Great storytelling coming as much from an embodied place, a place of emotion, body sensations and sensory impressions, as from our heads.Read More
The suggestions as to where I could run ‘Wild In The City’ weekend workshops have ranged from the rambling 88 acres of Hampstead Heath, to the smallest, most secluded square in Bloomsbury.
And actually, I am more drawn towards the latter. I fantasise about my assistant’s eyes opening wide as he reports back, ‘I’ve found the perfect place’. He then places a heavy, golden key into my hand. ‘The Perfect Place’ would be hidden in the beating heart of the city, sandwiched between Georgian houses, and ignored by bustling commuters. It would be bounded by ornate Victorian railings. Tendrils of Persian Ivy and Clematis would make a climbing frame of the railings and reach for the sky. As the key creaked in the lock, a secret garden, a wild green space, would be revealed to me.
Later, when I land back from my fantasy, I begin to wonder: why is my ideal venue small and contained, rather than one vast, unbounded space, like, say, Hampstead Heath?
My sense is that Hampstead Heath is the ‘catharsis’ of Wild Words venues. It’s a great place to run wild and ‘let it all out’. But ‘letting it all out’ can be the worst thing a blocked writer can do. Contrary to what is often taught, unleashing an emotional and literary explosion often causes the writer to freeze up more, rather than doing the opposite, and enabling flow.
No, the answer lies in another approach. The answer is in the quiet containment that I’m reminded of when I think about that secret garden square. It’s in facilitating words that are charged with emotion out on to the page in a controlled way, like tendrils pushing their way out from between railings. When we do this we channel creative energy. It’s then that we find the power in our words.
The Weekly Prompt
Close your eyes and imagine:
You’ve seen a poster on a city street: ‘Wild In The City: Weekend courses located in secret wild spaces in the heart of urban areas’.
Now imagine that a heavy, golden key is put into your hand. Feel the weight of it. You know instinctively that this key unlocks a gate that gives you access to the place in your mind where the wild words live.
Imagine now that you walk through the city with that weighty key curled in your hand. Follow you feet as they lead you to the lock that the key will fit. No need to think about where you are going. Your body knows.
You reach that place. The key fits the lock. It turns.
Now, write for fifteen minutes about what it is like inside the secret, green space in the heart of the city.
This article was first published on 10th October 2013
Drifting. Twisting and spinning. Floating. Riding invisible currents in soft blue skies, being carried by invisible forces towards unknown destinations, no questions asked just going. Moving forwards. Not in a linear fashion, but with unexpected drops and falls, only to be pulled upward again before being suspended by tiny hidden threads and dancing on the spot. Enjoying the moment. I was enjoying this moment, I stood silently watching, mesmerised by the tiniest of dandelion seeds, a tiny feathered speck in a vast sea of sky.
It had caught my eye as I ambled along the roadside, a sudden movement, a spectral flicker that danced before me and held my attention much more intensely than the passing traffic. In fact, the steady whir of cars had melted away into some other forgotten universe, along with the music of every-day life; phone calls, incessant chatter, methodical machinery. This seed was dancing to a different tune. A tune that began to fill my ears, hesitantly at first, a twitter here and a low rumble there but it slowly built. The melancholic melody of the blackbird mourning its song that is stolen away on a wind that whispers its remnants through the leaves. Another layer of sound appeared in the form of insect’s wings flitting through blades of grass, as they gingerly stepped on flower petals that nodded in acknowledgement of their presence. Still steadily building. Swallows chattered overhead, their melodies mixing with the piping call of a dunnock from the hedgerow, the wind continued to swirl through everything, bringing all the songs together into such a crescendo that I was certain I could hear the scratching of snails slithering in the grass below. I was bathed in a cacophony of sound and light, vibrant greens and illuminated blues – all because of one delicate little seed, that kept on trundling forwards.
