How do you choose your writing subject?

The craft of creative writing, both fiction and non-fiction, demands that we immerse ourselves in the world in which we live.

In order for our writing to be deep, broad, and wide, our lives must go there first. It also demands that the writer take a flight of imagination. It’s that feeling of lift-off, when our pulse races and colour floods to our cheeks. It’s the ‘aha’ moment of the haiku poets. It’s the feeling of flow rising up through the body and on to the page. It’s addictive. It’s what all writers yearn to contact.

We can simplistically assume that nature-writers give more weight to the first skill, and that writers of fantasy fiction, for example, make more use of the second. However, in successful creative writing, the first cannot exist without the second. How can you take off, if there’s no ground to launch from?

For some writers, observing life doesn’t come easily.

As they are happy to remind me, attending to the minutiae of life is exactly what they were trying to get away from when they took up writing! Others writers work well on the ground, but lack the vitality and flight. Their passion is for diving deep with the present moment experience. They sometimes fear letting go.

If you are one of those who want to yawn and put your head down on the clean white page at the thought of writing about the every day world, the winner of the Wild Words Competition 2014 might be of particular interest to you.

In her winning poem What a Leopard Slug Knows’, Julie Stamp shows us that it’s not that life is interesting per se, but that we choose to make it interesting by giving it kind attention. As writers, how we treat a subject is more important than our initial choice of subject.

Limax-maximus.jpg

It was a nature documentary that opened Julie’s eyes to the wonders of Limax maximus: the Leopard Slug. Having researched further, assimilated and pondered on the facts, she felt ‘compelled’ to write a poem. She has this to say on the subject of making the mundane interesting:

Take time to scratch beneath the surface, to investigate those aspects of nature which are not fully understood, and even the most maligned and humble creatures can be admired and appreciated for what they are and what they contribute to our world.

And this was her personal process around the meeting of observation and imagination:

It was important to write from the slugs’ point of view and that its voice should reflect its extraordinariness….The more I visualised this world, the more I was able to make the transition between the images in the documentary and the vision in my head.

When we decide to make contact with a subject that repels or bores us, and translate that into contact between pen (or keys) and page, we stand steady in the face of our fears. We expand our comfort zone, and our world.

And as to boredom, and the falling asleep on the desk thing, well, I would suggest that these are sometimes unconscious defences. Against what? Against being truly in relationship with life and the vulnerability that comes with that. 

Embodied Creativity

A basic tenet of my work with writers through Wild Words is that any attempt to ‘be creative’ without recognising that the body has a central to part to play in that process, is doomed to failure.

There’s a growing field of study called  Embodied Cognition that asserts this. Highly esteemed cognitive linguist George Lakoff argues that,

all cognition is based on knowledge that comes from the body and that other domains are mapped onto our embodied knowledge using a combination of conceptual metaphorimage schema and prototypes.

What this means is that, for example, we will only ever understand the sentence ‘I’m going to go into the house and then come back out’ if we first know how it feels in our bodies to breath in and out, as well as for food to go in, and faeces to come out, etc. It’s not just that we need to adjust the balance between mind and body. We need to recognise that the mind is in the body.

What this opens up is a new way to explore the potential of our creativity.

We can begin by being present with the body and seeing what ideas come directly from that. We can also start with metaphors, and trace them back to physical experience. I believe that aligning physical experience with the stories that come from that, has a large part to play in inducing those ‘aha!’ moments, the feeling of being truly creative, the feeling of flow…

The term ‘flow’ is a great place to start.

In studies it’s been found that two thirds of creative people habitually use the metaphor of flow or fluidity to describe how it feels to be creative.

Scientists at Stanford University wondered whether, given the links between the metaphors we use in language, and bodily experience, if participants drew ‘fluid’ lines as opposed to ‘non-fluid’ lines, they would be more creative. Results demonstrated that,

Embodying fluidity, relative to nonfluidity, led to an enhanced ability to connect remotely associated concepts

Fluid, creative thinking, is indeed grounded in fluid movement.

But ‘flow’ isn’t the only metaphor we use to describe creative process. We also talk, for example, about ‘thinking outside the box’.

In another study entitled ‘Embodied Metaphors and Creative Acts’  Leung et al. had participants literally sitting in, or outside boxes, while doing creativity tests. Amazingly, this simple change in body position and posture worked. The people sitting outside the box came up with more ideas than those sitting in the box.

From acorn to great oak

I find that dusting down the alarm clock, and waking into the cold, dark January mornings, can be something of a shock after the Christmas hiatus.

