Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Exercise of Writing: Writing with your whole body

"I think the healthy thing for man---for reflective nature---is to think with the whole body; then you get a full harmonious thought, like violin strings, vibrating in unison with the hollow box. But I think that when thoughts come from the brain alone...they are like tunes played on the squeaky part of the first string..." Stephane Mallarme, writing to Eugene Lefebre, May 17, 1867
I stumbled upon that magnificent quote many years ago in the book Finding Your Writer's Voice by Thaisa Frank and Dorothy Wall. The authors go on to say:
"Like Mallarme, you can make your voice resonate from different parts of your body...Imagine that your entire body is a vehicle for speech and sound---a luminous and versatile transmitter. Let your stomach write a paragraph. Then your heart. Now let your forehead speak. Does your writing change as your body focus shifts? Are the rhythms different? The emotions? The sounds?"
I've been an exercise addict for years now. I'm a much more disciplined and intuitive athlete than I am a writer. All right, I didn't start out so disciplined...

...but hey, my instincts were to make that couch work for me and not the other way round, you know?

It continued with my love of gym class. P.E. was fun for me---we did jump rope, and square dancing, and learned how to play volleyball and had races. I treasured the ribbons I won at field day, and competed vigorously to earn the coveted Presidential Physical Fitness Award.

Field Day Loot

In college, I took classes in modern dance, fencing, and racquetball. I rode my bike to class. My husband and I went on hikes as dates. After college, I joined the aerobic dance craze and did Jazzercize. When I got pregnant, I walked for miles and miles and asked my mother-in-law to insert a stretch panel into the belly of my favorite leotard. There's a picture of me, somewhere, after my daughter was born, with her on my stomach while I'm doing sit-ups. In the years since, I've tried skiing, boxing, yoga, weight-lifting, spinning, boot camp, running, golf, ballroom dancing, and Pilates.

Oh, how I wish I had been writing all those years with the same intensity that I was exercising! What masterworks I could have produced! But somehow, it took me years and years before I transferred the wisdom of my body to my writing life.

What my body told me:

1) Have fun.
2) Be brave.
3) Go beyond what you think you can do.
4) Don't worry if you mess up. You'll get it, eventually.
5) Nourish yourself. It's not optional; you must do it to stay strong.
6) Cut out the negative self-talk. Turn your critic into a coach.
7) You must be willing to look silly to learn something new.
8) Focus. Pay attention to the sun on your face, to the sting as your hand hits the bag, to the changes in your breathing. What you're doing right now is beautiful; everything else can wait.

I think the most important thing I learned was that my body was not my enemy. It was my teacher and my best ally. It knew more about what I could do than my head did.

Me, learning from my friend, Popeye

Likewise, good writing comes from what we know in our bones to be true. No matter how blocked or frustrated our minds are, our bodies know what we want to say. They're charged with it; they store every hurt and hope; and they literally are the instruments that produce our voices. (Why do you think they call it "body language"?)

You don't have to be a fitness addict like me to learn something from your body. Try this: open and close your hands several times, so you make fists, and then release them.

I can't tell you what will happen next. But your body just said something to you. Listen. Write it down. Everything else can wait.


  1. This is curious. You know how someone says something, and you just 'get' what they are talking about? The opposite just happened! I find that fascinating. In a way I find it more fascinating than when I completely understand someone's point of view; when I read a point of view with which I feel no resonance whatsoever. That's just as valuable. It reminds me powerfully that everyone is not the same; that everyone really does experience the world in different ways, often radically different. I don't feel a physical connection when writing; my body does not speak to me; I tried that thing opening and closing hands - nothing. No signal. Writing for me feels utterly disconnected from my physical self. I can't imagine 'writing from my forehead'; it's not a metaphor that takes with me.

    And yet - I'm not the most inactive person. True, I was unsporting at school, but more in an attitude sense than a physical one; now I run, and fence, and move washing machines. But there's no artistic link. Again I say, fascinating.

    Even more curious is that someone reading my book, THE CAT KIN, would reach the total opposite conclusion. It depicts a whole new form of exercise, something between yoga, tai chi and kung fu. I really enjoyed creating that. So maybe my physical connection with writing is so deep-seated I just can't consciously detect it.

  2. Ha, Nick! I'm not going to argue with you, but...for "no signal" that was quite a lot of output. :)

  3. Yes, I noticed that! :-)

    I feel compelled to understand why I don't understand this concept. Especially since I enjoy exercise a lot. (The hikes-for-dates struck a chord! And I met my wife in a sword fight.)

  4. OMG.
    As Jules and Eisha would say:
    You cute lil' athlete you...

    Love the conversation that's happening around all this!

  5. Shoot-fire, this is generally good advice anyway for life's stressful moments, whether you're physically straining yourself or otherwise:

    "What you're doing right now is beautiful; everything else can wait."

    Mindfulness. Ah, the hardest task of all.

    I'm enjoying these posts.

    Jules, 7-Imp

  6. "Good writing comes from what we know in our bones to be true . . ."

    I really really love this post! I also believe that every hurt, memory, impression, etc. is stored in our bodies. The body is the vessel which takes everything in via our senses. The mind helps us process everything. It's all a beautiful synergy. Physical activity/movement is another way to witness thought process and vice versa.

    Okay, will you stop posting such off-the-scale adorable photos of yourself? Some of us have to work today. *Pinching your cheeks in the pic with Popeye*

  7. Nice post, Sara. Writing IS so much about listening and paying attention to ourselves.

    Now, let me see you crabwalk...

  8. It never occured to me before how connected each activity is. Both exercise and the exercise in writing open creative doors to the imagination. I USED to run in high school and college and my biggest battle would be my mind racing CONSTANTLY while I exercised. I took dance in my twenties and thirties just to keep my mind active WTIH my body. huh.... I like it.

    This will get me off the couch for sure now!

  9. For me drawing is definitely physical-- meaning, if I'm struggling with a character's expression I will make it myself and transfer that feeling to paper. Or if I'm drawing something in motion I can feel that motion in my body, first. I'll have to pay more attention when writing. Interesting to see what might happen!

  10. This is a great post! Thanks for getting me revved up and inspired to write.

  11. I am a dancer. It takes a lot for me to be still. I've also taken to walking on weekends, and I often find myself talking to (or as) my characters on walks.

  12. Great baby pics and great post! I remember that Presidential Fitness Award...too bad there aren't Writing Fitness Awards for completing a major milestone. Well, I guess National Novel Writing Month does give you a "winner" graphic if you finish--that'll have to be my Writing Fitness Award! :)


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