From the archive: Urban Green

I left London when I was 30 because I was desperate for my eyes to be able to swivel their whole arc, to see wide and distant views, to smell clean air, and to rest in silence.

The other week, almost exactly ten years since I left, I went back. I spent two days walking the streets in search of a wild green space in the heart of the city. I was on a quest for a location for the ‘Wild In The City’ weekend workshops that are starting in the spring.

Twenty-five percent of the capital is made up of public green space, and the variety is tremendous. I saw the most regal royal parks, the most ragged parts of Hampstead Heath. I went into community gardens smelling of lavender and tomatoes, and locked myself into the seclusion of a private square in Bloomsbury.

Each one of those green spaces had a very different feeling, but all of them held a certain power. Their power derived from their juxtaposition with the concrete, metal, and glass that loomed over them, and from their ability to keep human progress at bay.

Suddenly there seemed to be so much space and silence in the city. And so many stories.

In Nunhead Cemetery, ghosts rose from the overgrown graves. In St James Park, the pomp and ceremony of monarchs came alive. In Greenwich Peninsular Ecology Park, tales of working in the gasworks in the 1880’s, and roars of victorious Olympians, seemed to hang in the air, even as butterflies, newts, moorhens and reed warblers went about their everyday business.

Not everything in cities is controlled by human beings. Not everything plays by our rules. There is room for the unpredictable, for those who live by intuition. There are quiet, inspiring places for the writers who seek to create a space into which magic might come.

The Weekly Prompt

This week, instead of working at your desk indoors, write something outside. If you live in an urban area, take a walk into the unknown to seek out a quiet, green space. Learn something about the history of the place you are in. See what inspiration you find. 

This article was first published on 20th September 2013

Why Do We Tell Stories?

So, why is it that we are ‘natural storytellers’? Recent scientific evidence backs up what we, as writers, know in our guts. Telling stories is not a luxury for human beings, it is vital to our survival and flourishing. If the wild animal has senses, bodily sensation, emotion, action and most probably some powers of imagining and ‘thinking’, to keep it alive, we have all this plus a more developed rational mind, and the ability to tell stories. 

There are stories everywhere around us, in films, on TV, and in books. Adverts tell us stories to persuade us to buy their products. Televised sports are also stories. Our heroes face the opponents, with a clear aim, and battle it out to the bitter end. Stories rescue human beings when life is too harsh, too fast, too heavy. We default into daydreaming whenever we are not involved in an immediate, absorbing task.  Stories provide rest and relief. They calm our body and mind.

I see the extreme of storytelling as a life-saving strategy in my work as a psychotherapist. Many people who experience traumatic or abusive situations, use storytelling to survive emotionally, when contact with ‘reality’ would be overwhelming for body and mind. Indeed, the state of ‘dissociation’, of feeling detached from a situation that would otherwise be unbearable, often involves elements of storytelling. Below is the account of an abuse survivor.

I could see the window from where I lay. When it was happening, I would look out of the window at the birds flying. I would imagine I too was flying, and that I could go anywhere, do anything. I would visit beautiful places and talk to kind people who reassured me that I would survive. I believe this is what stopped me from going crazy, or from killing myself.

In recent studies of dreams it has been found that 80 percent are about ‘a problem that needs to be solved’. So, it may be that the primary evolutionary role of stories is as, psychologist and novelist Keith Oatley puts it, to be...

…the flight simulators of human social life.

Writing, telling, reading, or listening to stories, activates the same biological process as living out the actions would do. The same neurons fire, and neural pathways are strengthened when we think about performing an action, as when we perform it for real. That’s the reason that professional sports people use visualisation as a key part of their training. Stories allow us to encounter various life obstacles in symbolic guise and to practice ways of solving them, without endangering ourselves. Stories train us for life.

Certainly, stories also play other crucial roles in our lives: They allow us to process emotions. They allow us to feel in control of, and gain perspective on our lives. They can lead to public recognition and (sometimes) money. Autobiographical work can pass information on to future generations, and provide closure to our lives. Stories entertain. They inspire and they motivate.

As I wrote as part of the content for a University of Exeter creative writing course,

When we tell our stories details unfold like flowers, clues become moments of epiphany, feelings are processed, and stuck energy is discharged. We begin to notice the patterns that repeat through our lives, called ‘Repetition Compulsion’ by Sigmund Freud. We see which of those serve us, and which don’t. We can bring closure to the unfinished aspects of our lives. We can grieve and move on. We can find or create our self in the writing.

