Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Writing Seed 3: Talk to Your Body

 [This post was originally an assignment written for a writing workshop, meant to be practiced for a period of two weeks.]
Guanxi, China, 2007
"Writing becomes like a meditation exercise. If you walk down the street, in New York, for a few blocks, you'll get this gargantuan feeling of buildings. If you walk all day, you'll be on the verge of tears. But you have to walk all day before you get that sensation. What I mean is, if you write all day, you'll get into it, into your body, into your feelings, into your consciousness."
– Allen Ginsberg

I’ve decided to start off this text with this quote of Allen Ginsberg, because something immediately clicked in me when I read it.  There is no doubt in my mind that creativity flows through our bodies, and when you are fully engaged in any art, it really transports you into your body.  In the years that I have been writing I have started more stories than I can remember, many of which have been left unfinished.  Why is it – the question naturally arises – that some stories get finished, and others do not?  What is the quality inherent in something that works?

When I begin a story I am always excited about the premise and always feel that it has great potential.  When I don’t finish something, it’s easy to blame procrastination, lack of discipline, lack of time, but the truth is that a story that doesn’t get finished simply loses energy for me.  But what exactly does it mean, for a story to “lose energy”?  Thinking more deeply about this, I realized that stories that carry me through to the end – and it really does feel like I am being carried – are usually accompanied by a full-body feeling while I write them.  There’s a kind of energy that feels charged and excited, and I have come to trust that when this feeling is present a story will work.  Like with any feeling, it is difficult to describe it in more detail, but I am certain that we have all experienced this at some point in our lives, even if it’s not always conscious.  That same feeling accompanies activities that I know are exactly right for me in a particular moment, when I know I am doing exactly what I should be doing.  There is something very joyful in this, and at the same time something very awe-inspiring.  Many of my stories have come, in a sense, directly from this feeling in my body.  Many of the story lines that have been abandoned come solely from my mind.  Settling into our bodies is one of the most powerful things we can do for our own creativity.

We’ve already begun this process by grounding ourselves in our senses, and now we will continue to ground ourselves in our bodies.  Over the next two weeks, I would like you to pay attention to your body on a daily basis.  This need not take more than five or ten minutes (but it can take long as you like, or as long as your attention lasts).  What you are doing does not matter; you can be walking down the street, skating on the ice, sitting in a metro train, washing the dishes, or having a meal.  Simply pay attention to the physical sensations involved in any of these activities, notice the tensions and discomforts, and notice the pleasant subtle sensations.  Just observe.  Notice also how often your mind flies off and out of your body, and just keep bringing it back.  Try not to judge the pleasant or unpleasant sensations, or even your mind as it gets distracted.  Just observe.  Becoming aware of our bodies can be an absolutely remarkable process:  I never realized that our bodies talk so much, that they have stories to share with us, if only we would take the time to listen.  As simplistic as this may sound, I cannot stress it enough:  grounding ourselves in our bodies can be extremely transformative not only for our creativity, but also for our lives.  We cannot engage with this enough. 


Body Dialogue

I suggest for you to engage in a dialogue with various part of your body.  Pick any of the following:  head, neck, shoulders, eyes, mouth, nose, heart, chest, lower back, pelvis, genitals, legs, knees, feet, etc.  If you would like (and have enough sensory awareness of them), feel free to talk to your organs: stomach, intestines, liver, kidneys, bladder, etc.  What about your brain? Or its protective casing, your skull?  What are the joys of these various parts of your body, and what are their sorrows, their complaints?  Do the shoulders feel like they carry the weight of the world upon them?  Are the eyes excited by the colours of the world, or are they overstrained from working too much?  Do you feet tell you a story of joy when they walk barefoot through grass? Do they feel that they are massaging the earth they walk upon?  Do your lungs greedily suck in the fresh, cold air each breath, or do they take little, careful, shallow breaths, never taking too much?  And what can’t you feel in your body?  Where does your body feel numb, blank?  Where does it not exist?  And why does this body part cut you off, what might be the reason that it doesn’t want to be seen?  What are the hidden stories in our own bodies?


Show, Don’t Tell

One of creative writing’s most important maxim’s is “show, don’t tell” meaning if you can show a sentiment like sadness through action, description and dialogue, it is much better than telling us “it was sad.”  Luckily, we all experience human emotions in a similar way.  Sadness will often feel like a noose around our throats, especially when we are trying to choke it back.  Heartbreak really is felt in the center of our chests, and our jaws clench when we are holding back angry words.

Take some time out of your day to experience your emotions.  Remember a time when you felt joyful, content, funny, excited, thrilled, irritated, tense, uncomfortable, guilty, shameful, sad, angry, etc.  Try to recall the moment of the feeling as vividly as possible, but instead of focusing on words, thoughts, or mental images, pay attention to your body.  Where does this emotion physically manifest itself?  Take some time to experience this, then write down your observations.  (And don’t forget, if possible, to relax and release these tensions from your body!  The point of the exercise is to experience these sensations, not to trap and carry them around!)

The best kind of writing trusts the intelligence of the reader.  When we tell our readers the sentiments a character is feeling, and when we tell our readers how they should judge a particular situation, the joy of reading is considerably diminished.  The pleasure of reading comes from being an active participant, in being trusted to figure out what’s going on.  To be sure, by showing we run the risk of being misunderstood, of having a reader judge in a way that differs from what we intended.  But then again, that’s life!  Take a room full of people where each person is asked to recount the events of the previous hour:  do we ever really get the same story?  If we can be comfortable with this ambiguity in life, then we can become comfortable with it in our writing.  So show what a person is feeling by describing where it is felt in their body, rather than telling us their emotion.

Towards the end of this two-week period, try to complete one of the following:
1)     Write a dialogue, real or imagined, with various parts of your body.  Feel free to turn these body parts into human characters, and notice how the joys and pains of our bodies can easily transform into personality traits of human beings.
2)      Show the emotions of a character by describing what happens in his/her body when he/she experiences them.  Try to be as specific as possible, and avoid telling what the actual emotion is.
3)      Combine 1) & 2) or write anything else that was inspired by reading this post!

Aim for 500 – 1000 words, as a guideline, and enjoy getting to know your body more deeply in the coming weeks!

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