From the archive: Stuck In Our Thoughts

As human beings in modern society, we no longer live in an environment where we are called upon to use our instinctual drives- to respond physically to danger, or to pro-create in order to survive.

We crave that sense of flowing energy, of aliveness. Unable to access this it, we try and use our rational minds as a substitute. They make a poor substitute. Human minds have a tendency to over-activity. They scroll repetitively through the same issues. They overanalyze, they worry, they are anxious. Imagine, for example, you are writing. Just as you feel the words start to flow, the telephone rings.

Instead of taking pro-active action to either answer the phone and deal quickly with the caller, or, to ignore it and carry on writing, 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 we 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 hyperarousal that is not fulfilled. We freeze in body and mind. Energy is not released on the page, but remains trapped. The story cannot form itself fluidly and naturally. The words do not live on the page. Instead they mirror the state of our body and mind. They are static and lifeless.

The experience of being frozen is commonly referred to as ‘writers’ block’.

Some of us know the extreme form of this, when we 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 as an inability to get power into our writing.

 The Weekly Prompt

 Thinking of writers’ block as a physical, rather than a mental state can help us to address it. When you next write, notice any moments when you feel ceased up, frozen, or static in your body. Conversely, also notice any times when you feel movement, or flow in your body. This is the beginning of the process to free the wild words.

This article was first published on August 22nd 2013

What Are Your Wild Words?

Wild words are the words that want to be heard and seen - as opposed to the ones that you want to write.

They are the ones you keep caged in the depths of your soul. They are the ones that you sometimes hear crying, or, even worse, which have forgotten how to cry. They are the words which leak out, or which sabotage your life, in so many realised and unrealised ways. They are as often words of joy, and peace, as they are words of sorrow or anger. The wild words are the one story that needs to be told, the answering call to the yearning of your heart and soul. There are as many kinds of wild words as there as creatures on this earth. They vary as much in looks as the elephant and the mouse, and behave in as many different ways. Wild words are not necessarily big and loud and emotional. They might cause a stampede when they arrive. But it’s equally likely that they’ll slide in quietly, flutter their way on to your page, or jostle at your elbow.

Wild words are fiction and non-fiction and transcend the two. They are poetry and prose and transcend the two.

Wild words can be, but are not necessarily, profound. Sometimes they prefer to be shallow, fickle and superficial.

They do not take any account of ‘the market’ (but then the greatest novelists never did either). They do not necessarily use the writing tools that you’ve been taught. Nor do they necessarily follow ‘good’ writing practice (although strangely they often end up as ‘great writing’ without all those supports). Sometimes it is agonising and exhausting to give birth to them, but equally often it is a joyful experience as they slip out almost unaided.

The one thing you can be quite sure of is that they won’t be what you expect. What you expect is what your thinking mind is encouraging you to write. The thinking mind likes tame words because they are no threat. They allow us to stay well within our comfort zone. Writing truly wild words involves facing fears. What the thinking mind fears, it won’t support you to conceptualise. That means we have to find a new approach.

For now, the only thing we can know for sure is that to undertake a mission to meet and reclaim the wild words is to go on a journey into the unknown, with all the associated hopes and fears.

The Weekly Prompt

Think about what you expect your wild words to be like. What would be the opposite of those expectations? Allow the answers to find you, rather than hunt them down.

This article was first published on July 18th 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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