And yet, ironically, this time of little motivation is often when we set up the highest expectations for ourselves. Diving in with gusto on the first Monday after the New Year, we determine that, in 2015, we will finish the book, attract the agent, or win the Pulitzer Prize. This will be the year where, on a personal and professional level, it ALL comes together. And yes, it will all come together, but only if we first forgive what we perceive as our past writing ‘failures’.

Creative writing is one of the many tools that we have for processing emotion, re-setting the nervous system, and rehearsing life scenarios.

If it wasn’t prioritised, it’s because something else needed urgent attention, or we were using another tool of expression.  Either way, our ‘wild writer’, that evolutionary animal at the core of our being, was doing exactly what it needed to do in any given moment. And if what came out on the page was in a different voice, on a different subject, or differed in genre from what we hoped, well, perhaps it’s time to question our expectations.

How can we learn to go with the flow, rather than against it?

Learning to write well is most helpfully viewed not as a set of failures on the page to be fixed, nor as a quest to find the source of our childhood ‘problems’ in order to clear them away and reveal the great writer. These approaches just pathologise and reduce us. Instead, I propound an expansionist view of writing.

Image Credit: http://www.sweetwilliamprints.com.au/

Image Credit: http://www.sweetwilliamprints.com.au/

Visualise for a moment a small acorn.

Yourself and your writing project are like that acorn, pre-programmed with everything you/they need to grow into a magnificent oak. If we support and allow the process.

In order to maximize your chances of it all coming together this year, I suggest the following:

Trust that you are a natural storyteller.

Within you, there is a ‘wild writer’ that knows. Our job is to get to know that wild part, to build a relationship to it. That takes time and tenderness.

The danger of putting grand writing plans into action is that in our enthusiasm and impatience, we can jump over the necessary process. So, this year, set yourself smaller writing goals than you would perhaps like. With each completion of a promise to yourself, you build your confidence.  The single most important thing as a writer is to stay out of the terrible vortex that results from persistently failing to do what you intended to do.




Wine & Words

At the end of ‘a week-in-the-wilds’, the residential writing weeks that I run in Southern France, and in order to celebrate the bravery of the writers who have dared to go into the wild, I offer an evening of wine tasting, accompanied by readings of the Wild Words that have been produced on the journey.

It’s always a spirited event! Wine expert based in Languedoc, Emma Kershaw, describes the tasting experience,

We close our eyes and inhale the heady aromas of blackcurrant, pepper, cedar, tobacco, liquorice, rosemary and earth. …Just one swirl of a glass transports us back to another time, another place, a memorable moment.

With every sip, we connect with the history, the soil, the weather, and the people of this area, as we also aim to do in our writing.

But more than that, drinking wine is helpful (you’ll be delighted to hear) for honing two important writer-in-the-wild skills: using sensory impressions, and employing metaphor.

As in the process of writing creatively, sight, smell, taste, sound and touch are all engaged at a wine tasting. The characteristics of a wine are often conveyed by likening them to other things. You might describe a wine as ‘flamboyant’ ‘oaked’ ‘bright’ ‘toasty’ ‘charcoal’ or ‘laser-like’. Dr Ernesto Suarez-Toste describes how…

wine folks use metaphor all the time…structure and mouthfeel almost always demand the use of figurative language…For one thing we personify wine most of the time. Not simply by saying it has a nose instead of a smell. It has character, it’s endowed with human virtues and vices. It can be generous, sexy, voluptuous, whimsical, shy, demure, bold or aggressive. We almost cannot conceive wine without personifying it. We reach for metaphors because …there is no single lexicon with the expressive potential to cover all the range of sensorial impressions.

Wendy Gedney, who leads wine tours of the Languedoc region, was working on her book 'The Wines of the Languedoc-Roussillon', aiming

to paint a vivid picture of this ancient and beautiful place and its sun-drenched wines.

She found that her energy was not forming on the page, and thought that Wild Words might help. She describes how,

The course helped me enormously. It reenergised me and lead me to rewrite, form and sculpt the words to not only bring my writing but also the wines of the Languedoc-Roussillon, alive.’

Wendy’s book ‘The Wines of Languedoc Roussillon’ is available on Amazon.

Christmas may present you with the ideal opportunity to undertake the following exercise…

Take a sip of wine (or of another alcoholic or non-alcoholic drink, if that’s more to your taste). Write a description of the experience, in prose or poetry, that includes the following elements:

  • Sight (colour and other visual elements)
  • Taste
  • Smell
  • Touch (Of the liquid on your tongue. Of your hand on the glass or bottle etc.)
  • Sound (Of the swilling liquid. Of the swallowing etc.)
  • Relax your mind as you enjoy the tasting. Where does the experience transport you to? How could you better convey it to the reader by using metaphor?

