From the archive: Sharpham House

On Friday we went in search of our Wild Words at the magnificent Sharpham House, two miles upstream from the town of Totnes, in Devon.

The famous architect Robert Taylor designed the house and the great landscape architect Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown is thought to have landscaped the extensive grounds.

We moved fluidly between our base camp, a room where the log fire warmed our bones, and explorations of those grounds. We dodged the raindrops, and luxuriated in the moments when the sun peeped through the clouds.

We gazed down on what is, I believe, one of the most wonderful views in the country. The fields and wooded slopes fall effortlessly to the banks of the River Dart.  We felt the slow passage of time in the way that, since the ice age, the river has pushed its way through the landscape. That river became the main artery for goods going to the thriving market town. Now it enjoys a lazy role as the ambassador of fleets of summer pleasure boats.

We tapped into the rich history of the inhabitants of the house, and found a wellspring of stories. There was the ‘mad hermit’ Willelmus in the 14thcentury.  There were wealthy merchants, politicians, and due to its proximity to Plymouth and Dartmouth, naval heroes too. Captain Pownoll was a high seas adventurer who made his name in 1762 by capturing a Spanish treasure Galleon.

We explored our fears of the wild, and were inspired by it too.

The cat dissecting the bird. The snake-like river. Exploring those qualities of ‘wild’ led us to think about how what we considered ‘natural’ had mostly been cultivated, planted, tamed, as well as exploited and abused, by the human hand. Except perhaps for that river…

Some hours after the workshop had ended, those wild words were still reverberating through me. A friend phoned, and told me that he’d found a dead peasant that had been hit by a car. ‘A road-kill bird will lie there by the side of the road all day, and no one will stop for it. What a waste’. He’d picked it up and cooked it. So we enjoyed peasant casserole that evening. A taste of the wild? Or just another victim of the human species? Both, I suppose.

Weekly Writing Prompt

What do you know about the inhabitants of the building that you are in at this moment? What are their stories? Write about one person who has lived there, or the procession of dwellers through time. If you don’t know the facts, use your imagination. 

This article was first published in April 14th 2013

A Storyteller's Process: Michael Jarvis

LW ME mist.JPG

I’ve been writing poetry since I was a teenager and stories for twenty years or so, but it’s only in the past few years, in my sixties, that I’ve tried my hand at nature writing.

Everything that I write starts from a moment looking out across open air, at a specific place, time and state of the weather. From that moment comes an idea and, usually, some fragmentary words. It would be good to sit down immediately and start writing, but often I can’t, being on the move. If I can, I begin to write later that day, either at home, or on a bus perhaps, or just sitting on a rock. If I leave it until the next day something is always lost, and I’m aware that what I’m writing is detached from the moment that I’m writing about. A couple of days’ delay and the idea is gone completely, such is the state of my ageing memory.

At first I just wanted to attempt some ordinary nature writing. But I spent my working life as a scientist and, somehow, the science nearly always seems to take over. I was fortunate enough to teach and do research in areas of science that connected with what was around me when I walked in the mountains or beside our local loch, and these connections are still built into my way of seeing. Elsewhere is an exception, in fact almost a rebellion against that habit. Or a kind of antidote.

Michael was one of the three runners-up in the Wild Words Summer Solstice Writing Competition 2017, with the following piece. 


The dog and I walk down towards the loch in the January dawn. As the daylight strengthens, long parallel rolls of cloud appear, running to the horizon like an ocean swell, each roller softly lit from behind. The geese are in the air, in small groups and larger Vs, talking among themselves as if discussing where they should go for the day. A single goose passes ahead of us, low and quite close. Just for a moment it stands out grey-feathered against the softness of the backlit clouds. You might say that the goose is sharply drawn, but drawings don’t fly.

There’s something about this momentary conjunction of goose and cloud, something that brings to mind the word ‘significant’. Only significance means a sign, pointing somewhere, elsewhere, and right now there is no elsewhere. Once I’d have felt tempted to invent a connection, a direction; a significance. But the dog is content to be here, just where we are, and that seems like a good idea.


