Threat and Opportunity

All parts of the animal- sensory impressions, bodily sensation, and emotion, are designed to support it to survive, and thrive. To function well, it must be in touch of all these aspects of itself. It must be a creative, flexible system that reacts appropriately to its needs.

A wild animal in its environment initially senses a threat - for example an attacking animal. It stops and orients to the threat. Once it has identified the source, it takes action. It flees, or if cornered, it fights. Opportunities encountered are responded to in the same manner. The threat of hunger for example, might lead to an opportunity as prey is sighted. The animal then makes a pro-active move to resolve the situation. Assuming it succeeds, its nervous system often allows the energy to pass out of the body via shaking. It then continues about its daily business.

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. If the threat recedes, the animal shakes off this freeze mode immediately. The release of energy is seen again, in trembling of the muscles. This immobility response is always time-limited in animals, and does not result in any lasting damage.   

Consider a small wild creature, the scarab beetle. With its shape, hooked legs and black casing, it looks like a relic from Egyptian times. If a cat pounces, seemingly steam-rolling it, it will lie there motionless, legs splayed flat under the shell. The cat will assume it is dead, and walk away. However, once the threat has passed, it will haul itself back on to its legs, perhaps shake a little, as it re-finds its organic equilibrium, and then plod away. It’s as if nothing has happened.

In the wild animal a dynamic equilibrium is maintained. The life of the wild animal is a continuous process of becoming ‘hyper aroused’, dealing with threat, processing the experience, and resetting its system. This all happens in an instant, via skills made unconscious and enacted in the blink of an eye.

The Wild Words

Act 1: We get the character up the tree.

Act 2: We throw stones at them.

Act 3: We get them down.

This movement from obstacle encountered to resolution, is the simple heart of most stories. It’s also a story of responding to threat or opportunity. Over and over again, the narrative rises in tension, heightens to a climax, and falls to the denouement. This wave-like cycle repeats.

This natural narrative arc is seen in the macrocosm of the narrative shape of the whole novel, played out in acts 1,2 and 3. We follow the character or narrator’s journey as they meet ever-larger obstacles to achieving their aim. The emotions evolve, and gather pace. They become increasingly more intense. They then climax via physical expression at the mid point of act 2 - through an argument, or a fight for example- before discharging, and fading out. The tension defuses to be replaced by calm or equilibrium in the character. The story ends, either happily or sadly.

This arc of tension and release is also seen at the microcosmic level. With each step the hero takes towards achieving her goal, they journey through this wave of tension and release, before the cycle begins again with their next move.

This arc is seen in every type of narrative, both fiction and non-fiction. It is observed in the macrocosm of a whole poem, as well as in the microcosm of each individual stanza.

The Wild Writer

I once had the privilege to be invited to tea with an acquaintance who is a prolific and well-known author. I arrived fifteen minutes early. She welcomed me in, but in a state of anxiety. She still had four pages of her novel to write that day, before she had met her self-imposed quota and felt she could relax and have tea. While she finished her work, I sat on her terrace with my tea. I could see her through the window, in her study, seated at her desk, beavering away. Looking back, I realise she was the quintessential writer-in-the wild.

She had an idea: her pencil froze on the page. Her body froze too. Her pupils contracted and her heartbeat slowed. She transitioned into a stiffened posture, with dilated pupils, darting eyes, sweating, and a strong pulse in the front of her neck. Then I saw her take action, as she pressed on into the writing. Her body shook slightly as she wrote. Her whole body seemed fluid, and flexible. The deepest or biggest emotions seemed to be leading to the smallest, most precise action with the pen. As her words flowed, her body relaxed. There was a loosening of the breathing, her pupils closed down to moderate aperture. It ended with a flush of satisfaction on her face, as she wriggled and stretched her fingers. When she came to join me for tea, she embodied lightness and health and satisfaction.