 

Wild or crazy?

As a psychotherapist I’ve worked in hospitals for people sectioned for serious crimes, and written the start of a novel, ‘Phoenix: Supersensitive’, based around that.

My fellow tutor at Swanwick Writers’ Summer School this year was Simon Hall, the BBC’s crime correspondent for the South West, and author of ‘The TV Detective’ novels. We’ve both been on the crime front line.  Fertile ground, I felt, for a discussion about the ‘wild’ in our characters (and in ourselves for that matter). Simon has this to say about wildness in character…

For crime writers, wildness is particularly important. Whether it’s the momentary loss of control, or the long held dissociation from the world that leads to the breaching of society’s conventions…. And there’s wildness in the good guys and girls, too. Something has to drive them to track down the baddies, often well beyond the call of duty, breaking the rules and imperilling themselves at the same time.

My experience of the world as both journalist and author makes me believe there’s wildness in us all – it’s just a question of how deeply buried, how afraid we are of letting it loose… and what the consequences might be if we do.   

He’s defining wild as the animal part of us. It resides underneath, and is often bridled by, convention.

It’s the part of ourselves that we fear, and restrain, even before society does that for us.

Looking at how it can manifest, we might say that we have good reason to fear its destructive qualities. Certainly, the patients I worked with could be said to be a case in point. Those that had strangled their children, habitually swallowed knives or set fires to their rooms, I sometimes heard described as ‘wild’.

But were they truly wild? The use of the word in that context always bothered me.

They bore little resemblance to the ‘wild’ I saw in the sleek fur of the wild cat I glimpsed when I walked in the forest on my days off. An animal in the wild often looks healthy. Cutting your stomach up, or trying to hang yourself doesn’t make you look at all well, believe me.

Certainly, in one way, my patients were ‘wild’. No differently to every human and non-human animal, their lives were a heroic mission to firstly survive, and then to thrive, enacted largely unconsciously. Often, they had survived because they told stories- stories of escape and freedom when they were trapped in unbearable situations. When things were about as bad as they could get, it was that so-called ‘primitive’ part of themselves that had led them out.

However, in the case of my patients, often the strategies that had once enabled them to survive, had become outdated, inflexible or stuck.

The ‘wildness’ had become corrupted into ‘craziness’, a disconnection from reality, rather than a working in harmony with it.

Most of us, thankfully, never have to resort to the types of extreme actions that Simon or I observe in our work, or fictionalise on the page. However, we all have a journey to do to re-find our wild writer. We’re aiming at connection and balance, rather than disconnection. Then, rather than getting lost in our stories, we’ll get found through them. When we can locate true wildness in ourselves, we’re a damn sight more likely to be able to write that riveting, emotionally charged way of being on to the page.

Write a character sketch or short story piece about a character that has to respond to extreme circumstances (a threat to their physical or emotional life) with extreme actions.

You might also like to think about how these events might echo through their life afterwards, and impact upon it.

Evolving words

This summer I spoke a lot about storytelling as a fundamental tool for helping the human animal to survive and thrive.

In researching this idea further for the online course, I discovered all sorts of fascinating facts that made animals seem somehow more human, or rather, made humans seem rather more animal. Did you know that animals communicate symbolically? Bees pass on information to their comrades about the distance, difficulty and value of potential food sources, through gestures contained in a dance. Did you know that animals pretend? Young chimpanzees will take care of logs and other objects as if they were babies. And did you know that we are not the only species that dream? Neuroscience has found that zebra finches seem to practice singing specific songs in their sleep. The same neurons light up in their brains, as when they are awake and singing out loud.

Through Wild Words I present a view of written language as a fluid animal.

Teaching at Swanwick Writer’s Summer School last month, I therefore very much appreciated linguistics expert David Crystal’s approach to language. He emphasises,

…the human ability to be linguistically creative and to adapt language to suit the demands of diverse settings

It’s an optimistic view, which, as in Wild Words work, demonstrates how human beings expand into their potential, rather than reduces their behaviours to ‘problems’. This is especially evident when you read his defence of the language used in texting, as reported in The Guardian

People think that the written language seen on mobile phone screens is new and alien, but all the popular beliefs about texting are wrong….There is no disaster pending. We will not see a new generation of adults growing up unable to write proper English. The language as a whole will not decline. In texting what we are seeing, in a small way, is language in evolution.