Holistic and Instinctual

Let’s start by defining the term wild’.

Instinctual, intuitive, embodied, sensuous, emotional, spontaneous, sensual, powerful, connected, in-tune, flowing, textured, rhythmic, ever moving, ever changing. Alive.

When we dive below the surface of these inspiring but somewhat abstract words, we find a more complex, but richer definition of the functioning of the wild animal, the wild writer or the wild words.

To act according to your nature. Allowing the holistic orienting towards health and wellbeing. Flexible contact with all parts of the organism, and all aspects of experience, as appropriate to survive and thrive. Ability to return to equilibrium after disturbance to the system.

Animals in nature are designed to firstly survive, and then to thrive. They know the world via their senses: sight, smell, taste, sound, and touch. The stimuli register in their bodies via various internal sensations. These sensations narrow and become more intense. This is emotion. Emotion fires an animal’s muscles to take action. They fight, flee or play dead.

They make contact with all aspects of their functioning- senses, bodily sensation, emotion, imaging etc. as appropriate, in order to access information to enable the best outcome. The animal must be a creative, flexible system that reacts appropriately to its needs. A ‘conscious’ process of getting in touch with each aspect and ‘deciding’ what to do next would be too slow. They must, of course, act in the blink of any eye. Therefore, all the knowledge about themselves in relationship to the environment is processed and acted upon in an instant. This is instinct. The animal’s head and body seems to move as one unit, effortlessly.

Instinct in the wild animal is as much learnt as given. All animals are born with predispositions to certain behaviour. However, these must be practiced, and skills honed, to be able to act upon them, instantly and unselfconsciously. This ensures the best chance of survival. Most animals have been observed to play, to some extent or another. Through play, they practice survival skills. A Lynx bats at tree leaves waving in the wind. A seagull repeatedly drops and swoops to retrieve a stick. In playing, an animal tunes each part of its organism to respond effectively to the requirements of the environment. Marc Bekoff, a University of Colorado evolutionary biologist, describes how play helps animals learn to improvise and switch between all behaviors more effectively, to be prepared for the unexpected. 

The Wild Words

 What happens on the page is a reflection of the behavioural patterns that the storyteller demonstrates in other areas of their lives. We can therefore think of the wild words as being the tracks the wild writer leaves behind, the clues to its functioning. We can trace the ink marks back. Each print we locate takes us one step closer to understanding the source of wildness, and makes it easier to put more of it on to the page next time, or perhaps, just to tell our story to another. This seemingly small act is not to be underestimated. When the story has remained untold for years, as some of you will know, this is the equivalent of putting your flag on the summit of Everest.

On The Page…

Wild words unfold organically. They flow. They have a distinctive voice. They are passionate and powerful. They pour out on to the page wriggling with life. They roam free, are expansive on the page. They bring a world vividly to life by the use of smell, taste, touch, sound, and textures of touch. These sensory impressions ground the writing. It’s then up to the storyteller how much they spice the work with their imaginations. As readers or listeners, we feel we walk in the character/narrator’s shoes through the description of bodily experience.

The storyteller conveys a range of emotions, ever changing, ever surprising, wonderful, or horrifying. The words do not run away with themselves, but stay focused and energised, containing and channeling emotion. The deepest emotions are often most powerfully shown by the smallest actions. The words take risks, they play, they move and have rhythm. They lead us fluidly between different viewpoints, varying our distance to the action as appropriate. The Wild Words on the page, or falling from quivering lips, are a whole animal. The story is fully formed, rounded, cohesive. It evolves according to its nature. When we’ve finished listening, or reading the words, we’ve been on a journey.

The Wild Writer

Skilled writing is an embodied experience; the mind and the body must work in unison. The storyteller must first closely observe the sensory data from the world around her. She must know the impact on her bodily experience- the sensations it arouses in her body. She must also know how, and when, emotion swells in her. That fires the movement of muscles, the lifting of the pen, the hovering of the hands over the keyboard. In the good storyteller, the words seem to rise up through her body and pour out on to the page. The way her fingers or pen move is different according to what is being felt and conveyed. It is slow when she writes about sadness, and fast when she describes happiness and excitement. She simultaneously re-lives the feelings she describes.