Storytelling, on the very physical level of our nervous systems, discharges energy. This energy, if it remains trapped, can disable our effective functioning in the world, as well as lead to ill health.

Above all, writing is a fabulous thing to do, because, as poet John Keats so clearly elucidated, the great beauty of the art and craft of it is that ‘it makes everything interesting’.

What I’d like you to take away this month, is the following:

Your job- that of being a wordsmith- is sacred, because without it, the human species cannot survive.

What we need to do as storytellers is to rest in the knowledge that not everything has to come from the rational mind. If we can trust our innate ability to tell stories, to allow our organic movement towards health, then we have truly set out on the trail to re-finding our wild words. So, as the unanswered emails pile up, and as your partner, parents, and children tug relentlessly on your sleeve, remember this: you’re doing war-work. Writing saves lives.

Now how are your mind and body feeling? Would you know how to put the strength of your embodied experience into words?

Onward and upward!

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Telling The Story In Short Form

When wild words are present...The elements of the story are familiar enough to reassure the reader or audience. The plot speaks to their condition, more so for its simplicity and clarity. They are grounded and oriented by the clear setting, and can visualise it in their mind’s eye. They are engaged with the journey of the hero. They are on the edge of their seats because know what the hero has to lose if they doesn’t complete their quest. They recognise the terrifying threat that the opponent represents, and they fear it no less than the hero. They cheer and cry as successive rounds are won and lost by the hero. They are consumed and enchanted by the story, absorbed until the last word.

Tracking The Wild Words

When you’ve come up with your story idea largely from an instinctual place, the next thing is to ensure it has all the elements it needs to make it canter, roar, and, all in all, leap off the page.  

There can be a myth amongst storytellers, especially novel writers, that if you are a storyteller worth your salt, you will be able to sit down and just write the next War and Peace. This, in my experience is very rarely, if ever true. Almost all the greatest storytellers honed the tools of their craft over many years. And those that didn’t were usually doing something that would later help their writing- for example, spending time observing nature or human nature in another context. It may appear that someone becomes an overnight success. It only appears so when we aren’t aware of the six unpublished novels they’ve written before, and the thousands of solitary hours they spent locked in their office.  

The Fears

Storytellers and would-be storytellers who come to my courses attracted by the notion that we are natural or instinctual storytellers sometimes balk at the idea of working consciously with structure. However,  instinct doesn’t come from no-where, it has to be trained. It may look like a small child learns to speak easily, but analyse that process and observe the many thousands of times they practice making each sound. It may look like the bird catches prey in flight effortlessly, but observe the young sea gull drop a stick and swoop to catch it time and time again.

Writers sometimes fear that putting in place a structure for a story before writing it results in a story that is dry, and unoriginal. This is a confusion of the stages of the writing process. Considering basic structure is only the very first stage. It’s like the skeleton of the animal, before the flesh, blood, muscles, and individual character goes on. It’s like the framework of the house before you add wallpaper, furniture etc. The best structural work doesn’t limit you, quite the opposite. Held lightly, it provides you with the safety to follow your instinctual urges, and to let go into the creative flow.

The film writer and director David Mamet uses the analogy of building a house when he talks about the process of storytelling (in this case screenwriting):

I live in a house that’s two hundred years old. Barring some sort of man-made catastrophe, it will be standing in another two hundred years…it’s very difficult to shore up something that has been done badly. You’d better do your planning up front’.
-David Mamet, On Directing Film

Ignore the confidence that structural guidelines can provide you with at your peril. And if that hasn’t convinced you, perhaps this will: Structure is beautiful. It’s the pattern we hold in our bodies and minds that always orients us towards health, the repeated activation and discharge of the nervous system of the hero, as experienced by the writer and therefore the listener/reader.  In storytelling terms it’s like the mathematic laws of the universe. Perfect. Profound. A joy to explore and work with.

Fear On The Page

Wild words that have no appropriately supporting structure live in a cage. They sit terrified in the back of the restrictive space, not feeling safe enough to come out. Our page remains blank. Or, conversely, with nothing to contain them, they rampage across the page destroying the beauty of the form of the story or poem. The storyteller finds they have written 200,000 words instead of the 50,000 they intended- and they’re still only setting the scene! They’ve already used up all their energy and more, so they stop writing, exhausted. They are accompanied by ongoing distress because they haven’t told the story they needed to tell. The book never gets finished.

 

Becoming The Wild Writer

So now, to give you the safety net and confidence you’ll need to dive into the first draft, we’re going to use structural elements to ensure that your story foundations are rock solid. Remember the Five Elements? Here they are, fleshed out a little more.