We need to remain alert to that voices (internal as well as external) that heap negativity upon the way we function. In the same way that texting is not the death-knell of the English language, the problems on your writing page are not a catastrophe for your career as a writer.

They are evidence of your body-mind trying things out, in order to find the best way through. We need to support, rather than undermine that process. When we make those strategies into the enemy, we only strengthen their hold.

There’s a whole world of communication that goes on between non-human animals.

Write piece of prose or poetry in which you take the voice of an animal. Use first person point-of-view to tell the reader about the life of your chosen animal, its hopes and dreams.

Summer at Wild Words

The summer is a busy time in the world of the written word. Presenting my work at the Dartington ‘Ways With Words’ festival, I witnessed the releasing of 'wild words' by both speakers and participants as we immersed ourselves in the rich melting pot of the collective unconscious.

The festival was a celebration of the human ability to tell narratives. After all, storytelling is not just a nice addition to our lives, it is fundamental to our health and happiness. Maya Angelou had it right when she said that there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you. But equally, there is no greater joy than in the act of liberating a story from within.

I was delighted to see how the participants on my outdoor workshop were (as we all are) naturally craftspeople of the highest order when it comes to words. That's not to say that writing is not a craft to be honed. It is. The Dartington talks and workshops helped us along that road. And then there was the live question and answer session I took part in on Twitter. Ever tried to condense a complex psychological writing-related argument into 140 characters, with questions firing from all sides? It wasn’t easy, I can tell you. But it was exhilarating.

Here’s a summary of that crazy hour, by the chair of the discussion Benjamin Scott.

There were a lot of questions around #wildwriting and whether it was for everyone. Although it’s different for every writer, Wild Writing is always about discovering an instinctual, creative space. Bridget reassured us that the concept of the ‘wild’ writer has something for almost every writer, pre-published or professional. As she tweeted, “There's a misconception that writing 'wild words' is scary, big and extreme. Writing 'wild words' is about finding connection, being in tune, that's safe for everyone.”

As one of this year's short course leaders at the Swanwick Writer’s Summer School, we couldn’t resist asking Bridget about what to expect from her sessions. She told us she will be revealing how to “bring power, passion and aliveness into your writing, through exercises in nature to re-find the instinctual writer.” A questioner asked whether anyone can become a ‘wild writer’, even if they like the indoors? Bridget revealed that qualities of the wild are found indoors as well as outdoors. As she said, the qualities “are found in ourselves, in the grain of wood in the dining room table, as well as outdoors. Start small. Set yourself up to succeed, not fail.”

Apprehension is also part of the wild writer’s journey for “when we see what we dislike or fear, we see what we're afraid to put on the page.” Being a wild writer is about utilising the whole of our body and mind, not just our minds. Animals in the wild have much to teach us (even writers!) about functioning well and connecting with the experience that comes via a gut instinct. It’s about changing the balance between the thinking mind and our instinctual being.

We finished off by asking Bridget what is the most important thing writers need to do? She answered that her message is to encourage writers to “trust their innate ability to tell great stories, then take control of the process.”

You’ll find the question and answer session on Twitter #askswanwick. Information about the summer school is at http://www.swanwickwritersschool.org.uk/

Writing Prompt - Be more Twitter

Writing very short stories can help us to clarify the most important elements of our story. So, even if you’ve never been near Twitter, try this exercise.

If you’re a non-fiction writer:

  • How would you condense your philosophy of life, and/or your approach to creative writing, into 140 characters?

If you’re a fiction writer:

  • Try condensing a story or poem that you are writing into 140 characters. Try to retain the spirit and emotion of it, as well as the facts.

In both cases it’s useful to remember what the reader cares about most. They care about what the hero of the story is trying to achieve, what gets in the way, and whether they succeed or fail. And if you can’t get that into 140 characters, not to worry, just see how close you can get…

What are Wild Words – really?

 This week, spend ten minutes writing a piece of prose or poetry that is your personal answer to the question: ‘What are your Wild Words?’ Don’t think about it, just let your hand write for you. Now, put that piece of paper away and read on…

Often I begin workshops by asking participants ‘what are wild words?’ Immediately, metaphorical hands shoot up. Isn’t it obvious? Wild words are like the tiger, expressive, untamed, and fiery.

But are they? Not always. Because that initial answer is often not our own. Rather, it’s the one that is conditioned into us. It’s a societal view of how we believe our words should behave if we graciously deign to allow them free reign.

And the reason we should be suspicious about our first answer to this question? It’s because the answer is so easy to come up with. In fact, it’s too easy. If we are right, our wild words will rise up all-singing and all-dancing. They will be barefaced shameless, and proud.

