A Room of My Own: Ando McDonnell

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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?

None. 

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.

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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

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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.

Winter Solstice Competition Winner: Fox

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This is Sarah Wheeler's Competition Winning Story. Her inspiration was the prompt 'Be a good animal. True to your animal instinct.'

The first time he struck, we made our excuses.

Like the apologists, who take to Facebook and the letters page of the Western Daily Press, we tried to see it from his point of view.

He’s only doing what comes naturally, I reasoned.

Boy, eyes red, his voice choked with tears and snot, was less convinced. 

We’ll have to bury her, he insisted, in between sobs.

So, reverently, together, we collected the shards of Beaky. There wasn’t much left, a few strands of tail, a white wing feather bearing her distinctive dark, non-breed-standard, patch. A trial of soft breast down was already rapidly blowing away in the late afternoon sunlight, like a cloud of dandelion seeds, but we gathered what we could, put the pieces in a shoebox, and saved her, for internment later.  

As a parent, part of the rationale for getting a pet is this, I told myself; the small losses that foreshadow others, the gradual familiarisation with our own mortality, death in bite-sized pieces, if you’ll forgive the pun. However, confronted by the immediacy of Boy’s tears, and the shrieks of the traumatised survivors, who were still perched precariously on the shed guttering, refusing to come down, I was not so sure.

I don’t much care for anthropomorphism. Pictures of miniature pugs wearing polka dot bandanas, kittens in pink tutus, and the internet craze for pet shaming, leave me cold, and slightly uncomfortable. Mostly, I want to shake the owners, and tell them their Lasha Apso trashed the Phillipe Stark sofa, and gorged itself on toilet roll, because they left it alone all day, that, if it’s staring at the camera with those doleful puppy dog eyes, it’s because it’s bored and hungry, not out of some sense of Judaic-Christian guilt.

But, in the wake of Fox, I discovered that, if funny animal stories didn’t exist, like God, we’d have to invent them.

No longer in thrall to his wildness, in my retelling, Fox became more than the sum of his hunger, his lust to survive, to outrun hounds and spread his progeny. Instead, he was a lesson in parenting skills, extrajudicially killing, only because it was necessary, to feed his cubs.

The second-time Fox came, he took a Pekin pullet. At least, we thought it was Fox.  We never saw him, just his calling card of feathers, a slither of bone, and fear.

Over the following days, and weeks, we lost more birds. As Boy grew more sanguine, I turned into an aproned vigilante. I kept the birds shut in if I was not around, and, when I was working from home, I took my morning coffee or lunch outside, sat in an old deckchair in the barn, and watched them through a gap in the wall timbers.

I never caught a glimpse of fox. Like a film noir serial killer, he regularly left behind a grisly totem, a curl of fur, or a strip of turf, incised by a frenzy of claw.

I couldn’t see Fox, but he was always there, like a thunder cloud, the threat of violence hung heavy in the air.

On All Souls’ Day, he took a broody hen, and left her clutch of eggs, cold and useless as stones.

That night, I lay awake, listening for the bark of dog fox, but all I could hear was the lashing rain, the distant hum of tyres on the wet road, and the isolated chime of the clock in the hall. I looked out of the bedroom window, but the night was moonless, the security light hadn’t clicked on, and I couldn’t even make out the barn, or the edge of the box hedge. The outline of all that was familiar was lost in the dark, our cottage adrift in the darkness.

Somewhere, in the blackness, a screech owl called. Ethereal, and insistent. I stood listening to her cries, my feet cold on the bare floor boards, my mind chilled with the recollection of myth and an old wives’ tale, the owl as harbinger of death.

Unsettled, I crawled back to bed, where I tossed and turned, and, in a semi-deranged, insomniac state, listened for the shrieks of chicken in her plaintive song. When I finally fell asleep, the owl had long stopped, a robin was cheerily cheeping, and sky was broken by a delicate pink band of morning sun, but still the spectre of fox crept through my dreams.

Opening the hen house up that morning, I held my breath as I, literally, counted my chickens. Despite the previous night’s portentous cawing, there were no casualties.

