We're Going On A Bear Hunt

I’ve been buying Christmas presents. In trawling the online bookshops for children’s books that my nephew and niece don’t already have, I came across one that I am already familiar with.

You can find it on the edge of the clearing in the forest where I hold the Wild Words workshop days here in France. It sits, alongside much heavier adult-oriented texts on psychology and writing, on the improvised outdoor bookshelf that is constructed from the thoughtfully angled branches of the grandest oak tree around. The book is ‘We’re Going On a Bear Hunt’, by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury. It’s a skilfully crafted story. As you read, the words fall like the rhythmic footsteps you make as you walk alongside the fictional family, in their quest to locate the bear.

“We’re going on a bear hunt.  We’re going to catch a big one.  What a beautiful day!  We’re not scared”. 

That optimistic tone is often what I hear from workshop participants at the start of a Wild Words day, often accompanied by a little nervousness.

In the book, as we journey deeper, and the explorers draw closer to the bear cave, the obstacles are increasingly foreboding, and frightening.

“Uh-oh! … a snowstorm, a swirling, whirling, snowstorm. We can’t go over it.  We can’t go under it.  Oh, no!  We’ve got to go through it!”. 

In our search for the Wild Words, as in any hunt for a wild animal, it’s true that unconsciously we’d do anything rather than come face to face with the void that is freedom of expression.

But, in the end, if we want to find flow in our writing, there’s nothing for it but to look those Wild Words in the face.

‘We’re Going On A Bear Hunt’ is inspiring in this respect. This is especially true if, rather than head straight for the book, you watch Michael Rosen perform his own story.

The humour, the rhythm, the life of it. It’s a joy.

The Weekly Prompt

Imagine that your quest to free up your writing, or to be a better writer, is a physical journey in the real world. Write the story of this journey, in prose or poetry. What is the landscape like? What are the obstacles in your path? What do the Wild Words look like when you find them?

If you’d like to send me what you come up with, I’d be delighted to read it.

This article was first published on December 16th 2013

Just A Set Of Signs?

This week a friend sent me this beautiful poem. If I were to receive a poem a week from a friend, well, life would be perfect…

From March '79
Tired of all who come with words, words but no language
I went to the snow-covered island.
The wild does not have words.
The unwritten pages spread themselves out in all directions!
I come across the marks of roe-deer's hooves in the snow.
Language but no words.
Tomas Tranströmer
(Translated from the Swedish by John F. Deane. You can find the original, and hear it here.)


It’s got me thinking. We can use words, but not really be communicating. Sometimes I’ve been asked to read stories and memoirs, and found they are like that. There may be a set of signs on the page, but they have left me unmoved, and with only a vague sense of the characters and world they are describing.

Conversely, language is not always a set of signs that we can use verbally. It can also be something more subtle- a rhythm, a felt sense, an atmosphere. Communication is the key. The important questions are: How do want to affect our reader? And, how can we convey the essence of the world/person/thing that we are describing? This thought process has led me into the work of Jeanette Winterson. She writes, in Art Objects,

‘The artist is a translator; one who has learnt how to pass into her own language the languages gathered from stones, from birds, from dreams, from the body, from the material world, from the invisible world, from sex, from death, from love. A different language is a different reality; what is the language, the world, of stones? What is the language, the world, of birds? Of atoms? Of microbes of colours? Of air?

So we go on learning our craft, trying to make something meaningful of these black marks on the page.


The Weekly Writing Prompt

‘Words but no language…language but no words’.

Write a non-fiction or fiction piece, in prose or poetry, using this line as inspiration.

If you’d like to publish it as guest post on the Wild Words Facebook page, I'd be delighted. 

This blog was first published on April 5th 2013.

Writing Effortlessly

There are two things in my life, particularly, that have always invigorated me, and that I’ve instinctually known how to do without strain. Writing is not one of them (unfortunately).

However, through them, I’ve understood how to write with maximum ease, and enjoyment. 

