From the archive: The Body In The Woods

 I was spending the night in a tent in the woods. My notebook was on my lap; my pen was tucked into my hair for safekeeping.

My intention was to listen to the noises around me, and to focus on becoming aware of the most subtle reactions of my body to external stimuli. I hoped this training would help me to convey my experiences vividly on the page.

I was putting into practice what I already knew theoretically, that describing the body sensations of the main character/narrator in our writing allows the reader to feel into their experience, to live in their shoes. And that more broadly speaking, being in touch with our bodily experience can free something up in our writing, and help to release wild words.

In the small canvas space, I tried to stay with my bodily experience. Initially there didn’t seem to be much feeling there anyway, or not much of interest.  Then, as I tuned in, what I felt was only unpleasant. I was stiff and aching from sleeping on the hard ground, and the damp seemed to have got into my bones. My flat mate had primed me for exploration with homemade stew, made of God-knows-what. It was not digesting well, and my stomach began to ache.

Because, or perhaps despite of the physical discomfort, my mind kicked in. I don’t want to stop thinking. If I do, how will I keep my fear under control? Perhaps if I first make a plan to deal with the wild words if they attack me, then I’ll be able to focus on just being here. I realised how nervous I was, waiting for the wild words to emerge. What repressed stuff would come up from the powerhouse of imagination and memory? I was scared those words might tear at the tent and devour me.

I was becoming very aware of not only my physical, but also my emotional fragility. I was sure now that just one scratch from a wild word would be enough to finish me. Anxious thoughts snowballed. Would I even survive this night, let alone be able to write about it? Well, at least I was getting in touch with my present moment experience. That was what I wanted, wasn’t it? Yes. No. I had no idea anymore.

To be continued…

The Weekly Prompt

Create an intense bodily experience for yourself. If possible go into nature to do this. You could, for example: eat apples from a tree, swim in the sea, roll naked in sand, jump into a muddy puddle. Don’t worry if you don’t have access to a natural environment, there are plenty of opportunities in the town, even inside your house! You could: have a hot shower, record the experience of coming into a cool house from the heat of the day, feel delicious food go down your throat, or have a massage.

Spend 15 minutes describing in prose, or poetry, how the experience feels in your body. Pay careful attention to all the different parts of your body, the various textures, movements, and rhythms.

This article was first published on 21st June 2013

From the archive: The French Experts

Last weekend I went from my home in the foothills of the Pyrenees, into the high mountains of the neighbouring department of Ariege.

I had appointments with two expert animal trackers. I wanted to learn more about ‘wildness’ in order to go deeper into my work with ‘wild words’. My first meeting was with Serge, a wiry, self -effacing man in his fifties, sporting a moustache and 70’s shades. He’s spent twenty years tracking the Pyrenean brown bear. His job is to mediate, and to try and diffuse tensions, between the bears and the local shepherds, who regard the sheep as a threat to their flocks.

My romantic images of Serge the solitary tracker, running barefoot through the forests, were quickly dispelled when I discovered that the bears are tracked via a series of cameras.  ‘This is the only way to do it’, he told me. ‘Unless you want to stay up all night’ (they are nocturnal), ‘and unless you want to risk your life’.

It’s certainly true that most of the cultures where tracking was practiced extensively are dry earth, or desert-based, aboriginal Australians being an example. Animal prints are much easier to see in sand. In your average forest, strewn with leaf litter, sticks, and leaves, tracking not an easy task.

I then met Ernest. He’s an ichnologist. That is to say, he specialises in the science of animal traces. His house is an Alladin’s cave of casts and other art works that put into solid form the wanderings of animals over our earth.

This is a man who spent three months living on a frozen lake. This is also a man who is about to take his wife and five children to spend two months in the Brazilian rainforest. I was swept up into a brave new world by his stories.

Driving home I stopped by a man-made lake. It was deserted. The tourist season hasn’t begun here yet. Walking across the volleyball court to get to the café, I saw several clear sets of tracks in the sand. During the previous night deer had skipped through. Wild boar had lugged their heavy weight across too.

I might not be up to the facing the deserts of Australia yet, but the sand- based culture of the volleyball courts of Southern France, I can do that.

The Weekly Prompt

Find an area of sand, or fine soil. This might be loose sand on a building site, a children’s’ sandpit, the sediment left by a river, or a beach.

Go to this place in the early morning. Write about what you find. Who, or what has left its mark overnight?

 

This article was first published April 24th 2013

From the archive: Writer's Block and The Beetle

As he was crawling round the kitchen this week, my eleven month-old nephew found a beetle.

With its scarab shape, hooked legs and black casing, it looked like a relic from Egyptian times. He poked it once with a podgy hand, and then steered a straight course directly over it, one knee steam-rollering the poor thing into the lino. It lay there motionless, legs splayed flat under the shell. I was about to sweep the corpse outside, when, in miraculous fashion, it hoiked itself back on to its legs and began plodding away, as if nothing had happened. I remembered that, of course, 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. This immobility response is always time- limited in animals, and does not result in any lasting damage.  This is not the case with human beings.