The term ‘instinctual’ often scares people. It is equated with a way of being and writing that is ‘big’ ‘loud’ ‘angry’ or ‘explosive’. In people who have experience of therapy or counselling settings it sometimes conjures up images of cathartic techniques that left us feeling exposed, or vulnerable.

The words ‘wild’ and ‘instinctual’ are closely related. As you’ll realise, having read the opening of this article, none of these effects are our definition of the word ‘wild’ or ‘instinctual’. It may be, that when you write from Wild Words prompts, that the words do come out big and loud, or angry. That will result in good writing if its source is the connection with your innate ability to tell stories as an aid to surviving and thriving- your instinct. It will result in not-very-good writing if it comes from a place of disconnection between yourself and your environment.

You’ll be relieved to know that instinct in the storyteller, the development of the writer in-the-wild, and the ability to write wild words, can be learnt. As we’ve seen, nature has provided the predisposition- we are all naturally good writers. But making the most of it is a two-fold process.

Firstly, we have to bring some of the instinctual urges, (those things we do without the need for conscious thought), into awareness. We have to see which of these are helpful to our storytelling process, and which hinder us. Secondly, we have to consciously practice and hone certain skills until we become ‘unconsciously competent’, that is, until we can do them without thinking and they become instinctual.  These skills include making contact with all aspects of our experience, as well as expressing and channeling them into various forms.

And here we see that we’re no longer just talking about instinct. The thinking mind is also coming in to play.

The Mind

The human animal that writes is the same as every other animal, in that we will function most effectively if we utilises all parts of ourself. All are called upon as appropriate, to support the process. This means that no aspect of functioning is excluded- including the mind.

When I described the basic functioning of the wild animal, I didn’t mention the mind. Whether animals think, and if they do, how, and how much remains a hotly debated subject in zoology circles. Whatever the truths of that, it’s clear that human animals think, and enough to make up for all the other animals put together!

The adjustments we make, in the balance between the use of mind and body when we become writers in-the-wild, does not mean that we throw out, or disown the important part that our thinking minds play, in the writing process. Quite the opposite. Our mind is a valuable tool that has evolved in human animals to enable us to survive and thrive. It’s a tool that we often don’t use very well. It's about going back to evolutionary basics, to look at how we can make the best use of this gift of nature, the ability to symbolise in letters.

When we looked at instinct, we talked about making the instinctual, conscious, and then the conscious, instinctual (unconscious).

Here, we can regard the role of the thoughts as that of a container. We carefully choose the thoughts patterns and individual thoughts that will aid the storytelling process- that will support emotional expression, and help us to be fearless. For example ‘I will remember to use strong verbs and not prop up weak verbs with adjectives’. We first place and use these products of the thinking mind consciously, to channel the expressive flow (the largely instinctual aspect of the process). When we do this enough times, the container becomes part of the contained. We operate instinctually. Expression does not work without a channel into which to put it. Equally, the channel is useless, without the expressive flow.

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Photograph courtesy of Peter Reid.

From the archive: Writer's Block and The Beetle

As he was crawling round the kitchen this week, my eleven month-old nephew found a beetle.

With its scarab shape, hooked legs and black casing, it looked like a relic from Egyptian times. He poked it once with a podgy hand, and then steered a straight course directly over it, one knee steam-rollering the poor thing into the lino. It lay there motionless, legs splayed flat under the shell. I was about to sweep the corpse outside, when, in miraculous fashion, it hoiked itself back on to its legs and began plodding away, as if nothing had happened. I remembered that, of course, if a wild creature cannot flee, and cannot fight, its last ditch effort to save its own life is to play dead, in the hope that the attacker will eventually give up and go away. This immobility response is always time- limited in animals, and does not result in any lasting damage.  This is not the case with human beings.

When something comes into our writing environment and threatens our creative process- for example the telephone ringing interrupts us mid-flow- what happens?

