The Path Of Least Resistance

This month, some tips for helping you to begin to close in on what the one story is that you need to tell, as it hides in the undergrowth of your mind. And then a discussion about finding the easiest way through. 

1. One way to discover the story you need to tell is to think about what you want to achieve through the telling and work backwards. Do any of the following speak to you?

-I just love making things up.

-There’s a part of me that is always hidden away. I want to let it out.

-I want to feel creative, be creative.

-If I’m really honest, I just want to be published writer. I’d like that status.

-I get kick out of being on stage and performing my poetry.

-To express my feelings.

-I know through writing I try to bring order to my world, to feel in control.

-I’ve had a difficult time recently. I want to move on. If I write a story that’s based around my experiences, I think that will help.

-I’m an old lady now. I’ve got stories I need to tell’

-I’ve got to write reports for work. My colleagues are telling me they’re boring to read. I’d like to learn some techniques to make them entertaining.

-I want to improve my grammar and spelling in a way that keeps my interest.

-I’ve got a fantastic idea for a book/film/poem. I want some support to write it.

-I want to meet other storytellers.

2. The best stories are often the simplest. I began my writing career as a screenwriter. In screenwriting there is a term KISS- ‘keep it simple, stupid’. Myself, I’m not sure about the ‘stupid’ bit, but it remains broadly true. There is a difference between complication and complexity. Complications are plot twists and turns. Complexity is depth of character. If a story has too many complications there is not sufficient room for the characters to move through a range of emotions, and there isn’t time for the reader to experience those emotions and process them alongside the character.  Many new storytellers (and some old hands as well), try to put too much into their stories. Don’t be one of them. A good way to gauge if your story is simple enough is to imagine you are telling it to a child, (or find a real child to tell it to!) And complexity- well that’s welcome, but that’s for later in the process. As you choose your initial story idea all you need is the skeleton of the plot. For now, you don’t need more than that.

3. Choose an idea that’s ‘extreme’. When I say extreme, I don’t mean that it necessarily needs to contain battle scenes with thousands of soldiers. I mean emotional extremity. Make sure your idea has the potential for extreme emotions: happiness, sadness, jealousy, anger etc. It’s interesting to note that the stories with the fewest characters or the shortest timescales can sometimes be the most extreme in this way.

4. Choose an idea that has the potential for tension and conflict. Again, low level simmering conflict at the family dinner table is as effective as world leaders gathering to try to end a war. 

5. Pick an idea that screams for visualisation. You want your reader or listener to be able to see the story in their mind. So you need to be able to see it first.

6. Above all, remember that you are a natural storyteller. If there’s a story that swills round your brain and keeps coming back and back, there’s probably a reason. It’s probably a story that needs to be told, and a story that will work. And that’s regardless of any doubts that your rational mind hurls in your face. 

Words Are Clay

It can also be useful to remember that wild words are living, breathing creatures, adaptable and evolving. (Just like the wild animal. And the wild storyteller). Follow in the footsteps of Herman Melville when he says,

‘God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draft- nay, but the draft of a draft.’                                                                        -Herman Melville Moby Dick

You can’t get it ‘right’ or wrong’, there is only engagement with an ongoing process.

Try to view words as physical substance (again, more closely related to your body than to your mind). The most important post-war Italian novelist, Italo Calvino, did just that. In a letter to one of his critics, he explained how to view his work:

The written page is not a uniform surface like a piece of plastic; it is more like the cross-section of a piece of wood, in which you can see how the lines of the fibers run, where they form a knot, where a branch goes off. 
-Italo Calvino Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985

Your job is to play with form. Stay light around the process. Treat it as clay to be formed.

 

The Path of Least Resistance

In the opening of his book ‘The Path of Least Resistance’ Robert Fritz tells us an interesting fact about the city of Boston. ‘The Boston roads were actually formed by utilizing cow paths. The cow moving through the topography tended to move where it was immediately easiest to move… Each time cows passed through the same area, it became easier for them to take the same path they had taken the last time, because the path became more and more clearly defined... As a result, city planning in Boston gravitates around the mentality of the seventeenth-century cow’.

He takes this fascinating fact as a starting point for a discussion on how we can create pathways to achieve our personal and professional goals.

The challenging terrain of our lives can include mountains of expectations, rivers of anxious thoughts, and the bogged ground of habits. There is an art to moving with ease, and navigating with flow. It makes sense to put in place a structure that supports us to find the easiest route through.

Often, we need to start by being really honest with ourselves. For example, I think I want to write words that are brave, and vivid, but when I look closer I realise that I have great deal to lose by writing in a way that challenges society, or my family. Until this conflict is resolved, the energy will not move along the path I intend, because it is not the path of least resistance.  If I keep trying to meet an unrealistic target, and continually fail, my confidence will spiral downwards.

