“Writing starts with living”
The theory that informs my work with storytellers, through my company Wild Words, is a happy blend of evolutionary psychology, the natural sciences, psychotherapeutic theory (with leaning towards body-based psychotherapies) and creative writing theory.
My passion is for understanding how the functioning of nature might inform our behaviour as human animals in a therapeutic context, our behaviour as writers in a writing context, and as effective communicators in a social context.
In this article I will explore the importance of a holistic, embodied approach to storytelling (written and oral). When we re-find our wildness, and function in tune with our environment, and ourselves, we bring vitality and health into our stories, as well as into our lives.
The Natural Storyteller
As Jonathan Gottschall describes in his book The Storytelling Animal, we are all ‘natural storytellers’. Storytelling is an evolutionary tool. It enables us to process emotion, and to reset our nervous systems after arousal.
Whether our stories emerge as fiction or non-fiction, are told in the pub or the therapy room, or performed on stage, they represent the re-finding of equilibrium of our organism. Storytelling is much more than just a luxury for human beings. Through it, we survive and we thrive. It is too infrequently acknowledged, that those of us who craft words, are performing a life-saving function in society.
The Role of The Body
We can have a tendency to believe that our brain is the primary player in the process of writing and telling stories. However, storytelling is an embodied process.
Put simply, that process goes like this: The storyteller experiences life from an embodied vantage point (body sensations, emotions, thoughts, perceptions and images.) They then assign that embodied experience to their character or narrator. The reader/listener then feels that experience as they read or listen. It is from the physical body of the storyteller, to the body of the narrator/character, and then to the body of the reader, that meaning is transmitted.
A key idea comes out of this: the more strongly the storyteller is in touch with all aspects of their embodied experience - particularly their body sensations, and the relationship between those sensations, the more strongly the reader or listener will be impacted by the narrative. Conversely, if they are only aware of their thoughts, not their bodily sensations or emotions, for example, the receiver will be impacted very little. The role of the storyteller’s embodied experience is fundamental to the creative process.
Neuroscience has demonstrated that if you provide your reader or listener with descriptions of sensory impressions (smell, sound, touch, taste, colour and texture), as well as saying how your characters feel in their bodies, that the same neurons fire, and the same neural pathways are strengthened, as if the reader were experiencing the events for themselves, in the real world. To read a good story is not like being there. It is to be there.
Sondra Perl, a student of Eugene Gendlin, the founder of the Focusing technique, undertook some groundbreaking studies in the 1970’s. What she found, which is highly relevant to wordsmiths, is two things:
-What sabotages writing, is editing before we’ve finished writing
- We do this much, much more than we think.
When I teach writing, I encourage students to write the first draft of any story instinctually, by immersing themselves in the events they are relating, and the emotions of the characters. At this stage, I suggest they don’t think about storytelling techniques. I also advise them not to judge or criticise themselves, or to edit what they’re writing, at all.
When they come to write the second draft of a story, that’s the place to bring the critical mind, the firm but supportive editor, into play.
When we keep these stages distinct during the process, we avoid writer’s block, and enable creative flow.
Another idea that is key to the work I do through my company Wild Words, is that what happens on the page is a reflection of the behavioural patterns that the storyteller demonstrates in other areas of their lives. My experience is that, for example, if a writer cannot tolerate a certain emotion in themselves, that they will not be able to write that emotion on to the page. A common example is anger. I’ve read several draft manuscripts in which tension is cranked up, and cranked up further, thus raising the expectations of the reader, only for the writer to then summarise, or cut away suddenly from the action, just as the conflict reaches its zenith. The reader feel disappointed, cheated. The cause has invariably been that the writer was not able to make contact, or bear, feelings of anger in themselves. That limitation was observed on the page.
In the process of writing wild words, we work to make unconscious patterns of functioning, conscious. In the second draft stage, we also consciously utilise writing techniques, until they are so familiar that we are able to apply them unconsciously, in the same way that we might ride a bike or drive a car. The process then comes full circle as those tools become part of that instinctual first draft process.
