From the archive: Hunting For Mushrooms

We head into the dark centre of the forest, where even the intense sunlight of Southern France can only sometimes penetrate, freckling the ground. The tall, skinny pines wave wildly in the wind. Underfoot is a spongy layer of pines cones, decaying leaves and the bristling shells of last year’s chestnuts. Everything is mud brown, except the swathes of green ferns that fill the clean mountain air with a smell like freshly cut grass.

To find the small, late season Girolle mushrooms, I will have to learn how to really SEE. The more I can see, the better I will write. I clamber over fallen tree trunks. Creepers lasso my feet. The ferns give way under me and I sink into the swamp. The pine branches that I grab for are hollow, and break off in my grazed hands. There’s an area of newly crushed ferns the size of a large pig. The Sanglier (wild boar), have been there.

There is no sun to steer by now and I am disorientated. It’s difficult to scan the ground and stay in touch with my companions at the same time. I lose sight of them, and the sound of them fades away too. Fear spikes me. Then I hear the screeching, the rasping of wild creatures. The fear is terrible for a moment, but there is no-where to run to, so I just stay put. I listen to the sounds, increasingly awe-filled.

After a time something shifts, and I realise I’m doing what I went there to do. The wildness is no longer ‘out there’. I’m no longer pushing it away. And what I’ve experienced I will be able to express later in words. A human call rescues me, reassures me. Apparently the noises are just the stems of trees rubbing against each other in the wind. I’m almost disappointed. Back to the treasure hunt.

Several times in the next three hours I trumpet with joy one minute, only to deflate the next. I find a mushroom whose stem excretes milk. There’s another one that under its fleshy umbrella is flecked with red, like spilt wine. But both of these are dangerous, not to be touched.

Then, at last I spy Girolles, their sandy yellow canopies blossoming out of the moss. And the elation answers all the fears. When I eat one it tastes, surprisingly, of pepper. I take the harvest home with me, and later, the vivid experience of the day works its way through me and out, weaving itself into words.

First Published November 6th 2012

A Storyteller's Process: Cathy Fagg


Running and story-telling; two sisters in the same body, playing and fighting, cuddling and sulking, sometimes let out, sometimes told to keep quiet for the sake of the grown-up work-a-day world.

As a child, running and story-telling were as easy as breathing. I grew up in Kenilworth and in the long summer days I would play with my flesh-and-blood sisters in Crackley Woods, Abbey Fields and Kenilworth Castle, creating elaborate fantasies of knights and maidens, boarding schools and desert islands, battlefields and homes. Sometimes we would take these adventures into the adult world, acting out little plays and ballets to captive audiences.

Movement was story, story was movement. 

As I learnt to read and write story-telling became an exercise, submitted to a teacher for marking. Running was confined to sports fields and occasional cross-country routes. Now a teenager, it was uncool to sweat. To avoid bullying I learnt to speak with hate of what I loved. At home I took the dog for long walks; out of sight in the woods, running was our sneaky treat. On the way home I told her stories of everything that mattered to me.

Keats broke through my cool: his nightingale call bewitched me. Shakespeare crept up on me, disguised as O and A level set texts; Macbeth and Lear ploughed up my mind. The Oxbridge entrance exam concealed the wicked delights of a Midsummer Night’s Dream. I dared not tell such tales; I began to believe that story-telling, like running, was what other, greater, people did. Studying English Literature under the faded aegis of Leavis taught me to critique but not to create.

I told stories again in those gorgeous, messy, finger-painting years when my children were small. I ran with them in parks and gardens. Then they started school and I surrendered too easily to the pressures of work and parenting.

I dreamt that time of another child. A feral girl, rank and unkempt.

Unsocialised she knew no rules but she had a cat-like knowledge of cause and effect, doing what she had to do to stay alive. And like a cat, if I was quiet she would sit on my lap. I never heard her speak but her eyes, her eyes held all the truths I had forgotten. I was in therapy at that time, exploring my own story, and as I prepared to leave that space, my body urged me to run. Living in Cliftonwood, where Bristol edges up to the Avon Gorge, I would run over the Suspension Bridge into ancient woodlands, open parklands, fields and streams.

Inspired by Robert Macfarlane I searched for the wild in my everyday and found it in the greedy thrusting of life through order; dandelions in concrete, a hare in winter stubble. I joined an off-road running club and we shared adventures. I ran beyond the streetlights into darkness. I ran through streams and bogs. I ran hills. I ran barefoot. I got injured and recovered, slowly learning to trust my body, to stay with it, to love it, to listen to it.

I re-found the wild in me.