This morning I did one of them. I went jogging. Surprised by the sudden chill of autumn, and lit by autumn’s soft light, I made it up to the ruined Cathar castle, and looked out over the Pyrenean mountains. Layered one in front of the other, the furthest silhouettes were still tipped by snow, recording last winter. The jagged sides of the nearest were carpeted with trees, their leaves just on the turn towards the completion of the seasons.  

On the winding track down, I met an older woman, in shades and slippers (really). She was struggling to keep up with her Cocker Spaniel.  She caught her breath and exhaled her question. ‘Did you go right up to the top?’ I nodded. Looking exhausted at the very thought, she replied, ‘my husband says I should do that. But it’s such an effort, isn’t it?’ I assumed the most sympathetic face that I could muster whilst jogging on the spot, and with a bon journee, we both went on our way.

But the thing is, it isn’t an effort. Not at all.

Firstly I don’t consider myself a ‘jogger’. It’s just that sometimes I put on trainers, and loosen my body up a bit by moving it on down the road.

I start very slowly. I go absolutely with the level of energy that is present for me that day. I ease into that, whether it’s a fast pace, or a slow pace. I stay with my bodily experience, and don’t aim to go any particular distance, or move at any particular speed. I watch the change of energy. Usually, the act of moving releases more, so I naturally speed up. But sometimes it doesn’t, so I don’t. Sometimes I feel I could push just a tad further into that store of energy. I do that, and watch what happens.

I see that thinking speeds me up. If I get lost in trains of thought, and lose connection with my body, I find that I am racing, disconnected from my physical experience of flow. Effort and resistance move in, and it’s no longer enjoyable. I am duller in body and mind, rather than more alive. 

If I jog in the right way, I arrive back on my doorstep invigorated. If I don’t, I’m exhausted.

The same is true of dancing. It’s about feeling the rhythm of the music, and allowing my body to respond. Not expecting.  Not hoping or fearing. Just waiting patiently for the responses, the messages, and answering.

I’ve taken these principles and applied them to my writing process:

1. I am someone who writes, rather than ‘a writer’ per se.
2. I never count words. Instead I put myself in my writing environment for a certain length of time, stay there whatever, and see what emerges.
3. I move my hand on the pen, or fingers on the keyboard, in response to the energy that arises. Sometimes I edge into it a little. Sometimes, I stop myself from moving away from a task, kindly. But my golden rule is never to force anything. (That risks plots, characters and phrasing being born as lifeless as forced flowers).
4. I have an outline of the section of story I’m going to write next beside me as a signpost, but otherwise I set up as few expectations for myself as possible. I do not berate myself for what my body/mind cannot do on any given day.  It’s my whole self that has a need to tell the story. I have to allow that to be what it wants to be. That’s the whole point of being someone who writes.

This is how I’ve learnt to write in a way that sustains through the months and years of long projects. This body-based learning has done more for me than any techniques offered to my rational mind. 


The Monthly Prompt

What small, physical activities do you do, without effort? E.g. are you an expert chef, lover, cyclist, make-up artist, singer or swimmer?

How could you apply what you know in other body-based arenas to your writing? 

A Training Guide For Writing Wild

A student told me the other day that the thought of going outdoors to write terrified her.

In response to our conversation, I jotted down a few ideas which I hope will support you to just get out there. Take them with a pinch of salt  :-) 

-If the computer or television is more familiar to you than the world outside your front door, acclimatise slowly.

Start by venturing out into your garden (assuming you have one), then take on your local park. After that you should feel confident to go further…

-Get familiar with darkness.

Try lying in a dark room for twenty minutes, without falling asleep. You could also put on a blindfold, and feel your way around a room, or garden. Notice how the senses other than sight will come to your aid. See that your fears are bigger then the reality.

-Practice with texture under your feet and hands.

Exchange carpets and varnished floorboards for barefoot scurrying across your pebbled drive.  Swap flat white walls for touching brick and stone. Touch plants (carefully) that you usually consider too spiky.

-Consider going ‘off-line’.