Ideally, we freeze momentarily in the shock of the interruption, before taking one of two equally good, pro-active measures. Either, we move to answer it, inform the caller that we’re busy, and go back to work, or, we choose not to answer it and keep working.

But instead, something else often happens- our complex rational mind kicks in and tries to second-guess our way out of danger. Should I answer it? I wonder who it is? If I answer it I might be stuck on the phone with my mother, but if I don’t answer it, Sheila next door might think I’m rude… Repetitive, anxious thoughts cause our fear levels to rise and the flexible, appropriate immobility response becomes a semi-permanent paralysis. Our writing ceases up, sabotaged by our mind. This is the infamous ‘writers’ block’.

The way out of writers’ block is to reconnect with a way of being that is more instinctual, to act more often from an embodied place than from the rational mind. Our body knows what to do. It knows the story we are trying to tell, and how to tell it. We need to trust it.  We need to get out of our own way, to stop tripping over our own feet. This is wild writing.

A Writing Prompt

Look out for examples of animals coming in and out of the immobility response- a cat freezing in headlights, a fly staying still on a wall as the shadow of your hand passes over it…

Then when you’re next writing, notice any times that your body tenses or freezes, and try and ease it back into flow. Visualise the wild animals in your mind- how easily they enter and exit immobility.

This article was first published on August 9th 2013

Writing The First Draft

Out on the trail. New terrain opens up in every moment and the wild words explore it. They are precise, vivid, awake. They flow, unfurling and expanding as they go. There are no stilted or jerky expressions- there are dramatic pauses and sharp sentences purposefully placed to affect the reader in certain ways. When the words are in short tight form, they are channeled faster and must be contained more strongly. When a longer form is chosen the words have time to meander and weave. Here they must be held from dispersing over too large an area.

Tracking The Wild Words

You have an idea. You know it's the story you need to tell. Now it's time to write it. 

The below points will guide you as you go out into the wilds with your project. They will show you how to tell the story you need to tell. You also have a template here that can be used for any future project of any length or genre.  

The Writing Environment

-Create a private writing space for yourself where you will be undisturbed.

As you prepare to write the first draft, the first thing to do is to set up your writing environment. Build your writing nest, tree house, den, or dray. Take care of this space. Decorate it with flowers, or pictures, or quotes from storytellers, whatever will remind and inspire you. Explain to those you live with the purpose of the space, and what you need from them to sustain it. Remember that anyone who sits down at his or her desk for a period, regularly, and makes the commitment to go into that place of imagination and research, deserves to be called a storyteller or writer, and to be supported by others in that role.

-Make a timetable

Remember the importance of choosing a project length that fits with the time you have available to write. As long as it’s realistic, in a way it doesn’t really matter what your timescale is. A timescale focuses the mind, and provides a sense of containment for the work. When you’ve decided on a do-able timeframe, pin it above your desk, or on the wall in your tree house.

-Find a regular slot for your writing

Decide how much time you can give to your writing. It’s helpful to have a regular slot in your life, be that a couple of hours a week, or full time.  Again it’s very important that you’re realistic. This will give you a rhythm, and allow your instinctual self to work unconsciously between writing sessions. Some writers prefer to write only spontaneously, when they feel inspired. There is nothing wrong with that if you wish your writing to be an occasional pastime. If you want to complete a novel or full-length autobiography, only writing when you feel like it probably won’t be sufficient.  In my opinion, the major downside of writing only when the inspiration grabs you is that you will often avoid facing fears. Often the most satisfying experiences of the writing process arrive on the days when we have to drag ourselves to the desk and write through fear, anger or jealousy. When we stay steady in the face of those feared emotions, we come out into the light strengthened and empowered by that process.

-Once you’ve decided to commit that time to writing, just do it. Don’t beat yourself up that you can’t do more. Let your only expectation of the process be that you will fulfill your promise to yourself and sit down at your desk, on your tree stump, (or wherever you’ve chosen your dedicated writing space to be), for those hours. If you don’t feel creative, sit there anyway until the time is up, even if you don’t write (I’ve done this many times and always ended up writing something!)

