From the archive: Snowed In

 On Monday this week, I awoke and looked out of the window. There was nothing but white. I saw only the inconvenience. I would never get a car down the mountain track with that much snow. S***! That was the end of the meeting that I had booked with an animal-tracking expert for later that day. Now I would never know his secrets.

On my second look out of the window, I saw the beauty. The fresh snowfall was casting a silent spell over the land. There might be no formal tracking lesson that day, but conditions were ripe for exploration.

The snow was still falling fast, presenting me with a time capsule- a record of the few animals that had dared to leave their sheltered places in the previous half-hour. One brave deer had taken a route down the edge of the track, where the snow was lightest. There was also the hopping pencil-line print of a robin, searching for food. And cutting purposefully straight across the track- the crawling, claw-toed prints of the badger, his stomach dragging on the ground. The entrance to his sett was just there, cut into the clay soil of the mountain.

And it wasn’t only animals. At the bottom of the hill, engraved on the blank canvas of the builders’ yard car park, the swirling tracks of a van. Evidence of the driver’s difficulty, with sleep still in his eyes, of fitting himself into a narrow parking space. And the valiant post-woman had been there too, her determined prints weaving in and out of every domain.

Turning, I re-traced my own solitary path, my autobiography printed on the snow. At the places where the distance between my tracks closed sharply, I read the history of my excitement. Arriving back at the house, I saw where I’d dragged my heavy feet away from its shelter at dawn, disappointment weighing on me. Now, an hour later, I was forward on my toes, a lighter touch on the ground. I wouldn’t swap anyone else’s secrets for those I discovered myself that day. 

The Weekly Prompt : Tracks

Go for a walk. Look for the tracks of animals, birds and people. When you find a set of prints, make an educated guess as to the owner. Then, observe:

-How light, or heavy are the prints? Are there any changes in weight?

-How evenly or irregularly spaced are the prints? Are there any changes in spacing?

Use this information to write a short piece about how the bird/animal/human being is feeling. Also talk about where they are going, and why. The piece will necessarily be fictional, but will be based on your real-life observations.

First published February 8th 2013

Photograph courtesy of Peter Reid.

Why Do We Tell Stories?

So, why is it that we are ‘natural storytellers’? Recent scientific evidence backs up what we, as writers, know in our guts. Telling stories is not a luxury for human beings, it is vital to our survival and flourishing. If the wild animal has senses, bodily sensation, emotion, action and most probably some powers of imagining and ‘thinking’, to keep it alive, we have all this plus a more developed rational mind, and the ability to tell stories. 

There are stories everywhere around us, in films, on TV, and in books. Adverts tell us stories to persuade us to buy their products. Televised sports are also stories. Our heroes face the opponents, with a clear aim, and battle it out to the bitter end. Stories rescue human beings when life is too harsh, too fast, too heavy. We default into daydreaming whenever we are not involved in an immediate, absorbing task.  Stories provide rest and relief. They calm our body and mind.

I see the extreme of storytelling as a life-saving strategy in my work as a psychotherapist. Many people who experience traumatic or abusive situations, use storytelling to survive emotionally, when contact with ‘reality’ would be overwhelming for body and mind. Indeed, the state of ‘dissociation’, of feeling detached from a situation that would otherwise be unbearable, often involves elements of storytelling. Below is the account of an abuse survivor.

I could see the window from where I lay. When it was happening, I would look out of the window at the birds flying. I would imagine I too was flying, and that I could go anywhere, do anything. I would visit beautiful places and talk to kind people who reassured me that I would survive. I believe this is what stopped me from going crazy, or from killing myself.

In recent studies of dreams it has been found that 80 percent are about ‘a problem that needs to be solved’. So, it may be that the primary evolutionary role of stories is as, psychologist and novelist Keith Oatley puts it, to be...

…the flight simulators of human social life.

Writing, telling, reading, or listening to stories, activates the same biological process as living out the actions would do. The same neurons fire, and neural pathways are strengthened when we think about performing an action, as when we perform it for real. That’s the reason that professional sports people use visualisation as a key part of their training. Stories allow us to encounter various life obstacles in symbolic guise and to practice ways of solving them, without endangering ourselves. Stories train us for life.