However, would the words that are caged within us, really emerge so functional after so long a confinement? At the very least an animal that is caged for a long period of time would come blinking out into the light. And more likely it would cower in the corner of the cage, too terrified to come out at all. And when it did emerge, it would be unsteady on its feet, over-reactive to the bombardment of unfamiliar stimulus it encountered.

Trust me, those words that we really censor, we find it difficult even to think, let alone put down on the page.

Frequently in my psychotherapy practice I see clients who have gaps in their memory, places in which there should be thoughts and words, but in which there are no longer words at all. As writers we can tell when we get close to our wildest words, by the efforts we make to avoid going there. Our bodies and minds change tack urgently. We tune out, cut off, fly away…

So how can we find our own, more authentic answer to today’s question?

Here are some ideas that might help:

  • Be patient. Wait for them to emerge in their own time. Don’t rush them, or force them.
  • Sit alongside yourself in the process; support the fragile part of yourself.
  • Think about what you want to write, what you really, truly want to write, not just what you are used to believing that you want to write.
  • Think about what you have to lose by releasing those Wild Words. Bring that into consciousness. How can you ease that fear?
  • Ask yourself: What would it mean to allow my words to be just exactly as they are?

If you try this week’s prompt for a second time after reading this article, you might want to compare it to your first effort. How are they different?

 

Writing to explore the Self – The Flood

This week, you’re invited to write piece of prose or poetry on the subject of ‘The Flood’.

Floods have been a common theme through time, and are, of course, still potent in our own times. In ‘Flood’ Miyazawa Kenji (translated by Hiroaki Sato) describes its coming. It is ‘gleaming like a snail's trail…under the malicious glints of the clouds…on the warm frightening beach several dark figures stand, afloat’.

In her beautiful poem of the same title, Eliza Griswold also describes the rising waters. ‘To the east, the flood has begun. Men call to each other on the water for the comfort of voices.’ She then parallels it with an inner flood- that is grief.

To the east, the flood has begun. Men call to each other on the water for the comfort of voices.
— Eliza Griswold

You can, of course, interpret this week’s theme in any way that you wish. You can write from your own experience, or instead, wholly invent a world. But, if possible, go and find an expanse of moving water, and observe its rhythms, as a starting point for this exercise.

A note of warning: This is a subject that may need careful handling.  You might want to let the words rise up through your body and pour out on to the page with the force of flooding waters. Or, you might feel that that approach would drown you. In the latter case I suggest the following:  put a metaphorical dam in place and open the floodgates, as appropriate, to manage the flow of emotionally charged words. You’re in charge of the process. Notice when you need more flow, and when you need less. A measured channelling will harness the force of the words, and create the best results on the page.

Perhaps this process itself will become part of your written piece?

Washerwoman's Fingers

You’re invited to write piece of prose or poetry on the subject of ‘Wrinkled Fingers’.

Let me explain. On Friday, after a hard day, I took a shower, a long shower, to unwind. The spraying water and lavender gel didn’t succeed in completely draining away the day’s tension. But my interest in something else did.

I noticed the tips of my fingers whiten, and then crease and wrinkle under the jet of water. Nothing unusual in that of course. But on Friday, I was mesmerised, because I ‘d just read a fascinating article.

http://www.nature.com/news/science-gets-a-grip-on-wrinkly-fingers-1.12175

The essence of the article was that wrinkled fingers give a better grip in wet conditions, and that therefore, our ‘washerwoman’s’ fingers’ –and toes for that matter, may be an evolutionary trait designed to help us to survive. The wrinkles would have enabled our ancestors to get a better footing on slippery surfaces when it rained. We’d have been able to gather food from wet vegetation or streams.

Accurate or not, I love this. It re-connects me with my animal nature.

In the shower on Friday, I imagined I made my escape. I scaled the walls of that cubicle like Spiderman, and found a route up through the attic until I hit the sharp chill of the night air. I scuttled over tiled roofs, under the starred sky. I kept going until I found my way back to the space and freedom of the forest.

It was that rather unlikely imaginative leap that cleared the stresses of the day. Nothing else.

Writing in Garden Sheds

This week I enjoyed the article, ‘Where Great Books Were Born’ exploring where well-known writers have penned their most famous works. At Wild Words we encourage our participants to write in unusual places, particularly in natural outdoor settings. I was therefore delighted to read that George Bernard Shaw had his garden shed built on a revolving turntable so that when he wrote, he would always have the sun on his face. The daily rhythms of nature informed his creative process.