Suddenly I was aware of my feet. The soles I had taken for granted for so long were claustrophobic in their cages. They were yearning, aching to connect with the flat, warm earth below them. It was as if they were being called back to the soil, to take root. I let them. I released them into the light and let them sink back to where they belonged, into the earth. Rooted to the spot my mind was free to travel with the dash of life that still delicately danced in front of me. Together we travelled high over rich green fields, high enough that the fields revealed to us their secrets hiding in the shivering grass. Secrets of earth dwelling creatures; hares that lay close to the soil with blazing amber eyes. A soft summer breeze carried us further still, this time through the shadows of huge mighty oaks. The trees stretched and twisted every limb and digit upwards, aching to point out the buzzards that wheeled on thermals above.
On and on we went through fields, across streams and rivers. I felt the salt of sea air on my skin and felt it fizz and crackle as it was dried by the sun. From that spot on the pavement, rooted to the earth, I saw all the elements, felt all the earth had to offer. It raged through my blood and boiled around me. This guttural need for nature, for wild, for a connection to it all. A constant seeking force, that I know would never be truly satisfied until I learnt to root myself in one spot and connect with everything from there.
The seed wouldn’t be able to travel forever to find what it needed, it would just stop in the right place. Now is the time to take root, it would think, here is good. Granted, some seeds travel farther than others, some spin and whirl, others take their time to find the right spot, and there are some that just know where they are going to go. There are also seeds that will never settle fully, they undergo arduous journeys across vast expanses, tentatively testing the surface to find the perfect spot. Sometimes even when they find the perfect spot some unforeseen energy moves them on and forwards again. Forever searching. Eventually they are all grounded in one way or another. Their guttural need overrides them, and they need to sink their feet deep into the earth. Ready to grow into something spectacular. Ready to undergo a process of change.
I’m like a seed. Willing to grow. Wanting to be at one with the earth. I long to reach my fingers down into the dark loamy soil, to plant myself deep in the earth and wait to see what grows. Will I take root and hold onto my surroundings, gripping them for strength and comfort and vitality? Or would I perhaps be like the dainty dandelion seed, blown forth on a whim and carried forward by an unseen entity, taking in all the ups and downs, twists and turns. Will I enjoy the moments I am suspended in before I am carried forward again? Moved on to be closer to the place that I will take root. Will I tolerate the uncertainty of not knowing where my roots will be? There is a chance I might never touch down, may never make contact with the soil but instead be flung out and onwards. Stolen on the wind like the blackbird’s song.
Jeni was the winner of the Wild Words Summer Solstice Competition 2018. Below she describes her creative process…
Sometimes my words come together easily, other times they hide in dark, remote, innate places that I didn’t even think I owned. Sometimes they need coaxing out, teasing and bribing and guiding, gently with reassurance. Sometimes they don’t come at all.
This time they raged, like a river in spate; frothing at the edges, desperate to reach their final destinations. The torrent picked up all the words it could find, forcing them out into the open before spitting them out in a tangled mess on the page. One big jumble. One big relief. They were there, they were out. All that was left now, was to pick through the deluge and make sense of it all.
Apparently, there were things that I needed to say. I guess, you could say I was feeling the conflict of my own situation; currently touring the U.K in a campervan, with my other half and our dog, and wondering how I could find some way of grounding in this existence. I was so drawn to the notion of being wild and free, travelling to find what’s out there but also the idea of growing roots as well. I knew I needed a way to ground myself on such a journey and the seed title leapt off the page at me.
I had a vague direction that I wanted the piece to go in and I could visualise the journey of the seed drifting away over forests and fields. I kept visualising my hands and fingers covered in earthy black soil. The cold, clammy dirt accumulating under my finger nails, the ache for a physical connection with the earth. But that was it. My plan went no further, and it wasn’t until I was sifting through my linguistic debris that I put together the idea that roots didn’t need to be an attachment to one singular place but an attachment to nature as a whole.
Writing this piece helped me to come full circle and find my love for writing again, it stopped me from hiding my words and gave me the courage to get my wild words out there and be heard. To make my connection with nature, to plant my seeds in the soil and watch my words grow with them; tall and strong and truthful.
Thank you for letting me share my first wild words and for helping them grow.
