From the archive: Wild In The City (Part 1)

I live in rural Southern France, on a mountain. Yesterday I got on a train going to Paris, heading into a throng of 2 million people.

My work is based around the natural environment. It’s about exploring the ‘wilds’ out there, in order to understand how to bring that quality into our words, to find freedom in writing. I’m interested in those parts of ourselves- the spontaneous, intuitive, instinctual- that we’re afraid of. Our fear is such, that instead of acknowledging these aspects within ourselves, we project them outwards, saying they’re out there ‘in the wilds’ , in the ‘wild animals’.

On my mountain it’s clear where ‘wild’ resides. In the badger, the deer, the wild boar. But where those disowned aspects go when we live in, or visit a city? Where do we see ‘wild’? I’ve been feeling excited by the challenge of tracking it down.

So, this morning I went walking beside the Seine in central Paris, that mission on my mind.  I was swept along the pavement by a river of people. The noise of feet and cars swirled in my ears. I found places where the city had replicated the wild. There were garden shops with fountains shaped like elephants.

When it hadn’t replicated wild, the city had tried to tame it, contain it, to take a moment of its beauty and fix it in time. There were posters of big cats, and plants in pots. But best of all, on sale for 90 euros in Centre Pompidou, I found green grass, neat as a lawn, growing in a frame, a living picture.

This was all fascinating, but I wasn’t seeking castrated nature. No, what I wanted to find was the places where wild was living free in the city. Then I wanted to see how people responded to it. The search continued…

First Published November 30th 2012

The 'New' Nature Writing

Wild Words at Swindon Festival of Literature 

Wild Words at Swindon Festival of Literature 

It’s the beginning of the season of festivals of literature, and writers’ summer schools, in the UK.

 In the last two weeks I’ve presented my work in Chipping Campden and Swindon. At both festivals I felt warmed by the generosity of organisers, and the passion of my workshop participants.
In London, with a spare moment between commitments, I decided that what I wanted to do most in the world was to spend leisurely time in a gigantic bookshop with comfy chairs and a café. Waterstones in Piccadilly Circus was on my route, and fitted the bill very nicely.
Once upon a time, not that long ago, to find fiction, or non-fiction, that took connection with nature as a theme, I would have been crawling into the most obscure sections of the bookshop and dusting off cobwebs. No more.
Imagine my delight when centre-stage on the ground floor, and featured in the front window, were books collected under the shining title ‘New Nature Writing’.
But what exactly is ‘new nature writing’? In an article in The New Statesman, Robert Macfarlane (something of a king in this emerging literary genre), defines it well. Read here.
It has, as its core value, an appreciation that human beings are animals, that we are animals among other animals. It values community over commodity, modesty over mastery, connection over consumption, and the deep over the shallow.
It turns out that at Wild Words we’ve been trailblazing. The kind of writing many of us practice, is selling like hot cakes. We’ve become a trend. That makes me very happy. I’m happy that people who make a choice to cultivate an appreciation of the natural world around them, and to record it, are now considered amongst the coolest people you can meet (didn’t we always know it!)
I spent a glorious day in that bookshop, fuelled by carrot cake and Earl Grey, sifting through a pile of (as yet unbought, and untarnished) ‘new nature writing’ books.
What’s exciting is how broad, deep and wide the genre is. It takes in poetry and prose, fiction and non-fiction. It fuses nature writing, travel writing, philosophy and psychology. (For specific examples, see Macfarlane’s article).  An interesting strand is that of the memoir writers, such as Helen McDonald's H is for Hawk, and Amy Liptrot's The Outrun. These writers have turned to nature in times of difficulty and disillusionment, and have found it has everything to offer.
There can be a perception that nature writing is a little ‘tame’. The pastoral poetry tradition, that can be traced back to the Greeks, and extended into and through Renaissance England, idealised rural life and landscapes. It is partly, if not mostly, responsible for that view. 
Central to what I communicate with Wild Words, is that writing inspired by contact with nature can be imbued with a force that goes way beyond that. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with pointing out the beauty and majesty of nature. Recognition of its power to soothe us, and restore us to health is sorely needed. However, the new nature writing is much more than that. Rightly so, given we human beings dig ourselves ever deeper into a hole, in relationship to That Which Sustains Life.