It’s not often that I find myself mesmerised by looking at a photograph of a humble garden shed. But then, there is something captivating about knowing that the creative words awarded both an Oscar, and the Nobel Prize in Literature came into being there.

The feeling is akin to how I felt (this is years ago now), when I came abruptly face-to-face with actor Ewan McGregor doing his weekly shop in my local London supermarket. Here was the heartthrob of millions, doing things little me could relate to. Specifically, he was trying to bribe his young child to stop her screaming, whilst fast losing the circulation in his hands from carrying plastic bags heavily weighted with pizza and frozen peas.

Just like Ewan McGregor, the garden shed looked so ordinary in the flesh, and yet was, at the same time, a rarefied place of worship. In an environment we usually associate with banging nails, mixing plant food and tying up tomatoes, worlds that have enduringly enraptured millions (those of Eliza Doolittle and Saint Joan to name just two), had been created in the head of one solitary, shed-dwelling author.

The Weekly Writing Prompt

One of the most magical aspects of being a writer is that fact that while we are washing up in our humble abode (or undertaking similar mundane tasks), we can simultaneously be living out a whole other life in our imagination.

Write a piece of poetry or prose that explores the similarities and differences, the agreements and contradictions, between our outer and inner worlds.

Nature writing in brief: Haiku

To write words that live, breathe and jump off the page, we first have to discover, or re-discover, an attitude of wonder and revelation in relation to the world around us. The writers in the Japanese tradition of Haiku, were masters of this.

For those of you unfamiliar with Haiku, it’s a poem composed of three lines of 5,7 and 5 syllables. Traditionally, it also contains a word to denote the season. Another of it’s defining features is the presence of the 'aha moment'- that moment of revelation in which we look in wonder at the world around us, as it reveals itself in all its glory. The 'aha moment', is a very short, fleeting moment, in which a human being catches a glimpse of what we could call'world harmony'.

I believe that the power of the Haiku comes from the juxtaposition of largely uninflected images, which allow us to make metaphorical connections, to join one realm of our experience with another. The less abstract allows us to know the feeling tones of the more abstract.

In these three examples below, notice how much emotion the poet Basho infuses into a few lines. See also how he seeks out symbols in nature to act as metaphors for his feeling states. In the first Haiku, notice how ‘The cherry flakes falling’ symbolises, and makes real to the reader, the more abstract quality of a singing voice.

If I’d the knack

I’d sing like

cherry flakes falling.

 

Loneliness--

caged cricket dangling

from the wall.

 

Friends part

forever--wild geese

lost in cloud.

 

               Basho ‘Haiku’

Jane Reichhold has written a helpful article on how to master ‘Haiku Techniques’.  You might want to refer to it as you undertake this week’s writing assignment.

The Weekly Writing Prompt

Write three haiku (or more if you feel inspired). Within the three lines, a strong emotion should be expressed, juxtaposed with a natural image that stands as a metaphor for that emotion. Instead of directly stating the emotion, you can also contrast two images to create an emotional affect, as, for example, in the first of Basho’s haiku above.

If you’d like to send them to me, I’d be delighted to read them. Also feel free to share your experiences of ‘Haiku’ on this page. 

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.

The Weekly Writing Prompt

Take a walk outside. Follow any paths of animals, or other wild things (for example: water and wind) that you come across. Notice how they flow around natural obstacles- how they make their lives as easy as possible. Write a poem, or piece of prose about it.

How is this experience of nature a metaphor for your writing life? It might help to ask the following questions:

-What is it like, the terrain of my life?

-What obstacles are there?

-In which ways do I choose the difficult paths?

-What would it mean to take ‘the path of least resistance’?

-How could I set up my life so that the easiest route through is the one most clearly signed?

INTO THE DARKNESS PART 2

I'm on a quest to connect with the untamed world, release the wild words, and discover the wild self. Continued from last week…

I strode for twenty minutes along the unmade road that leads straight into the damp crevice of the gorge, under the shadow of the mountain.

My clicking, grinding thoughts, that inner film, continued to roll. And it was a horror film. There were men in balaclavas, drunken gangs of youths, wild boar, and hungry bears. They whooped and snarled and shrieked their war cries as they came at me from the dark places. I covered my ears with my hands and screamed.

At that moment, quite suddenly, the fears released like smoke into the air, and the film flickered to a stop. I was left alone in the night. Now I saw different things. I saw one small star signal from behind a cloud. I heard the night bird resume its comforting call. I heard the rustle of a small creature in the undergrowth, seeking a warm place for the night.