Hard Time Moon
We know it tires you. Wrapped in all that red; the red tent and the red sleeping bag and the red warmth; wrapping up the blisters, the damp drizzle that seeped through your rucksack into your clothes; burrowing into dark like a lemming, drifting through sleep not finding it; mapping out your route on the inside of your eyelids, for distraction. Perhaps you are deaf to us: the echoes of generations and civilizations drifting down from the moon, sticking like frost to the outside of your tent. Perhaps we are dead to you: bone splinters trampled into soil by your walking boots, again and again. Know then, that we are more than that. We are the spirits who sift through your waking dreams and thicken the air with our mutterings. We are the pathfinders who cloak ourselves in answers.
Listen. There is a path up the eastern hill, made by herders and hunters throughout the years. It is the least steep of all the paths, you must take it but beware of slipping in the grass, for tomorrow this drizzle will turn into rain. You will reach a rock after the first incline. A stream runs down it from the second incline and spills down onto the ground, where it forms a puddle. If you rest here a reindeer herder will appear. He carries a drinking mug in his hand and fills it from the water cascading over the rock. Ask him for the safest way. He will ask for your map in return, for there is no need for a map on a mountain. You will get it back if you agree to pick a petal from every flower on the mountain, and give him the petals at the end of your journey. You will accept. The herder will point you the safest way: due northwest along the second and third incline. Trust the arctic heathers; the flowers will bend their heads to the wind in the safe direction. Follow the heather to the fourth incline, where the grass shifts to stone. You will see a flat stone half way up the incline. If you rest here a hunter will appear. He carries a dead ptarmigan strapped over his back. Ask him for the safest way. He will ask for your compass in return, for there is no need for a compass on a mountain. You will get it back if you agree to count the stones in every cairn of the mountain and tell him the number at your journey’s end. You will accept. The hunter will point you the safest way: eastnortheast along the fourth and fifth incline, then across a snowfield. Trust the cairns, they will guide you past the loose stones and the sinkholes under the snow. You will see a field of stone beyond the snow. If you rest here, a wise man will appear beside you. Ask him for the safest way. He will ask for your watch in return, for there is no need for a watch on a mountain, even without the sun. You will accept, and the wise man will tell you that the safest way is determined by your eyes. Flies will spurt out of his mouth as he speaks, and when they are dispersed he will be gone. Now you must turn your whole being into an eye. See the mountain lift the mist over its head and give you itself, in all its pathways.
You reach the summit. There is a cairn on the western side, which juts out over the cliff and points towards the Bluehammer mountains. It is two metres tall and one and a half meters wide. A banner in the Sami colours, red, blue, yellow, white, is wrapped around it. Take a rest here. Perhaps you will wait for the men to come. We know your people: you map endings into summits, always forgetting that where there is a way up, there is a way down. You will wait for the men and curse their lateness, measure the sun’s progress through the sky and count the inches your shadow grows, until you lose patience, throw the petals to the ground and kick the cairn, dislodging a few stones. You stomp down the hill, thinking of the red you will wrap around you at the bottom, by that river down there, a silver lining cutting the wood in half - until another red, sharp like reindeer blood, slices your red thoughts to bits. You have slid on a rock and hurt your foot. You cannot put your weight on it. You limp across the stones, skirt across the snowfields. You follow the reindeer. The bulls have shed their antlers on the rocks and you tie these together to form a stick. You make it down to the river. Three men sit on the shore.
“Show me the petals,” the herder will say.
“Tell me the number of stones,” the hunter will say.
The wise man will say nothing.
You will say: “I lost the petals and forgot to count the stones, but I have this stick made of antlers.”
The wise man will stand up. You see now that he has a limp. He will take the stick and put his weight on it. “This stick is good for walking. You have passed the test.”
“But I lost the petals and the stones.”
“We knew you would. We knew you would forget about the mountain and think only of sleeping in your camp at night. We knew you would fall, and be forced to work with nature to find a solution. You have learnt your lesson.”
The men will hold out their hands, and present you the map, the compass, and the watch. They will laugh. Flies will spill out of their mouths as their contours blur. Three will become one; one will become none.
Josephine was a runner-up in the Wild Words Summer Solstice Competition 2018. Below she describes her creative process…
The first draft of ‘Hard Time Moon’ was originally the product of a writing exercise in class during my MA in Creative Writing at the University of Birmingham. We were studying narrative sequences of prose proems, and had just been reading John Ash ‘The Road to Ogalma’ from his collection The Branching Stairs. Our teacher gave us ten minutes to write something inspired by the piece, within the themes of navigation, discovery, and the idea of the quest.