Leaving the phone and Wi Fi behind is the new trend, have you heard? To really go into the unknown means to rely on your own resources, rather than those of your mother/partner/friend/therapist at the other end of the line. Face the reality that where you’re going there may not be a phone signal anyway. To prepare for this, turn your phone off for ten minutes, and see how it feels. Then progress to twenty minutes. Go up incrementally from there. When you can do three hours -the length of the writing of the first draft of your epic poem- you’re ready.

-Decide where to go.

You want to go into unknown territory. It will give you the sharpness of attention that’s conducive to vivid writing. But you don’t want to go anywhere that will frighten you too much, or where you place yourself in danger. A scared writer just freezes up, that is not creative.

-Make your destination information available on a need-to-know basis only. 

Threaten teenagers with loss of privileges if they contact or come looking for you in anything other than a REAL emergency (borrowing money/the car, trips to the supermarket for Nuttela etc… are not classed as real emergencies).

Finally. Remember. You deserve some time for you. Take it. Without apologies or excuses.


The Weekly Prompt

Put the six encouragements above into action :-)

The Hole In The Wall

When we write we set up a world in which the reader views our story through a series of frames.

Writing is an on-going process of choosing what places, people, objects, and information to withhold or reveal, and in what detail. We need to make these choices according to the effect we hope to achieve. Do we want to build tension, raise drama, or release laughter?

It’s not unlike a series of film shots. In one frame a man walks down a dark street alone. In the next the mugger is there, arm round his neck, tugging at the bag. Surprised, shocked? I hope so. The effect is created by bringing something from outside the frame, in, unexpectedly.

Thinking about frames reminded me that one of the principles of Japanese garden design, is called ‘shakkei’ which literally means ‘borrowed scenery’.  

Here, a frame of trees or fencing, or perhaps a hole made in a wall, is used to capture an element from outside the garden that is poignant, or emotive, and make it part of the composition.

When I think of this idea, I always think of the maze that is the South Devon lanes. The hedges on either side of the small roads are six feet high. I drive along, seeing nothing except the road, until, quite suddenly, there’s a gate. The view opens up and I’m both flying free and finding my feet simultaneously. Open fields stretching to the sea, and endless sky. Breath-taking.

In the spirit of shakkei, I went for a walk yesterday.  

Going up the hill, and round the corner I was immediately aware of what was hidden and then gradually revealed. The first frame was a square of green wire in a fence. Inside it, the far mountains. The wood of a child’s swing created a moving frame, the view ever-altering. There were also caravan windows, the scratched Perspex distorting the sunlight and abstracting the view.  And then finally, and most wonderfully, in an upstanding slab of concrete, a small round hole revealed the pink glow of the sky, so ethereal in contrast with the hard material that enabled it.

I see now there’s a reason that galleries frame paintings. Things just look better through a frame.


The Weekly Prompt

This week, borrow some scenery, and create your own shakkei. Go for a walk outside and look for natural frames. Alternatively, construct a simple frame and take it outside with you.

When you notice a natural frame, or actively frame something- what does it bring to your experience of the environment? What effect does it have on the reader to describe that view in words? Choose different frames, and notice how your choices about what you emphasise, and what you leave out, change the story you tell.

First published June 7th 2013

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. 


Between The Lines

Saturday’s Vide Grenier (village jumble sale) turned up an exciting find. For one euro I bought a letter, unopened. It bore the stamp of the German authorities, a Polish place name, and the date 1942. 

Seventy years after its intended reading, I sliced into the envelope. Inside was a single folded sheet of notepaper, still crisp and white. The spidery writing was blobbed with the uneven ink of a fountain pen.  My mediocre grasp of French didn’t stand a chance.

In the three days before a friend came over and translated it, several war epics played out in my mind. Occupied territory… wartime secrets…code breaking…a letter stolen… the intended reader dead…

I was on the edge of my seat when it was eventually read out to me. The writer talked about the price of bread, and how far advanced the spring was. And then, well, that was it. Not one reference to the war, or the political climate. Not a mention of fear, hatred, or the thrill of lives lived close to death.