On some days, the journey of the writer is to try and find a form and containment for fictional characters and a world that seem uncontainable. At other times, when our fictional world refuses to come alive at all in the way that we would wish, our job is just to keep plodding on and not give up.  What ever the day brings, you will cope. More than that, you will thrive. You were built to do so!

Tips For The Writing Process

-Chunk the process down

It’s not uncommon that even just the idea of sitting down and writing that autobiography, novel, short story, poem, screenplay, or article, can immediately send us into overwhelm- characterised by an inability to think clearly, and to sit down to the task in hand. So, go step by step, with bite-size pieces, so that you feel confident and in control of the process.

-Use your structure

You’ve got a setting, hero, objective, opponent and disaster. You’ve given consideration to a premise. You know how many pages, or words, approximately, you can envisage your story running to.  You know, give or take a few pages, where the end of act 1 will fall.  You have good idea of what the event will be that sets your hero off on her or his journey to achieve their goal for the rest of the story (acts 2 and 3).  You understand what will enable the high point of tension. And you know what will lead to the fall in tension, and fortunes of your hero. Perhaps you even have an inkling as to what will happens at the end (although that’s not something you necessarily need to know yet).

-Then just write it

Once those structural markers are in place, write from instinct, trust your natural storyteller, and tell the story without consciously using writing techniques or tools. Make occasional reference to your markers to see if you are on course. Focus on connecting with your passion for the story. And just write. And just love the story, unashamedly, obsessively.  

-Look out for those voices, or ‘people’ inside you who may try to sabotage your work. You can spot them by the messages they keep repeating, which are designed to subdue or belittle you. 

-Turn your opinionated thinking mind off, completely. Despite your valiant attempts it may still try to get in your way, hurling out undermining messages.

If that happens, do the following:

1. Thank the voice for trying to help you.

2. Tell it very firmly but non-aggressively to go away and leave you alone.

3. Reassure it that you will be open to hearing, at length, what it has to say when you come to the second draft 

4. Come back to your experience of your body in your writing space. Look around. Engage your senses, Can you feel your bottom on the chair. What colour are the walls? How does the room smell? How do you experience the texture and temperature of the writing materials?

-Recognise that not all of the first draft writing process involves physically writing.

One of the most difficult things as a writer is to know when to take breaks. How can we tell when we’re semi, or unconsciously trying to run from fear, and would therefore benefit from staying with it? Conversely, how can we judge when a break is a positive move on the part of our organism to resource us, or restore equilibrium? The truth is, we can’t always know. But each of these monthly newsletters includes an experiment to help you to have increasingly greater awareness around this, to be more intuitive.

It can be helpful to move from your writing space at intervals to give your unconscious space to work. Hold a question in your head, for example ‘where would that character go today?’ then do manual tasks. Try washing up, or walking. It’s very important however, that you don’t start mentally doing something else e.g. thinking about what’s for dinner. Remember, you are still writing. Hold the mental space clear for answers to rise up. (If you cage a bird it might stop singing, but when you let it go free it may well come back and sing at your window. It’s a bit like this.)

-Set yourself up for the next day

Before you leave your desk at the end of a writing period, decide on your task for the next session e.g. to ‘write from the high point in act 2 to the end of the act’. When you come to your writing space again, do the assigned task. Nothing more. Nothing less.

-Remember. There is nothing to ‘get right’.  And there’s nothing you can do wrong.

The point of the first draft is to get the fundamentals approximately in the right place. Always make sure your first draft is about the right length, otherwise you’ll find it hard to gauge if the plot points are in the right place. Also, try in the first draft also to get the sense of the dialogue in, and to make sure the right people are talking to the right other people. If you’re feeling tired one morning and just can’t think of a good piece of speech you might just put in,

Rod tells Tim the story of how he was attacked.

Don’t beat yourself up about the fact you couldn’t think of something better. You can replace it in the second draft.