 

The Five Elements

Situation: A specific place and date for your story. Decide this in advance. Even the difference of a few months can change the political and social environment immensely.

Character: This refers to your lead character, your hero or heroine. The best way to tell any story is to use this character’s journey as the backbone of your story. Follow them on their adventure. Set up the audience/reader’s identification with the hero. Once you’ve hooked them you’ll keep them for the rest of the story. The reader doesn’t have to like the hero, but they have to understand what motivates her/him and care about what happens to them.

Objective: Decide what the hero’s goal is, then take her or him step by step on a journey towards that goal. This is the throughline for the story.

There should only be one hero. If there are two people, or more, at the centre of your story, (for example a ‘buddy movie’), then choose one of them to be the hero. Remember, this is for ease of designing the structure. Later in the process you can play with the point of view of the listener or reader and create all sorts of effects. But for now- choose one hero.

A hero works best if they are passionate about what she is trying to get. If this is the case, and the reader/audience are identified with them, then you have a gripping story on your hands! If your story is about a woman who thinks about climbing Everest but doesn’t really mind either way whether she does it, then your audience probably won’t mind much either. If, on the other hand, she’s obsessed with climbing Everest, that’s a much better hook for your audience.

Take the hero step by step towards their goal. At each stage of his journey, we’ll be bearing their overall aim in mind, and asking,

What do they want?

What gets in the way?

Do they succeed or fail?

What gets in the way, at each stage, is the opponent.

Opponent: Also called the antagonist or ‘baddie’. They are what get in the way of what your hero is trying to achieve. It can be a person, a force of nature (such as a tornado), or even a part of the hero themselves (as in stories about mental illness). The important thing is that it is an immovable force. It does not weaken unless or until it is defeated at the end of the story. The hero and the antagonist can be likened to two armies going to war.

Have only ONE opponent. If you split the opponent you weaken the story. The opponent can, however, have servants/minions etc. In Star Wars, for example, Darth Vader is clearly the opponent, although he has many soldiers doing his dirty work for him.

If the opponent is part of the protagonist themselves, this is known as an internal antagonist. An example of this would be a character in a story about mental illness who is doing battle with their internal demons. Internal antagonists are more difficult to write, as they can get easily confused with the protagonist part of themselves. Unless you’re very clear that’s the path for you, stick to an external antagonist.

Disaster: By this I mean ‘what is the disaster for the hero?’ i.e. if they fail to do what they have set out to achieve what do they have to lose? It could be their job, their life, their health or many other things. It needs to be something that is very important to the hero. This is why the listener, reader or audience are invested in them succeeding. They know how much they have to lose if they fail.

These five elements are vital to have in your story idea if you want it to ensnare the reader or audience. These are elements that, as natural storytellers, we know how to insert unconsciously. That doesn’t mean, unfortunately, that they always appear unbeckoned in our stories. As you know, various things can block the creative flow of our storytelling, resulting in the story hatching half-formed.

When you sit down at the desk, or on your favourite tree stump, ready to start your day’s writing, it’s imperative that you have confidence in your project.  For that reason, as well as cultivating our ability to use the key elements instinctually, it’s helpful to look at these elements with the rational mind, and consider whether your story idea has all of them present.  This is a safeguard to make sure you never begin the writing stage of a project without total confidence in its tiger-like strength. Over time, and with the practice afforded, you’ll be less and less likely to unconsciously sabotage your natural storyteller. You’ll increasingly notice how these structural checks, are just that, checks. You’ll be working increasingly from instinct.

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From the archive: Tracks

The workshop last Saturday went swimmingly. We based ourselves in a clearing in the woods, and there explored our yearning to connect with the wild, and to write wild words.

We looked also at the fears that sabotage this connection. For the last exercise of the day, we took this quote, by John Stokes, as a starting point for our writing.

‘The earth is a manuscript, being written and unwritten every day’.

The responses to this quote by the participants took my breath away. People wrote, among other things, about the tracks of tears down the face of an ageing woman, the tracks that human beings make on the earth, and the tracks that our words leave behind in the hearts of others.

What I remembered, what I re-learnt on Saturday, is that everything is a track. Everything around us displays the marks of the passage of time.  Every physical, psychological and emotional influence is recorded. The movement of wind and rain carves out patterns in the rock. The patterns of emotion in the human being, over time, bend and mould and shape the muscle and bone of our physical body. Even those things that we call ‘inanimate objects’ are museums of movement, energy fixed in time and space.

There are stories everywhere. We only have to learn to see them.  And from that melting pot of myth and fable, we create new stories, new tracks.