I jotted down the first thing that came to mind. A wanderer struggling to find a way up a mountain, asking the locals for help. As my assessment for that module, I’d chosen to write a sequence of walking-themed poems and prose poems titled ‘Footprint’, so I was using the writing prompts in class to get ideas for new poems and prose poems for the collection.
As I started proper work on the piece, it became evident that it needed to end with a moral message. Like in a fable, the protagonist had to be taught a lesson. A keen hiker myself, I felt it necessary to convey a message of respecting and getting to know nature. Too many times out on the trail I’d seen rubbish strewn across moors and mountainsides, or people marching from hut to hut in two days without getting to know the landscape. Too often I’d heard on the news about people attempting to “conquer” a mountain unprepared, and being picked up by mountain rescue. My piece, then under the working title ‘The Road to Mount Helags’, would be my way of asking people to treat nature with respect.
In order to convey this message, I made the mountain as a character increasingly alive throughout the drafts. The tone became more ambiguous, conveying the idea that nature to a certain extent will always remain unknowable to us. Whenever we venture into the wild, we are nature’s guests, there at her mercy. We do not “conquer’ mountains, but the mountain allows us to reach the summit. The Sami and the obscure tasks they give the wanderer can be interpreted as manifestations of the mountain’s natural and spiritual power; ways of showing that the wanderer is there only on the mountain’s terms.
I am delighted and grateful to Wild Words for this opportunity to share my piece with a wider audience.
The low January sun sails above the muddy Thames Path, casting its golden nets into the river. Cold trees in ivy coats reach up towards its light. Birds sing to the distant grumble of gravel lorries. A few dog walkers overtake me. I am a slow walker now, with my stick, each step marked by the pain in my arthritic knees. I try to synchronise my breathing and my footsteps and count each breath to the bridge. Here the river splits, a weir feeding a nearby lake. I grip the wooden rails and watch the water dropping, accelerating and rushing on beneath me.
You can never visit the same river twice. Always moving, always changing. I peer over and try to catch my reflection on the calm side. In my 84 years most of my body’s cells have died and been replaced countless times. Even my brain, though it tries to hold on to its cells, forever reconfigures their connections. A recent memory drifts away. An old memory resurfaces. Am I still the same Irene I used to be? Barney’s Irene. My young body so slender that his hands would almost meet as he held my waist, lifting me on to my tiptoes to kiss me.
I stare down at the wispy outline of my face in the water. I recognise the red of my coat and my cheeks but my features are dark and crumpled; ripples or wrinkles, it is hard to tell from here. My eyesight is not what it was. The sound of gushing water is all I can hear now. Loud white noise, formless at first but the more I listen the more it sounds like voices whispering. As the water moves, my reflection grows clearer. Now I see dark hair falling in neat curls around a smooth jaw line. This is the Irene I remember. I hold my arms out to her and she reaches back towards me. I smile and she smiles back, mirroring me. She is wearing the red dress that Barney used to love. I glance down at my thick red coat. My eyes are deceiving me. I look again. My red-dressed reflection smiles knowingly and beckons me towards her. I try to speak but my tongue sticks in my mouth like a stray riverweed. I imagine the taste of the water, as sweet as her smiling face. Her face or my face? I reach up and touch the cold cling-film skin on my cheek. Not my face anymore.
How much time hangs off this bridge to separate me from her? My mind turns to all those who have shaped me, their kindness flowing over me, smoothing my rough edges like a pebble on a riverbed. Barney’s daily walks with our babies in the pram, back in the days when few men did that. The friend who cooked for us when Barney first became ill. My grandson who called me yesterday to say he was thinking about me. Do I wish to reel in all that time? To have my young body again? I hear my voice escaping from my dry throat,
“No. That’s not what I want.”
The falling water whispers, “Barney. You could be that girl on his arm again.”
I feel something warm brush against me, startling me, and for a crazy second I think it is him. Then I realise a dog is pushing past me through the rails of the bridge and splashing down into the water. I look around for its owner and when I turn back my reflection has disappeared in a cloud of sediment. In its place the dog looks up at me, grey and soggy with its tail wagging. It clambers out, shakes the water off its coat, then jumps up on to me, splattering me with mud.
