Writing isn’t just something that happens in the head–it is a whole-body experience. Just as we can use our brilliant noggins to plot outlines, we can also use our bodies to track for information that arises while we write.
When I write, I constantly scan my body for sensations. I put 50% of attention on the words forming in my imagination, and 50% of my attention on my body. Why? Because I want access to the wisdom of my body. My body holds knowledge, and I want to use that to enrich my stories. Here is the three-step process I use for gathering and using body knowledge in my writing:
I start by allowing part of my attention to wander around my body. Next, I check out what I’m feeling at any given point. I note if I feel a prickle in my elbow or a tension in my back. Maybe as I’m writing something, heat rises in my chest, my face flushes, my throat tenses, and my spine straightens. Or sometimes I write something and my shoulders will grow heavy, my breath stops, and my back numbs. (Yes, numbness is a sensation). This is all good information.
When I do this, a memory usually surfaces. For example, if my face is hot and my throat tense, the narrator may be experiencing anger. Or if my breath shallows and my shoulders droop, perhaps the narrator is about to cry. If I feel an overwhelming need to take my feet out of my slippers, my Narrator needs to ground herself. And if my shoulders relax, the Narrator has spoken some seed of truth connected to the theme.
Then, with this harvested embodied knowledge, I can do something with it. If I am/my narrator is feeling anger, I’ll add a detail, maybe how she hyper-focuses on a navy blue crayon on her mother’s desk. When my/my narrator is feeling sorrow, I’ll take that as a cue to add a memory about the death of her dog. If I/the narrator needs to ground, I’ll wrap in a nature-based detail, like the sound of the wind. And if my narrator has just articulated a truth, I’ll assess if I should add expand upon it. I use the sensations to guide me to add details, to make my writing richer.
I also use embodied information to discover entire additional scenes or themes. For example, once during a writing exercise, I asked how the quivering in my belly–excitement–related to my cowboy boots. The sensations reminded me of the first time I saw a woman in her 30’s wearing a pair of boots with a dress! My sensations led me to the realization that my writing exercise could be reworked into a coming-of-age story.
A Little Note About Authenticity
My body is my writing barometer and it keeps me honest. When I write while paying attention to my body’s messages, I know my readers will deeply empathize–we all have bodies and we all know these sensations to some degree or another. Writing the stories of the body offers a quality of truthfulness. Readers crave authenticity right now in order to get make sense of the rapidly-changing world. One of my goals is to write as authentically as possible–even if uncomfortable–because I know my readers will respond. An engaged reader is a growing reader.
Embodiment Tip: Practice by paying attention to one part of your body—just choose one, whichever you want. I highly recommend the feet, neck, or breath. The next time you write, try keeping some of your attention on this part of your body. See what information you might be able to gather, connect, and apply.
Anneliese Kamola is an author, developmental editor, and writing coach living in Bellingham, Washington. She has been published in True Stories Volumes I, II, and III, and has written/produced/performed three one-woman storytelling shows. For her day job she works as a coach for The Narrative Project and as a developmental editor. Her upcoming coming-of-age memoir explores intergenerational trauma and the power of gentleness.