by Tina Welling
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.
We live 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 dis-miss 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.
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.
Wild Words Heal
In therapeutic counseling sessions, the inward/outward attention to personal detail and outer event while relating our story keeps the experience in balance and in proportion to actual life and aids in the healing process. Often, a counselor asks for outer details and descriptions when a client is locked into her own emotions and not moving through her process. And in the reverse, the counselor requests acknowledgment of personal feelings and memories when a client is frozen into everyone’s experience but her own.
James W. Pennebaker, PhD, reports in his book Opening Up that he and his graduate student Sandra Beall conducted experiments asking three groups to write about a traumatic event. The first group was assigned to write down their emotions in detail while also describing in detail a traumatic event. A second group was asked to report only the event of the trauma, no emotions. And a third control group was requested to only vent emotions. Pennebaker and Beall requested each group to write for fifteen minutes a day for four consecutive days, then measured their health. The results of writing about one’s emotional experience in detail along with describing the outer traumatic events proved in each case to have a dramatic healing effect on the participant’s body, with measured health benefits lasting approximately six weeks.
In six months, the participants who wrote about both inner emotions and outer events made 50 percent fewer visits to a health center for illness, while the other groups made more. Pennebaker reports that writers experienced negative feelings in the hour or so immediately following their writing about the trauma and its emotions, but mood, outlook, and physical well-being improved considerably thereafter. Most writers reported a sense of relief and happiness. Pennebaker states that writers who wrote about their “deepest thoughts and feelings surrounding traumatic experiences evidenced heightened immune function.” The experiment was expanded to help people endure the loss of their jobs and to heal relationships.
Recall an upsetting event in your life — it need not be traumatic — and write continuously for fifteen minutes about the event, including physical details and the emotions and thoughts surrounding it. Do this for four consecutive days. Use this method periodically as a clearing exercise for the unconscious. The unattended, unexamined emotional events of our lives drain energy.
Writers give witness. To suffer alone without human acknowledgment is a special hell of its own. It is the fear of prisoners, torture victims, and the sick and injured. Jean Shinoda Bolen uses the term “vision carriers,” which applies to anyone writing and witnessing for others.
I have given readings of a short story that came from my experiences with my mother when she was suffering from Alz-heimer’s disease, and people have approached me afterward to express relief that I put words to the humor, sadness, and puzzlement of caring for an Alzheimer’s victim. While I witnessed for them, the listeners witnessed for me. In fact, the short story arose from journal entries in which I was witnessing for myself, translating into words the trouble my mother and I suffered together, which cleared the way for us to better manage the situation. Healing energy was at work throughout each part of the process, from journal entry to public reading.
Writing is a full-circle experience of healing.
A Give-and-Take with Nature
For an intimate relationship with the earth, you don’t have to know the natural environment in the manner of a biologist or geologist. You just have to know it in the manner of you. Your experience will bring you amazing intimacies and knowledge not commonly known. For instance, select a single snowflake, watch its journey, and discover that snow does not always fall downward from sky to earth, as is commonly assumed, but rather travels in swags like a warbler, darts abruptly like a dragonfly, or actually floats upward for a ways. A single snowflake often does all three before landing.
As we watch that single snowflake, we align ourselves with the creative aliveness of the natural world. When we draw from this energy to write, we make an exchange with nature. Our natural surroundings then create us as we create our art.
The poet Pattiann Rogers calls this reciprocal creation. In her poem “Dream of the Marsh Wren: Reciprocal Creation,” she tells us how the wren creates the sun through its experience of the sun in the marsh as “blanched and barred by the diagonal juttings of the weeds.” And how the marsh creates the wren, “makes sense of the complexities of sticks / and rushes.” The wren “makes slashes and complicated / lines of his own in mid-air above the marsh by his flight.”
What Pattiann Rogers says in her poem is exactly our goal in writing wild. It is the recognition that we know ourselves through our natural surroundings; that this is the basis for our understanding of all life; and that our natural surroundings create the patterns in which we view life, like the wren who sees the sun in terms of slashes between reeds and who then darts in flight in the same pattern. Rogers also believes that “the land anywhere, the earth, responds to and encourages and itself takes sustenance from such human bonds.” The human bonds I believe Rogers refers to are the love and attention we offer the earth. She is saying that the earth receives nourishment from us just as we receive nourishment from the earth.
When writing wild, we give sustenance to and take it from the earth. First, we still ourselves and open to the rhythms of the natural world around us. We breathe the air deeply into our bodies. Second, we cast our net of awareness, using our senses, and pull in a “sense” of the moment. This moment. There is no other like it. This moment is all we need to live fully. The result is sometimes a quick, sharp memory that rises almost immediately, and we begin writing. Sometimes we go deeper into the life of the earth; we lie still and wait; we walk a distance; and we gather a more and more intimate experience of the natural world around us. We begin to synchronize ourselves with the breezes and birdsong; we enjoy a unison of mood and manner. I think of this time as romance — sometimes moving quickly through the mating dance, sometimes going for the deep intimacy, and always building to a pregnancy of creative energy, giving birth to our writing.
Take your notebook outside and choose a fallen leaf, a frosted twig, a teaspoonful of dirt, and experience this small piece of nature and yourself interacting with it. Do this by first naming, then describing, then letting memories, ideas, wishes, and concerns stir within you. Whatever occurs to you in the moment, you are to trust, for it is yours and yours alone, inspired within you by your openness to nature in this time and in this place, with each step in accordance with mystery and chance. It is of the moment and of the mood, one playing within the rhythms of the other, back and forth, and then producing a third mystery: a story of one’s own. A memory stirs, the body experiences a change, emotions surface into consciousness, and scenes produce themselves in our minds.
What we create then creates us. We are altered by our own awareness and language.
Tina Welling is the author of three novels published by NAL Accent/Penguin, including Cowboys Never Cry. Her nonfiction has appeared in The Sun, Body & Soul, and a variety of anthologies. She lives in Jackson Hole, WY and her website is www.TinaWelling.com.
Rhythms of Language is excerpted from Writing Wild. Copyright © 2014 by Tina Welling. Reprinted with permission from New World Library www.NewWorldLibrary.com.