It’s groundbreaking, thought-provoking, politically challenging, society changing. It’s awe inspiring stuff.  It connects people. It’s a route to re-find the animal in us. The wild.
Not everyone who comes to Wild Words is interested in the genre of ‘nature-writing’ and that’s fine. Every skill we hone here is applicable to all writing in all genres. But, maybe, with this new take on an ancient tradition in writing, those of us who are interested to try their hand at it, can come out the shadows.
We’re no longer regarded as something akin to train spotters, we’re cooler than Madonna.

The Monthly Writing Prompt

Those of us who choose to spend time in nature, consider it normal. It isn’t. Most people only read about it in books. There’s even a term for the wide range of problems that can result from the modern phenomenon of dislocation from our environment- Nature Deficit Disorder.
Have you had contact and experiences in nature that have formed or informed you, or which have echoed other themes in your life? If so, that gives you something unique to say. Write about it. For those who haven’t. 


How To Write Your Memoir

These are my full responses to a series of questions asked by Susannah Hickling, for her article How To Write Your Memoir, published in Saga Magazine April 2016. Excerpts from these answers appear in the article. 


1.       What are the emotional benefits of writing a memoir?

Most of us, at one time or another, experience events in our lives that feel unfinished, traumatic, or are just highly emotional. At these times, energy can become stuck in our nervous systems. This can cause tension and ill health. Writing a memoir enables us to process that stuck energy and allow the emotions to move through and out. For that reason, telling our stories is profoundly liberating. Stories enable us not only to thrive in life, but also to survive.

Writing a memoir can also allow us to feel in control of, and gain perspective on our lives. It can give us a sense of closure close towards the end. Autobiographical work can ensure stories are not lost, and lives are not forgotten. It can pass information on to future generations, Our stories can entertain, inspire and motivate those around us, and those who come after us.

As well as that, simply feeling heard and understood is health-giving, to an extent that I think we are only just starting to appreciate. 


2.       To what extent can writing a memoir help you reassess your life or come to terms with an episode in it?

When we write we gain perspective on our lives. We come to understand our own motivations, and see how we have repeated certain patterns of behaviour over time.  This space to notice, is also space to both appreciate what we have achieved, and to decide to do certain things differently in future.

To some extent the stories we tell ourselves about our past lives are fictions. Our memories are very selective. Ever noticed how, if you ask three people to relate an event they were all present at thirty years previously, they will all tell a different version of the story?  This creative tendency is helpful to us, because it allows us, whilst remaining true to the events that have happened, to re-frame in a positive light, any event or person that we have had difficulty with in the past. We can also decide to appreciate ourselves, and the good intentions we have held through life.


3.       To what extent can it help to bring a family together or heal a rift?

In families, over time, so much can become ‘unsayable’. Unresolved disputes and points of tension, the longer they are left, because increasingly difficult to talk about, for fear of impasse, anger or upset. Small issues become magnified. Miscommunications that are not corrected, can lead to family members feeling misunderstood, or unappreciated.

When we write a memoir telling our view of events, in an honest and non-conflictual way, this can help others to understand our position. It can correct myths, and connect disparate pieces of information, to give others a broader, more balanced view of events.

Having a shared history of events to be celebrated, and mourned, can help future generations to take what is useful into the future. It can also enable them to put down disputes and ways of behaviour that have been passed from one generation to the next, but are unhelpful.

While revealing previously untold information can sometimes cause distress amongst family members, it is more often a source of relief to all involved. To keep secrets takes energy, and involves living with a level of fear. To give up those secrets is liberating.


4.       What practical advice can you give about how to approach writing a memoir? What are the really important things people should know before they begin? How should they go about assembling material? What research should they do?