And now. It was another of Byron’s poems ‘She Walks In Beauty’, that came to mind, his description of a night of ‘cloudless climes and starry skies’.

And I remembered Mary Oliver’s work. She describes the coming of the light after ‘Sleeping In The Forest’,

‘By morning 

I had vanished at least a dozen times 

into something better.’

I realised that my days are always full and light, sometimes too bright. My eyes get tired from seeing too much. Now I was bathing in the pleasure of the restful dark, the silence and the stillness. And had it not been so cold, I might have sat down to enjoy the presence of the absence, in which all felt possible.

When I returned to the house later that night, I felt the strength of a true warrior, and slept with the contentment of someone who feels truly safe. There is nothing so fortifying as refusing to run away in the face of fear. 

INTO THE DARKNESS PART 1

Last night, late, I went and stood outside. I hoped to be exhilarated under a canopy of stars, but instead I was met by thick-hanging cloud. The sliver of the waxing crescent that was the moon, gave out little light, and my heart sank. Without a visual anchor my body and mind flailed, disoriented by the all-consuming darkness. My hand reached out, and I found the gravelly exterior wall of the house.

I thought of Byron’s poem ‘Darkness’ in which he dreams,

‘The bright sun was extinguish'd, and the stars

Did wander darkling in the eternal space’

My other senses swiftly moved in to stabilise me. I heard the river rushing about its secret midnight business. An owl hooted. The clouds deadened each noise that arose, and I was acutely aware of the silence, the stillness, and the absence. Strangely, for being in such a vast space, I felt short of air, as if I was locked in a broom cupboard. Fear swept in, bringing terror of what I couldn’t see, of what might come at me from the shadows of the bushes.

On the blank canvas of the night, the fears that had arisen and fallen during a difficult day found an exit point. It was not unlike a film set in motion. My thoughts clicked and ground their way out, as if from an antiquated cinema projector. I watched as the flickering images were cast on to the night.

The editor I hadn’t managed to please during the day was re-imagined as a poisonous snake falling from the tree above. The writing deadline I had missed was re-cast as the bloodthirsty hands of the ivy that I felt stretching for my legs. The corrupted computer software was re-invented as the antlers of a rabid stag that I thought I saw in the shadows.

However, I know from experience that it is better, whenever possible, to move towards fear rather than run away and let it chase me. I sensed also, last night, that there was something quite important about watching as my fears played themselves out.

So, I reminded myself of what I believe, that provided I respect her, nature will nourish and take care of me. Then, I set off to go for a walk into the darkness…

THE TRAMPOLINE

  Tired of staring at the computer screen, I decide I should practice what I preach. I put my coat on, and carrying my empty teacup for comfort, I take my notebook out into the garden. I will write something. There’s a broken trampoline, rusted into the ground. It has a surface like black oil, and a lopsided gait. I scramble up, and sit in the centre of the almost-circle.

The last of the precious winter sun is weak on my face. Falling, falling…now clipping the top of the mountain. The river gushes. The air is sharp on my cheek. The hungry howls of the hunting dogs in the kennels on the mountainside are ghosts in the cold air. The church bells chime, their intonation definitively French.  My body tremors, physical energy trapped by too much static work. And the sun keeps falling. I have terror of the loss of the light. I think- I should write something inspiring about this, and heat rises in my chest.

But instead, I fall back on the sprung support of the trampoline, and my vision fills with the sky. A uniform block of mid-blue.  It too is fading, washing out the day. I think -when the sun goes behind that mountain, there will be nothing good left in this world to write about .

But anyway, I do not want to write. I want to hurl the teacup against the encrusted metal springs and hear it smash, or perhaps jump really hard and high on this trampoline- with my shoes on. This impulse to smash and crash, I feel it dissolve in the instant of becoming. I have years of practice of not acting upon such impulses. After all, proper grown-ups do not jump on trampolines in the winter sun on a Tuesday afternoon in February, certainly not with their shoes on.

But hell, I’m going to do it, jump as high as I can before the sun is gone. The sharp outbreath, and heavy clunk of shoes striking canvas. The wheezing of springs. Cold air scrapes at my lungs. I spin and take in 360 degrees of this world. Higher and higher, the ground recedes further with every jump.  And then, quite suddenly, the sun drops like a weight and colour washes out of the world. My energy evaporates with it and I fall prone on the trampoline.

The echo of the jumping is a soft vibration that rocks me. I hear the speeding traffic. And I think, I’d better get up now and do something. A solitary black crow, heavy-winged, trudges across the vacant sky. I don’t get up. Instead I curl up foetus-like and pull my hat over my eyes. I will hide. I will sleep.

