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

Movement and Rhythm

In ‘The Poetic Principle’, Edgar Allen Poe says,

I would define, in brief, the poetry of words as the rhythmical creation of beauty.

Poets out there will probably feel comfortable with that definition. Prose writers perhaps less so. But the line between poetry and prose is a blurred one, and those of us who write prose would also do well to embrace it.

Virginia Woolf describes how,

A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it ... 

Our job then is to transfer that life, movement, and rhythm into words on a page, that others may know it.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, in his journal, presents us with a fine example of how it reads when you do it well. This is his description of the movement and rhythm of a wave.

Aug. 13 — Heavy seas: we walked along the sea wall to the Kennaway Tunnel to watch them. The wave breaks in this order — the crest of the barrel 'doubling' (that, a boatman said, is the word in use) is broken into a bush of foam, which, if you search it, is a lace and tangle of jumping sprays; then breaking down these grow to a sort of shaggy quilt tumbling up the beach; thirdly this unfolds into a sheet of clear foam and running forward it leaves and laps the wave reaches its greatest height upon the shore and at the same time its greatest clearness and simplicity; after that, raking on the shingle and so on, it is forked and torn and, as it commonly has a pitch or lurch to one side besides its backdraught, these rents widen; they spread and mix and the water clears and escapes to the sea transparent and keeping in the end nothing of its white except in long dribble-bubble strings which trace its set and flow.

Wild words indeed.

Wild words have a broad range of expression, and vocabulary. The verbs are strong, and varied. They mostly stand alone.

When describing a person’s passage down a street, that person doesn’t just run, they canter, charge, and gallop. When describing their conversation, they don’t just talk, they squeak, they howl, and they rant. Strong verbs rarely need an adjective. Adjectives are used with great prudence.

As living, breathing creatures, Wild words are flexible and malleable. The wild storyteller plays with rhythm for strongest effect. A rhythm can be said to be a ‘regular recurrence or pattern in time’.

Wild words have rhythms, as varied as the gaits of the numerous wild creatures.

Rhythm can be achieved in many ways: including by choice of sentence length, by use of white space, by assonance, resonance and rhyme.

The basis of their rhythm is iambic, the di-DUM di-DUM di-DUM that spoken English has always moved to. The wild storyteller knows that when these rules of internal rhythm are broken without good reason, the result can be clotted prose, writing that does not flow.

Wild words play skilfully with listener and reader expectations, noting the effect that a change of rhythm has on those receiving the story. 

The Monthly Writing Prompt

Write about water: the sea, a lake, river, pond, or rain storm. Describe it, in poetry or prose, with precision. Look closely, and be curious. Can you reflect and heighten all its varying moods  through the use of rhythm in your words? 


The Surprise In The Dark

The other night I walked the fifteen minutes from the main road to our house, carrying a plastic shopping bag. It’s a steep, winding mountain track.

It had been a while since I’d trod that path in the pitch dark of a moonless night. As I walked, I remembered the extraordinary peace of being alone in the blackness, in a completely silent place, under a million stars. 

The next moment I realised that of course I wasn’t alone. There were rustlings in the undergrowth: hare, badgers, or deer perhaps. There were the creeping shadows of trees. There was also the wild boar. He snorted loud in my ears, a noise something like the exclamation of a surprised pig. Then he turned a panicked circle in the undergrowth close by. I knew the great size of him by the heavy cracking of the saplings. They are big, wild boar, and can attack when they feel threatened. Instinctively, I struck at the plastic bag as noisily as I could. He orientated to where I was, and racketed away into the bush.

I am pleased to have stepped a little outside my comfort zone that night. My daytimes these days are spent wrestling with updating the technology that runs the Wild Words ecourse. The whirring, the rattling, the turning cogs of my overloaded brain drown out every other sound.

There is so much movement inside my own head at the moment, that everything outside seems still and dead in comparison.  No wonder we human beings get lonely. We think we are the only creatures living, breathing, moving.

Last night, my brain stopped still in the presence of the boar, and I re-connected with something bigger. And somehow, when I met the boar’s presence with the striking of the bag, I turned a little to face my own fear, and my world expanded, just a bit.

This article was first published on January 17th 2013