Struggling with a job in the health service that sometimes sucked me dry, I asked myself what, if I died tomorrow, would I regret. My body told me I did not write. So retired, I write and I run. When I am stuck in my story-telling I go for a run. The rhythm soothes my anxious mind. My thoughts float free. The sunlight shifts, a deer startles; I wonder, I run. If I let my mind wander my body will fall, so I trust that when ideas emerge, my body will carry those thoughts until I next sit down to write. I run on, cursing the brambles, slipping in the mud and rain, enjoying the struggle.

Running and story-telling; two sisters in the same body, rubbing along together, sometimes squabbling but knowing how to make up, sometimes playing and knowing how to make up stories together. 

Detail and Distance

In wild words moments of high tension, drama and emotion are described in detail, in order to give the listener or reader the opportunity to really feel. Conversely, mundane events in the story, that serve only to shift the reader from one location to another, or from one time to another, or to convey necessary information, are summarised. In this way the words on the page are always passionate and powerful, and the story flows.

Tracking the Wild Words

‘Get too close and he’ll run, or attack. Stay too far away and you’ll lose him in the forest. You need to find that edge of staying steady in the face of your fear of him’.

When we tell stories, we have to make choices around when to summarise the action, and when to go into close descriptive detail, i.e. when to report a whole conversation, and when to just give the reader the gist of things via a single quote.

It’s useful to think in filmic terms here. Often in a film we start with a long/wide shot to orient the reader to the setting, and then move into closer shots, to capture moments of drama and emotion. Sometimes, it can be more impactful to open with a close shot and then pull back to reveal the setting slowly. Either way, and whatever genre we write in, we want to be close-up for times of high tension.

If we want to emphasise, for example, a significant hand gesture made by a character, we effectively create a close-up, in words, on their hand. We do this by describing it in great detail. And if, for example, we want to skim over events because they are not crucial to the plot, we effectively give the reader a verbal wide-shot. We do this by summarising events. This scales down the reader’s interest and attention.

Similarly to tracking an animal in the wood, in our story we need to give the listener or reader enough contextual information that they are oriented to the environment we are describing, but not too much, or they get bored. Remember that the receiver is mostly interested in how the lead character goes about achieving what they want to achieve, and how they succeed or fail at each step.  Primarily, they want to feel, through engaging with emotional journey of the hero. 

The Fears

When our choices around detail and distance are conditioned by fear, they are random. After all, if we keep moving, keep running away, we don’t have time to feel scared. And we don’t have to stay with the uncomfortable feelings. But in doing so we also avoid emotional contact with our subject.

It’s frightening to get close to what we fear. That makes us vulnerable.  We fear making a mistake and our story being ridiculed. To deal with the fear we sometimes absolve ourselves from responsibility for our storytelling process and decide to follow the advice of a writing tutor, or other expert, or a book on technique. We also often do one of the following things: either we write always in close detail, or we always summarise.

Fear On The Page

On the page a rigid system is put in place. The listener is either exhausted or bored by the intensity of the unending details. Alternatively, they feel far from the actions, and can’t touch the heart of the emotional story. Either way the narrative ends up predictable, and lacking in drama. The reader feels they don’t know some characters well enough, and they know others too well. 

It doesn't have to be like that. Do it differently to awaken the Wild Words.

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In The Mouth

A talented student of mine sent me this wonderful poem. It’s a response to the weekly Writing Prompt, that mentioned the following quote from the Tomas Tranströmer poem ‘From March '79’ ‘Words but no language…language but no words’

 In The Mouth

 First it was like a mustard grain                                                   in the mouth

Then the size of pea rolling about                                                 in the mouth

Lost your words                                                                           in the mouth

And found new ones                                                                    in the mouth

Rattles on her teeth                                                                     in the mouth

And soaks up her spit                                                                  in the mouth

Their stories                                                                                in the mouth

It’s the boulder                                                                            in the mouth

As big as Dog Tor                                                                        in the mouth

It’s grey and old                                                                          in the mouth

Dressed in lichen and moss                                                          in the mouth

Spitting out a collective noun                                                         in the mouth

For language                                                                               in the mouth


Val Shearer

Val’s subject has really resonated with me, as last week I completely lost my voice for two days. I’d been struggling to express myself around a personal issue, when, quite suddenly, it dried up.

It was as if my body was saying ‘I’ve had enough of trying to make myself heard here, so I’m going to stop trying’. As someone who is usually able to mould and craft speech with ease, it was an interesting experience to be voiceless. Initially, there was a sense of peace in not needing to try and influence those around me via the spoken word. Then, my hands took over and conversed with gestures. We human beings are creative in finding routes to self-expression.

