Experience and Narrative

Coral in Dunmanus

I have been writing from my experience of the sea and coast while sailing for several years now. I want to explore the ways in which constructing a narrative influences experience.

One of my earliest pieces gave an account of a twenty-four hour Channel crossing in which I stayed on watch on my own through the evening and night because my son Matthew was disabled with dreadful seasickness.  The evening drew in with a moderate swell blowing in from the Atlantic. An endless procession of waves advanced rhythmically toward us. The low light glinted on the peaks so they reflected a metallic sheen, while casting deep shadows in the troughs between. Coral shouldered her way up to each peak, paused a moment, then slithered down into the trough, casting white water all around her. As she rose and fell in response to the swell, I stood balanced in the cockpit, now looking westward across the waves, now up at the sails. She was travelling very fast, and I wondered about taking in a reef, then wondered if I should see if Matthew was OK, but decided, no, neither was needed. I allowed myself to experience a simple joyfulness of the moment.

Do I remember the experience, or do I remember the remembering and the crafting of the narrative? Have I changed the experience, by writing about it (and now writing about it again)? And does it change the way I experience other moments that might be similar, but are subtly, even radically different? Is there a danger that when I write a narrative from an experience I create some kind of clichéd template into which similar experiences are forced? After all, the evening sun does often cast deep shadows on a moderate swell blowing in from the west.

Alternatively, does creating a narrative open awareness to fresh ways of seeing? When I asked my friend and fellow writer Miriam Darlington if she felt any confusion between experience and narrative, she responded

Yes, I have noticed something like this with my writing. What I have particularly noticed is something quite powerful happens when I have written a narrative of a particular place – somehow it has entered into me, or I have entered into it, actually both, and the porous relationship has deepened. It is as if the imagination has worked to blur or cross some boundary, and the connection to the place is sort of emotionally sealed. It is such a powerful feeling that I sense it physically, too. Then when I go back to that place, I often feel I am walking into my own narrative as well as into the place, and my body feels a certain “exquisite fit” as William Wordsworth put it, as if the imagination has opened some doors into place, into its nature, its particularity and wildness, which before were invisible.

I like that phrase: “the imagination has opened some doors into place… which before were invisible.”

My artist friends say the same about drawing. My artist wife Elizabeth and I have been inviting small groups of artists and writers to join us for a day to draw and write together. We chose stimulating venue and work in pairs, taking turns to point out things that attract our attention, and then draw or write (sometimes draw and write) a brief sketch in response. We meet over coffee and lunch to show and tell. The sketchy nature of the exercise allows us not to be too concerned about judgement and quality, and what becomes fascinating is the different qualities people see in the same objects and the imaginative responses these evoke.

In the last three years I have experienced four memorable moments while looking at the starry sky, exquisitely clear because in the middle of the sea there is no light pollution. Each time I have made audio recordings in the moment, listened and transcribed these when back at my desk, re-entered and re-imagined the experiences, drafted, then crafted my account. I have struggled to find the words that fit and do justice to both the phenomenon and the experience while avoiding cliché and fancy metaphor. Each occasion of experience and narrative has taken me into a deeper appreciation of the unfathomable infinity and mystery of the universe.

On another occasion I spent an hour taking pictures and writing about a little lump of thrift on a cliff top in Orkney, going deeper into the sense of the fragility of the plant, of the eroding cliff, of the whole island. When I stood up at the end, for a fragment of a second I experienced the whole of creation as a dancing process, similar, maybe, to that described by the Native American Black Elk. This writing became part of a little article in Resurgence & Ecologist, and now I never see thrift in the same way again.

So I think Miriam is right, it is the combination of experience with the imaginative process of crafting a narrative that opens the imagination to see what was previously unseen – and maybe unsee-able.

