not words.

With colour, there was just enough shade-range to gauge every nuance and sensation that you needed. No more, no less. Example: next doors terrier, Lucy. The russet brown which shone from her told me she was ready to play. And from Smokey-Smudge, my lop-eared rabbit; when I sensed his delicate shade of blue, I knew that he was hungry or lonely. Animals were easy. My peers, too, really, once they’d established I wasn’t going to interrupt or argue with them anymore. Their fickle flashes of sense-colours allowed me to quickly assess their moods, their auras. Inevitably, I became more popular, the girl who complied. Albeit silently.

Of course, the adults made the most fuss about my elective mutism. My teachers correctly – but perhaps not for the reasons they perceived - blamed my silence on the abrupt departure of my father. Immediately, they went all out, hauling in the Ed Psych and every other official they could lay their hands on, to ‘cure’ me. Considering how many times I’d previously been reprimanded for chatting, you’d think they’d have appreciated the sudden silence. Encouraged it, even. But no, they had to investigate. To attempt a resolution. Looking back, I suppose, in a strange sort of way, I appreciated this intense attention, quite enjoying my mysterious status.

Being wordless had other advantages too. At home each day, when Mother had finally exhausted her freshly-found cleaning regime, we got used to sitting together companionably, watching TV (me: pale blue) and staring into the fire (Mother: a simmering brown). Now that I wasn’t talking, she didn’t seem to feel the need – as previously - to talk at me, either. We seemed to have a new understanding. It was undemanding. Peaceful. Did that mean my father had been the instigator of all previous arguments and rows? Well, probably not; looking back, it was probably the combination of the two of them – mismatched personalities, most likely. Maybe I had my part to play as well. Who knew? But, regardless, I valued the new serenity, all the same. 

Communicating wasn’t a problem. Not while I used my colour palette. I thought in colours, dreamt in colours. Expressed myself by using colours, not just in my painting (although I did actually do this on a daily basis) but in my head as well. It was a new life. One which worked for me: it didn’t let me down.

Until one day, some months later. Again, it was in the morning, but this time I had already left the house and was ambling my way to school. A little less popular by this stage – after all, I had been mute for over a term now, and the novelty of a silent me had definitely worn off – I was by myself, dawdling, daydreaming. At some point, I noticed the small tabby cat wandering along the pavement. Instantly, I could sense the colours around him, just like when I’d first starting experiencing colours. Shades of red. Danger. Menace. I didn’t recognise exactly why at first; it wasn’t until he neared the edge of the pavement that I realised he was going to cross the road. The heavily traffic-laden road.

I opened my mouth to yell a warning. But my unpractised vocal chords retaliated after so many days of silence, emitting nothing more than squeaking. A pathetic and diluted grey – no use to anyone. Not least a traffic-oblivious cat. My heart pumping even faster now – I had to warn the animal - I tried again. With much more energy. And accompanied by a deep, rich black: anxiety and desperation. This time, although not quite a shout, my voice was louder – “Stop!” This time the cat heard me. Looked around. Then, with a swish of his tail, darted back the way he had come, towards the hedges and away from the traffic. From danger. He was safe. My legs suddenly wobbly, I sank onto the ground by my satchel, watching the animal slink into the distance, oblivious to the hazard he’d so nearly faced.    

After that, I got it. Well, more than I had previously, anyway; most importantly, I understood that I couldn’t change the way things were, and certainly not then, when I was only a child. That my self-enforced silence made no real difference to anyone, least of all me. Seems obvious now, I know. But I didn’t realise then that the world didn’t revolve around me. That what is said isn’t always what’s meant. Why would I?

After I’d used my voice again, there didn’t seem to be any point in continuing to be mute. It may have been due to the cat or perhaps it was just that I had come to terms with my loss; even though I didn’t know at that point that my father had actually left us to live with another woman, maybe I’d realised that lies – black or white – can be how people get through life. So I began to speak again. Initially so softly that only the closest in proximity could hear me. Understand me. But it was a start, I suppose. A re-emerging into humanity. However, even after I’d started talking again, I never did entirely trust words. I still don’t. I continue to rely predominantly on colours for my understanding and intuition. After all, they tell the truth. Always.