Writing and the body: what’s the connection?

In 1667, when philosopher Baruch Spinoza proclaimed “no one has yet determined what the body can do,” he was, perhaps, heralding recent attention to the body in social science, education and therapy practices. The critical issue for these fields is the presence and role of the physical body in disciplines that have traditionally privileged the mind. In short, people are asking, “what about the body?”

On May 2, 2015 at a Taos Institute event in Santa Fe, I facilitated a workshop on the theme of writing as an “embodied practice.” As I prepared, I started thinking about the physicality of the writing process and became really curious about the possible connections between writing and our bodies.

On one level writing has always been a physical act — whether inscribing pictographs on stone tablets, moving a pen across paper, or striking a keyboard. But there are other, often unrecognized, dimensions of writing as an embodied practice.

Right after I agreed to do this workshop, I came across Julia Cameron’s reflections on writing and the body in The Right to Write. I was so glad to see a section, entitled ‘The Body of Experience’, devoted to the physicality of writing. Despite popular cultural notions of writing as an often disembodied or intellectual act, Cameron suggests writing is a deeply physical experience.

Using body-based metaphors to describe the writing process, Cameron explores the connection between writing and walking. Encouraging us to see writing as more than the act of putting words on a page, she reminds us that the early British nature poets were “great walkers” and many contemporary writers incorporate walking into their routines. Suggesting that the movement and rhythm of walking helps work out writing problems, she writes:

When I have a tangled plot line, I walk to sort it out. I walk and I mull. I am not exactly ‘thinking’ about my writing as I walk, but the question is there, posed by my mind to my body.” Joyce Carol Oates has also declared, “the structural problems I set for myself in writing, in a long, snarled, frustrating and sometimes despairing morning of work… I can usually unsnarl by running in the afternoon.

This resonated for me as I recalled many instances of working through writing problems and ideas by walking while writing my dissertation. In fact, I often mulled over ways to construct my writing while walking to or from work (scribbling in my notebook on the subway or walking down the street), and would later translate these ideas to the computer screen later. It seemed as if I was “writing” my thesis even when I wasn’t sitting at the keyboard and, perhaps more importantly, the movement and rhythm of walking may have facilitated that. It was as if the act of walking brought into focus the ideas I was grappling with, and allowed me to translate my ideas into text.

In the blog Deep Down in the Classroom: Writing Pedagogy and Practice,  Christine Giancatarino suggests that writers have “embodied wisdom” or bodily knowledge comparable to the muscle memories of actors, musicians and athletes:

Ask an athlete to write about how he maintains his pace in a marathon, or how she deflects a shot on the hockey field. If she verbalizes her response, her answer will be from the experience of doing it, or attempting to do it, not from being told how to do it. She will speak from a bodily knowing because her bodymind (her muscles, bones, nervous system, brain, mind) knows.

In an interview on writing, embodiment and voice, narrative medicine scholar Sayantani DasGupta describes the urge to write as an “embodied necessity,” feeling like it comes from the “guts and bones.” In a similar theme, writer Jill Solway says that “when I’m writing, it’s never coming from my head through my hand. It’s coming from some other place into, in the best of all possible worlds, my heart and then my hand.”

Of course, it may not be necessary (or even useful) to define too precisely what that “other place” is. And my intention here is not to perpetuate a false dichotomy between body and mind.

I do wonder, however, if highlighting writing as an embodied practice helps us acknowledge the presence of the writer in his or her writing in more significant ways. I wonder if seeing writing as a process we do with our body, can help us remember that what we write is rooted (in some way) in who we are and our experience in the world.

Viewing writing as an embodied activity acknowledges that we are always writing from a particular time and place. As writers, it might help us enhance our own bodily awareness when we write. It might heighten our understanding of how who we are shapes the meaning of what we write — for both ourselves and readers.

In the end the process of writing also produces something tangible and physical — it is this “finished product” that gives us the opportunity to translate our writing into another kind of embodied act — that of reading and/or performing our writing. And it is these acts that allow us to connect most powerfully with others; it is in the act of reading and being listened to that we create a sense of shared community.

As Anderson and MacCurdy point out in Writing & Healing: Toward an Informed Practice, writing allows us to tell our stories, to listen to what our stories tell us, and to hear and be heard by others. When we create this kind of space for both speaking and listening, we invite new connections.

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