But I find I return to my original question: does the narrative in some way fix or reify what is ephemeral process, particularly when the experience touches on the mystical? Is there a danger of “spiritual materialism”, a term the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa used to describe how the most subtle experience can be used for the enhancement of ego. I worry when people respond to my narratives with an “Oh, wow!” tone in their voice. “What a wonderful experience!” they sometimes say, as if I have caught something out of this world. “No, no!” I want to cry out, “It was really special and completely ordinary!”

Two years ago I sailed to southwest Ireland and wrote about it in The Call of the Running Tide. This year I went there again, visiting some of the same places. At times, even though everything was so different – the time of year, my crew, the weather – I had the uncanny feeling that I was sailing through my own narrative. I was full of memories and stories from being there before. I think this was partly because the difficult weather made the actual sailing quite challenging, so the old stories had a rosy glow about them; partly because as a writer I wanted something new to say, to write a new book about new places; partly because much of the time I knew my way around without reference to the pilot books. But I am sure it was also because the carefully wrought narratives of the previous journey had themselves created a powerful attractor.

But sometimes novelty and contrast shocked me into new realizations. Two years ago I sailed into Dunmanus Bay for the first time in a sharp squall, and anchored in the lonely and dramatic surroundings of Dunmanus Harbour a little way in from the entrance. I was alone, and saw the bay as a wild and relatively untouched ecology, so that was how I wrote about it. This year my friend Steve was with me as crew. As we sailed into the bay, even though the weather was cold, the sun was shining, and we were met near the entrance by a pod of dolphins – they always raise the spirits. We went further up the bay, past Carberry Island, which shelters the upper reaches from the force of the Atlantic, and anchored by the wooded shores of Kitchen Cove. There we were closer inland, closer to Bantry and other holiday towns, so that at the pub we met up with English people visiting their holiday homes.

At first I was disappointed that Dunmanus Bay was not conforming to my image. Then I realized I was seeing it in a more complete way. Waterways like this connect the open wildness of the ocean to the relative shelter of the land. They constitute the ‘old ways’, to borrow Robert Macfarlane’s term, that reach from the open sea to the inhabited land, old ways not just for humans but for wildlife too. They provide a wide range of habitats, intermediate and intermingling ecosystems that are rich in variety. The “western edge” that I claim to be exploring reaches in to the inhabited as well as out to the wild.

So crafting narrative seems to potentially cut both ways: there is always a danger that the story reifies and comes to stand for experience; and there is also the creative opportunity that it allows us to look and look again, and to enter the experience more deeply with our senses and our imagination.

I think there is more to explore here, and would appreciate comments and responses.

Miriam Darlington, personal communication, June, 2013.

Neihardt, J. G. (1988, first published 1932). Black Elk Speaks. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press.

Reason, P. (2012). The Great Conversation: Peter Reason explores the significance of new Nature writing. Resurgence & Ecologist (Issue 275).

Chögyam Trungpa (2002) Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications

Macfarlane, R. (2012). The Old Ways: A journey on foot. London: Hamish Hamilton.


  1. I specially like the sentence: I had the uncanny feeling that I was sailing though my own narrative

  2. Thank you for this tasty piece of writing, Peter. One thought: in your descriptions it seems that the ‘experience’ tends to precede the ‘narrative’. Obviously it’s a single ‘beast with two backs’ – ie two parts of a whole making love – yet there appears to be a temporal sequence where the conscious is concerned, even when it later becomes an ongoing dialogue back and forth between the two players. I’m wondering how, or whether, ‘narrative’ might ‘precede’ ‘experience’? Maybe the unconscious is working away at making sense of and articulating some profound idea or truth and it suddenly hits upon a timely metaphor and grabs the opportunity, leaping into the mind of a writer as if it were simply a description of a specific phenomenological experience. Have you heard Elizabeth Gilbert talking about the way poems ‘occurred to’ the poet Ruth Stone? I love the thought that, if she didn’t grab the poem as it came ‘barrelling’ towards her, it rushed off on its way, in search of another poet (see 10.12 onwards in this short talk: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=86x-u-tz0MA). If I remember rightly, Gottlob Frege talked about something similar in The Thought (see http://www.philosophy.ox.ac.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0005/1886/Rousse-Frege-final.pdf) Looking forward to seeing you on 3rd July 😀

  3. This is very thought provoking for me. I notice that when I have written about something it lives within my memory so vividly – and i believe it is because of the ‘looking’ that follows the inspiration/emotion to write or draw a selected time or event. I wonder if it is selected by me or bounces into my consciousness saying this is a wonderful moment for me, keep it alive.