I found the silence restful- for the first day, that is. But then I started having to cancel meetings. My computer provided an outlet for my growing frustration as I stamped each word hard into my keyboard. I was suddenly struck, as if I’d never realised it before, by the immense value of being able to write. That ability to express on the page released a sense of relief akin to a mute given a blackboard and chalk (please forgive the stereotype).

Now my voice is back, I’m trying not to forget what the words mean to me.


The Weekly Prompt

Our bodies speak in so many more ways that just via our mouths vocalising. Write about a time when your body, or a certain part of your body, communicated to you- for example through pain, absence of pain, movement, stiffness etc… What was it trying to say? You might also find it interesting to write a monologue from the point of view of a part of your body. You might be surprised at what it communicates.

This article was first published on 21st May 2013

Photograph courtesy of Peter Reid.

Telling The Story In Short Form

When wild words are present...The elements of the story are familiar enough to reassure the reader or audience. The plot speaks to their condition, more so for its simplicity and clarity. They are grounded and oriented by the clear setting, and can visualise it in their mind’s eye. They are engaged with the journey of the hero. They are on the edge of their seats because know what the hero has to lose if they doesn’t complete their quest. They recognise the terrifying threat that the opponent represents, and they fear it no less than the hero. They cheer and cry as successive rounds are won and lost by the hero. They are consumed and enchanted by the story, absorbed until the last word.

Tracking The Wild Words

When you’ve come up with your story idea largely from an instinctual place, the next thing is to ensure it has all the elements it needs to make it canter, roar, and, all in all, leap off the page.  

There can be a myth amongst storytellers, especially novel writers, that if you are a storyteller worth your salt, you will be able to sit down and just write the next War and Peace. This, in my experience is very rarely, if ever true. Almost all the greatest storytellers honed the tools of their craft over many years. And those that didn’t were usually doing something that would later help their writing- for example, spending time observing nature or human nature in another context. It may appear that someone becomes an overnight success. It only appears so when we aren’t aware of the six unpublished novels they’ve written before, and the thousands of solitary hours they spent locked in their office.  

The Fears

Storytellers and would-be storytellers who come to my courses attracted by the notion that we are natural or instinctual storytellers sometimes balk at the idea of working consciously with structure. However,  instinct doesn’t come from no-where, it has to be trained. It may look like a small child learns to speak easily, but analyse that process and observe the many thousands of times they practice making each sound. It may look like the bird catches prey in flight effortlessly, but observe the young sea gull drop a stick and swoop to catch it time and time again.

Writers sometimes fear that putting in place a structure for a story before writing it results in a story that is dry, and unoriginal. This is a confusion of the stages of the writing process. Considering basic structure is only the very first stage. It’s like the skeleton of the animal, before the flesh, blood, muscles, and individual character goes on. It’s like the framework of the house before you add wallpaper, furniture etc. The best structural work doesn’t limit you, quite the opposite. Held lightly, it provides you with the safety to follow your instinctual urges, and to let go into the creative flow.

The film writer and director David Mamet uses the analogy of building a house when he talks about the process of storytelling (in this case screenwriting):

I live in a house that’s two hundred years old. Barring some sort of man-made catastrophe, it will be standing in another two hundred years…it’s very difficult to shore up something that has been done badly. You’d better do your planning up front’.
-David Mamet, On Directing Film

Ignore the confidence that structural guidelines can provide you with at your peril. And if that hasn’t convinced you, perhaps this will: Structure is beautiful. It’s the pattern we hold in our bodies and minds that always orients us towards health, the repeated activation and discharge of the nervous system of the hero, as experienced by the writer and therefore the listener/reader.  In storytelling terms it’s like the mathematic laws of the universe. Perfect. Profound. A joy to explore and work with.

Fear On The Page

Wild words that have no appropriately supporting structure live in a cage. They sit terrified in the back of the restrictive space, not feeling safe enough to come out. Our page remains blank. Or, conversely, with nothing to contain them, they rampage across the page destroying the beauty of the form of the story or poem. The storyteller finds they have written 200,000 words instead of the 50,000 they intended- and they’re still only setting the scene! They’ve already used up all their energy and more, so they stop writing, exhausted. They are accompanied by ongoing distress because they haven’t told the story they needed to tell. The book never gets finished.


Becoming The Wild Writer

So now, to give you the safety net and confidence you’ll need to dive into the first draft, we’re going to use structural elements to ensure that your story foundations are rock solid. Remember the Five Elements? Here they are, fleshed out a little more.


The Five Elements

Situation: A specific place and date for your story. Decide this in advance. Even the difference of a few months can change the political and social environment immensely.

