Writers can be cerebral creatures. By its nature, writing is sedentary and we spend a lot of time in our heads. But when the writing loses all sense of embodiment it becomes remote and ineffective. Writing in the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology Rosemarie Anderson notes:
Embodied writing seeks to reveal the lived experience of the body by portraying in words the finely textured experience of the body and evoking sympathetic resonance in readers
Our bodies matter. Despite being someone who will get so far into my own head that I forget to move or go to the bathroom when deep in flow, I also know that his has an impact on my writing, however subtle. When I write after doing yoga, adopt a better posture and get up between sections to stretch or walk, the writing changes.
So how do we become more holistic as writers?
Replace the dualistic model
To quote Rosemarie Anderson again:
Continuing to write in a Cartesian style seems no longer acceptable … Disembodied writing perpetuates the object-subject bifurcation between the world of our bodies and the world we inhabit.
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Stories are powerful. We don’t simply tell stories, we inhabit them. Since language began, we’ve been storytelling animals. Every time and culture has dominant stories that shape us, whether they are stories from religion, ideology or the market-place. Sometimes these stories have such a grip that it’s hard to see beyond them, yet alternative stories can change the world. In the words of Walter Benjamin in The Storyteller:
The wisest thing … the fairy tales taught is to meet the mythical world with cunning and high spirits.
Amongst the dominant stories of our age are several that are leading us down blind alleys or into destruction. In her retelling of the Ragnarok myth A S Byatt portrays the gods as stupid, selfish and short-sighted. They deserve to die. They can see the end of the world coming, yet they do nothing about it.
It’s a powerful warning of ecological disaster, but it could also be a story of soured relationships with others or with the self. It’s a call to change and, like all good stories, wakes us up.
So how do stories change the world?
1. Story makes sense of the world and those we share it with
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I’m currently writing in journal number 124 in a 24-year-long run of journalling. There were journals before this ‘set’, some lost in a house move, others disappeared in my teens.
I write everything in these journals:
random thoughts and observations
notes on books I’m reading
how the day/the week /the month/the year went
to do lists
ideas for books, stories, poems, blogs…
The journals are beautiful. Many of them were handmade by daughter or have been gifts. Each one is an artefact. They’re also a problem in that they’re not written for anyone else to read, so what will become of them?
Nonetheless, I persist. I often feel I don’t know what I’m thinking until I write it down. It’s my act of processing. It’s also the fount of my creativity.
1. To practice
Great musicians practice. They go over scales and arpeggios, études and exercises. When tackling concert pieces, they go over and over particular phrases, gradually building speed and confidence.
Writing about the diaries Virginia Woolf kept over 26 years, she says:
The habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practice. It loosens the ligaments.
And, after her death, Leonard Woolf described the 26 volumes as:
a method of practicing or trying out the art of writing.
Writing is a muscle. The more we use it, the more flexible and strong it becomes. Whether you are writing morning pages in which you do 2 or three pages of a writing prompt or outlining ideas or setting down emotions, the more you write, the more confident your writing voice will become.
When I teach writing courses and set exercises for the group I’m working with, I do the exercises myself into my journal. It’s an interesting way to see how I respond the same pressure to write in the moment and one I can look back on.
Do you keep morning pages or use a journal for writing exercises?
I’m currently working on a book on writing and the creative life. I’m interested in connecting with others who want to explore the power of story. If you’d like my 9-chapter eBook on writing and the writing life, sign up to my email list — or feel free to continue the conversation here and on Medium.
Why do we do it? The reasons for writing are as various as writers, but among them are common threads that unite us.
1. For the trance
I can lose a whole day writing. I forget to eat or drink. I come round hours after beginning and discover I’m cold. Writing takes us into an inner world that is endless and extraordinary.
In Our Faces, Our Hearts, Brief as Photos, John Berger describes one of those luminous moments when an ordinary place takes on luminous, otherworldly quality:
Everything was shifting. The three pear trees, their hillock, the other side of the valley, the harvested fields, the forests. The mountains were higher, every tree and field nearer. Everything visible approached me. Rather, everything approached the place where I had been, for I was no longer in that place. I was everywhere, as much in the forest across the valley as in the dead pear tree, as much on the face of the mountain as in the field where I was raking hay.