Certainly, stories also play other crucial roles in our lives: They allow us to process emotions. They allow us to feel in control of, and gain perspective on our lives. They can lead to public recognition and (sometimes) money. Autobiographical work can pass information on to future generations, and provide closure to our lives. Stories entertain. They inspire and they motivate.

As I wrote as part of the content for a University of Exeter creative writing course,

When we tell our stories details unfold like flowers, clues become moments of epiphany, feelings are processed, and stuck energy is discharged. We begin to notice the patterns that repeat through our lives, called ‘Repetition Compulsion’ by Sigmund Freud. We see which of those serve us, and which don’t. We can bring closure to the unfinished aspects of our lives. We can grieve and move on. We can find or create our self in the writing.

Storytelling, on the very physical level of our nervous systems, discharges energy. This energy, if it remains trapped, can disable our effective functioning in the world, as well as lead to ill health.

Above all, writing is a fabulous thing to do, because, as poet John Keats so clearly elucidated, the great beauty of the art and craft of it is that ‘it makes everything interesting’.

What I’d like you to take away this month, is the following:

Your job- that of being a wordsmith- is sacred, because without it, the human species cannot survive.

What we need to do as storytellers is to rest in the knowledge that not everything has to come from the rational mind. If we can trust our innate ability to tell stories, to allow our organic movement towards health, then we have truly set out on the trail to re-finding our wild words. So, as the unanswered emails pile up, and as your partner, parents, and children tug relentlessly on your sleeve, remember this: you’re doing war-work. Writing saves lives.

Now how are your mind and body feeling? Would you know how to put the strength of your embodied experience into words?

Onward and upward!

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

From the archive: Blog Written With A Terrible Cold

I’ve got a terrible cold. Having come out the other side of the sore throat>sneezing>coughing thing, I spent a wonderful day in the woods, writing words with autumn leaves. The day after that, the sore throat returned and now, well, round I go again.

Meanwhile, I’m extending my ideas on re-wilding: our self, and our words. As my cold is so central to my world at the moment, perhaps it’s no surprise that that has crept in to my writing. To get a flavour of the writing, and to understand the human cold a little better, here’s an extract.

‘…If fear was the real problem, then all those things that I’d been told were wrong with my writing must surely just be symptoms of that deeper issue. To use a metaphor, they were the sneeze and the cough, but they weren’t the cold virus itself. With a cold, the sneeze and the cough are your body’s efforts to get rid of the virus. They are symptoms, but they are also strategies, an action plan that your body embarks on when threatened. Perhaps my caged writing was the same. The restriction, the words that didn’t work, might be my body and mind’s strategy for avoiding what it feared. The strategies had been put into operation unconsciously. But that wasn’t so surprising. Only 7% of what happens is conscious, the remaining 93% is unconscious. If the issues on the page were strategies, then surely they were keeping me safe. They were a cage that although it restricted me, also protected me. Given that vital role, it was no wonder they were hard to address…’

 

This article was first published on December 7th 2012

Photograph courtesy of Peter Reid.

A Storyteller's Process: Jacqueline Bain

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For me, writing and nature go hand in hand.

Whatever I write wildlife will appear in some form or another. I can go for days, sometimes weeks, without writing a short story or a chapter, but my nature journal is always by my side.

            I write a lot in my head but I hadn't put anything down on paper for a while. To try to action my pen, I did a general Google search for nature writing and came across the Wild Words Website. Words like passion, power and vitality pinged off the screen, and I was immediately inspired.

            I particularly liked the competition prompt, Bob Marley's 'Some feel the rain, others just get wet'. The words crawled quickly inside me and started off a chain of thoughts, initially about our relationship with weather in general, and how sunshine equates with happiness and rain with misery. My mind was flooded with ideas, but I finally settled on a factual account of an event that had happened not long before I came across Wild Words.

             I follow a traditional process of pre writing, drafting, revising and editing. The pre write stage usually takes place inside my head, though on occasion I will brainstorm, and throw all sorts of words and ideas onto a page. There was no need to do this for 'A Life Worth Saving'. The memory was fresh in my mind, and I knew roughly the points I wanted to explore, mainly the sensory experiences of rain and its (often) misunderstood beauty, but when I decided to make the starling chick the key focus, a new element of living and potentially dying also came into play.