Its frantic owner is not far behind
“Oh God! I’m so sorry. Are you alright?”
It is difficult to guess her age. Time has marked her unevenly, skimming gently over her soft face then rushing quickly through her hair, churning it up in silver streaks.
“Don’t worry, please.” I say, “I love dogs. They accept people as they are, sometimes a little too enthusiastically that’s all.”
She pulls the dog away from me and looks me up and down, as if inspecting me for damage.
“You look cold” she concludes, “I have a flask of tea if you want some?”
I accept gratefully and her kindness warms me before she even pours the drink. As she fumbles in her bag, the dog’s front paws are back on my chest.
“Sorry.” she says again, “He’s just a puppy, y’know, always moving, always changing.”
She pulls the dog into a sitting position then hands me the drink in the lid of her flask. Circles form and break in the warm brown tea as I hold it with trembling hands.
Louise was a runner-up in the Wild Words Summer Solstice Competition 2018. Below she describes her creative process…
My head has always been full of words and stories but for most of my life I have lacked the confidence and self discipline to get much down on paper. This changed last year when I joined a writing group in my village. There were only a small handful of us but for a while we would meet in the pub to challenge ourselves with writing exercises. This piece was the result of one of these exercises. One week the group leader brought along some photos and we were asked to select a photo of a person and write about them as a character and then select a landscape photo and place our character in that landscape to create a story. I found myself drawn to a photo of an old lady with deep wrinkles and eyes that were hard to look away from, and a photo of a nearby bridge on the Thames footpath. I wrote my first draft of this story right there in the pub in response to these prompts. Later I walked along the riverside to the bridge, imagining myself as the character and this helped me to describe the environment. I then redrafted my story at least ten times until I was happy with it. Sadly, after a few months our writing group disbanded as we are a small village and we had too few members to sustain it. However, the encouragement I received there has motivated me to continue to write. I have now joined a larger writing group in a nearby town, I write short stories whenever I have a spare moment and nature continues to inspire the best of my writing.
What is metaphor?
The English word ‘metaphor’ comes from the Greek meaning ‘to carry over’. When we use metaphor in language we take words from one realm of experience, and use them in another. ‘When he swam, he was a fish’ is a simple example. In explaining this to you, the writer, I may be teaching your grandmother to suck eggs (another metaphor of course). However, the subject of metaphor is more all encompassing, and profound than most of us realise.
The poets among you will probably make conscious use of metaphor already. But what if you write screenplays, or thrillers, or if ‘flowery’ language just isn’t your thing? Well, you’re still using metaphors. Metaphors are everywhere. We can hardly say a sentence that doesn’t have one in. Even in is a metaphor. Can you see why? I’ll explain later.
In my psychotherapy work, I see that we manifest our inner, emotional lives, in the world, through metaphor all the time. As a screenwriter, I try and get this down on paper. I’ve discovered that, as Aristotle, said,
‘The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor…’
Through mastering metaphor you can bring fictional worlds alive and give power to characters. I’m going to take you now on a journey into the art of great writing, and suggest how you might write as skillfully as Leonardo Da Vinci painted.
Metaphor, the body and the brain
The first thing to know is that it’s not just about how we use language. We construct our world through metaphor. We can only conceptualise by making comparisons between different realms of experience. There is both neuro-scientific and linguistic evidence for this. Let me explain, in simple terms, how this works in the brain. The areas of the brain that control our hand movements as well as what we see, hear, taste, and smell are very close to each other. Overlapping signals are wired in translation. That is, they all connect to one another. So, for example, each visual cue has an associated sound and a hand signal.
Now let’s look at the role of the body. Many metaphors originate with the body because being embodied is our primary and most continuous experience. To give an example, we know how it feels physically when things move from outside to inside our bodies, or vice versa. Food, urine and faeces are the most basic examples. Each of us is a container with a bounding surface and an in-out orientation. From this we create a psychological concept of how it is to feel emotionally ‘included’ or ‘excluded’. We then extend this to other realms of experience. When we speak of walls and fences, prisons and sanctuaries, in and out, armour and wounds, barriers and the rupturing of barriers, we know it through the feeling in our body. The ‘container metaphor’ is one small thread of a web that goes wider and wider, connecting everything.
