How does acknowledging our wild instincts directly help our writing?
from Writing Wild By Tina Welling | Posted 4/12/14 | Updated 5/1/21
How much does our outer world mirror our inner world? I am not promoting a way of life that leans on outer symbols as divination about our inner selves. I do promote living an alert life that accepts comfort, assurance, even guidance into our inner explorations from chance encounters in the outer world.
Living a life that’s sensitive to chance events and encounters carries the same benediction for one’s happiness and welfare as driving at night: may you stay awake, watch out for wild animals, follow the light.
Then write about it.
How does acknowledging our wild instincts directly help our writing?
The Spirit Walk process operates as a form of meditation. Meditation is bringing one’s consciousness to an alert, focused awareness, and the benefits are calmness, clarity, and insight. These qualities translate into a clean, ordered thinking process that directs our writing into clean, ordered prose that uses the moment — chance, language, sensory data — to express itself.
Arnold Mindell, in his book Working on Yourself Alone, says, “Meditating on the earth gives you a sense of her inexhaustible generosity and abundance and her truly endless patience. Though environmentalists would argue she is less patient these days...the old earth is still yours, full of power, telling you things no human being could.”
Earth is the one constant throughout the history of humankind. Contemporary people think of our planet in terms of humans and cultures; aboriginal people think of the earth as populated by trees and rocks and animals as well as humans, seeing the earth as a force capable of informing and healing — in other words, in terms of energy exchange. We can begin a new relationship with the earth immediately by widening our awareness of the natural world to include this idea.
Mindell suggests an exercise to reconnect with the earth: go outdoors, sit, and lay both palms on the earth.
I would add: be still and, without intellectualizing, become aware of each of your senses. Since the senses connect your body and your consciousness to the earth, you experience original perception at such a moment.
If we can be in relationship with the earth, this “mysterious, messy fountain of energy” as novelist Joy Williams calls it, we become clear in our firm sense that the earth is in relationship with us. The process evolves through awareness, which we approach and strengthen with our writing, which then in turn clarifies and sharpens awareness.
The old traditions of divination may seem a bit spooky to us in the twenty-first century, but the earth hasn’t forgotten the old ways and lends itself to renewing the practices in new ways. Herbal medicine is a wonderful example of this. The study of martial arts and yoga that is so prevalent now also honors the traditional relationship to the earth in their teachings. Many of the positions in yoga, for example, are named after birds and animals. Ceremony has returned; the use of ritual to honor and express distinction and reverence is again common.
The new practices require much more responsibility from the human end of the relationship. They recognize the laws of physics and don’t relinquish any personal power or control over life but do open us to appreciating the natural world as a living entity that offers important information to us about our lives.
I am talking again about chance and how, in opening further to its play in the mystery of events, we can gain insights into, and a wider perspective on, our place in the creative systems of life. For instance, Kendrick wrote a novel-length manuscript and turned it in to his agent, who passed it on to readers, who in turn reported back to the agent. The consensus was that Kendrick’s novel needed a clarified resolution; the characters needed to come together, if not in peace, then at least in acceptance of one another.
Kendrick took his problem to the woods. It was snowy in February, and wildlife was scant; many bird species had migrated south for the winter, and small mammals were hibernating. Trees bare, creeks frozen, the whole forest seemed to reflect the cold whiteness of his blank computer screen, and Kendrick felt that his three years of work on his novel had drained him of creative ideas. He came to the woods this time not for inspiration but for a solid idea about how to heal his manuscript.
With this question in his mind, with the need in his emotions, and with his body willing to lend itself to the rhythms of the natural world around him, he walked at a pace that matched his searching mood and the snowy, crisp forest. He alerted all his senses and consciously listed to himself what he heard, saw, smelled, tasted, and touched. He paused and let himself be attracted to whatever drew his interest or affection: a ragged cloud, a seed husk rolling atop the crusted snow, the call of a chickadee.
Kendrick told me:
“For a moment, it all felt connected, separate parts of one whole, tacked onto the present place and time. And I knew that my story also had all the parts that would connect it to one whole, that each character in my novel carried a particular quality that would draw that member back into the resolution of the story. And I also discovered that one of the characters had to trigger this vision of wholeness and hold it for the others, just as I was holding the pieces of this moment while the cloud shifted shape, the seed husk lodged against a tree trunk, and the chickadee flew away. And I knew just which character could do the job.”
Some time back, I studied with Frank MacEowen, a shamanist in the old Celtic tradition, whom I quoted earlier. He says that he takes his clients “hillwalking” to find symbols from the earth to give them direction or guidance about the questions and healing needs in their lives. One woman discovered a broken branch that gave her the answer to how she could mend her broken and scattered family. Each day of our class, Frank laid an altar in the center of our circle, placing stones and sticks he found while hillwalking nearby with his questions about how best to guide us during the day.
An important part of this form of divination is to enter the natural world with a questing spirit. If the Lakota had done their vision quests with an attitude of refuting the events around them, denigrating the energy and beauty while disregarding the emotions and thoughts that occurred to them in the midst of these natural places, we probably wouldn’t have heard of them and their powerful and colorful culture. Vision quests, shamanic journeying, hillwalking, ceremony, and Spirit Walks all require a seeking mindfulness and an amplified awareness. MacEowen says in The Mist-Filled Path that a “flowing intuitive way of sensing that is rather slow in rhythm is best.” He adds that “to access the wisdom and healing of nature, you must slow your personal rhythm down to match the soul energy of the spirit of nature.”
In the same book, MacEowen says, “I recommend keeping a journal of the images or sensations you encounter in nature in relation to your question. If you treat these images like waking dream images and keep a faithful record, you will slowly discover that you will begin to see with your own unique symbol system.”
When outdoors with a questing spirit, I am aware of something else at work. I think of this “something else” as a magnetic field. My creative energy flows with a special grace, my mind moves with acuity, and language arrives as music. A similar thing happens after I attend a lecture or a reading by a writer I admire. I return home and write better for the experience of being in the skilled writer’s company.
Possibly we all do, and that explains why we attend readings, conferences, and workshops. In the presence of a good writer, we are not consciously thinking, “I’ve got to use more active verbs.” It’s more potent than that. We are thinking, “I want to do this. I want to write, and I know that I can.” We are full of clarity and inspiration, and the desire to act on them. This is the same thing that can occur in the outdoors. We can spend time in the magnetic field of the natural world and leave feeling cleansed, full of clarity and inspiration and the desire to act on them.
If we remain open to the images, symbols, and sensations that chance brings our way, we refine the guidance of the natural world. In Green Psychology, Ralph Metzner says,
“Symbolism speaks to the emotional and sensual aspects of mind, not just to the abstract conceptual mind. The language of symbols and images connects our ordinary awareness with the experience of the deep, living, organic, archetypal patterns of nature and cosmos.”
So our intent is to look past the externals and see what others miss, and write about that. Writers are not domesticated or tame. They do not see only what everyone else sees, but rather they take the time to look beyond, look closely, amplify, take apart. Writers listen deeply to the chords of sound around them, label the separate ingredients of a fragrance, taste the earth in an apple, touch tree bark, feel breezes on their skin, and become more and more conscious of the response of their emotions to their body sensations.
Let us not allow those inner events that cannot be measured and graphed to fall away. We cannot lead a valid writer’s life without those immeasurable aspects of aliveness: emotions, thought, insights. This is the realm of writers. This is where we need to be doing our work.
Copyright ©2014 Tina Welling. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from New World Library, NewWorldLibrary.com.