When something comes into our writing environment and threatens our creative process- for example the telephone ringing interrupts us mid-flow- what happens?

Ideally, we freeze momentarily in the shock of the interruption, before taking one of two equally good, pro-active measures. Either, we move to answer it, inform the caller that we’re busy, and go back to work, or, we choose not to answer it and keep working.

But instead, something else often happens- our complex rational mind kicks in and tries to second-guess our way out of danger. Should I answer it? I wonder who it is? If I answer it I might be stuck on the phone with my mother, but if I don’t answer it, Sheila next door might think I’m rude… Repetitive, anxious thoughts cause our fear levels to rise and the flexible, appropriate immobility response becomes a semi-permanent paralysis. Our writing ceases up, sabotaged by our mind. This is the infamous ‘writers’ block’.

The way out of writers’ block is to reconnect with a way of being that is more instinctual, to act more often from an embodied place than from the rational mind. Our body knows what to do. It knows the story we are trying to tell, and how to tell it. We need to trust it.  We need to get out of our own way, to stop tripping over our own feet. This is wild writing.

A Writing Prompt

Look out for examples of animals coming in and out of the immobility response- a cat freezing in headlights, a fly staying still on a wall as the shadow of your hand passes over it…

Then when you’re next writing, notice any times that your body tenses or freezes, and try and ease it back into flow. Visualise the wild animals in your mind- how easily they enter and exit immobility.

This article was first published on August 9th 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

In The Mouth

A talented student of mine sent me this wonderful poem. It’s a response to the weekly Writing Prompt, that mentioned the following quote from the Tomas Tranströmer poem ‘From March '79’ ‘Words but no language…language but no words’

 In The Mouth

 First it was like a mustard grain                                                   in the mouth

Then the size of pea rolling about                                                 in the mouth

Lost your words                                                                           in the mouth

And found new ones                                                                    in the mouth

Rattles on her teeth                                                                     in the mouth

And soaks up her spit                                                                  in the mouth

Their stories                                                                                in the mouth

It’s the boulder                                                                            in the mouth

As big as Dog Tor                                                                        in the mouth

It’s grey and old                                                                          in the mouth

Dressed in lichen and moss                                                          in the mouth

Spitting out a collective noun                                                         in the mouth

For language                                                                               in the mouth

 

Val Shearer

Val’s subject has really resonated with me, as last week I completely lost my voice for two days. I’d been struggling to express myself around a personal issue, when, quite suddenly, it dried up.

It was as if my body was saying ‘I’ve had enough of trying to make myself heard here, so I’m going to stop trying’. As someone who is usually able to mould and craft speech with ease, it was an interesting experience to be voiceless. Initially, there was a sense of peace in not needing to try and influence those around me via the spoken word. Then, my hands took over and conversed with gestures. We human beings are creative in finding routes to self-expression.

I found the silence restful- for the first day, that is. But then I started having to cancel meetings. My computer provided an outlet for my growing frustration as I stamped each word hard into my keyboard. I was suddenly struck, as if I’d never realised it before, by the immense value of being able to write. That ability to express on the page released a sense of relief akin to a mute given a blackboard and chalk (please forgive the stereotype).

Now my voice is back, I’m trying not to forget what the words mean to me.

 

The Weekly Prompt

Our bodies speak in so many more ways that just via our mouths vocalising. Write about a time when your body, or a certain part of your body, communicated to you- for example through pain, absence of pain, movement, stiffness etc… What was it trying to say? You might also find it interesting to write a monologue from the point of view of a part of your body. You might be surprised at what it communicates.

This article was first published on 21st May 2013

Photograph courtesy of Peter Reid.

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.

Why Write Outdoors?

Why it is that I love to write outdoors?

At first I was just desperate to unchain myself from my desk, break out of the building, and write in nature. I craved seeing something other than a computer screen. I wanted to feel the movement of the pen again, instead of just the striking of keys.

I wanted to free up the qualities of ‘wild’ in myself and my words- expressiveness, spontaneity, the untamed, the intuitive. I dreamed of becoming the writer that I’d always wanted to be. Writing begins with living.  How could I write in full colour, if I wasn’t living in full colour?

Once out there, stripped of the trappings of society, I felt I could be more honestly myself, and that my words could be more honestly themselves too. I found that surrounded by movement, my words gained a sense of movement and drama too. When I explored and went into unknown territory, my words followed hot on my tail.

The closer I looked at the minutiae of nature, in order to describe it in words, the more vivid the outdoor world became, and the more I needed to express what it, and its salvation meant to me. It’s a virtuous circle. Not only is great writing enabled by living fully and vibrantly, living is also enabled by bringing our attention to a writing subject that embodies those qualities. Picking out details of nature to describe, I saw that everything was hitched to everything else in the universe. The world was indeed in a grain of sand, and the ocean in a drop of water.