To see the Writing Prompt that accompanies this article, you'll need to sign up on the Wild Words website homepage to receive the Monthly Newsletter, or join the Wild Words Facebook Group.

Photograph courtesy of Peter Reid.

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

A Writing Ritual: Allison Symes

notepad in wood.jpg

Highlights are important. I can paper walls of my house with rejection slips. 

It has taken me years to find my voice.  I started having acceptances when I didn’t try to fit my quirky fiction into boxes it didn’t want to go into to try to get published. It was finding a publisher that took quirky fiction which led to my breakthrough but I needed to adjust my mindset first. Another help has been accepting I am “in” writing for the long haul and knowing everyone has rejections.

There are days when the words don’t flow as nicely as I’d wish. I call it being human (!) but if I’m stuck on fiction, I switch to blogging.  If I’m stuck on a blog post, I switch to fiction. Usually the issue that has bugged me is resolved as I write about something else.  I found this annoying at first.  You just get into a piece of writing and then ideas for something else turn up.  These days I have a notebook ready!

My writing ritual starts with writing a Facebook post for my author page and/or book page.  I then work on my current CFT post.  I write by “session” divided into segments.  I finish my writing session with fiction as I find not having to stick to facts liberating!

I’m in transition as there is a lot of writing I’d like to do and I need more time so I am planning to become as full time a writer as possible.  Until recently I’ve thought of myself as a part time writer.  Not anymore!  I’m a writer, full stop. I am working out which rituals to retain and which to drop or change.  It will be an interesting process.

I specialise in 100-word-tales, which are on-line at Cafelit.  In 2017 my first collection, From Light to Dark and Back Again, was published by indie press, Chapeltown Books.  This is easily the highest point of my writing life.  I now have an author page on Cafelit (another lovely highlight).

http://cafelit.co.uk/index.php/meet-our-authors/2-uncategorised/99-allison-symes

http://chandlersfordtoday.co.uk/author/allison-symes/

 

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 Day In The Life Of A Writer: Jane Eastwood

My biggest issues with my writing are DISCIPLINE and CONFUSION! 

I have so many ideas/projects swimming about it my head that I tend to let them do just that – “swim” and postpone “I will do it tomorrow”.

This is a BIG mistake on my part.  I write better first thing in the morning. That’s okay you might say but if I go to my solitary confinement room (which is essential to me, I can’t cope with interruptions OF ANY KIND when writing) at that time I end up being there sometimes all day long and nothing else gets done.

Consequently – I have an additional“guilt” factor running around in my mind too.

I think “Must get the hovering/washing/ironing” done BEFORE I write which is FATAL as by the time I have done all the menial tasks I am way beyond wanting to write anything at all.

During household chores I try to simplify the confusion of “where to start” and “categorise” these projects – I want to write a book about my disability which is profound deafness. I am also currently “blogging”.  My youngest son will be forty soon, I have had a family tree made so imminently the PRIORITY is that I MUST write an accompanying history of the family to complete the birthday gift.

I tend to work much better with this kind of “deadline” which comes back to “discipline.”  I know I will discipline myself to complete that project because in my mind I “have to do it”.  I get lazy about the blog and don’t keep up with it regularly enough so when I update that it tends to be an all day project.  That leaves little time for my book on disability.

I benefitted so much from working with Bridget on courses exactly because there were deadlines to fulfil.

I need to make rules and I need to adhere to them for example, I could set aside certain days of the week for writing.

That said I find “spontaneity” is an essential tool for my writing so once again I am confronted with another dilemma, discipline and rules versus spontaneity.  Tricky.

The strangest phenomenon of all is totally inexplicable to me. Writing is the EASIEST PART! When I write it just “flows” and all gets poured on to the page with ease.  Getting my head around all these other challenges is what “blocks” me. 

This Writing Lark

 

                                                         Awww… Shit.

                                                         This writing lark.

 

                                                         It’s like waiting all night in the freezing cold

                                                         eyes glued to the hillside

                                                         Praying for a glimpse

 

                                                         Giving everything

                                                         Everything-

                                                         to stay awake

                                                         to stay still

                                                         to bear the freezing ground

                                                         the rocks that grate my backside

 

                                                       Then suddenly finding I’m awake,

                                                       and it’s light

                                                       and I hadn’t even realised I’d fallen asleep

                                                       and my eyelashes are ice,

                                                       and my vision is blurred

                                                       and there’s a dark line in the snow

                                                       winding away

 

                                                      Until it vanishes.

 

                                                      And,

                                                      heart sinking

                                                      I know.