The Weekly Prompt

‘The earth is a manuscript, being written and unwritten every day’.

Write a non-fiction or fiction piece, in prose or poetry, using this quote as a prompt.

First published 29th March 2013

Photograph courtesy of Peter Reid.

Winter Solstice Competition Winner: Fox

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This is Sarah Wheeler's Competition Winning Story. Her inspiration was the prompt 'Be a good animal. True to your animal instinct.'

The first time he struck, we made our excuses.

Like the apologists, who take to Facebook and the letters page of the Western Daily Press, we tried to see it from his point of view.

He’s only doing what comes naturally, I reasoned.

Boy, eyes red, his voice choked with tears and snot, was less convinced. 

We’ll have to bury her, he insisted, in between sobs.

So, reverently, together, we collected the shards of Beaky. There wasn’t much left, a few strands of tail, a white wing feather bearing her distinctive dark, non-breed-standard, patch. A trial of soft breast down was already rapidly blowing away in the late afternoon sunlight, like a cloud of dandelion seeds, but we gathered what we could, put the pieces in a shoebox, and saved her, for internment later.  

As a parent, part of the rationale for getting a pet is this, I told myself; the small losses that foreshadow others, the gradual familiarisation with our own mortality, death in bite-sized pieces, if you’ll forgive the pun. However, confronted by the immediacy of Boy’s tears, and the shrieks of the traumatised survivors, who were still perched precariously on the shed guttering, refusing to come down, I was not so sure.

I don’t much care for anthropomorphism. Pictures of miniature pugs wearing polka dot bandanas, kittens in pink tutus, and the internet craze for pet shaming, leave me cold, and slightly uncomfortable. Mostly, I want to shake the owners, and tell them their Lasha Apso trashed the Phillipe Stark sofa, and gorged itself on toilet roll, because they left it alone all day, that, if it’s staring at the camera with those doleful puppy dog eyes, it’s because it’s bored and hungry, not out of some sense of Judaic-Christian guilt.

But, in the wake of Fox, I discovered that, if funny animal stories didn’t exist, like God, we’d have to invent them.

No longer in thrall to his wildness, in my retelling, Fox became more than the sum of his hunger, his lust to survive, to outrun hounds and spread his progeny. Instead, he was a lesson in parenting skills, extrajudicially killing, only because it was necessary, to feed his cubs.

The second-time Fox came, he took a Pekin pullet. At least, we thought it was Fox.  We never saw him, just his calling card of feathers, a slither of bone, and fear.

Over the following days, and weeks, we lost more birds. As Boy grew more sanguine, I turned into an aproned vigilante. I kept the birds shut in if I was not around, and, when I was working from home, I took my morning coffee or lunch outside, sat in an old deckchair in the barn, and watched them through a gap in the wall timbers.

I never caught a glimpse of fox. Like a film noir serial killer, he regularly left behind a grisly totem, a curl of fur, or a strip of turf, incised by a frenzy of claw.

I couldn’t see Fox, but he was always there, like a thunder cloud, the threat of violence hung heavy in the air.

On All Souls’ Day, he took a broody hen, and left her clutch of eggs, cold and useless as stones.

That night, I lay awake, listening for the bark of dog fox, but all I could hear was the lashing rain, the distant hum of tyres on the wet road, and the isolated chime of the clock in the hall. I looked out of the bedroom window, but the night was moonless, the security light hadn’t clicked on, and I couldn’t even make out the barn, or the edge of the box hedge. The outline of all that was familiar was lost in the dark, our cottage adrift in the darkness.

Somewhere, in the blackness, a screech owl called. Ethereal, and insistent. I stood listening to her cries, my feet cold on the bare floor boards, my mind chilled with the recollection of myth and an old wives’ tale, the owl as harbinger of death.

Unsettled, I crawled back to bed, where I tossed and turned, and, in a semi-deranged, insomniac state, listened for the shrieks of chicken in her plaintive song. When I finally fell asleep, the owl had long stopped, a robin was cheerily cheeping, and sky was broken by a delicate pink band of morning sun, but still the spectre of fox crept through my dreams.

Opening the hen house up that morning, I held my breath as I, literally, counted my chickens. Despite the previous night’s portentous cawing, there were no casualties.

Later, at my desk, I checked the morning’s email. There was a message from Jared, our nearest neighbour and one-time gamekeeper.

Good morning, he wrote, I think I may have solved your fox problem.

I clicked on the attachment, and watched the JPEG unfurl. Slowly, it revealed the sleek outline of fox, caught in a shaky flashlight, her pelt warm against the earth, like a swath of ripped velvet, eyes luminous, unreal as glass, all-knowing in the darkness, perfect and still, frozen in death.