We always conceptualise the less clearly delineated in terms of the more clearly delineated. Physical orientations, objects, substances, war, food, and buildings, are some of the realms that are structured clearly enough to have their own terms, but there are many concepts that we can only know through metaphor. Love, time, ideas, understanding, arguments, labour, happiness, health, control, status, morality and many others require metaphorical definition, because they are not clearly enough delineated. As an example, let’s stick with the container metaphor and look at the idea of ‘love’. This concept we only know by relating it to more solid entities, for example place ‘Harry is in love’, or a journey, ‘Harry fell in love’. Place and journeys are two threads, two metaphors, that give us a handle on the concept of love.
Mona Lisa’s smile
To go deeper still into the connections, we can look at the patterns that underlie all of life, we can look at physics. Leonardo Da Vinci was a master of metaphor, as well as of the physical sciences. He worked in areas including mathematics, engineering, astronomy and costume design. He understood the connections between these realms. His ‘theme sheets’ juxtapose images related to subjects as diverse as costumes, shipping lanes, hair dye and flying machines. He studied the natural laws that governed all things, and then he felt into his physical, embodied experience and allowed his imagination to find the metaphorical connections, and represent them on paper. There was one source of ideas for the many disciplines he practiced. He saw no need for division.
In one of his ‘theme sheets’ he places a drawing of the Alimentary Canal that takes food from the mouth through the body, side by side with a drawing of a shipping channel, which he hoped to build in order to connect Florence to the sea. How beautifully one mirrors the qualities of the other! This was a man who could see the whole universe in the smile of a woman. Extraordinary.
The way in which Da Vinci used drawing is no different from how we use words. Words are a meta-language for experience. The great joy of writing is that through it we can show and tell about any aspect of life. Everything we describe is operating by the same natural laws, and we are all creating our world through the use of metaphor.
Becoming a better writer
So how can using metaphor help you to be a better writer? We need first to look again at the well-used writer’s adage ‘show not tell’. In ‘The Politics of Experience’ R.D. Laing wrote,
‘I can see your behaviour, but your experience is invisible to me’
Here he makes a very important point. To write good fiction, we have to find ways of making abstract terms, qualities and emotions into solid images, to show the inner world of people in the outer world. How does our character’s appearance and behaviour convey their internal state? We can make conscious choices to place symbols, to utilise metaphor.
The way a character adjusts their body, for example through posture, voice, speech, or mannerism, can convey a great deal. Physical states like drunkenness, exhaustion, feeling hot or cold or illness are also excellent metaphors. The way people ornament themselves through clothes and make-up can say everything. It’s all in the detail. What would it say about your central character that she wears a red hat, rather than a blue one that day, or that she wears a hat at all?
But beware, don’t overload your character. Symbols are loaded with meaning, so one or two per character is usually enough. The experiencing of emotion is what the writer, character and reader have in common. In conveying this through symbols we hook our reader, and keep them engaged.
The psychologist Robert Plutchik considered there to be eight primary emotions- anger, fear, sadness, disgust, surprise, anticipation, acceptance, and joy. He described joy as being,
‘…often felt as an expansive or swelling feeling in the chest and the sensation of lightness or buoyancy, as if standing underwater.’
Feel into this now, and ask yourself how you might convey joy to your reader. Allow the ideas to swell, to bubble, to rise up from your unconscious.
It’s also helpful to practice listening to the language around you, and try and notice which realms we commonly connect to which other realms. Anger, for example, often utilises the more solid realms of ‘cooking’ and ‘heat’, as well as the colour ‘red’. What other examples can you find? Above all, to become a good, even great writer, seek out the work of those authors who have mastered metaphor. It’s through precise use of detail that they bring their work alive.
There’s a fabulous metaphor for metaphor that I’d like to offer you.