You Are Not Alone



Remember, you are not alone when you sit down at that desk. Many thousands of others have taken the same journey before you. Many others are doing it right now (you’ll find some of them in the Facebook group). And yet more will come after you, walking in your footsteps, grateful for the path you’ve laid. I’d like to share with you the words of Hannah Kent, from her book Burial Rites. Her willingness to lay bare her vulnerability within the storytelling process can help us to feel less alone.

Finally in possession of the facts I had yearned after for two years, I no longer had any excuse not to write my book. Even as I write this article, my hands grow sweaty in remembrance of the trepidation and terror I felt. People speak of the fear of the blank canvas as though it is a temporary hesitation, a trembling moment of self-doubt. For me it was more like being abducted from my bed like a clown, thrust into a circus arena with a wicker chair, and told to tame a pissed-off lion in front of an expectant crowd.  Sure, I had written short stories before. But that, to me, was no consolation: just because I was a cat-person did not mean I knew how to conquer a beast.
…Publication certainly hasn’t extinguished my fears about writing. But these fears have by now become so familiar, that, rather than inducing creative paralysis, they light a fire under me. It is writing, after all, which keeps me burning. Yes, it terrifies me, and it vexes me, and there are many days when I will actively sabotage my own practice. Some days writing is no more than a repeated chorus of muttered expletives, and a hammering of the ‘delete’ button. Yes, there are days when I am able to somehow sever myself loose from the temporal world and fully enter the lives of the characters. Sometimes I do feel that I am putting the best words I can think of in the best order possible, and there are moments when the writing comes swift and thick and pure. I am grateful for these times. But most days fear is my shadow. It drives my writing as much as my love for it does. Perhaps it’s supposed to be this way. Perhaps the only fiction worth reading-the writing that ensnares you wholly, that lays siege to your heart-is that which is born of love and terror, slick with the blood of it’s creator.

The writing process is terrifying and exhilarating in equal measure. The bad news is that my experience is the same as Hannah’s, that the terror does not get less the more you write. The good news is that neither does the exhilaration! Increasingly we understand what happens in the brain during the creative process. I’ll leave it to James Zull to explain…

…Dopamine is released in the newest region of cortex, the part that we use to create ideas, make decisions and plan our action Thus, we feel rewarded when we create new objects or actions. And since creativity is based on the decisions made by the creator, the reward system kicks in when we are in control and inventing things that we have thought of ourselves. Freedom and ownership are part and parcel of the neurochemistry of the arts.

-James E Zull‘Arts, Neuroscience and Learning’

The Balance of Structure and Content

Having pinned down a basic structure before you started writing, it’s important to know that it is still ok if things change. The structural markers we’ve put in place are friendly guides to point the way. They are there to nudge us back into the flow of the creative stream if we get beached on the bank. They are there to re-orient us when we lose our way. When, however, they become points that are so fixed that nothing will shift them, we’ve got a problem. If that happens, we’re no longer going into the unknown. Then our story dies on the page. 

So, despite the narrative arc you’ve carefully constructed, stay open to the idea that things may change. Information may end up being revealed in a slightly different way, or at another time to that which you’d envisioned.  Act 3 may be longer, or shorter than that one-fifth ratio. You may have told your lead character to go one way, only to find that they choose their own route as the story unfolds, and you are required to follow. 

Stick to the structure, but don’t stick to it- I’m not making things very easy am I?!  It’s a balance, and we can only learn it by practicing it. If you find, in a first draft of a project, that you become a little inflexible and your supportive container (that flower pot brimming over with fragrant sweet peas), becomes a cage with iron bars, just learn from it. Say never mind and resolve to do it a little differently next time. Conversely, if the pot of sweet peas gets out of control and you trip in the tangled stems, or if you are lost in the sheer rampaging abundance of it all, and almost faint from the overpowering fragrance, again, forgive yourself and adjust the balance in favour of a bit of strong fencing.  Make pro-active choices with each new piece of information that comes in. Never beat yourself up, about anything. It’s utterly counter-productive.

You are an animal, and nothing if not flexible, adaptable and able to learn. It will be different next time, and the time after, and the time after that.

