Why Write Outdoors?

Why it is that I love to write outdoors?

At first I was just desperate to unchain myself from my desk, break out of the building, and write in nature. I craved seeing something other than a computer screen. I wanted to feel the movement of the pen again, instead of just the striking of keys.

I wanted to free up the qualities of ‘wild’ in myself and my words- expressiveness, spontaneity, the untamed, the intuitive. I dreamed of becoming the writer that I’d always wanted to be. Writing begins with living.  How could I write in full colour, if I wasn’t living in full colour?

Once out there, stripped of the trappings of society, I felt I could be more honestly myself, and that my words could be more honestly themselves too. I found that surrounded by movement, my words gained a sense of movement and drama too. When I explored and went into unknown territory, my words followed hot on my tail.

The closer I looked at the minutiae of nature, in order to describe it in words, the more vivid the outdoor world became, and the more I needed to express what it, and its salvation meant to me. It’s a virtuous circle. Not only is great writing enabled by living fully and vibrantly, living is also enabled by bringing our attention to a writing subject that embodies those qualities. Picking out details of nature to describe, I saw that everything was hitched to everything else in the universe. The world was indeed in a grain of sand, and the ocean in a drop of water.

And above everything else, I love to write outdoors because it is truly the most joyous experience. In the words of American poet, E.E. Cummings, the world becomes ‘mud-luscious and puddle-wonderful’. There is no better feeling than when my words canter on the broad savannah, dive deep in the dark ocean, and swoop in the vast blue sky. 

Photograph courtesy of Peter Reid.

The Weekly Prompt

Why are you a writer-in-the wild? Please write and tell me about it.

This article was first published on May 14th 2013

The Story You Need To Tell

At Wild Words, we view your words as a wild animal, warm-blooded and dynamic.

To extend the metaphor, each type, or genre of storytelling can be viewed as an individual species of wild creature. Each has unique characteristics. For example, the rhythm and movement of poems, despite their differences, will have something in common, as will the rhythm and movement of all novels, despite their differences. Some species will be bigger and louder than others, some will move faster, and others slower.

But of course, individual pieces of work, your individual project- will be unique animal within the subset of a species. If a poem or novel has certain characteristics, your particular novel will jump off the page in an absolutely unique way.

Becoming a storyteller in-the-wild is first about looking at the overall tendencies of wild words in general, and then at the similarities and differences between species of wild words. After that it’s about relating that to the individual, the living, breathing creature that is the specific story that you need to tell.

Sometimes I open workshops by asking participants ‘what’s the story that you need to tell?’ Invariably, the answers include the cup half-empty ones such as ‘the story of the damage done to me by my father/mother/ siblings/children’ or, the cup half-full ones such as‘ how I survived/succeeded in my life…’

These are all valid answers to give, and valid stories to tell. And I do believe that we each have a story we need to tell. However, the story that we need to tell will be different on different days, or even at different hours, and it will change form.

We need to tell stories in order to survive and to thrive. Those stories will find their way out, one way or another. They can take many guises. Our organism and unconscious speak in symbols, so our story may come to us in symbolic form. This we call ‘fiction’. That system of signs will be representative of an emotional, biological, psychic journey that we need to do. It might also manifest as what we’d describe as ‘life writing’: biography or autobiography.

Whatever form it takes, the story will be, at the root, about that need to discharge energy from the nervous system, and to rehearse problem solving. We may well not consciously know the ‘true’ story we need to tell, and it is often better not to chase it down if we don’t. A wild animal chased, runs away to hide, after all.

There is no one unchanging story. Different stories may embody the same ‘truth’ or authenticity’ at different times in our lives. There is nothing to be despondent about in this fact. We’ll recognise our story when we find it, despite the fancy dress that it wears. Again, it comes back to developing trust in the process. Then, when our story appears, even if it surprises us by its shape or size, we will know it, instinctively. We will know it despite the fact that, often, it’s not the same story that the rational mind was planning to tell on our behalf.

Your life is unique- the way you negotiate what life throws at you, and the way you will write about it, is unique. On this course, that uniqueness will be valued and nurtured. Your ability to trust that individuality when you tell stories, is the key to your success.

The Role of Passion In Writing

Storytelling, certainly when approached as a habit or profession, is not always easy. It necessitates that we encounter and overcome fears. It needs us to learn to be a good support to ourselves, and to stand steady in the face of the questioning of others. It requires that we are receptive and proactive, patient and persevering.

What will keep us going when all else fails, is passion for our subject. The first thing to bear in mind as you think about which story idea to work with is: write about something that you really want to write about. That you love. That rocks your boat and swings you to the stars. Don’t let your rational mind talk you into writing about something more sensible, marketable, money-spinning, safe, or more like what your mother wants to read.  Those aren’t the stories that work best, or get a standing ovation from an audience. Nor are they the novels that sell.

In the words of Ray Bradbury…

Love. Fall in love and stay in love. Write only what you love, and love what you write. The key word is love. You have to get up in the morning and write something you love, something to live for.

And from the glorious mouth of Maya Angelou…

You can only become truly accomplished at something you love. Don’t make money your goal. Instead pursue the things you love doing and then do them so well that people can’t take their eyes off of you.

In my experience storytellers don’t usually have a shortage of ideas. We do, however, often have trouble choosing which idea to start writing, and then to follow through to completion. Finishing what we started is what makes us feel good about ourselves. Holding the finished book, transcript or article in our hands is health-giving. The confidence we gain from having completed an idea is what encourages us to tell more stories, and continue honing our skills until we become the storyteller that we dream of being. We create a virtuous circle.

It’s important, when choosing the idea to work with, not to become fearful, and therefore rigid around the options. It can help to realise that the success of a story is much more determined by how you write it, than what the initial idea was. The power of a story is in how you imbue it with emotion. It’s about how you bring it to life using sensory impressions. It’s also about how you grip the reader at the outset, and enable them to walk in the shoes of the character through the story. It’s about tension and about pace. Don’t bother waiting for the idea of the century. You only need to choose a story that is ‘good enough’, and then work your magic on it.

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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.


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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.


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