Later, at my desk, I checked the morning’s email. There was a message from Jared, our nearest neighbour and one-time gamekeeper.

Good morning, he wrote, I think I may have solved your fox problem.

I clicked on the attachment, and watched the JPEG unfurl. Slowly, it revealed the sleek outline of fox, caught in a shaky flashlight, her pelt warm against the earth, like a swath of ripped velvet, eyes luminous, unreal as glass, all-knowing in the darkness, perfect and still, frozen in death.

When I told Boy, he air punched the sky. Yay, he shouted, before running off to spread the good news to the chickens.

I felt relief, but something else too. Not sadness, or sorrow, exactly, but an absence, the loss of something, which challenged and vexed me, like the sting of salt on winter dry skin, or the creak of an old church door.  

A few days later, hoeing under the reach of our beech hedge, I found a fan of grey feathers, not chicken, but a remnant of wood pigeon, its ribcage ripped and flattened, like some macabre dream-catcher. I pushed the remains back under a blanket of leaves, and kicked some soil over them, so Boy wouldn’t see.

I held the secret of Fox close to myself, where it chilled me, and warmed me, in equal measure.

Writing Outdoors

 

The other week I taught a workshop on ‘writing in the wild’.

In the opening circle, everyone said that they habitually wrote indoors, and at least one writer admitted to nervousness at the thought of trying something different. She’d woken up in a cold sweat the previous night, having had nightmares of being devoured by big, hairy, sharp-clawed Wild Words that hid in trees. As she described this, tight laughter juddered across the room. There are, in fact, many reasons to take your lunch hour in the park with a laptop, to climb out of your bedroom at midnight with your notepad tucked into your trousers, or to take your holidays in the country, rather than falling for the all-too-tempting city break in Belarus (although I’ve heard credible reports of all manner of wild things in Belarus).

Most of us live and write indoors, in controlled environments.

Opening ourselves up to that-which-we-cannot-control, being in contact with new and unexpected stimuli, and seeing, at first hand, the instinctual at work, can profoundly affect our writing.

At the end of the workshop, the ‘nervous’ writer put this on her feedback form:

‘At first it was hard. Everything was unfamiliar, the way my body felt after we’d walked two hours, the landscape, and the deluge of sensory impressions. But that newness was exactly the point, exactly what expanded my world today. Today I became an animal, feeling and sensing my way in my environment. And the words followed’.

At the end of the workshop we came up with a communal list of reasons to write outdoors, which I have pinned to my wall:

…because we want to be as passionate as Anais Nin

…because we want to be as awe filled as Mary Oliver

…because we want to dream as vividly as William Blake

…because we want to look as cool in our slacks as Ernest Hemingway

…because we want to look as hip in our shades as Bruce Chatwin

And because the best way to defend from enemy fire is by tucking a moleskin notebook into the pocket over your heart. Oh yes…

This article was first published on 8th November 2013

Touching Into Bodily Sensations

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Here are two beautiful examples of effective use of body sensations on the page. First, a few lines from the poetry of John Keats.

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
    My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
-Keats. Ode To A Nightingale

Secondly, in Orwell’s 1984 (p164) he describes his character Winston’s fear of the rats that have been brought to torture him.

 His bowels seemed to turn to water… Winston could hear the blood singing in his ears’

Wild words put flesh on the bones of the story by using bodily sensations. The wild words are living, breathing, shivering and perspiring creatures themselves.

As with the use of sensory impressions, when we describe movements in the body to the listener or reader, they truly experience them. In the case of body sensations, information from the receptors of the somatosensory system is sent to the brain. You are giving your reader a real, lived experience of the situation described. They walk in the shoes of the character/narrator. If we can hook them in this way, if they can be made to care, then we’ve got them for the rest of the story. As with sensory impressions, using body sensations grounds our storytelling. It makes it vivid, and real. Without it, our account, poem, or story has no anchor, and flies off into abstraction.

