Great storytelling coming as much from an embodied place, a place of emotion, body sensations and sensory impressions, as from our heads. That’s not how most of us write, nor for that matter, function in the world.
Very often we take in the messages that others (parents, caregivers, teachers etc.) repeatedly feed us without due consideration of their validity, and without noting our whole body responses to them. We internalise them to such an extent that eventually we can no longer tell them apart from our own words. They become a fundamental part of our organism, even if they’re unhelpful, demeaning, or critical.
If you observe most human beings moving, you’ll notice how separate our heads look from our bodies, as if they have a life of their own. We tend to lead our bodies with our heads, literally, as well as psychologically and emotionally. Faced by an interruption to the storytelling process, our minds go into overdrive. They scroll repetitively through the same issues. They over-analyse, they worry, they are anxious. Let’s look at a specific example.
The Freeze Response
Imagine… you’ve fought tooth and nail to free yourself from family responsibilities and have bolted the office door. You have any hour for yourself, an hour for writing. Then the phone rings.
Instead of taking pro-active action to either answer the phone and deal quickly with the caller, or, to ignore it, the thoughts proliferate. I wonder who that is? Should I answer it? If I answer it that’s the end of my writing for the day. But if I don’t answer it, well, it might be Jimmy needing my help, or Gran, or it might be that new neighbour locked out of her house. I’m not sure what to do. Damn it, I’ve wrecked the writing now anyway! And round you go.
All this rumination uses up energy that could be channeled into the action of writing. It also keeps us trapped in a loop of hyper-arousal that is not fulfilled. Energy is not released on the page, but remains trapped in our bodies. We do not make the contact with our embodied selves that is necessary to process emotions. We do not reset, or come back to equilibrium. Therefore we do not release the words to live on the page. We do not allow the story to form itself fluidly and naturally.
Similarly, in conversation and oral storytelling, we get stuck in a loop that results in us feeling that the words are ‘stuck in our throat’ or ‘on the tip of our tongue’. They flop out stilted or fragmented. Or they don’t emerge at all.
Our normal instinct towards pro-activity, informed by our whole, embodied being, is replaced by a prolonged freeze that effects both our bodies and minds. We get trapped in paralysis. We collapse in overwhelming helplessness- in that moment, and as a repeating pattern in our lives. It’s reflected in the words on our page. We start to believe many unhelpful things- such as I can’t cope, and I won’t succeed.
The process is increasingly accompanied by fear. Paralysis itself need not be terrifying, what frightens us is our resistance to feeling paralysed or enraged. We don’t know it’s temporary. When our bodies don’t register that the threat has gone and that we are now safe, we remain stuck in the past.
Unfortunately human beings do not readily distinguish between real threat in the environment, and memories of feeling threatened. When we sense threat we stop, and scan our environment in order to locate it. Often we cannot locate it, because it doesn’t exist in the present observable environment. Our anxiety is then such, that we invent a tangible source of threat.
Free-floating fears attach themselves to any likely object of our attention. They then fly at us from every angle, bombarding us as we write. Some of these fears include:
-Fear of the unknown
- Fear of not being in control
- Fears related to societal or family expectations
- Fears of the outside world
- Fears revolving round use of the senses
- Fears around making contact with our bodies
- Fear of becoming more aware of, and acting from, a place of emotion
Enhancement of immobility by fear can lead to a self-perpetuating feedback loop causing an essentially permanent quasi-paralysis.
All that energy that is trapped in our nervous system doesn’t just vanish of course. It rumbles beneath the surface. We are aware it’s there, and we fear its force. We fear the ‘wildness’. We don’t know what to do with it, and it seems to grow incrementally the more we repress it, so we try different, and often increasingly radical strategies for dealing with it.
This is instinct gone awry. Now neither our thoughts, nor our gut instinct can be trusted to have an accurate picture of the threat level. The learning that should be gained from contact with experience over time, our innate ability, no longer shows us the way out.
We do what all human beings do in the presence of terror; we disconnect and distance from our lived experience. This happens in many ways: We forget. We distract ourselves by focusing on more pleasant things. We numb and cut off from parts of our bodies. However, because the experiential connection from storyteller> character/narrator>reader is so fundamental, when we take these actions, we undermine the aliveness and power of our story. There’s a loss of the passion we once carved out on the page or in the telling.
Distancing on the Page
During the physical act of writing we bring unconscious strategies into play. We do this to avoid the fear that arises whenever we touch in with a more instinctual part of ourselves, and our writing threatens to come from a deeper, more embodied place, a place of emotion. The tracks left by the unconscious strategies are clearly visible in our words.