            A first draft is always in long hand, a jumble of words, images and thoughts. Then, I type up and get an idea of word count and structure. On this occasion, I had 3500 words, far too long for a competition count of 1000 words. I had to chop and chop.

            Out went a lengthy rant about how I know some people who seem to shut down when it is raining. Out went a trying-not-to-snivel account of losing a lot of my mobility. Out went a detailed explanation of starlings.

            To get down to 1000 words, I constantly referred back to the prompt and tried to focus on the sights, sounds and smells of rain to evoke the right atmosphere.

Photograph courtesy of Peter Reid

***

A Life Worth Saving

 

"I think there's something in the water butt," my friend said as she skidded, breathless, into the kitchen.

            Her owl-wide eyes were brimmed with the memory of last year's macabre discovery, when a sickening stench betrayed the watery grave of a bloated rat and a bald blackbird chick.

            As the 'nature' person in our household, it was my job to investigate. I hobbled down the garden path. My mobility-crutch clicked on the glistening, rain-soaked slabs. The sky spread out, a ceiling of frosted, wolf-grey glass. Smoke-ring clouds and mist topped the distant braes like a sea haar.

            Sheets of crystalline raindrops fell in biblical proportions. Within minutes, my clothes stuck to my skin and rivulets streamed down my face. I could taste the rain's unique, supposedly tasteless flavour.

            No splashing came from the butt. Did the silence mean the 'thing' had perished like the rat and baby blackbird? I tried not to become irrationally upset. Accidents and fatalities happen all the time in wildlife's world. I braced myself to be a momentary undertaker.

            The water butt was almost half full. The rainwater was covered by a soupy layer of luminous-green duckweed. A starling chick bobbed among the weed like a toy boat.

            I silently cursed myself for not putting the lid on during the fledgling period, but clumps of mottled-brown snails liked to overwinter inside the rim, so I had left it propped against the fence. The snails maintained their cosy vigil, now obscured by swathes of verdant, sprouting nettles.

            The chick was still alive. It turned its head slightly, startled by the sudden shadow that loomed over it like a fallen thundercloud. There was no wing flapping, no panic, just a pair of unblinking, bronze-beaded eyes filled with despair and hopelessness.

            I am often guilty of anthropomorphism, giving wild creatures human emotions and values, but it was impossible to look at those eyes and not see a plea for help. The diminutive, full moon-shaped orbs surely mirrored the dread and regret we would feel, on tumbling into a deep-water crevasse with no means of escape, other than a miraculous rescue.

            I grabbed one of our pond-dipping nets, and fished the poor wee soul onto my palm. Its heart fluttered wildly and it mewed like a kitten, a babe's heartbreaking cry for its mother. The chick felt like a sodden sponge and was weighed down by a rug of weed. It was so cold, I doubted it would survive.

            The summerhouse offered shelter to my little patient. I settled it on my lap, and began to untangle bunches of stringy weed from its downy, beige feathers. It was a young bird, newly fledged, and as yet unable to fend for itself.

            As I preened the unnaturally still bird, I was aware of life carrying on outside. Rain drummed on the roof and like a manic sprinkler system, the downpour transformed the pond into a sloshing, blurred sea of silver. Feathery-tailed tadpoles glided, submarine-like, through the deeper, calmer depths.

            I chatted to the juvenile starling, telling it to hang on in there, in my childlike tone usually reserved for the dog. I rambled on about how there is so much more to rain than just getting wet. I told the chick of rain's magical pitter-pattering sounds, of how it waters the plants and helps worms to move from place to place. I explained its necessity for planet Earth, beautiful but powerful enough to devastate and destroy lives and landscapes.

            Despite the morning's greyness, signs of early summer were abundant. Marsh marigold flowers bordered the pond like splodges of egg yolk, and breeze-ruffled forget-me-nots undulated in shimmering-azure Mexican waves. Perfume of broom and wild garlic mingled with the earthy scents of damp grass, fern and moss. Smells that sing, like rain, of nature's wildness and freedom, but only to those willing to listen.