When I told Boy, he air punched the sky. Yay, he shouted, before running off to spread the good news to the chickens.

I felt relief, but something else too. Not sadness, or sorrow, exactly, but an absence, the loss of something, which challenged and vexed me, like the sting of salt on winter dry skin, or the creak of an old church door.  

A few days later, hoeing under the reach of our beech hedge, I found a fan of grey feathers, not chicken, but a remnant of wood pigeon, its ribcage ripped and flattened, like some macabre dream-catcher. I pushed the remains back under a blanket of leaves, and kicked some soil over them, so Boy wouldn’t see.

I held the secret of Fox close to myself, where it chilled me, and warmed me, in equal measure.

Touching Into Bodily Sensations

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Here are two beautiful examples of effective use of body sensations on the page. First, a few lines from the poetry of John Keats.

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
    My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
-Keats. Ode To A Nightingale

Secondly, in Orwell’s 1984 (p164) he describes his character Winston’s fear of the rats that have been brought to torture him.

 His bowels seemed to turn to water… Winston could hear the blood singing in his ears’

Wild words put flesh on the bones of the story by using bodily sensations. The wild words are living, breathing, shivering and perspiring creatures themselves.

As with the use of sensory impressions, when we describe movements in the body to the listener or reader, they truly experience them. In the case of body sensations, information from the receptors of the somatosensory system is sent to the brain. You are giving your reader a real, lived experience of the situation described. They walk in the shoes of the character/narrator. If we can hook them in this way, if they can be made to care, then we’ve got them for the rest of the story. As with sensory impressions, using body sensations grounds our storytelling. It makes it vivid, and real. Without it, our account, poem, or story has no anchor, and flies off into abstraction.

Tracking The Wild Words

In order to track the Wild Words, we have to get to know our bodily experience: the tensions, the pains, the numbness, the sensitivity, the beating and the flow. It’s only when we know it, that we can write about the common experience of being in a human body, and find a connection with the listener or reader through that.  More than that, we have to learn to trust our visceral experience enough to write from that place, initially without the intervention of the rational mind. After that, it’s also useful to refer to lists of ‘movement words’, as well as to read widely, to expand our vocabulary and fit it to our experience. Then, what comes out of our mouths, or on to the page, will be more powerful and more true to the human experience than our storytelling has ever been before.

The Fears

Remember the caged writer? They feel unbearably stiff and uncomfortable in their body. Their head feels as if it is about to explode. They pace the room. They return to a childhood habit of biting their nails. They eat junk food to comfort themselves. Their anxiety levels are high and they manage them by drinking alcohol, and smoking. They are tearing their hair out.

Sometimes, we storytellers are no different to a caged tiger, mad with confinement, gnawing at holes in his sleek orange coat. To get into this state, we must have cut-off to a large extent from our physical experience. And then, the thought of having to go back to feeling all that is understandably frightening. We fear being confronted with the impermanent, fragility of being in a human body.

After all, bodies house discomfort, as well as movement. These sensations scare us. Contact with the body can stir up a sense of our fragility and mortality, and reminds us that one day we will die. Contact with the body can arouse sexual desire, which for some, is an uncontainable force, and for others has long been buried, and brings sadness in its wake.  Body awareness can also bring to the forefront of our mind the myriad of ways in which we feel we don’t fit with body-type ideals. If we’re not to thin then we’re too fat. If we’re not too pale, then we’re too dark. And so it goes on.

It’s not easy to find and trust the knowledge and experience stored in the body, to drop down into our physical experience. Most of us chose to shut off from our bodily experience a long time ago. Our bodies no longer remember how to act, without the tyranny of the rational mind cracking the whip. And the rational mind fears the loss of control that would occur with any move in that direction. It’s a long road back. Restoring that connection, however, is an important step on the journey to being a better storyteller, a vital part of learning to write from a place of wild.

In some cases the opposite can occur. Some people find it easy to engage with body sensations. Too easy. People who make a living from an experiential knowledge of the body, can sometimes engage with body sensations to such an extent that they get lost in them, and lose perspective. This particularly happens with body-based practitioners, when a simple ‘How are you today?’ might be met with the reply ‘I’m vibrating from my pelvis’. Don’t get me wrong. I consider myself a body-based practitioner in both my psychotherapy and writing tutoring roles, and have great respect for my fellow practitioners.  However, whenever we become too fluent in any one language or realm of experience, we must take care not to use that as a way of avoiding and distancing from other realms of experience. In the case of bodily sensations overuse of them is sometimes a sign of avoidance of getting in touch with emotion. 