As you've probably heard me say before, human beings are natural storytellers. Telling stories is one of the ways in which we process the impact of life, with its challenges and interruptions, on our physical, emotional, and mental well-being.  It’s one of the ways we re-set our system after it’s been disturbed by threat. Our stories are symbolic representations of an organic need. As such they may emerge as fact, or as fiction, as poetry, as prose, or as anything in-between. They convey an underlying truth in the form that suits the situation best. The wild storyteller is in contact with the smells, sounds, tastes, smells around them. They are aware of their feet on the ground, and the feel of the chair. They have a strong sense of how it feels to live in their body. They are grounded by their felt sense of a dynamic equilibrium, a familiar rhythm that accompanies them through the writing process. Images, ideas, thoughts, and emotions- these different aspects of experience rise up into the foreground of their awareness as appropriate, before falling back to be replaced by other images, ideas, thoughts, and emotions. All these aspects work together to guide them, to allow the story to emerge naturally.

Interruptions to the wild wordsmith’s process can be either ‘positive’ or ‘negative’. Positive interruptions include: a brilliant plot idea thrusting itself into the foreground of awareness, part of the ongoing questioning process around plot development. Negative interruptions include: a phone call from the bank interrupting the writing time, and becoming uppermost in the storyteller’s experience.

With each threat or opportunity, the wild storyteller stops still in their tracks and orients to the interruption. The thinking mind comes in to mediate strong emotions so that the storyteller is not overwhelmed. Emotions are contained and channeled, rather than allowed to run amok, or, conversely, suppressed.

Once they have identified the source, they do one of three things:

-They make a pro-active move to put distance (either emotional or physical depending on the type of threat) between themself and the interruption.  In other words, they run away from the challenge. Examples would be: to put a plot question aside until later, or, not to answer the telephone when it rings.

-If running away is not possible, and the writer is metaphorically or otherwise cornered, they move towards the interruption (either emotionally or physically depending on the type of threat) In other words, they fight. Examples would be: a story plot must be clearer, so they bring the lead character in, to see how the scene works. Unable to escape from hunger, the writer orders a take away pizza. Or, the storyteller bolts the door to stop the children coming in.

-The third, and least agreeable of the three options - the freeze response - is less often of real use to modern human beings, as we face few physical dangers to our lives. However, imagine you are working in your office, and your seven-year old daughter knocks on the door and shouts your name for the thousandth time that morning. You may find that your instinctual reaction is a freezing of body and mind. You stay very still and hold your breath, effectively playing dead. When she receives no response, she thinks you’re not there, gives up, and goes away. You release your breath, wriggle in your seat, and go back to work. That’s the freeze response, working elegantly.

You’ll sometimes see, in the range of situations I’ve described, the thinking mind taking clear, decisive action, However, the rational mind is used sparingly. It is not in overall charge. The globality of experience- the instinct-calls the shots.

If the threat comes from the inner life- a memory or fantasy for example, rather than a threat to physical safety or space, the most appropriate action is often for the writer to stay with the experience of the interruption in the body. In this case, the thinking mind will step back. It is only one of many tools that can be used, and here it is not the appropriate one. In noticing the rise of tension in the muscles, and the effect on the breathing, the physiological reaction resolves itself. In this example, as so often, the physiological reaction is the only ‘problem’. After all, the threat is imagined. Therefore, when the writer deals with what’s happening in the body, they resolve the situation satisfactorily.

Having made whatever move is necessary, and assuming the threat (real or imagined) is now gone, there is a spontaneous experience of trembling in the muscles as the wild storyteller always shakes off whatever is left of the anger, fear or freeze response. There is the coursing of blood back into the head and torso. The problem is forgotten. They move on. The writing returns to flow.

Thus, we deal with challenges efficiently, intuitively. We process the experience. We reset ourselves. We stay in touch with our natural ability to come back to equilibrium after interruption, to move through to completion and satisfaction. Any actions taken are not individually thought through, before being enacted. Instead, they arise moment to moment, from the source of our being. It’s a place we can learn to access, as we’ve seen. None of this is hard work. Our body knows what to do. We just have to stay in contact with it, and allow it to lead us to what we need. We have to allow the process to do itself. It’s then that we re-find the intuitive, instinctual writer.

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