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.

A Wordsmith's Process

Being ‘a writer’ is a funny concept. I am certainly a communicator, an expresser, a wordsmith, a purveyor of poetry…

but putting pen to paper, (or fingers to keypad), is most definitely an afterthought, a documentation, of my process, rather than the process itself.

Words emerge in my brain, they linger there and tangle themselves up, repeating. Usually on walks, when there is a rhythm to meter-by and a safe-space for mental foraging.

Partly, I think it’s a bad-habit; one that comes from a need to be distracted from presence or engagement in the moment; an absenting, that keeps me meditatively consumed with the puzzle of listing rhyme possibilities… But it’s also a tool for healing and processing, allowing new conclusions and perspectives to emerge, just by having an openness to which words arise and fit. I have often surprised myself with revelations of awareness, just for the sake of a punchline, the right metaphor or simply the right sound.

For me, it’s a game something like intellectual Lego.

I will get interested in some accidental phrase I overhear; “oh look, that’s been randomly abandoned” “it’s spread over various areas”; and that is all I need to set off… it’s something about my auditory tendancy, my capacity for memorising, and a love of playing with sounds and meaning; each phrase a conundrum of how to place the most pleasing phonics in pursuit of the underlying conveyance. And whaddya know, when I shared them, people seemed to like it! It was never intentional.

If you gave me a desk and an empty page I really wouldn’t know where to begin. Or, if I consciously wanted to work through an issue via poetry, my efforts would most likely be scratchy and unfinished cliché; doomed to get eternally-filed with other tedious and well-intended homeworks. My poems happen to me, like a hiccup. Before I can devise or command them. In this way they are like the mythical lightning-bolt of inspiration, and I envy those writers who have the craft at their own behest, able to produce in alignment with purpose or demand. I have had many a moment of inadequacy in my own workshops, when the work that comes to me under the pressure and limitations of exercises I myself have set, is so blatantly not representative of the public-face of my work...

So yes, come walking… share with me your most-satisfying juxtapositions of syllables…

but when I start glazing over and mumbling to myself, just don’t expect me to maintain a coherent conversation. Im probably thinking about ‘hoover manoeuvres’ or ‘runaway onions’ and apparently, that’s an artist at work.

The Way People Speak

The way people speak. Even if your words are passing directly from your internal world on to the page, you'll still have heard them in your head first.

Even if your reader never speaks them out loud, they too will be hearing them in their heads. We never get away from the live word. Thank goodness. 

And when we do speak out loud?

It all starts with a feeling in the body. As Darwin first noted, and has been evidenced consistently since (e.g. Ekman, 1980; Carlson, 1994), the facial expression we make as the result of any basic emotion, is innate and universal. The sounds we make are partly determined by the movement of muscles making up that facial expression, and therefore by the emotion felt. Therefore, they too are innate and universal. 

In humans, Tartter ( 1980) showed that vocalizations made whilst smiling were of a higher mean frequency than those made with neutral expression due to the effect of smiling on altering the shape of the upper vocal tract; smiling increases second formant frequency. Tartter and Braun also showed that vocalizations made whilst frowning had lower formant frequency and longer vowel duration than speech with a neutral expression; listeners were able to discriminate speech made whilst frowning, smiling, and with neutral expression from each other with no visual input. Furthermore, they were able to do so in both vocalized and whispered speech, suggesting that the same effects of facial expression on elements of affect of vocalization would be applicable to vocalizations.

Understanding that basic, embodied functioning, which unconsciously informs our storytelling, must come first. Secondly we can work with the nitty-gritty of how people speak, and what they say. 

What should come out of your characters' mouths?

Here are some guidelines that will help you to write skilful dialogue and direct speech (that’s the stuff in speech marks):

1. Good dialogue gives an illusion of reality rather than being a copy of how we actually speak.

Two examples of this are:

-Less is more.

In ‘real life’ people chat and gossip. Avoid this in your story. Get to the point (in your round-the-houses way). Don’t put in anything that’s not relevant to the central plot. Keep it moving and you’ll keep the listener or reader engaged.

-Avoid accents, slang and dialects.

Your story needs to be easy to read and listen to. By all means set the story wherever is appropriate, but instead of trying to be ‘real’ and use dialect/slang throughout, just put it in a few places to convey the sense of it, whilst keeping it easy to read. If you send the story out to an agent or publisher you can put a note in to explain the dialect/accent/slang. If your story ever becomes an oral story, radio play, stage play, or film the film is shot, the performers will put it back throughout!

2. People only speak to get what they want.

 A good starting point for a piece of dialogue is to think, ‘what is my character trying to get here…?’ It should tie in nicely with the goal for each step of the hero’s journey.

3. (Yet) people rarely ask directly for what they want.

This would risk rejection and be too scary. So, they (and by ‘they’ I of course mean ‘we’) go round the houses. Say you are writing about a middle-aged couple who are full of frustration about many long unresolved issues. Every night they sit down to dinner. The issues have become TOO BIG to address. So, have them argue about the amount of salt in the food, or the fact the butter was left out and has melted away… You can convey their relationship without ever directly mentioning the relationship. This is more subtle and more skilful.

4. In conversation people do not listen to each other much, nor do they answer each other much, nor do they wait until the other person has stopped speaking before starting to give their opinion (!)

5. Dialogue needs tension.

No ‘yes men’ please. Have people disagree with each other, (it doesn’t need to be all out war every time though!)