It said nothing, and yet it said everything- about the censorship, the restriction of free speech, and the monotony that are the marks of living under occupation. It made me think about how much is revealed by the absence of words on a page. Often absence is more telling than presence.

When we write, we carefully compose our ink marks. Perhaps we should also consider how to use the white spaces; the no man’s land of paragraph breaks, the pauses between words, the blank page at the end of a chapter.

Technically speaking, white space gives the reader a moment to breathe, to process, to reflect. Paragraph breaks signal changes in location, or allow us to take leaps in time. But we can make use of the absence of words on a more subtle level also. 

We could, for example, have our character be asked a question, and reply only with silence. Or, our character could choose not to mention a huge subject in their life. The ‘elephant in the room’ has a powerful impact.

If we can just look past the proliferation of symbols we will see that there is wildness hiding in the shadows of our words.  

The Weekly Prompt:

Look at your page of writing. Instead of focusing on the black ink marks, be interested in the emptiness between the words. Notice how the white sky of the page wraps perfectly around your letters. How the ground of it supports them. What is being spoken by the absence of words?

When you next write a story or poem, have the intention to allow the white page to reveal. In this way the reader will discover the answers to their questions, rather than being a passive recipient. If they are spoon-fed the words, you deprive them of the excitement of the exploration.

This article was first published on May 4th 2013


Learning From Salvador Dali

I’m lucky enough to live just two hours from Figueres, birth and death place of artist Salvador Dali.

The other weekend I visited the museum he created (he’s buried underneath it!) I’ve never been particularly inclined towards his work, but I was converted. His draughtsmanship, as well as his sheer range of output, was extraordinary.

Although he wasn’t a writer per se, I learnt a lot about writing that day.

Dali knew his art history. He charted the development of certain images and themes through time. He took classic works and twisted them around, or added unlikely elements. Something provocative, or modern, or so mundane it was shocking.

Take, for example, his painting entitled Copy of a Rubens Copied From a Leonardo.

He brings his characters into contact with energy and fearlessness. Oh the humour! The reverence and irreverence! Delightful. Shocking. Dali broke the mold. He did something different. And that woke people up. It set them talking. It still does.

Wouldn’t it be fabulous to achieve that with words?

For writers, as much as artists, the first task is to know and appreciate our heritage.

The skilled masters of our craft are our roots. It is from that stable base, that we can reach for newfound heights. First, we learn from them. We copy their style, content, and themes. Then we move away from them. It’s something like growing up and leaving home.

The second task is to ask ourselves: What can I do with my writing subject that hasn’t been done before?

How can I turn this subject or theme around? How can I look or speak from a different place?

In my opinion, it’s a mistake to believe that the route to doing something new begins, or is primarily about, looking for ways to confront, challenge or conflict with others’ views or work. That might be a byproduct, but it’s not where we should put our creative focus.

Instead, the journey begins, ironically, with that which we think is known and therefore not worthy of our attention. Ourselves.

Consider: what is the roar inside that needs to be heard? What needs to be said? By me. In this moment.

Ask yourself: How can I be myself without shame or apology? How can I step outside the box? How can I think what I’ve been taught is unthinkable? What will support me to say the unsayable?

When we write from that source of authenticity and power, we challenge the status quo without fear.

We can withstand any criticism, because we’re being carried along by something so fundamental, that we will never doubt its ‘rightness’.   


The Monthly Writing Prompt

There’s a picture, by Salvador Dali, entitled Bed and Two Bedside Tables Ferociously Attacking a Cello.


Take courage and inspiration from it.

Choose a scene you’ve already written, a narrative poem, or an event from a screenplay or novel, for example.  Alternatively, write a new scene.

Then, re-tell that scene from a previously unconsidered point of view. Purposefully choose something wacky. The bed in the love scene, the pet hamster in the cage that witnesses a world event, or the sun shining on the fields of your seventeenth century manor house. How does it change your view of your characters and events? What do you learn? Have fun, play and explore.