Do the research to find out the facts that you need to know to tell the story. And no more. Research can be never-ending. Don’t drown in it!

When writing a memoir, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer volume of documents, and other source material. It’s sometimes hard to know where to start, and how to structure material. In order to avoid this, chunk the process down.  Before you start writing, decide how long you want the finished product to be. You might even like to write a two-sentence summary for each chapter.  Come to your writing desk each day knowing which piece of the story you are going to work on, and how long you will work for.

The easiest way to tell an effective story, that hooks the reader, is this: Choose a lead character (it may be you), through whose eyes you will see events.  Decide what they want to achieve (money, happiness, a relationship, family, work status etc.) Follow them through, on a journey to achieve that goal. Have the reader learn information through their eyes. Finish the story when they achieve, or fail to achieve their aim.

Be realistic about how much time you have to give to the project. Underestimate, rather than overestimate. You want to build your confidence over time by succeeding in the tasks you set yourself.

The primary reasons people read (whether we realise it or not), is in order to feel. To engage a reader, you have to be able to put emotion on the page. In order to do that, you first have to be willing to re-live those emotions yourself.

Be aware that writing about emotional events, particularly distressing ones, can be challenging. Take it slowly, and be kind to yourself. Notice if you have trouble making contact with upsetting memories, as this might affect how well you can write them. If you can’t bear to think about something, you are probably not yet ready to write about it.

If the material is challenging, and you feel that the emotions are likely to overwhelm you, bring in a writing tutor, editor, or understanding friend to support you.

Remember that even when writing about real-life events, you will most likely need to use your imagination to write them in the most impactful way. Creating or changing small details of events or characters is not ‘lying’ if it serves the interest of the wider picture, and deeper themes of the story, and makes it a better read.

Be sensitive to how others will feel about what you write, but remember, you are not responsible for the feelings of others. If you suspect sadness, distress or anger is likely to be directed your way, that’s not a reason, necessarily, to decide not to write the book, or to avoid describing certain events.


5.       What should a memoir writer definitely NOT do or include?

Try not to over use phrases such as ‘I remember’, or ‘when I was young’.  They are clichés and send the reader to sleep!  

Don’t tell the reader too much information. Instead show it through dialogue or action. Write so that the reader can visualise the scene.

It is not advisable to write from feelings of unresolved anger, or jealousy. Don’t write if you are motivated by revenge. If you are antagonistic, that will result in equally antagonistic reactions.  Whilst you must be true to the reality of events, it’s helpful, wherever possible, to resolve personal internal tensions around family situations before entering into the writing. It can help to bear in mind that no-one is perfect, and that we all want to be happy. We all do the best we can in life, given our emotional and practical resources at the time. The process of research can be useful in this respect. It can help us to understand what motivated others. In general, the more we understand people, the more we come to have sympathy for them. The events do not change, but our relationship to them does.


6.       How might the process differ between writing for personal reasons and writing for publication?

You may have to provide more contextual information for a public that does not know you personally. Also, the emphasis may change. A wider public might be more interested in your family’s role in historical events, while the immediate family might like to know about the details of relationships, for example.

It can sometimes make us feel vulnerable or exposed to write about personal issues, or to show our emotions. This may be amplified, the bigger the intended audience is.

Depending on your audience, you always have a choice as to what you reveal and what you conceal of yourself and those you know, or have known. You can still be honest and authentic in your writing, and tell a great story, whilst deciding to withhold certain pieces of information. A good example of this is Helen MacDonald’s Book ‘H is For Hawk’.  She tells an impactful story about grief over the death of her father, whilst maintaining her family’s privacy by not talking in depth about the dynamics within their family. However, if there are certain facts, episodes or people you do not wish to mention, you need to think about how to set up the story, to still satisfy the reader.  They must not be led to expect the revealing of information that doesn’t happen. This leads to very grumpy readers!


Above all, tell a story that you feel passionate about telling, the one that you can’t stop thinking about, the one that needs to be told.