Character: This refers to your lead character, your hero or heroine. The best way to tell any story is to use this character’s journey as the backbone of your story. Follow them on their adventure. Set up the audience/reader’s identification with the hero. Once you’ve hooked them you’ll keep them for the rest of the story. The reader doesn’t have to like the hero, but they have to understand what motivates her/him and care about what happens to them.

Objective: Decide what the hero’s goal is, then take her or him step by step on a journey towards that goal. This is the throughline for the story.

There should only be one hero. If there are two people, or more, at the centre of your story, (for example a ‘buddy movie’), then choose one of them to be the hero. Remember, this is for ease of designing the structure. Later in the process you can play with the point of view of the listener or reader and create all sorts of effects. But for now- choose one hero.

A hero works best if they are passionate about what she is trying to get. If this is the case, and the reader/audience are identified with them, then you have a gripping story on your hands! If your story is about a woman who thinks about climbing Everest but doesn’t really mind either way whether she does it, then your audience probably won’t mind much either. If, on the other hand, she’s obsessed with climbing Everest, that’s a much better hook for your audience.

Take the hero step by step towards their goal. At each stage of his journey, we’ll be bearing their overall aim in mind, and asking,

What do they want?

What gets in the way?

Do they succeed or fail?

What gets in the way, at each stage, is the opponent.

Opponent: Also called the antagonist or ‘baddie’. They are what get in the way of what your hero is trying to achieve. It can be a person, a force of nature (such as a tornado), or even a part of the hero themselves (as in stories about mental illness). The important thing is that it is an immovable force. It does not weaken unless or until it is defeated at the end of the story. The hero and the antagonist can be likened to two armies going to war.

Have only ONE opponent. If you split the opponent you weaken the story. The opponent can, however, have servants/minions etc. In Star Wars, for example, Darth Vader is clearly the opponent, although he has many soldiers doing his dirty work for him.

If the opponent is part of the protagonist themselves, this is known as an internal antagonist. An example of this would be a character in a story about mental illness who is doing battle with their internal demons. Internal antagonists are more difficult to write, as they can get easily confused with the protagonist part of themselves. Unless you’re very clear that’s the path for you, stick to an external antagonist.

Disaster: By this I mean ‘what is the disaster for the hero?’ i.e. if they fail to do what they have set out to achieve what do they have to lose? It could be their job, their life, their health or many other things. It needs to be something that is very important to the hero. This is why the listener, reader or audience are invested in them succeeding. They know how much they have to lose if they fail.

These five elements are vital to have in your story idea if you want it to ensnare the reader or audience. These are elements that, as natural storytellers, we know how to insert unconsciously. That doesn’t mean, unfortunately, that they always appear unbeckoned in our stories. As you know, various things can block the creative flow of our storytelling, resulting in the story hatching half-formed.

When you sit down at the desk, or on your favourite tree stump, ready to start your day’s writing, it’s imperative that you have confidence in your project.  For that reason, as well as cultivating our ability to use the key elements instinctually, it’s helpful to look at these elements with the rational mind, and consider whether your story idea has all of them present.  This is a safeguard to make sure you never begin the writing stage of a project without total confidence in its tiger-like strength. Over time, and with the practice afforded, you’ll be less and less likely to unconsciously sabotage your natural storyteller. You’ll increasingly notice how these structural checks, are just that, checks. You’ll be working increasingly from instinct.

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A Room of My Own: Ando McDonnell


A room of my own.

I have no room. No office. No studio. No desk. 

No home.

For the past ten years, I have been nomadic. 

For the past five years, I have lived mostly in the forest. Occasionally in a monastery. Other times in a forest ashram or private hermitage.

A basic, simple, essential life.

Sleeping in old canvas tents in December. 

Graduating to wooden huts, just big enough for a bed, and space to enter and place down your clothes, and stretch in the morning. 

…and back to tents, and tiny caravans.

No electricity.

The floor has long been my desk. 

Often, the forest floor.

Today, my desk, by chance, is twelve foot long solid oak dining table in a Georgian listed building, with full length window opening out onto stone steps down into three acres of grounds. I have been gifted this opportunity for three months.

It’s a long way from the life in a tent, notebook or iPad on the forest floor. 

But it’s no different for me. Except, perhaps, lacking in simplicity. 

I appreciate the luxury of it, whilst knowing it is temporary.

What isn’t?

The funny thing is that whilst sitting at this table, I crave the forest, a place to walk and sit under the pine trees. To listen to and watch the wind flowing through great swathes of eucalyptus trees. My old teachers, the trees.