 

                                                     They’re the tracks of The Cat

                                                     he’s passed by in the night

                                                     It’s all been for nothing

                                                     Fucking for nothing.

 

                                                    That’s what it’s like---

                                                    to look, at these ink marks on the page.

                                                    And be so damn brimful of disappointment

                                                    for what yearns to be spoken

                                                    that I cannot find a way to say.

                                                                                                -Bridget Holding

So, What's It All About, This 'Wild Words' Thingy?

It can feel like it’s about…

…freeing the words that have been trapped inside us for decades, and having that conversation

…writing the novel that has the page-turning quality of a Dan Brown

…attaining guru status like Paulo Coelho  

…proving our worth to our father

…standing on stage at The Apollo Theatre

…becoming financially secure

…the world recognising the master songwriter we know we’ve always been

…writing the dedication

…choosing the text and art work for the cover

 

And, of course, that’s all part of it.

But the bigger thing rumbles underneath.

It’s the yearning to express that we carry round with us, like a wild animal howling through the dark wood.

Our heart aches- for what?

To find the words that can express the strength of our inner experience (imagined or remembered, owned or given to a fictional character) in words.

To feel. To find the channel for the upsurge of emotion.

 

To express it 

To contain it

Perfectly.

 

To be heard.

 

Doing the washing-up, sending a work email, bathing the kids, we sometimes find ourselves inspired by an idea, stopped in our tracks by an image, catching a glimpse of our wild words. The words that want to be expressed, the story that needs to be told.

Like those moments in the forest, on the trail of the wild animal, when we see an amber eye glinting in dusk light, a flash of a tail through the dew-filled undergrowth, a paw print in virgin snow... Tantalising… Calling us to come closer. Warning us to stay away.

 

The Process

There are as many different forms of words as there are creatures in the forest, squeaking, roaring, galloping, crawling, grunting wild creatures all, but whatever the form, the process is much the same.

It has two parts: which must be kept distinct if we are to avoid our human-storyteller-animal freezing (commonly know as creative or writer’s block).

Stage 1: The first draft. Written from instinct.

This necessitates trusting that we are all natural storytellers, and knowing that we’re doing something worthwhile (Don’t believe me? Read this.)

Write the draft straight through, from beginning to end, when you’re feeling fresh, and connected to the emotion of the narrator or lead character. (Struggling to connect to the emotions? Here’s a blog that will help.)

Stage 2:  The subsequent drafts. Here, welcome in the kindly critic.

Bring in techniques that will help you to express on the lips or the page, what you want to express. Use them consciously, precisely.  (Stick with Wild Words for 2017, and you’ll have all the precise techniques you’ll ever need by the end of the year).

After repeated use, the techniques of stage 2 will drop down into the unconscious, and become instinctual. You will find you increasingly use them in the first draft stage.

For those working with oral storytelling and communication:

The process is much the same. Stage 1 is saying what you need to say, without judging yourself. Stage 2 is consciously learning skills that enable you to do stage 1 more skillfully, appropriately and impactfully, the next time around.

 

Block to Flow

We yearn to express ourselves. However, what keeps our words caged is that we also fear it. We are terrified that if all that energy inside is let loose, it will rampage, destroying ourselves, or another.  Think of the tiger in the jungle. He’s such a majestic creature. We crave a sighting, but we are panic-stricken at the idea of looking him in the eye.

At Wild Words we don’t just unbolt the door of the cage. That’s not the way to the best self-expression. 

If we do that, more often than not, the words cower in the back of their cage, terrified by their change in circumstances. Then we’re faced with our stuttering self on stage, or days spent staring at the blank page. Or, we spit words that we regret, often at those we love most. There’s that tiger attacking the person who unlocked their cage.

And in people with a history of trauma, sudden release of energy can result in patterns of trauma being re-enforced. There’s that tiger attacking your very soul.

No, there’s an art to bringing the aliveness that lies within, out and into form. Rather than crank up the resistance, we work with respect for the survival strategies (those metaphorical bars) that have kept those words in, often for years, out of concern for our safety.

There are techniques, mind-blowing ones (start here) for tempting those wild words out, for opening up that pure channel of communication between our self, our character or narrator, and the reader or listener.

 

The Result

Then we find that our words are living, breathing, perspiring creatures, more vivid, engaging and vital than we could ever have imagined possible.

They rise up through our body, dance off our lips, pour onto the page.

They live fully, broadly, and deeply. And so do we.

Then we have, indeed, cleared a path through the woods to becoming the next J. K Rowling, Kate Tempest, or whoever it is who lights our fire.

And you know what we find once we’ve tracked down our wild words?

That the only thing that really matters is the feeling of being a free, roaring creature, more alive than we’ve ever felt before, roaming our vast territory…