From the archive: The Body In The Woods

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued…

The Weekly Prompt

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

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

This article was first published on 21st June 2013

Dispute- A short story by Sage Webb

This story,  by Sage Webb, was the overall winner of the Wild Words Winter Solstice Competition 2017. 


Something shook the kink out of the hose and the words sprayed out, soaking me and Brett and the kilim wall hangings we got at the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul on our honeymoon. We had hung the pretty, rough textiles as soon as we’d gotten home from the trip, warming up the condo with pinks and purples and golds. After we’d hung them all, Brett had put in a Tarkan CD we’d bought over there, and we’d danced awkwardly on the kitchen’s bamboo flooring, having forgotten everything we’d learned in our wedding-dance classes. Those classes wouldn’t have helped us with Tarkan anyway, but we still mentioned them that night we hung the kilims, and we laughed over how we’d forgotten everything the minute we’d finished that bridal rhumba in front of my mom and his parents and my sorority sisters. 

That all happened long ago, though—the dancing in the kitchen and hanging up the textiles, and my sorority sisters watching me rhumba in a white dress with a bustle. All that happened long before I drenched us—drenched Brett and the kilims—in this wet, sticky mess of

“I don’t respect you.”

The mess now drips off everything. It drips off the walls and my fingertips and Brett’s chin. It puddles around our feet and soaks into our socks, and it is starting to produce a weird smell.

Brett doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t move. I know he is breathing, that he can smell whatever it is I am smelling. But I only know that because he’s standing in front of me and we’ve lived together for eight years and I know Brett has really sensitive olfactories. It’s not because he moves or gestures or even blinks. No, he just stands there.

Brett’s eyes look like the sparky little gold lights of the luminaries my dad used to put out in the yard when I was little. My dad grew up in New Mexico, so he would put these Spanish candle things in our yard in Ann Arbor, Michigan, every winter. It would start in early November. Dad would bring home these small paper bags and give them to me and my sister to punch holes in with these janky little chrome-plated hole punchers. The male and female parts of the punchers never quite lined up, so my sister and I had to wrestle with the things to get the holes punched, and the holes never came out quite round. They had these raggedy or distended shapes because we’d had to smash those hole-punching jaws down over and over to get the jaws to punch anything out.   

My sister and I would draw angels and stars on the bags and try to punch holes all along the outlines and in decorative patterns inside the outlines, but the patterns wouldn’t come out right and we’d be disappointed. Dad would tell us they looked great, but we knew the truth. We’d do a few bags each evening, and then, the night of Thanksgiving, it would happen. Dad would get out all the bags and flick them open and scoop handfuls of sand into them. The sand settled in their bottoms to weight the bags down. He and my sister and I would then carry all the slightly-heavy bags outside, and Dad would line the things up along our Michigan driveway and the footpath to the front door and along the flowerbeds between the door and the garage. He’d give me and my sister votive candles and we would crouch over each bag and dig a small hole in the sand in the bag’s bottom and put a votive in the indent and pat the sand around it with our kid fingers.

When we had finished all that, when the bags stood brown and papery with their frowzy, asymmetrical stars and seraphim, Dad would walk to the front door and open it just enough to put his head in. He’d shout for my mom to come out, and then the three of us would wait on the lawn. My mom would emerge and Dad would hand her the long barbeque lighter and say, “Mi alma, would you do the honors?”

My mom would sigh because she would be in her shirt sleeves. My sister and I never understood why she’d go outside in Michigan at the end of November without a coat, but our mom would do just that to light the luminaries. She’d shiver and fuss and question the wisdom of burning candles in paper bags, but she’d light them all. And then the four of us would stand in the driveway, and my dad’s eyes would look brighter than the bags, and my sister and I would giggle and poke each other, and my mom would blow on her fingers and dwell on the cold and be the first one to go back inside.

Some people call luminaries farolitos. One could translate farolito as “little lighthouse” if one were an eleven-year-old girl whose dad had packed up the car and driven back to New Mexico after that one last, final fight with the girl’s mom. I translated it that way for a few years—until high school. My sister and I kept punching holes in bags and dropping votive candles in sandy bottoms for a while. We thought, in the way silly little girls do, that maybe the lights might guide Dad home. But then we went to high school and got boyfriends and realized the way life works, the way men don’t come back when you tell them you don’t respect them.    


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


 ...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.


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Photograph courtesy of Peter Reid.