At Wild Words we re-find a way of wild functioning. We re-connect with our animal nature. We then experience the satisfaction and healing available when we tell a story that was crying out from the depths of our soul to be told.
The Role Of Nature
“The closest we now get to nature is feeding the ducks in the park… the greatest trial of strength and ingenuity we face is opening a badly designed packet of nuts" -‘Feral’, George Monbiot
Most of us write and tell stories, indoors. I often encourage myself, and I’d like to encourage you, to take advantage of any opportunity to unchain yourself from your desk, break out of the house or office, and go outside. Contact with the natural environment brings us into very immediate and direct contact with aspects of the environment that can teach and inspire us.
Just because we choose to write in nature, doesn’t mean that we have to write about nature. Every genre of writing can benefit from contact with the aliveness of fast-flowing water and fast-moving air. Historical fiction, fantasy novels and autobiographies, as well as stories told orally, also need evocative settings and characters that pulse with life.
And in case you need further convincing on the nature-front, here are seven more reasons to unchain yourself from the desk:
1. Most of us live and write indoors, in limited, controlled environments. If we don’t live the full depth, breadth and richness of our lives, we can never convey that on the page, or in conversation. If we do not live, our stories will not live.
-The natural world is full of sensory impressions. If we can learn to smell, taste, see, hear, and feel the textures of our lives, our words reflect this breadth of experience. As storytellers we become more grounded, and happier.
-When we go out into nature we experience our bodies more fully- the heat and cold, the contraction, expansion, pulsing, flow, the emotions. When we become more embodied as storytellers, this is reflected in the strength of the connection between the reader/listener and character/narrator.
-The natural world is full of movement and rhythm. Contact with this can help us to bring a range of movement and rhythms into our stories and our lives.
2. To resource and relax. There is nothing as soothing and revitalising as contact with beauty of nature- a beautiful view, or a sunset for example. Certain patterns of movement in nature, the flickering of a fire, and the rolling of waves being two, active theta waves in our brains that bring stress levels down.
3. To feel connected. We live in a culture where we are increasingly physically cut off from each other (the proportion of households in the UK which are now sole-occupier continues to rise.) Surveys repeatedly record that we feel increasingly emotionally isolated. We have a tendency to think that this is primarily as a result of the ‘breakdown’ of traditional community structure. I believe however, that the cause is more the dislocation from the natural world that sustains our lives. Writing in nature offers us a door back into connection.
4. To feel less criticised, less judged, and less anxious. The problem is not that others judge us, it’s that we judge ourselves. When we go into the unknown, and into a vibrant environment, we think less and therefore judge less.
5. There are qualities of wild, which we are usually afraid to acknowledge in ourselves, and project on to the natural world. The wilds are all out there not in here. I’m not unpredictable, aggressive, spontaneous, and driven by base impulses. I’ve got it under control! Avoiding things that are frightening doesn’t make them less frightening. Disowning parts of our experience also makes us unable to tell stories or write about those aspects. Contact with the natural world allows us to bring awareness to this process of projection.
6. The natural world is a great source of metaphors to convey our emotions and life journeys.
7. For inspiration… Following in the extraordinary footsteps of the many storytellers, writers and poets who have used natural settings as jumping off points for stories, or as gateways to an exploration of the self in relation to the world.
May our words canter on the broad savannah, dive deep in the dark ocean, swoop in the vast blue sky. May we become the storytellers, and the human beings, that we’ve always yearned to be.
BARKAT L.L. (2011) Rumors of Water: Thoughts on Creativity and Writing. New York: TS Poetry.
GOTTSCHALL, J. (2013) The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. New York: Mariner.
MONBIOT, G. (2014) Feral: Rewilding the Land, Sea and Human Life. London: Penguin.
PERL, S. (2004) Felt Sense: Writing with the Body. New York. Heinemann.
This article was first published in Spring 2017, in The Lapidus Journal.