And above everything else, I love to write outdoors because it is truly the most joyous experience. In the words of American poet, E.E. Cummings, the world becomes ‘mud-luscious and puddle-wonderful’. There is no better feeling than when my words canter on the broad savannah, dive deep in the dark ocean, and swoop in the vast blue sky. 

Photograph courtesy of Peter Reid.

The Weekly Prompt

Why are you a writer-in-the wild? Please write and tell me about it.

This article was first published on May 14th 2013

Using The Senses

The Wild Words on the page use a range of sensory data: colours, smells, tastes, sounds, textures.

Colour does not predominate, but takes its appropriate place. Like the experience of watching a film, the world created is vivid and alive. The words stay true to the writers’ maxim ‘show, don’t tell’. Using sensory detail is one way of ‘showing’ events, of enabling the listener or reader to feel they are there, experiencing what the narrator is experiencing. In doing this, the scene and characters imprint powerfully on the page and on the readers’ mind.

‘The Waves’ by Virginia Woolf, includes fabulous use of sensory impressions.

Flower after flower is specked on the depths of green.  The petals are harlequins.  Stalks rise from the black hollows beneath.  The flowers swim like fish made of light upon the dark, green waters. I hold a stalk in my hand.  I am the stalk.  My roots go down to the depths of the world, through earth dry with brick, and damp earth, through veins of lead and silver. 

How do you feel as you read the above extract? When we read something, the physical experience is no different from if we’d experienced it first hand. As the animal that we are, when we read a list, the Wernicke’s area of the brain, involved in processing language, will light up. But when we read a description containing all the senses, many other regions of the brain get involved, including the auditory, visual and olfactory areas. The listener or reader is offered a much richer and enjoyable experience when we bring the senses into play.  They also remember our words for a much longer time.

Tracking The Wild Words

As the storyteller, in order to track the wild words, we must practice to awaken all our senses, and then be alive to the data offered up to us by our environment. Separately, we must also work to expand our vocabulary of words that describe sensory experience. When we practice experiencing and fitting to language the vivid sensory impressions around us, then they take their place in our imaginary repertoire, ready to be called upon for any story occasion, fiction or non-fiction. We use them instinctually. Then our stories and writing start to behave like the wild animal, like The Cat. They are wild words.

Apart from the powerful effect it has on the reader, being aware of the sensory impressions around us, and using them in oral stories and on the page, has an important benefit for the storyteller.  As leading neuroscientists such as Jaak Panksepp now recognise, contact with the senses helps to ground and dissipate fears about the writing process. Fear is a product of thoughts about the past and the present. When we are literally ‘brought to our senses’, we are much less frightened. This is an important step on the road to being a great storyteller. So ground your writing, to ground your fears, and that, in turn will ground your stories further.

The Fears

As writers I believe we have a fear of being in the real world. The sort of person (and I include myself in this), who uses their imagination to escape when real life is too much, is the sort of person who becomes a storyteller. Nothing wrong with that, it’s a healthy strategy for keeping us safe when life is difficult. But to tell stories really well we need to cultivate the opposite also, to find a balance between the inspiration that comes from our inner worlds, and that which comes from outside.

Contact with the present moment is quite scary. We realise we can’t control it. We begin to notice unpleasant thoughts, and see and hear things that frighten us. We are afraid that we will be attacked and destroyed (by our memories as much as by external threats). We often choose to isolate ourselves, because we feel safer. It’s more comfortable to live in a place of mild (or severe) dissociation, or retreat into our imaginations. 

When we do this we’re no different to the caged tiger. His world is colourless and textureless. His sense of smell, taste, hearing, touch and sight are blunted by years of absence of stimulus. In the same way he no longer has access to the sensory clues that in the wild would keep him safe, we no longer have the vocabulary to describe our sensory experiences. We can fear confronting this truth. But, of course, we never will have the source material for the vocabulary, unless we go out and look for those wild words.

In order to avoid the fears, our rational minds tell us many things. We convince ourselves that we feel adequately in touch with senses as it is, or that there’s enough excitement in our whitewashed room to be going on with. Or, we tell ourselves that we’re just preparing to start writing for real, once we get the opportunity…

Fear On The Page

If we are afraid to experience and write about sensory impressions, it shows on the page. When we stop using sensory impressions, we are forced to fall back on stereotypes and clichés, to parrot what others have previously said and written. The same things happen in casual conversation, as well as oral storytelling and performance poetry.

How can we expect to create a world in full colour (smell etc.), either in fiction or non-fiction, when we don’t live in full colour (smell etc.)? Is it any wonder that our stories are dull, colourless, textureless, abstract and ungrounded? It’s time to stop believing the chattering mind. The opportunity is now. The wild world and the wild words are out there waiting.

Now it’s your turn to track and find this aspect of the wild words. I’m with you all the way.

 

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The photograph at the top of this article is courtesy of Peter Reid.