Fear On The Page

If we fear experiencing and telling stories that include bodily sensations, it shows in our speech and on the page. We will digress, summarise, and cut away at key points in the action, rather than risk getting too deep into descriptions of body sensations. We will over-focus on other, more comfortable aspects of our story and miss opportunities to go into the detail where it would most impactfully heighten the drama.  (Please note: I’m not saying that to digress, summarise and cut away is always wrong. These are useful techniques, but only if applied from a place of creative inspiration rather than fear).

If we shift to the perspective of the listener or reader: they feel the fear also. They cannot identify or sympathise with the voice of narration or lead character in the story. This unnerves and confuses them. Once this gap of identification has opened up, it’s difficult to close. The receiver experiences it as getting wider and wider as the narrative progresses. They feel increasingly far from the action. The story strikes them as abstract, rather than grounded, and connected to human experience. After only a couple of chapters like this, we lose our listeners and readers for good.

Conversely, if we use body sensations to avoid experiencing emotion, we may find body sensations dominate the page. If this is the case, those receiving our stories don’t have any perspective on the action, and feel trapped in the body of the character or narrator.  This is equally damaging to our relationship with the listener or reader.

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Photograph courtesy of Peter Reid.

A Storyteller's Process: Vanessa Horn

With ‘Tints and Tinges’, I wanted to explore the theme of communication without words;

if someone was let down badly by the spoken exchange, was it possible that they might look to another form of perception as an alternative? In the case of the protagonist, she substitute words for colours. However, she eventually trusts these to such an extent that they begin to dominate the way she feels and thinks, eventually leading her to rely purely on them and refusing to speak.  

I like to write at my desk in the music room, as it is at the front of the house, enabling me to ‘people watch’. However, this summer I am having a log cabin built in my garden and I am expecting this to become my new writing sanctuary, where I will hopefully be visited by the hedgehogs and foxes which frequent the area.     

Vanessa Horn,  one of the three runners-up in the Wild Words Winter Solstice Writing Competition 2016, with 'Tints and Tinges'. This is her winning story:

Tints and Tinges

I was about eight years old when I realised that words couldn’t be trusted. It was first thing on a bright June morning when my mother, limited in pleasantries and cavalier in manner, announced, “Your father has moved out.” The language itself was simple – comprehensive - but the sensations I received from her were not. No, these took the form of colour: pulsating, vibrant shades of red which were as blistering as the centre of our hearth fire, flames licking at log-edges, waiting to erupt and scald any innocent passer-by. Communicative. Dramatic. It was then that I recognised it was colour which expressed the truth. Not words.

With colour, there was just enough shade-range to gauge every nuance and sensation that you needed. No more, no less. Example: next doors terrier, Lucy. The russet brown which shone from her told me she was ready to play. And from Smokey-Smudge, my lop-eared rabbit; when I sensed his delicate shade of blue, I knew that he was hungry or lonely. Animals were easy. My peers, too, really, once they’d established I wasn’t going to interrupt or argue with them anymore. Their fickle flashes of sense-colours allowed me to quickly assess their moods, their auras. Inevitably, I became more popular, the girl who complied. Albeit silently.

Of course, the adults made the most fuss about my elective mutism. My teachers correctly – but perhaps not for the reasons they perceived - blamed my silence on the abrupt departure of my father. Immediately, they went all out, hauling in the Ed Psych and every other official they could lay their hands on, to ‘cure’ me. Considering how many times I’d previously been reprimanded for chatting, you’d think they’d have appreciated the sudden silence. Encouraged it, even. But no, they had to investigate. To attempt a resolution. Looking back, I suppose, in a strange sort of way, I appreciated this intense attention, quite enjoying my mysterious status.

Being wordless had other advantages too. At home each day, when Mother had finally exhausted her freshly-found cleaning regime, we got used to sitting together companionably, watching TV (me: pale blue) and staring into the fire (Mother: a simmering brown). Now that I wasn’t talking, she didn’t seem to feel the need – as previously - to talk at me, either. We seemed to have a new understanding. It was undemanding. Peaceful. Did that mean my father had been the instigator of all previous arguments and rows? Well, probably not; looking back, it was probably the combination of the two of them – mismatched personalities, most likely. Maybe I had my part to play as well. Who knew? But, regardless, I valued the new serenity, all the same. 