When we write, we’re opening ourselves up. Writing takes us into another space. As Virginia Woolf described it:
I walk making up phrases; sit, contriving scenes; am in short in the thick of the greatest rapture known to me.
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Writers are people who walk around with their senses open, determined to stay awake in a world where so many people seem to be half asleep.
Writers are those with imagination and insight.
They are people who reflect an extraordinary world within that can transform the world without.
Writers are not those who go with the flow.
People may claim to often that a book is ‘life-changing’ but nonetheless every time we read, there is the possibility of a new perspective and growth.
And if the written word is so transformative then the chances are that writers have power and responsibility.
2. Writers are witnesses
When Geoff Dyer asked John Berger what he saw as the ‘job of his life’, replied:
Perhaps I am like all people who tell stories — storytellers lose their identity and are open to the lives of other people. Maybe when you look at their entire output you can see something that really belongs to that one person. But at any one moment it is difficult to see what the job of your life is because you are so aware of what you are lending yourself to. This is perhaps why I use the term “being a witness.” One is witness of others but not of oneself.
For Berger, this sense of being a witness involved total immersion and openness to other people and other places.
The notion of the writer as witness is a lot to live up to, yet it is compelling. In The Artist’s WayJulia Cameron challenges writers to become witnesses. There are countless novels that are a testimony not only inward states, human emotion and condition, but also to events.
Books like Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man witness to the legacy of the Holocaust, so that it becomes part of common consciousness.
The film Hiroshima mon amor, from the book by Marguerite Dumas, witnesses to the existential crisis of lovers who need to cling to one another after horror.
The South African poet, Mongane Wally Serote witnesses to the events of apartheid:
I want to look at what happened,
As silent as the roots of plants pierce the soil
I look at what happened…
When knives creep in and out of people
As day and night into time.
And the list could go on.
Extraordinary writing witnesses not only to historical or political events, but also to emotional states and human relationships.
3. Writers reconstitute the world
As people who bear witness to the human condition; witness to stories that would otherwise go unheard and to the possibilities that lie ahead, writers deal with how much we can achieve.
As Adrienne Rich puts it:
My heart is moved by all I cannot save: so much has been destroyed I have to cast my lot with those who age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.
This requires belief in freedom. By opening up new horizons through writing, writers take on enormous responsibility. Our writing shifts the perspective of readers and widens their choices as a result. Thought is a powerful thing.
4. Writers shape reality
What do we believe about reality? How do we conceive the nature of our existence and freedom?
None of us can transcend the facts of existence: we exist in a universe of physical laws and principles. Environment, language and culture shape us in complex ways. And to some extent we never become aware of all these influences or shake free of them.
But we are not reducible to those influences. Neither are we the roles we adopt; none of us is only a writer, a mother, a daughter, a musician. Only objects or deities (if they figure in your world view) are wholly one thing. God is God. A table is a table.
Human beings are complex and changeable. We are conscious, or should be if we are brave enough to stay awake in the world.
Humans can transcend certain ‘givens’ –
the class we’re born into
the racial stereotypes projected onto us
the social expectations around us are not who we are.
As Sartre claims, we have the ability to negate these expectations and to become anything.
And it’s not only philosophers who think like this. Increasingly, research suggests not only that we have plastic brains that can adapt and change, but also that our biology is more fluid than we conceived previously. (Studies in epigenetics are rapidly expanding our understanding of this, for example. Nessa Carey’s The Epigenetics Revolution)
This amount of freedom is terrifying and wonderful. It means that authentic living requires that we take our autonomy seriously.
It means that I am never identical with my current ‘self’, yet always responsible for sustaining, challenging and growing it.
It means I can’t hide behind phrases like ‘ this is the way I am’ or ‘it’s in my genes/my past experiences…’
If I choose to remain a certain way, it is a choice, and there is no lying to myself about that. Quoting Sartre:
You can always make something out of what you’ve been made into.
The inner world is a powerful place that changes how we experience the outer world.
Stories, poems and articles make their way into our subconscious and transform how we interact with the world and impact on it.
By being writers who take this seriously we open up a world of new thinking and new ways of being, for ourselves and for those who engage with our writing.
Writing is an awesome thing to do and we do it best when we become people who take our freedom and imagination seriously.
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