And if the idea of having to carry on writing and writing and writing in order to learn, seems too much, or uninteresting, perhaps it’s time to re-consider your life path as a storyteller. Whereas, if the idea of taking the material that is words, and shaping it, appeals to you, well, this storytelling lark is most definitely for you. Do it for the sheer love of the materials in your hands, and the joy of the surprise of every new form that emerges.

All good wishes for the writing of the first draft. Trust that the animal that is your wild words knows who it is. It knows its territory. Don’t think it’s either all your responsibility, or all your fault. Neither are true. You’re just along for the ride. Hold on tight.

Why not post a victorious photo of yourself in the Facebook group, clutching it in your hand! 


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

What Are Your Wild Words?

Wild words are the words that want to be heard and seen - as opposed to the ones that you want to write.

They are the ones you keep caged in the depths of your soul. They are the ones that you sometimes hear crying, or, even worse, which have forgotten how to cry. They are the words which leak out, or which sabotage your life, in so many realised and unrealised ways. They are as often words of joy, and peace, as they are words of sorrow or anger. The wild words are the one story that needs to be told, the answering call to the yearning of your heart and soul. There are as many kinds of wild words as there as creatures on this earth. They vary as much in looks as the elephant and the mouse, and behave in as many different ways. Wild words are not necessarily big and loud and emotional. They might cause a stampede when they arrive. But it’s equally likely that they’ll slide in quietly, flutter their way on to your page, or jostle at your elbow.

Wild words are fiction and non-fiction and transcend the two. They are poetry and prose and transcend the two.

Wild words can be, but are not necessarily, profound. Sometimes they prefer to be shallow, fickle and superficial.

They do not take any account of ‘the market’ (but then the greatest novelists never did either). They do not necessarily use the writing tools that you’ve been taught. Nor do they necessarily follow ‘good’ writing practice (although strangely they often end up as ‘great writing’ without all those supports). Sometimes it is agonising and exhausting to give birth to them, but equally often it is a joyful experience as they slip out almost unaided.

The one thing you can be quite sure of is that they won’t be what you expect. What you expect is what your thinking mind is encouraging you to write. The thinking mind likes tame words because they are no threat. They allow us to stay well within our comfort zone. Writing truly wild words involves facing fears. What the thinking mind fears, it won’t support you to conceptualise. That means we have to find a new approach.

For now, the only thing we can know for sure is that to undertake a mission to meet and reclaim the wild words is to go on a journey into the unknown, with all the associated hopes and fears.

The Weekly Prompt

Think about what you expect your wild words to be like. What would be the opposite of those expectations? Allow the answers to find you, rather than hunt them down.

This article was first published on July 18th 2013

All About Character

The characters described in wild words are multi-layered. They have emotional, and psychological depth. Unique and believable, they skitter across the page, and leap off the tongue. The listener or reader identifies with those things that make us all human- common emotions, hopes and fears. They are intrigued by how the characters differ from themselves. The cast of characters work together like an orchestra, each taking a necessary and distinctive role in the plot.  Their voices, language, appearance, posture and mannerisms are symbols, conveying in solid and show-able ways, their inner worlds.

When wild words speak, they do so directly, rather than their words being reported. To report what someone has said in the past, rather than hearing it straight from their own mouth, is almost always weaker.  Characters’ voices are as varied as the species of animals on earth. Their emotional words and habit patterns are revealed through how and when they speak.  

Tracking The Wild Words

So, what is character…? Answer this question for yourself, before reading on.

I’m sure there are many valid answers out there. Here are the most relevant and useful answers for our purposes:

-Character is habit. Don’t try and stuff individuality into every appearance of your character. Instead, focus on setting up small habits that are repeated. This will give the listener or reader a sense of the character without overloading the story.

-Character is what creates plot. The hero gives us the backbone of our plot. Their actions carry us through.

-Character is the first place to turn if you’re stuck. Stuck in a story corner? Go back to your lead character in the scene, and re-find a sense of them. What would they do next?

-Character is the answer to everything. Go there if you have a plot problem, if you want to add surprise, or if you want change the atmosphere.