Instead, I have new teachers. A tall old failing cedar. A fresh young magnolia. Grand old horse chestnut trees, their folded unborn leaves containing hand like leaves, bursting with strength and life force.

How do I write?

There is no how. No method.

Should there be? 

I don’t believe in definitions.

Or frameworks. 

If I believe in something, I believe in being empty and free.

I believe in Zen. 

In poetry.

To write poetry, the truest, most living poetry, is to be empty, like the bamboo.

When the bamboo is empty, hollow, only then can the wind play it’s song through it.

A Zen poet is like this. 

An empty thing, like Chuan Tzu’s Useless Tree.

What purpose do I need to write Zen poetry?


I need to be purposeless. 

Truly purposeless.

And in my case, deskless is part of that.

So today, I write this article from a 12 foot solid oak table in a grand house. 

But in three months, it is scheduled to be a 3 foot tiled cast iron table in a tiny Portuguese villa. 

These places, regardless of shape or size, are always my hermitage.

Because true hermitage is an attitude, not a location.

Do I crave a room of my own?

Yes, sometimes.

But the lack of one has given so much power to the poetry. 

I would like a room of my own, but I don’t need one. 

Just something to write with, when I wake before dawn, with words taking shape inside the hollow bamboo of my being.

The song of the wind.

The song of the wind needs no place of it’s own. 

It’s the movement that creates the song.

Ando is a Zen poet and writer, a former lay forest monk.

From the archive: Tracks

The workshop last Saturday went swimmingly. We based ourselves in a clearing in the woods, and there explored our yearning to connect with the wild, and to write wild words.

We looked also at the fears that sabotage this connection. For the last exercise of the day, we took this quote, by John Stokes, as a starting point for our writing.

‘The earth is a manuscript, being written and unwritten every day’.

The responses to this quote by the participants took my breath away. People wrote, among other things, about the tracks of tears down the face of an ageing woman, the tracks that human beings make on the earth, and the tracks that our words leave behind in the hearts of others.

What I remembered, what I re-learnt on Saturday, is that everything is a track. Everything around us displays the marks of the passage of time.  Every physical, psychological and emotional influence is recorded. The movement of wind and rain carves out patterns in the rock. The patterns of emotion in the human being, over time, bend and mould and shape the muscle and bone of our physical body. Even those things that we call ‘inanimate objects’ are museums of movement, energy fixed in time and space.

There are stories everywhere. We only have to learn to see them.  And from that melting pot of myth and fable, we create new stories, new tracks.

The Weekly Prompt

‘The earth is a manuscript, being written and unwritten every day’.

Write a non-fiction or fiction piece, in prose or poetry, using this quote as a prompt.

First published 29th March 2013

Photograph courtesy of Peter Reid.

A Writer's Process: Sarah Wheeler


Despite working with words every day, mostly I don’t feel like a real writer.

I write a legal text book, reports, and newsletters. There are certain technical skills involved. However, the goal is simple. Impart information. A professional audience wants answers, but they also want to get away quickly.

Creative writing is different, more heart than head. For me, at least, writing freely, bears a little of my soul. Deadlines, word counts, structure can all come into play, but, ultimately, it’s about the journey, rather than the destination. I want the reader to linger, to walk with me.

Sometimes I’ll have a firm idea of where I’m going, but rarely a detailed road map. I’m a slow traveller, who takes a lot of detours. Sometimes I’ll set myself a target, to write so many words in a morning. But the target can distract from the writing. I babble, and end up ruthlessly editing.

 I edit a lot any way. (The right-hand side of my brain kicks in, or I worry about leading the hypothetical reader down countless blind alleys). I am trying to train myself not to edit too much as I go along, but to let my words flow. However, the downside can be pages of unstructured, barely comprehensible, text, and the task of hacking and rendering it into some shape can be too great. Completing things (and not just writing) is a big issue for me, and, so I try to find a balance, which I am constantly adjusting.

I like the phrase “Be a good animal. True to your animal instinct.” I like it more than I like D.H. Lawrence, who I sometimes find cruel and locked in a battle with nature.

(He infamously hung a hen upside down, and chopped off her head, for being broody). The quote made me think of the amoral nature of animals, their raw energy, and how we grapple with this, our unease when we encounter something that we can’t easily categorise, which we can view only in relation to our human selves.

I’m currently working on creative memoir, and I keep hens (for therapy as much as the eggs), so that was a natural stepping off point. Thinking about it now, though, I want to write more like the fox, without self-doubt or judgment.

I’m thrilled to win the Winter Solstice Wild Words writing competition. It’s a beautiful affirmation.

Sarah's winning entry is here.