Communicating wasn’t a problem. Not while I used my colour palette. I thought in colours, dreamt in colours. Expressed myself by using colours, not just in my painting (although I did actually do this on a daily basis) but in my head as well. It was a new life. One which worked for me: it didn’t let me down.

Until one day, some months later. Again, it was in the morning, but this time I had already left the house and was ambling my way to school. A little less popular by this stage – after all, I had been mute for over a term now, and the novelty of a silent me had definitely worn off – I was by myself, dawdling, daydreaming. At some point, I noticed the small tabby cat wandering along the pavement. Instantly, I could sense the colours around him, just like when I’d first starting experiencing colours. Shades of red. Danger. Menace. I didn’t recognise exactly why at first; it wasn’t until he neared the edge of the pavement that I realised he was going to cross the road. The heavily traffic-laden road.

I opened my mouth to yell a warning. But my unpractised vocal chords retaliated after so many days of silence, emitting nothing more than squeaking. A pathetic and diluted grey – no use to anyone. Not least a traffic-oblivious cat. My heart pumping even faster now – I had to warn the animal - I tried again. With much more energy. And accompanied by a deep, rich black: anxiety and desperation. This time, although not quite a shout, my voice was louder – “Stop!” This time the cat heard me. Looked around. Then, with a swish of his tail, darted back the way he had come, towards the hedges and away from the traffic. From danger. He was safe. My legs suddenly wobbly, I sank onto the ground by my satchel, watching the animal slink into the distance, oblivious to the hazard he’d so nearly faced.    

After that, I got it. Well, more than I had previously, anyway; most importantly, I understood that I couldn’t change the way things were, and certainly not then, when I was only a child. That my self-enforced silence made no real difference to anyone, least of all me. Seems obvious now, I know. But I didn’t realise then that the world didn’t revolve around me. That what is said isn’t always what’s meant. Why would I?

After I’d used my voice again, there didn’t seem to be any point in continuing to be mute. It may have been due to the cat or perhaps it was just that I had come to terms with my loss; even though I didn’t know at that point that my father had actually left us to live with another woman, maybe I’d realised that lies – black or white – can be how people get through life. So I began to speak again. Initially so softly that only the closest in proximity could hear me. Understand me. But it was a start, I suppose. A re-emerging into humanity. However, even after I’d started talking again, I never did entirely trust words. I still don’t. I continue to rely predominantly on colours for my understanding and intuition. After all, they tell the truth. Always. 

 

A Storyteller's Process: Karen Lethlean

Organic came about as a result of my avid habit of walking trails in the Royal National Park near my home in the Sutherland Shire of Sydney.

I also belong to a running group infamous in the area – Billies Bushies, who run these trails, as well as getting out on a Mountain bike.

Being aware of the problems to do with invasive and feral species also assisted in writing Organic. I wanted to deal with the universal struggle of Man versus Nature from a different aspect.  Back in 1980s I also spent an extended period tramping, bike touring, back-packing and working as picker in New Zealand, which is were I imagine these events unfolded.

Somewhere in my reading I am sure I encountered a snipped that informed the story Organic, perhaps it was the actual detail that the feral cat scratched the human victim, or purred as it ate. I loved this image, and it stayed with me so much that I had to build more into the exchange.

Organic has been worked on, edited through several processes and a few sets of eyes, which helped the end product.  One of the most significant points given to me was to think about the quality of noises the protagonist encountered, and also to be very specific on elements of his trip into the mountains.

Having a word limit from Wild Words meant that I had to re-think the necessity of some sections, always a good process.

Not that I destroyed the longer version, you never know when there will be other opportunities.

I would advise all writers not to take editing input on their stories personally, try to avoid letting someone’s comments hurt, even though they might be meant to be helpful. Ultimately comments from others are only one person’s opinion. Someone thought the title was too ambiguous! In the case of Organic I was also told that in the closing scene the boat on the harbour should be more important than the wake in the water, but I disagree – ultimately I wanted nature to be more powerful than the things mankind has build and placed into the natural world.

Someone once said to me, “Listen to everyone, and then take from all this advice only what you need…” 

Karen was a runner up in the Wild Words Winter Solstice Writing Competition 2017. This is her winning story...

Organic

Five burley fishermen lugging rods and a huge esky came into view. They smiled and waved, ‘You right mate?’ 

‘Perfectly fine,’ Garry answered.

‘Severe weather warning, bro. Came over the radio.’

Garry shook his head, refused to believe. ‘Thanks. But I only just got here.’

Younger members of the group had gone on, carrying the esky between them slipping, sliding and laughing, so the harbinger of doom bade farewell and went too, unhurried.