How To Work With Your Characters

The image of an iceberg is very appropriate here. Did you know that two thirds of an iceberg is under the water and cannot be seen? The same is true of people. We often reveal very little of our internal world to others. The job of a storyteller is to get under the water. Screenwriter Lew Hunter, in his book Screenwriting 404, offers the image of the ‘mind worm’. We want to burrow ever deeper inside the head of our character. By the end of the story her or his emotional world should have been emptied out. The listener or reader should have seen all their bravery, fear, anger, and hope. At the risk of overloading this unit with metaphors… it’s a little like peeling an onion. We’re removing the layers one by one, revealing them to the listener or reader.

The listener or reader doesn’t have to like the hero. In fact, nice is boring. Don’t make your hero nice, just make sure the audience understand what motivates her or him. That is all that’s necessary to get your audience caring about what happens to them. A good way of making a seemingly not-so-nice hero sympathetic is to give them a weakness or vulnerability. By all means make your hero a serial killer, but have them like animals and be really kind to their cat :-) 

Once you’ve decided on your hero they must to survive until the end of the story. You’re coercing the listener or reader into identifying with them. Therefore, to kill them off before the end is like killing the reader. That’s a pretty nasty thing to do! However, there are exceptions to this guideline. A notable one is in the horror genre. Here, we want to unnerve and destabilise our reader. They’ll be disappointed if we don’t. Killing off the character through whose eyes they have been seeing, achieves that marvellously.

Start with your lead character, and grow the story with them.

Remember page 17? At the end of act one something happens that forces your hero to undertake a journey. Every step of the way, see the created world through their eyes, and only have them take action when they are ready to do so.

Character is revealed in conflict.

Set up your characters in conflict rather than conversation. Through conflict change and growth are enabled. There should be no ‘static’ conflict; it must be attack to counter attack. The protagonist’s decision leads to the antagonist’s decision and vice versa at every stage. Compromise in either the hero or antagonist must be impossible unless there is ‘death’ of some dominant quality in one of characters, almost always at the end. If the strength of your two central characters is not retained through the story there can be no tension.

The cast of characters in your story need to behave like an orchestra. They should be well defined, uncompromising, and as different as possible. They should each have a unique voice and purpose as regards the plot. Double check: are all your characters necessary?

Show Not Tell

I mentioned that just as two thirds of an iceberg is under water, there is much about each individual that is hidden from others. This includes our emotions, hopes, fears, expectations, value systems, thoughts, and ideas.

Show not tell is an oft-quoted saying in creative writing. What it means is that it is nearly always stronger to use solid, showable, visual events that convey a character’s inner life, than to try to describe, straight off the bat, that inner life in abstract terms.

For example: we could say ‘he was feeling sad’. However, it would be much stronger in storytelling terms to say ‘he crawled down the street, pulling resistant feet, shoulders slumped’. It’s stronger because we’re showing not telling.

This relates back to how we function as human animals. We construct our worlds using conceptual metaphor. We use the most solid terms to convey the more abstract. Solid terms include sensory impressions- for example the taste of food, as well as physical sensations. However, all you really need to know is that wherever possible we need to use symbols and metaphor to convey character’s emotional worlds. The smallest object, gesture, mannerism, behaviour, the colour of their hat on a certain day, or the fact that they choose that hat at all on that day… these things can convey a wealth of information about your characters' inner, less graspable worlds.

Melissa Bruder, in A Practical Handbook for the Actor calls these symbols ‘externals’.

An external is a physical adjustment made by the actor that… aids in the telling of the story.

For our purposes, it’s also for the storyteller or writer to pin down these externals on the page. Examples include:

1. Bodily adjustments-for example, posture, voice or speech alterations, and physical handicaps.

2. Ornaments- for example costumes and make-up.

3. Physical states-for example, drunkenness, exhaustion, feeling hot or cold or illness

The point made is that these externals must be made ‘as habitual as the lines of the play’ to the actor. And to the storyteller or writer.


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Photograph courtesy of Peter Reid.

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.