The dusk creeps in and in moments my fingers are ice pops. Soon, I believe, the river will freeze in mid gush, and I too, will petrify here. All will be silent darkness. Until the sun arrives to thaw us.

 

 

CAGED WRITER, CAGED WORDS, CAGED ANIMAL

  This weekend, I’m going up into the high mountains of the Pyrenees to bathe in the wild pools of warm sulphurous waters that bubble naturally from fissures in the rock.  This act of flight is in response to spending too much time at my computer. Making contact with ‘wildness’, as a source of strength for life and writing, has recently become a little too theoretical. And because of that, when I read my writing, it seems to have lost a little of its soul.

The final death-knell to my computer discipline occurred when I came across two poems that described the torment of caged animals…or was it this caged writer they were speaking to?

The first was Maya Angelou’s poem ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’. Here, the lines that most struck me were:

The caged bird sings

with fearful trill

of the things unknown

but longed for still

When we are frustrated in our life, or writing, the impasse created in the tension between the hopes that urge us forward, and the fear that holds us back, is agonising to experience, and heart-rending to observe in others.

The second poem that spoke to me was Rilke’s ‘The Panther’.

It seems to him there are

a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world.

These lines describe terror, and the absence of hope. It’s a feeling we’ve probably all known at some point, but which we pray never to come across again…

The mighty will stands paralyzed

Here is the physical freezing of the panther’s muscles. His system becomes trapped in perpetual helplessness at the continual repression of his wild nature. In the poem the mechanism is a literal cage, but in writers it can be a multitude of perceived threats, both real and imagined. And physical block always translates into mental fear and block.

However, it was the final stanza of ‘The Panther’ that really took my breath away. How beautifully Rilke captures the fleeting emotion in the eye of the panther, and what a yearning this too sets up in the heart of the reader. I’ll leave you with those lines. In order to break out of my own cage, and to satisfy my own yearning for wild, I’m off with my notebook to the high peaks of the French Pyrenees.

Only at times, the curtain of the pupils

lifts, quietly--. An image enters in,

rushes down through the tensed, arrested muscles,

plunges into the heart and is gone

 

The Weekly Prompt

The caged bird sings

with fearful trill

of the things unknown

but longed for still

Imagine ‘the hopes that urge us forward’, and ‘the fear that holds us back’ are two characters. What would they look like? How would they walk and speak? What other physical mannerisms might they have? Once you have fully formed image of them in your mind’s eye, spend fifteen minutes describing a conversation between these two characters.

As always, if you’d like to send it to me, I’d be delighted to read it. 

Writing and Making Music

I’ve been having a conversation with my friend, the writer and journalist Noel Harvey. http://noelharvey.co.uk/ This week I want to quote his words… “Craft can be taught in a classroom, or learnt from a book, but the art must then be practised. If a writer doesn’t understand that adverbs often warrant criminal proceedings; that adjectives must to be used with prudence, that verbs hold the power, that invoking the senses is critically important, he can be taught these things. But being, feeling, observing, sensing – you cannot teach this. You must experience it for yourself.

It’s the bit that comes from the heart and soul, from the feelings if you like. And ultimately it’s where the power lies. Just as an artist understands paint and materials and perspective, and light, and wood carvers understand chisels and wood and varnishes, so good writers understand adjectives and verbs and punctuation and plot lines. But this understanding alone will not create powerful art.

But you can, I think, help people open up to it, to develop their sensitivity, to tap into their feelings, and find ways to convey them. And then the artist can say ah! This is the feeling I want to convey. This is what I want my audience to feel. This wretchedness/ecstasy/boredom/revulsion whatever it is.

You could say, ‘I’m miserable, and sleepy, and I can’t feel anything.’

Or you could say, as Keats did in ‘Ode to a Nightingale’,

‘My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains

My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,

Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains’

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/173744

Same stuff on the inside, but look at how you respond to each of these pieces.

Here’s an extract from an interview I did with the guitarist Andy McKee. http://www.andymckee.com He was and is, an excellent technical musician, but was getting very little recognition:

‘Of course there’s always a phase where you’ll want to develop some technical mastery of the guitar’, he says, ‘but you don’t want to be lost on that for the rest of your life’.

In the words of Andy McKee, what we need to recognise when we read, or listen to music, is that, first and foremost,

‘It’s the beauty that hits you.’  ”

The Weekly Prompt

Refer to the Keats Poem ‘Ode to a Nightingale’. What is it, in your opinion, that brings these words to life, that makes them sing?

Write a piece of poetry or prose, inspired by this poem.