Tracking The Wild Words

In order to track the Wild Words, we have to get to know our bodily experience: the tensions, the pains, the numbness, the sensitivity, the beating and the flow. It’s only when we know it, that we can write about the common experience of being in a human body, and find a connection with the listener or reader through that.  More than that, we have to learn to trust our visceral experience enough to write from that place, initially without the intervention of the rational mind. After that, it’s also useful to refer to lists of ‘movement words’, as well as to read widely, to expand our vocabulary and fit it to our experience. Then, what comes out of our mouths, or on to the page, will be more powerful and more true to the human experience than our storytelling has ever been before.

The Fears

Remember the caged writer? They feel unbearably stiff and uncomfortable in their body. Their head feels as if it is about to explode. They pace the room. They return to a childhood habit of biting their nails. They eat junk food to comfort themselves. Their anxiety levels are high and they manage them by drinking alcohol, and smoking. They are tearing their hair out.

Sometimes, we storytellers are no different to a caged tiger, mad with confinement, gnawing at holes in his sleek orange coat. To get into this state, we must have cut-off to a large extent from our physical experience. And then, the thought of having to go back to feeling all that is understandably frightening. We fear being confronted with the impermanent, fragility of being in a human body.

After all, bodies house discomfort, as well as movement. These sensations scare us. Contact with the body can stir up a sense of our fragility and mortality, and reminds us that one day we will die. Contact with the body can arouse sexual desire, which for some, is an uncontainable force, and for others has long been buried, and brings sadness in its wake.  Body awareness can also bring to the forefront of our mind the myriad of ways in which we feel we don’t fit with body-type ideals. If we’re not to thin then we’re too fat. If we’re not too pale, then we’re too dark. And so it goes on.

It’s not easy to find and trust the knowledge and experience stored in the body, to drop down into our physical experience. Most of us chose to shut off from our bodily experience a long time ago. Our bodies no longer remember how to act, without the tyranny of the rational mind cracking the whip. And the rational mind fears the loss of control that would occur with any move in that direction. It’s a long road back. Restoring that connection, however, is an important step on the journey to being a better storyteller, a vital part of learning to write from a place of wild.

In some cases the opposite can occur. Some people find it easy to engage with body sensations. Too easy. People who make a living from an experiential knowledge of the body, can sometimes engage with body sensations to such an extent that they get lost in them, and lose perspective. This particularly happens with body-based practitioners, when a simple ‘How are you today?’ might be met with the reply ‘I’m vibrating from my pelvis’. Don’t get me wrong. I consider myself a body-based practitioner in both my psychotherapy and writing tutoring roles, and have great respect for my fellow practitioners.  However, whenever we become too fluent in any one language or realm of experience, we must take care not to use that as a way of avoiding and distancing from other realms of experience. In the case of bodily sensations overuse of them is sometimes a sign of avoidance of getting in touch with emotion. 

Fear On The Page

If we fear experiencing and telling stories that include bodily sensations, it shows in our speech and on the page. We will digress, summarise, and cut away at key points in the action, rather than risk getting too deep into descriptions of body sensations. We will over-focus on other, more comfortable aspects of our story and miss opportunities to go into the detail where it would most impactfully heighten the drama.  (Please note: I’m not saying that to digress, summarise and cut away is always wrong. These are useful techniques, but only if applied from a place of creative inspiration rather than fear).

If we shift to the perspective of the listener or reader: they feel the fear also. They cannot identify or sympathise with the voice of narration or lead character in the story. This unnerves and confuses them. Once this gap of identification has opened up, it’s difficult to close. The receiver experiences it as getting wider and wider as the narrative progresses. They feel increasingly far from the action. The story strikes them as abstract, rather than grounded, and connected to human experience. After only a couple of chapters like this, we lose our listeners and readers for good.

Conversely, if we use body sensations to avoid experiencing emotion, we may find body sensations dominate the page. If this is the case, those receiving our stories don’t have any perspective on the action, and feel trapped in the body of the character or narrator.  This is equally damaging to our relationship with the listener or reader.

To see the Writing Prompt that accompanies this article, you'll need to sign up on the Wild Words website homepage to receive the Monthly Newsletter, or join the Wild Words Facebook Group

Photograph courtesy of Peter Reid.

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.

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

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