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.