Harbinger. Hard bringer. Harp binger. Where had that word come from? If Garry had his phone he could find out. It was odd, not being able to sate his curiosity immediately. But he felt healthy, disciplined; like refusing a beer.  

It was less windy up here than on the beach. Yet the trail was littered with broken saplings and crushed scrubs where the fishermen had skidded with the esky’s weight. Even Garry slipped, came down hard on one knee. Onward, Garry told himself. Despite the throbbing and bleeding. First-aid kit; should have packed one.

Garry turned at the first fork the track offered and went along for half an hour or so. His knee pinging and back straining with the weight of his bag. The track narrowed and dropped again into a small clearing. Perfect. Even a stream and blackened fire spot

His shelter was less complicated than the tents he’d erected on surf beaches with his stepfather. An action accompanied caustic comments, while sand stung Garry’s face. All that effort for something that would be dismounted mere moments later.

There were enough twigs lying about for a small fire. Garry sat on the ground, pulled the joint from his pocket and took a deep drag. And another, until he felt the warmth seep into his brain. Night was falling and so was the rain. Heavy drops plunking on leaves. Base tones pattered on the clearing floor. On the humus. Hummus. Humans. Hubris

Garry stood, stiff legged. He felt his head spin as if he was going to topple forward.

Just him and his thoughts. His chance to do what he’d come here to do. Think about his relationship. Deprive himself of company, see what was addictive, habitual, and what wasn’t. Fifty ways to leave your lover…Recognizing those words Garry was filled with joy and regret.

Then he realised he was stoned.

A nearby bird called out mournfully, a single downward cry, as if it too resented the rain. Inside the tent, spread out his sleeping bag on the bumpy groundsheet and lay down. Almost immediately, as if it had suffered sudden death, the bird stopped mid cry. There was a scuffle in the leaf mould outside; a low growl, and the tent wall bulged suddenly against his head – solid, animal, alive – and then gone again. He was up and out of his tent and into the clearing, working his cigarette lighter to a flame. The flash showed him two reflective eyes the size of golf balls and a dark, muscled shape hunched over a feathered mess.

A fucking huge wild cat. A super cat. He’d read about them. How feral cats were evolving after nearly two hundred years of going wild in the bush.

The flame died the same instant that Garry realised his finger was burnt.  He waited for his senses to adjust. The cat’s eyes reflected dully. The beast moved. And vanished. Into the tent. He was sure that had been fur against the opening.

Packaging was being ripped open, like Christmas morning. The salami? The cat was quieter now. Difficult to hear over wind and rain. Then Garry could hear another sound. A low rumble, which took a moment to identify as purring. Monster hadn’t purred when it ate the bird.

‘Puss, puss!’ he called like his mother summoning the family moggie. ‘Here pussy, puss.’ Falsetto.

Ridiculous. ‘Be a man!’ Penny would have said.

‘Right.’ Garry said to the listening forest. ‘I’m coming in.’

The cigarette lighter gave one last wavering flame, enough to see the way to his bed and observe a damp-furred scavenger hunched in a corner. Garry climbed into his sleeping bag and spent the night in a wet tent alone except for an apex predator that permeated a sharp, gut-wrenching stink. No neat scratching in a tray for this beast.

In the morning, when he woke, the cat was curled up against him, the tent floor a wasteland of greasy paper and plastic wrappings. The cat woke too and for one long moment met Garry’s sleepy gaze. With no warning, the animal extended a long hairy paw and scratched a deep incision into Garry’s brow and cheek, narrowly missing his eye. Then it was gone, a swift tumbling backwards movement which leapt through the tent flaps. He heard drumming paws, then shifting and refolding of enclosing bush.

At the bus stop Garry endured curious stares from locals. His foul smelling tent had refused to pack neatly. Gagging from the stink and half blind with pain he’d stuffed the bloody thing as best he could, but still had to carry the segmented rods loose in one hand.

After the night’s rain, parts of the track had been washed away. Garry had fallen, slipped, skidded, scraped his arms, and knocked his head on a low branch. His clothes were thick with mud, drying now but still likely to besmirch the seats of the bus when it finally arrived.

‘Rough night, mate?’ was all the driver said as he took the fare.

They wound up over the hills until the city spread below. The distant harbour had a sheen. Grey moody skies with the sea crossed by white wakes of boats and ferries.

Deep contentment welled, satisfaction as unheralded as the sudden claw of the cat. He’d confronted the wilderness, he’d not taken his phone.

Ahead Garry saw a future with his arm around Penny’s tattooed shoulder. He would not abandon her like his father had done.