6. Avoid back-story.

It’s commonly thought that you need to set up the history of your lead character. In general, you don’t. As we’ve discussed, the reader or listener only really care about the hero achieving her goal. You may include a little information about the hero’s past to a) make the story make sense, or, b) help us to understand his emotional landscape, but, you need less than you think you do. So, alarm bells should be going off if you write things like… ‘I remember…’or, ‘when I was young…’. Be tough with yourself. Ask, ‘do I really need this?’

7. Avoid fads and trends.

If you’re specifically setting your story in the 1960’s, that’s fine. The language should reflect that. However, if your script is set now, avoid using words in common usage now that will change. It is quite possible that three years down the line your book will still be doing the rounds of publishers, and if it looks dated it won’t get past the front door.

8. Improve dialogue by doing a read through.

Even if, and especially if, your story is written to be read rather than performed, get a few friends together to read your story aloud. Don’t take part yourself, just listen. Record the read through so you can re-play it and work on the dialogue. As soon as someone says your lines aloud, you’ll know what works and what doesn’t.

9. If you are ever stuck for what your character should say next, think, ‘What is the most obvious thing they could say now?’ Then, take this line and turn it upside down, have them state the opposite.

10. Every group of people has a language of their own.

For example, mechanics use technical words related to their job. We see the world through the metaphor of our work. Do your research, learn the language.

11. And a final word about how to lay out dialogue. Direct speech always used to appear in speech marks. Nowadays, there are many writers doing it differently. Some are using italics. As long as the listener or reader appreciates that it is direct speech, and knows who is speaking, anything goes. In terms of layout, as a general rule, begin a new line and a new paragraph for each new speaker. 

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The photograph this month is of the very talented Beryl The Feral. 

Spoken Word, Written Word

Photograph by Noel Harvey

Photograph by Noel Harvey

As a writer, I’ve often asked myself: how can I get the maximum aliveness into a product that sits flat on the page? It’s not an easy task. (Here’s a poem about my sometime frustration in this respect.)

Stories are alive. They are ever-evolving creatures. In my experience, they often resist being reduced to a ‘definitive version’.  At a certain point, we usually just have to make a deal with our subject matter that it’s time to part ways. Then we take courage in both hands, and let go of the re-writing.

I’d long suspected the value of looking at how words are used in language, and stage performance, and then find ways to transfer that power on to the page. So, I watched a range of spoken-word stage performances, as well as listening to conversations in the street, with that lens in mind.

Now I understand much more about how writers can learn from spoken word poets and oral storytellers, and vice versa. And how invaluable that learning can be.

The differences

Certainly, there are fundamental differences between language and writing. They are different creatures, rather than (as used to be assumed) one just being the descendent of the other.  When we speak to someone, there’s a limit to how much information they can process in any one instant. If they’re reading a text we’ve written, there isn’t the same problem. They can take time to unpack and digest. Language therefore, tends to come in bite-sized fragments, with the written word in general being more elaborate, embedded, and closely packed.

Who is better at what?

Spoken-word sometimes lacks durability, complexity, subtlety, and beauty of form. I’ve found that spoken-word artists on the Wild Words courses revel in taking the range of tools and techniques that writers have, and applying them to the creation of a spoken-word-baby-to-be. They enjoy mining the written words alone, to get maximum impact into them, before the extraordinary power of performance is added. They record, on paper, their spoken word gems for posterity.

Those who work only with the written word, can sometimes struggle to unleash spontaneity and aliveness on the page. Writers easily lose touch with their embodied experience, without which, in my opinion no story can flourish. The utilisation of body-awareness and physicality, is something that performance poets often excel at.

Writers learning from performers

Over time, writing has become increasingly distanced from its roots in oral storytelling.


For example, when first introduced, the hierarchy of punctuation marks on the page seems to have been thought of as representing pauses of different lengths, that is, as reflecting purely phonetic facts.

It was recording what master storytellers did in front of their audiences, to raise tension, and set up patterns of tension and release. They paused their speech at key moments in a story, or use a drum roll of other musical instrument, clap their hands, stamp their feet, or changing position on stage.

Writing, gradually, over time, honed its invaluable ability to display the logical structure of a passage, independently of how it might be read aloud.

Remembering it’s roots, it seems to me an interesting experiment to do as a writer, to take a step back into the history of writing, and think about how we might rediscover how to create pauses, and therefore raise tension in a story, through punctuation.

And punctuation isn’t the only way to do it. When we use language on stage, or in everyday life, it is always accompanied by gestures, mannerisms, movement and changes in facial expression. So, when we write a piece of dialogue, and want to create a dramatic pause, describing physicality is often the best way to go.


A major aspect of spoken language that there is no satisfactory way to put on to the page, is intonation, or pitch. The intonation in someone’s voice contains vital information about the mood, and intention of the speaker. The best we’ve managed to come up with on the page, is the of use punctuation to partially convey those things. When, in linguistics, the speaker’s voice rises,

a question mark (?), or exclamation mark (!) is the equivalent on the page. When a speaker’s voice falls, the equivalent in writing is quite often a full stop (.)

On Wild Words courses I have an ‘experiment’ I like to suggest to writers. Us writers can be a timid, body-static lot, but I’ve often suspected that inside most writers, is a frustrated performer trying to get out. So, with the upmost respect for your love of sitting quietly in your room and imaginative space, how about trying the following, just to see what happens?

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Connected to this fascinating subject (and I’m rubbing my hands in anticipation), is a discussion on the links between embodiment, music, the sung word, and the written word. But that’s for another blog…