By Lyssa Tall Anolik
Write from the body
As we move into spring, we unfurl from our winter hibernations and stretch our limbs and minds back into the world. Being a season of movement, it’s an ideal time to explore the role of physical sensation in memoir writing. I often tell my students, “Don’t write from your head; write from your whole body!” Why? Because we experience events and emotions physically. We store memories not only in our brains, but in all the tissues of our bodies.
Close your eyes and think of a time you were delighted – perhaps sniffing a Daphne odora bloom or clasping a child’s hand. What physical sensations accompany that memory? Perhaps you feel dizzy as you imagine the floral perfume itching your nostrils, or a tickle spreading through your heart when you think of a warm little hand in yours. What about a time you were terrified? Does your heart pound and a constricted hard-to-breathe sensation grip your chest? In order to bring readers fully into your experience, they have to be able to feel your emotions in their own bodies.
If an author writes, “She felt sad,” the reader may not feel that sadness. But if the author instead writes “Her shoulders sagged and her lower lip trembled,” we see that this character is sad, without the author having to tell us so. In addition to describing sensations, memoir writers also give physical movement and gestures to their characters to round them out as real people. Together, these details ensure that our characters are fully “embodied” on the page.
The Winter 2013 issue of VoiceCatcher: a journal of women’s voices & visions contains three memoir essays. Each of these authors – myself among them – uses body language in some way to highlight their characters’ emotional or physical states. Let’s look to them for some examples.
In “Bennett’s Outing,” Julia Clark Salmon uses a familiar gesture to clearly indicate distaste: “… on a family hike … he held his nose, declaring he ‘hated’ nature.” Later, during a tense conversation, we feel another character’s rigidity: “My sister sat on the edge of her chair and looked directly at my dad.”
Julie Rogers, in “Wisdom Tree,” gives us a visceral experience of teenagers crammed into a small, hot room: “Our limbs pressed together, knees bumping … against the metal legs of … desks and chairs, we squirmed and sweated in the cramped portable waiting for the weekend to begin.” And then, she describes the daze of release: “We stumbled from the trailer, single-file, eyes painfully squinted against the sun.”
And in my essay, “Whale,” I convey the physical sensation of seeing a whale in the wild for the first time: “Its sentient awareness made my arms and legs tingle as it passed. My heart beat maniacally. My throat and chest ached when the animal sounded, heading off into deep waters where I could not follow.”*
There are an infinite number of ways to use physical sensation and movement in writing. As you read other memoirs and stories, start to notice when you have a strong emotional and physical reaction to a story or character. Take a close look at the words that author has chosen to convey that feeling or action.**
Oxygenation of the imagination
A good place to begin learning how to write from your body is by cultivating an awareness of breath. Deep breathing not only helps you move out of your mind and back into your body, it also pumps extra oxygen into your bloodstream, giving you more energy and a clearer mind, which in turn leads to deeper access to your creative well. Here’s a breathing exercise I often use in my classes to prepare students for writing:
Sit up straight in your chair and notice your feet touching the ground and the ground supporting your feet.
Come into an awareness of your breath. What does it feel like? Is it fast or slow, deep or shallow?
Now shift your breathing pattern, so you are slowly inhaling … and slowly exhaling … .
Notice what the in-breath feels like … and the out-breath … .
Notice where your breath sticks, encountering tight places in your chest or belly.
Without judging them, imagine those constricted places softening, melting and expanding with each breath.
Are there are emotions connected to those tight places?
Gently coax your breath down towards your low belly. (It’s ok if you’re not able to move your breath all the way into your belly yet. This often takes practice.)
Take a few more long, slow breaths.
When you are ready, open your notebook, pick up your pen, and write “My breath … .” Freewrite for five minutes, maintaining an awareness of your breath.
In subsequent sessions, you can extend this prompt to “At age 7, my breath … .” (and age 14, 22, 40, etc.)
In addition to breathing practice, a good way to help yourself write from your full body is to get in the habit of doing something physical, even if just for a few minutes, before you sit down to write. Take a walk, go for a run, do some yoga, or put on music and dance around the room. If you’re writing for long stretches of time, take breaks that include physical movement – some light stretching, housework, or a bit of gardening.
And, finally, as you move through all the different activities of your day, take time to notice how you experience each action and emotion in your body. You will start to build a library of physical sensations to draw from. Now for the fun part: Start layering those movements and sensations into your memoir writing and watch your characters start to plump up and pop off the page.
*For some striking examples of writing from the body, see Brenda Miller’s essay collection, Season of the Body and Terry Tempest Williams’ Desert Quartet: An Erotic Landscape.
**For another highly instructive resource, see The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. The authors offer a list of emotions and the range of physical sensations that can accompany each one.
This is VoiceCatcher’s sixth article in a series by writing coach and teacher, Lyssa Tall Anolik. If you ever wanted to write a memoir, here’s the perfect place to start. Check in every month for Lyssa’s practical tips on telling your story.
Lyssa Tall Anolik received her MFA in Writing (Creative Nonfiction) from Vermont College. She coaches writers and teaches memoir in Portland. Her personal essays and poetry have appeared in Drash: Northwest Mosaic, The Wild, VoiceCatcher3 and 4, EarthSpeak and other journals. Lyssa is a founding member of The Writers Next Door.