The wild words on the page are a wonderful unfolding mystery.
Information is revealed, according to what will impact the listener or reader most powerfully. At times they are surprised and delighted. At times they are shocked and frightened. The words hook them and entice them onward, pulling them further into the created world, as they wait to see what will be around the next corner. Wild words contain moments of revelation, like the best Haiku (A poem of Japanese origin composed of three lines of 5,7 and 5 syllables).
If I’d the knack
I’d sing like
cherry flakes falling.
While the 'aha moment'- that moment in which we look in wonder at the world around us, is a defining feature of Haiku, those revelations occur equally in the epic novel or the autobiography.
Tracking The Wild Words
To track the wild words we must shape our words into narrative. But at first we have just a sense of the potential, of the drama that will play out on our page. It’s elusive. A shadow in the trees. Exciting and enticing because it is unknown, ungrasped.
Eugene Gendlin, the founder of ‘Focusing’, talks about,
‘Spending time with something in your experiencing that’s not yet clear’
The free storyteller, like the free wild cat, has a vast world to explore- the world they create (or remember) in their head. The process of writing should also feel like driving a car in a dark lane. We see only what the headlights reveal and illuminate in each moment. When the wordsmith feels surprised and delighted by the process of living, the words reflect that, and in turn surprise and delight the reader. When they feel the wonderful mystery of the unfolding of the creative process, the words are transcendent, imbued with that mystery. When they are scared of what will come next, or shocked by the characters revealing information to them, so too is the reader.
It’s about being taken by the world we create, rather than having to coerce and bully it into existence. It’s about allowing the characters to come and tell us their stories, rather than forcing words from their mouths.
So much for the aspiration to be a wordsmith who meets the unknown with the countenance of a fearless warrior, but that’s not always our story- or not yet. To do so, we have to be willing to let the whole of our embodied experience show us the way, not just our heads. That can seem new and strange. The idea of returning to a way of functioning that is more instinctual scares the rational mind. It is terrified of not being in control. After all, if our thoughts, those chattering words in our heads, weren’t telling us what to do- who would be in control of what happened next?
What do you think would happen if you unlocked the cage of a circus tiger, and threw open the door? I’d like to imagine it would bound out and turn ecstatic circles, overjoyed to be free, before sniffing the ground until it got a whiff of the jungle, and high-tailing it back to the wild, eternally grateful to its liberator. The reality, I think, would be a little different. Unnerved by the change in circumstances, the tiger would either cower in the corner of the cage, frozen with fear, or, its fear would flip into anger, as it attacked the threat- you. Like any captive animal, the tiger is terrified when its cage is opened. It fears the unknown of the free world. After all, the cage is all it knows.
Us caged writers are no different. We think that we want to escape the frustration, anger, and disappointment that accompany not the being the wordsmith we aspire to be, but we cling to those familiar feelings, even if they’re unpleasant. We yearn to write in a way that’s unfettered, spontaneous, and more instinctual, but it’s unfamiliar and therefore terrifying.
Fear On The Page
When we look at our writing, we can spot the outcome of a fear of going into the unknown. Do the words on your page seem predictable? Do you know what’s going to happen at the end before you’ve got halfway through the writing? Is there an absence of surprise and delight on the page? Or conversely, of shock and horror? Are you yawning as you write? Might the yawn of the agent or publisher explain your struggle to get published? Might the yawn of your family explain the ‘polite’ response to your memoirs?
Becoming The Wild Writer
Don’t get me wrong, some level of routine and familiarity is essential to being a good storyteller. I’m not suggesting that you throw the baby out with the bathwater. We all have our odd little habits that provide safety and containment to our writing process. To give you an example from my own process: unless it’s boiling hot, I nearly always wear a hat when I write. Cosy-ness around my head helps me to relax :-)
When I talk on this subject at writer’s festivals, I’m often assailed by the following cry: How do we know what’s what? Can’t you just tell us which habits and routines support us, and which are undermining our stories? Most writing teachers, in most situations, would do just that, and tell you. The problem with this approach however, is that there is no one correct answer, no one medicine for all. Every storyteller requires a different remedy, or at least a different dosage. Anyone who tells you differently is fooling you, and possibly themselves as well. What I can do is to point you in the direction of the work you need to do to find out for yourself what works for you. I can also support you on the journey. We need to experiment. We need to try things out. We need to see how the changes make us feel, and then work with the emotions that come up.
If you have experiences of failed publication, if your storytelling is uninspired, or uninspiring, if you have six unfinished novels in the bottom drawer- this is certainly the right time to change your habits. And in fact, any time is a good time to try doing things differently. Without trying different approaches, we’ll never know what works for us and what doesn’t, what makes us a better storyteller and what makes us a worse one. Being a good storyteller is as much about knowing ourselves, as about know writing tools and techniques.
And how do we know that we’re making a real change, rather than just moving the furniture around in that room? We know because we feel like we do when we follow the tracks of the tiger- excited, wowed, and a bit scared, not comfortable and lazy like we’re sitting in our favourite armchair. We feel like we want our reader to feel.
The important thing to remember is that you can always retrace your steps.
You can always go back. If you try something and it doesn’t work, then revert back to what you did before. No problem. No loss of pride. Being an explorer is all about trying things and seeing what happens, then re-evaluating and taking another step. Sometimes we take the next step in the same direction, sometimes in a different one completely.
Certainly, you’re already on the right path. In the very fact that you’re engaged with Wild Words, you’re doing something new, and going into the unknown. Pat yourself on the back, explorer.