            I wondered if the scents triggered nostalgic thoughts in the chick's tiny brain. Did it have enough olfactory senses to associate the dank fragrances of wood and pasture with reminiscence the way I did; a deep-rooted connection to childhood, the natural world and home? Were the smells of the nest: twigs, grasses, mosses and feathers etched into its avian memory? And if so, were these sensations pierced by anxiety that life could ebb away at any moment?

            I glanced over at the feeders. A squirrel dangled upside down at the seed, its grey fur speckled with glittering, liquid gemstones. Jackdaws and a host of starlings squabbled at the fat balls. Fluffy starling chicks lined the fence in a soldierly row, making a merry din, beaks agape. Feed me, feed me now, they squawked in unison.

            There were no distraught parent birds looking for a missing child, no siblings mourning a lost brother or sister. I contemplated placing the chick on the grass to see if an adult bird would come to its aid, but deep down I knew the chick was too cold and the weather too wet. It would die quickly of cold and starvation, or in the claws of a neighbouring cat.

            We had been planning to go out for the day. I thought of wrapping the chick in a box, and see how it had fared when we got back. If it was alive, all good and well, but if not, it was meant to be. Conscience wouldn't let me. The tea flask and sandwiches would have to wait.

            I phoned Hessilhead Wildlife Rescue Centre. They advised me to warm the chick with a hairdryer, and get it to them as soon as possible. When we arrived at the wildlife hospital, it was still clinging to life. The staff plopped it into their brooder, and assured me it would be fine. Once healthy and able to feed on its own, they would release it back to the wild in my home patch. My heart jumped for joy, when I pictured it winging its way back to the garden feeders. Even wet, rainy days have happy endings.

The Three Act Structure

The listener or reader waits excitedly for the story. Unconsciously, although they maybe couldn’t put words to it, they know something of what to expect, and that raises their expectations. There will be a beginning, middle, and end. There will be an arc with a high point of tension in the middle. Alongside the known, they feel in their guts that they will meet characters for the first time. And there will be unexpected developments. Having an instinctual feel for the form of story, a known base, enables them let go fully into experiencing the unpleasant as well as the pleasant emotions that arrive unexpectedly. 

The Wild Writer

As you may have heard me say before, the majority of stories can been analysed in terms of the below three-act structure.

Act 1: Approximately the first fifth of the story. Set up the hero’s world. At the end of act one something happens to the hero that sets them off on the journey that carries them (and the reader) through the rest of the story. This event clarifies what they wants. In many stories the opponent is also introduced at the end of act one.

Act 2: Approximately the middle three-fifths of the story. The hero sets out on their journey. They meet ever-increasing obstacles placed by the opponent. Somewhere in the middle of Act Two, there’s often a BIG HIGH when the hero thinks they're going to achieve their goal. (For your interest, in mainstream films you can often spot this by the party or wedding scene.) This is nearly always followed, at the end of act two, by a BIG LOW, when everything falls to pieces and they thinks the ‘disaster’ will befall them.

Act 3:  Approximately the last fifth of the story. The LOW at the end of Act Two is a catalyst. Here the hero realises that they need to try a new way to get what they want. Their goal does not change, but how they go about getting it does. Then you, the storyteller, have to decide…how and where will I end the story?

Take particular note of the ratio 1:5:1. You can apply this to any narrative driven story, be that a short film of ten pages, a novel, an oral tale, your autobiography or a short story.

The beauty and importance of the three acts and narrative arc is that you will see them repeated time and time again on different levels of the story. The complete arc will be seen in a novel, but the same arc will be present in the microcosm of each chapter. We can also observe that within each action that the hero takes, it will be seen again. Within the hero’s body, and reflected in their behaviour, tension increases to a high point. That climax is followed by a release of tension in the body of the hero. It’s the same arc. It’s the pattern of healthy functioning for any wild animal.

Below are act breakdowns for the films ‘The Full Monty’ and ‘American Beauty’. They are my interpretations. I worked for a time in the editing room of ‘The Full Monty’. I know very well the evolving process that starts with the story in the head of a writer, continues with the putting of that story on to paper, and results in a finished film. I also know that what enables the evolution of that animal, is the underlying narrative arc.