We avoid contacting and writing about aspects of experience that house our greatest fears. We also let lost in over-describing aspects of experience that we are comfortable with, in order to avoid those scary aspects from jumping out at us like a wild animal from the undergrowth.
Interestingly, the same problems are present on the page regardless of whether we write fiction or non-fiction, prose or poetry, because their source is the underlying fear, rather than any element specific to a particular genre.
Not only are our life strategies reflected on the page, we also end up using writing to reenforce these patterns.
These strategies are seen equally clearly in conversation, as in writing on the page. Speakers stop mid flow, they divert to another subject, they seem to drift away from being present in the conversation, or conversely, they are overly attentive.
The Mind As Gatekeeper
One of the main ways in which the rational mind deals with the fear is to bolt the gates, and act as gatekeeper. It passes judgment on every call to action that the body makes. It maintains a strangle hold over when, how, and what we speak and write about. It puts a leash around our thoughts, permitting only what it doesn’t feel threatened by out into our communications. Our words are cut down at the root by internal messages such as you’re saying too much, that’s way too revealing, or conversely, come on, you have to get over this shyness, say more.
In effective speaking and writing, there is an initial stage where we do just that, we speak or write, without judging and without criticising. This stage is completely separated from the editing stage of the process, which comes later. In the caged storyteller, there is no uncritical creative time. Every word, sentence, draft, every stage, is weighed down by judgment.
The Security of Habits and The Known
We use various props to literally prop us up when fear sporadically, or permanently, invades us and we don’t have the resources to continue alone. They are like a succession of life rings we cling to, to keep ourselves from drowning, or the teddy that the small child can’t sleep without. Rather than take any risks, we stick with our neck-up way of functioning. This includes our habitual patterns of speech, and writing routines, as well as the forms on the page that we’ve developed over the years. We might be blocked and frustrated, but at least those uncomfortable feelings are familiar. We know where we stand with them.
Here are just a couple of ways in which we might create props for ourselves:
-We make minimal changes to the writing routines, and then we convince ourselves that the changes are much bigger than they really are. For example, we revert back to using the pen we were given twenty years ago, aged eighteen, and call it a new way of doing things, even though it’s actually very familiar.
-We take the advice of those we consider experts- writing teachers, life coaches, psychotherapists and other professionals, instead of acting on our own intuition. For example, we try, as we’ve been told in our writing class, to use short sentences instead of long ones. In that way we avoid facing the discomfort of going into the unknown, and really doing things differently.
The result of all of these desperate attempts to stay within our comfort zone is that we find that that comfort zone gradually shrinks. We are more and more restricted in our creativity and expression. We are shocked to discover ourselves living in a smaller and smaller cage.
If we now tell stories at all, we do so in a state of disorientation and disconnection. This frozen state is commonly termed ‘creative block’ or ‘writer’s block’. Some of us know the extreme form of this, when we are frozen with fear at the thought of speaking. Or, when we are unable to think, to get our hands to move on the keyboard. Or, when we stare for hours at the blank page. Many more of us, however, experience it in more subtle ways, as a sense of creative frustration, or just inability to get power into our storytelling. Our words are narrow, limited, and lifeless. We’ve lost touch and trust in our ability to listen to our instinct, to tune in to our natural ability to tell stories.
The worst thing of all is, that all the propping up and strategising only works to a limited extent. In order for our organism to maintain its health, we have to get the energy out of our systems, somehow. Despite our best efforts, it will always end up leaking, or exploding out in un-nourishing, unpredictable, unbalanced ways. These include self-harm, projection and somatisation.
From Cage To Supportive Container
So how we might work to free our caged words, in order to tell stories, and live, from a more expansive, vivid, alive place?
This is the seed I’d like to plant in your mind:
If at some point in the past, we have put various cages around our experience of life, and our self-expression, we have done so for a reason. After all, our body and mind aren’t stupid. They are always orienting towards health in the best way they know how. A cage, although it restricts us, also protects us.
One example would be someone who is unable to write about water, because they had a near-drowning experience earlier in life. Very sensibly, their body-mind tries to limit their contact in both the real, and metaphorical worlds, with what it perceives, based on experience, to be a dangerous substance.
However, the cages that we live in may have been put in place a long time ago.
Perhaps the survival strategies that they represent are no longer as helpful to us as they once were.
Our Wild Words work is firstly to separate out the cages, and to thank them for the ways in which they have helped us. Then, we need to put other, more helpful strategies in place to allow the cages to relinquish their roles. We want to invite each cage to become a supportive container, a window box blooming with sweet peas, rather than a prison.
Photograph courtesy of Peter Reid.