Writing Wild

The Rhythms of Language

Writing that lives and heals and engages us will breathe in and breathe out.

from Writing Wild By Tina Welling | Posted 4/12/14 | Updated 5/1/21

All living things pulsate with energy; so too should our language. Writing that lives and heals and engages us will breathe in and breathe out. When we go into nature and begin a Spirit Walk, our attention moves alternately inward and outward as we first alert ourselves to body and place, then send our senses out to gather information and pull that information inward.

Then, again, we send our senses outward to gather more information and again pull it in, each step bringing our bodies and attention to greater consciousness. When we arrive at the third step of the Spirit Walk, we acknowledge the emotions that arise and let the stories come. Throughout the entire Spirit Walk, our attention moves as our breath does, in and out.

If we continue this rhythm while writing our stories, the writing will come alive to us and to the readers with whom we share our work. We will write these stories with the same pulsation that we experience when naming, describing, and interacting during our Spirit Walk. Inward to our body sensations, outward to our surroundings, inward to our emotions, outward to setting, dialogue, and so on. This rhythm gives rise to writing that is satisfying to write and that we love to read.

Here’s an excerpt from The Shipping News by Annie Proulx that demonstrates beautifully the inner/outer pulsation in writing:

“A watery place. And Quoyle feared water, could not swim. Again and again the father had broken his clenched grip and thrown him into pools, brooks, lakes and surf. Quoyle knew the flavor of brack and waterweed.” This example by Proulx begins in the outer with “A watery place” and moves within to emotion — Quoyle’s fear. Outer activity and places; inner sensations of body and senses.”

Another example I like is from Wally Lamb’s novel I Know This Much Is True:

“I would remodel her pink 1950’s-era kitchen, sheetrocking the cracked plaster walls, replacing the creaky cabinets with modern units, and installing a center island with built-in oven and cooktop. I conceived the idea, I think, to show Ma that I loved her best of all. Or that I was the most grateful of the three of us for all she’d endured on our behalf. Or that I was the sorriest that fate had given her first a volatile husband and then a schizophrenic son and then tapped her on the shoulder and handed her the ‘big C.’”

This example is almost a story in itself. We get a full image of the kitchen in both its present form and its future form, but before we ever think, “Okay, enough about the kitchen,” Wally Lamb moves us inward — new territory, a wilderness, really. He tells us the thoughts and feelings of his character’s inner world. This rhythm is kept up throughout the book in varying lengths, but always the writing pulsates inner/outer.

Whether we are writing in our personal journals or with the intention to publish, pulsation — an inward/outward rhythm — keeps both writer and reader engaged and enlivened by the language.

Writers often fall into two camps. One writes paragraph after paragraph of outer description, dazzling scenery depicted in intricate detail. The other camp goes within and explains on and on what the character feels, thinks, remembers, hopes, and dreads. Despite the talent or skill of the writer, both methods drone a reader — and the writer — into numbness. But put the two together into a pulsating inner/outer rhythm, and the pages shimmer with life.

Earlier in chapter 12, we discussed living our lives by balancing our root systems with our outer growth of branches, and this lesson follows through into our writing. We are not in a balanced state of being when we write paragraphs of only outward experiences or paragraphs of only inward experiences.

We are after an easy ride here. In William Stafford’s words, “following whatever happens to come along in the writing process.” We don’t want to strong-arm this pulsating rhythm, though, in the beginning, we may practice making what is a natural occurrence more conscious by deliberately moving inward and outward with our attention.

We do want to be present in order to ride what comes along and allow it to take us into whatever wilderness it may lead to. Effort and force have no place in this process. Openness without judgment or expectations for outcome works best. Take what you get, and go with it. Trust your inner authority, as discussed in chapter 3. This kind of writing plants us in the flow of life. “Somehow the language that comes to you when you are truly available to immediate experience can bring you surprises, can enrich experience, can reveal profound connections between the self and the exciting wilderness of emerging time,” Stafford says in Crossing Unmarked Snow.

It may be tempting, when we first do a Spirit Walk, to dismiss the stories that occur to us. But what if archaeologists re-buried their discoveries because they didn’t meet their expectations? We would call this behavior small-minded, even unethical. Writers, too, need to brush off the mud from their discoveries and accept them as the rough treasures they are; these artifacts offer information about our buried, less conscious lives.

PaperTry This: Writing Practice

Write a paragraph with a deliberate in/out rhythm of attention. Begin with place. Write a sentence describing the room in which you sit or the natural world surrounding you. Follow this with a couple of lines that express inner mood, body sensation, emotions, or thoughts. Then repeat.

This is to practice becoming conscious of the natural inner/outer pulsating attention we engage in normally and to become aware of writing in a rhythm that reflects the aliveness around us and our engagement with it.

Next take a page from your journal or a manuscript you have written in the past, and rearrange your material to reflect a natural pulsation. This may mean that several sentences are engaged in outer or inner awareness punctuated by a single phrase of its opposite. There are no rules to follow about how to do this. The idea is merely to create contrast and rhythm and to mirror the natural attention of humans.

Even when we talk to each other eye-to-eye about intimate, intense matters, our attention flickers outward to the scenery around us and inward to the emotional responses in our bodies. If alone in a dark room sobbing with a broken heart, we would still be aware of someone walking past the door. If awed by beautiful scenery, we would still be aware of an insect bite.

Copyright ©2014 Tina Welling. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from New World Library, NewWorldLibrary.com.