Warning: spoilers! If you haven’t seen the films, but would like to, consider skipping over the breakdowns until you have.

The Full Monty:

Act One:    Sets up unemployment/ family situation/ existence of male strip acts.

End of Act One (p17): In danger of losing his son, Gaz decides to do the  act.  

Beginning of Act Two aim:  To get the act together.     

Big High Act Two:     Dancing in job centre queue.

Big low/End of Act Two:     Gaz is not allowed to see his child.     

Act Three:  They’ve sold tickets. They decide to do the show. They are successful.

 

Moulin Rouge:

Act One:   Sets up poet involved in theatre.

End of Act One (p17)  He sees Satine.

Beginning of Act Two Aim:   To be with Satine.

Big High of Act Two:    He is with her, they are in love.

Big Low/ End of Act Two:     She tells him she doesn’t love him.

Act Three:  He won’t believe it and sets out to hear it with his own ears. They are re-united. She dies.

The Fears

There is great beauty in structure. Do you find that reassuring, or are you resistant to the guidelines, perceiving them as ‘rules’ that limit and cage you? There’s no right or wrong way to feel about the storytelling process. We’re always just information gathering, trying to be unequivocally unashamed in relating our personal experience in symbolic guise.  

It’s worth remembering, that I’m presenting the skeleton of story. Having laid out this three-act structure and then written the first draft of the book, autobiography, poem or screenplay, you have still to layer it up with unique characters, events and a host of other details.

Later, you might also alter basic structure by chopping off the beginnings and ends of scenes, or using techniques to emphasise some parts of the story over others. Its pattern will continue to evolve. But that’s something to put right to the back of your mind for now. At the moment our focus is on getting the basic structure down, as a support to writing the first draft from an instinctual place.

Fear On The Page

When, as storytellers we fear using structure, we see those fears writ large on the page. Sometimes we can’t start writing at all. If we do write, there is no distinction between the form and the content. As storytellers we do not get to the heart of the emotions, or write with breadth, and depth. The words do not live.

Becoming The Wild Writer

My experience is that storytellers are of two types. The first type loves to lose themselves in the creative, imaginative space of writing. These people excel at entering into the emotions of their characters, and in writing vivid prose and poetry. They are also the group who struggle to complete projects, to pin those wild words on the page. The other type exhibit opposite qualities. They are naturally attracted to structure, work well with timelines and finish projects. However, they struggle to give themselves completely to the process, and find it more difficult to access emotion. Which type are you? Each group has a great deal to learn from the other. 

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.

A Writing Ritual: Allison Symes

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Highlights are important. I can paper walls of my house with rejection slips. 

It has taken me years to find my voice.  I started having acceptances when I didn’t try to fit my quirky fiction into boxes it didn’t want to go into to try to get published. It was finding a publisher that took quirky fiction which led to my breakthrough but I needed to adjust my mindset first. Another help has been accepting I am “in” writing for the long haul and knowing everyone has rejections.

There are days when the words don’t flow as nicely as I’d wish. I call it being human (!) but if I’m stuck on fiction, I switch to blogging.  If I’m stuck on a blog post, I switch to fiction. Usually the issue that has bugged me is resolved as I write about something else.  I found this annoying at first.  You just get into a piece of writing and then ideas for something else turn up.  These days I have a notebook ready!

My writing ritual starts with writing a Facebook post for my author page and/or book page.  I then work on my current CFT post.  I write by “session” divided into segments.  I finish my writing session with fiction as I find not having to stick to facts liberating!

I’m in transition as there is a lot of writing I’d like to do and I need more time so I am planning to become as full time a writer as possible.  Until recently I’ve thought of myself as a part time writer.  Not anymore!  I’m a writer, full stop. I am working out which rituals to retain and which to drop or change.  It will be an interesting process.

I specialise in 100-word-tales, which are on-line at Cafelit.  In 2017 my first collection, From Light to Dark and Back Again, was published by indie press, Chapeltown Books.  This is easily the highest point of my writing life.  I now have an author page on Cafelit (another lovely highlight).

http://cafelit.co.uk/index.php/meet-our-authors/2-uncategorised/99-allison-symes

http://chandlersfordtoday.co.uk/author/allison-symes/

 

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