  4. Yes! I am just thinking aloud but my experience of your writing is that you don’t set out to own the experience but instead to offer it. So when reading about you sailing to Ireland, I begin by imagining myself into your experience then my imagination lives it into one of my own. I’m no longer concerned with your ability to describe the place or the moment but have been given somewhere to dwell for a while and pass on.

    My own experience of trying to write about such moments as the one with the thrift is a slightly restless one. I have to calm the voice that says I want people to think I am good at writing and try to speak with the language that comes from the moment. When I can do that, I notice I am pleased with my writing. When I can’t, I notice that I edit it out of existence! For instance, I’ve been trying to express that moment when walking deep into a wood when the ‘I and it’ of the experience suddenly shifts into me as part of the wood and the wood as part of me. It is a physical feeling that I have yet to find a way of writing and perhaps what I am looking for is your ability to offer it instead of to own it.

    I often think that there is a language that as Linda Hogan puts it is ‘a felt intelligence….something we have not yet measured or mapped’. I also enjoy what you say about Kathleen Jamie in your piece in the latest issue of Resurgence: ‘She draws what is familiar towards us, so we see it afresh, and she makes the unfamiliar feel as though it could become known’.

    I’m left feeling very reflective and thinking there is a living space in which the place, the experience and the writing might meet, if only I could learn to move through it in the way that Coral moves through the swell in your description at the beginning of this post.
    (The line from Linda Hogan is in the 1999 paperback edition of ‘Intimate Nature’ on page 18)

  5. Steve Reneaux says:

    Lovely Peter, deep but very tangible.
    We shared tea in a friend’s mostly wild garden at the weekend. Our young friend is suffering from an unexplained heart condition that doctors are struggling to resolve. This has left him very weak and suddenly so tired that all he can do is rest. He’s a wildlife photograher and film maker. He surprised me when he told me that he would sit for maybe three hours watching birds flying to and eating from his bird feeder. He relayed in detail the habits of the Greater Spotted Woodpecker and has set up his camera to remotely capture these creatures in an environment where they don’t know they are being watched. Sometimes it’s all he can do but he’s totally immersed, time doesn’t matter……..

  6. Thank you Peter for this deep and indeed very inspiring reflection. It is interesting to read about something that I myself have felt before, without really being able to grasp its nature, so aptly put into words. The links between experience, narrative and place are fascinating for me to explore. With my own writing I wonder if the story I tell about an experience ‘freezes’ it as something static and narrow, ignorant of its nature as an ever-changing complex process. The way that my writing will always focus on some aspects of the place/people/emotions and omits others, as I am not able to express beyond, makes me think that narrative is artificial; and yes (as you say) maybe changes and even reifies the experience. I am sometimes worried that my writing turns the experience, in-graspable and iridescent as it is, into fiction, as if it had never happened in the phenomenological moment itself.
    Is it a problem that the narrative changes the experience, if everything is constant flow? Maybe not. I think that, even though the narrative might try to ‘capture’ the moment and as such suggest it is (almost) motionless, everything that is there between the lines keeps it from becoming a “clichéd template” (what a great description). Reading about my own prior experiences places me back into the awareness of the moment, both as a physical feeling and an emotional response – the experience itself is always unique (but ordinary indeed!). I agree that Miriam expresses very well what the narrative does: it deepens the relationship with the place, possibly showing us what maybe would have stayed unseen.

    I am very much looking forward to meeting you on the 10th and becoming part of the journey!

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