In the Avatamsaka Sutra, part of the Buddhist canon, the image of Indra’s jewelled net is used to illustrate the interactions and intersections of all things. The net is woven of an infinite variety of brilliant jewels, each with countless facets. Each gem reflects in itself every other gem in the net, and its image is reflected in every other gem. In this vision, each jewel contains all the other jewels. This is the beauty and the power and the magic of using metaphor in our writing, as we allow our novels, plays, poems, stories, and autobiographies to find the connections, and reveal life in all its vivid colour.
Thinking isn't enough
So often, when we have a writing-life problem, we find that the more we mull over it, muse on it, discuss and ruminate, the more anxiety and critical inner voices surface, and the tighter the knot gets.
In the very process of using our well-honed Descartian rational minds, we put ourselves out of range of our innate capacity to flourish.
Thinking isn’t enough.
In her book ‘Metaphor and Meaning in Psychotherapy’, Ellen Siegelman writes that ‘the only insights that are usable are affectively realised truths’. In other words, useful answers must be felt, rather than just thought. They must surface from the core of our physical being. They have to speak from and to, our guts.
Using imagery and imagination can be more effective than words alone.
When we work in this way we unite all aspects of our global experience, including the data from our senses, bodily sensations, and emotions. When we make use of inner imagery, dreams, body movement, or storytelling, the most liberating insights often emerge spontaneously. At these moments of learning we feel, in Anne Dillard’s words that we, ‘…break up through the skin of awareness a thousand times a day, as dolphins burst through seas, and dive again, and rise, and dive’.
This is why I don’t teach creative writing per se, but instead I teach about how get on the trail of the Wild Words, how to track them down, and how to harness them on the page. The more we employ metaphor and imagination in our search for solutions, the more likely we are to succeed. It can be tempting, as we explore this unchartered territory, to, at some point in the process, abandon the metaphor, and come back to the ‘real problem’. Thinking that before, during, or after our symbolic journey we need to come back to the literal, is a mistake and is often counterproductive. Human beings are metaphorical creatures. We only need to, in psychotherapist Shaun McNiff’s words ‘stick with the image’.
In the moment that we look our Wild Words square in the eye, we’ve done all the work necessary. It’s then that we know, we heal, we complete. Things are different afterwards.
Even if you occasionally or often doubt it, some part of you does know this extraordinary power of imagining and storytelling. This is why you have chosen the calling of ‘a storyteller’, and why you should swell with pride when the term is applied to you.
Photograph courtesy of Peter Reid.
Yesterday, I went for a walk. I came across the Beech tree that pulls my attention every time I walk past it.
Warmed by the sun, the slippery grey bark of that thick trunk smelt sweet. An abundance of verdant leaves jostled for attention in the breeze. That tree is a stunning example of the determination of living things to survive, and flourish. It doesn’t have the symmetrical shape of a storybook tree, but I can see that that is the template it is trying to match. It knows what it was born to become. However, it has met obstacles along the way, and has had to adapt.
At the beginning, it was planted too close to an old stone wall and had to force itself into the cracks between the squared stones, in order to get breath into its ever enlarging shape. Now several stones are suspended like Christmas baubles, carried ever upwards and outwards by the branches.
At some point also, the ground on which it stood gave way beneath it, and it found itself hanging precariously from a cliff edge. Since then it has grown almost horizontal, prevented from falling by clinging roots. But still, it keeps getting bigger, orientating towards the light that it needs, sucking in nutrients from the soil through its stretched and straining roots.
What I see when I look at it is its drive to express itself, its flexibility to meet the challenges of its environment, and its ability to come back to equilibrium after violent interruption.
Standing there beside it, the steadfastness of its trunk giving way to the quivering leaves, I know that the writing journey is about allowing my innate knowledge of who I am and what needs expression, to guide me. When there’s that knowing in the woody core of my being, then my fingers in contact with the computer keys, the pen, and the page, are as released and open to the light as those leaves.
A writing prompt
Observe a tree, bush or plant. How does it embody its history? What do you notice about its growth process? What has threatened it? What obstacles have got in its way? Now, stop thinking. Pay attention to how you experience the rhythm of its movement (or lack of movement), in your body. You might, for example, notice feelings of contraction or expansion. Write about your experience, and relationship to this living thing.
This article was first published on July 25th 2013
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.
Photograph courtesy of Peter Reid.