On the “Edge” of Writing: Embodiment in Writing Practice

FIGURE

When I think about writing in my classroom, I often imagine the figure illustrated above: a head for “thinking” and arms for “writing.” But writing is a physical act; our bodies make writing possible. Our bodies are sources of knowledge, containers of collected memory. Our bodies think. Our bodies feel. So why does the body feel noticeably absent when we “think” about writing?

This is something I’ve been wondering about a lot lately. I come to these questions not only as someone who teaches First Year Writing, but also as a theater-maker (with an interest in the body, training, and performance), a student exploring the Feldenkrais Method (an “approach to human movement, learning and change”), and as a recreational runner (The Feldenkrais Institute). All of these practices rely on, develop, or question the use of the body in action. So I wonder, by extrapolation, if writing can’t be part of this conversation, too. Can we borrow from the performance and athletic fields and incorporate embodied knowledge into our teaching and writing practices? Is it possible that we could become more dynamic, deliberate and effective writers and teachers if we learned how to utilize our senses and sensations, if we allowed writing to be an embodied experience? My purpose is to put forward the questions in the hopes that we can start a conversation together, and begin to explore the “spaces in between” thinking, sensing, and writing.

Before discussing embodiment we must first acknowledge the mind/body dualism that is frequently espoused in our Western world. In much of the West (particularly in the US) we assume that the mind and the body are two separate entities. The “mind” thinks; the “body” feels and “acts.” This assumed belief in the binary isn’t entirely our fault; it’s an inherited cultural trait. Rhetoric and composition scholar and teacher, Sondra Perl tells us that “for centuries … we have been living within and accepting the false separation between body and mind and between thoughts and feelings” (52). We hold our Cartesian dualism close. Even our learning environments seem to reinforce these binaries. In many classrooms students are typically behind desks, tables, or computers, stationary in chairs. They sit. They “think.” Because of this perceived dualistic split, we have come to value the “intellect” and the “mind” over the knowledge in the body. We place authority on the “archive” of text, pictures, concrete objects over the “repertoire” of embodied experience (Taylor qtd. in Schechner 328).

This doubt or queasiness in embodied knowledge trickles down to our every-day articulations. When broaching conversations about the body or embodiment, people tend to look askance, fearing some hippy-dippy, wooy-wooy mysticism. But the irony here is profound. The body is corporeal; it is precisely what we experience the world through. It is, if nothing else, grounded in space. When I talk about the body, I am thinking of a fully sensate being, an organism that is alert, centered and aware. I am talking about movement and the “doing of” something in a fully connected and coherent way. Embodiment isn’t wooy-wooy stuff; we are thinking and sensing simultaneously all the time. As theater scholar John Lutterbie tells us, perhaps we perceive the split between thinking and feeling because of where we place our “focus” and our “attention” (141-142). And if we have a history of doubting the repertoire of embodied experience – “for the most part…Western modes of knowing [have] privileged the written over the enacted” – then it’s not surprising that we don’t bring awareness to our bodies when we write (Schechner 328). If we can transition from thinking of a dualistic mind/body to thinking of the self as one complete “bodymind,” as theater practitioner Phillip Zarrilli calls it, then maybe we can carve out more space for embodied knowledge in our learning (103). By doing so, we can challenge, as Lutterbie does, “the assumptions…that emotions are distinct from intellectual process” and begin to “value emotion and conscious thought equally in ways that are positive and liberating” (141). In perceiving the bodymind, we can understand Konstantin Stanislavsky’s belief that “[i]n every physical action, there is something psychological and in the psychological, something physical” (Carnicke 7).

It’s not just theater practitioners who rely on embodied knowledge. Athletes, too, hold an entire repertoire of embodied knowledge. Ask an athlete to write about how he maintains his pace in a marathon, or how she deflects a shot on the field hockey field. If she verbalizes her response, her answer will be from the experience of doing it, or attempting to do it, not from being told how to do it. She will speak from a bodily knowing because her bodymind (her muscles, bones, nervous system, brain, mind) knows. Why not carry this wisdom into our writing classrooms? Instead of “discovering, observing and explaining,” maybe we can follow the path of qualitative “body-centered research [by] locating, sensing and listening to the bodies around us, to our subjects, to each other and to ourselves” (Parker-Starbuck and Mock 233).

Even though embodiment might not always be part of the conversation that surrounds writing, it’s not new to writing practice. There is a precedent for this approach, most notably in the work of Sondra Perl (which I’ll detail in a moment). Other writers talk about it, too: Haruki Murakami wrote, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running; Joyce Carol Oates declared that, “[t]he structural problems I set for myself in writing, in a long, snarled, frustrating and sometimes despairing morning of work, for instance, I can usually unsnarl by running in the afternoon.” Most recently, Jill Soloway, creator of the new Amazon Prime series Transparent spoke about her writing process in an interview with Vox.com. To write Transparent, Soloway crafted a “series of workshops [with the actors] that were … sort of like dance rehearsals … [w]e put on music, and we just did these big crazy dances that lasted for hours, where we … just kind of understood the relationships.” Sometimes she would “throw herself in and do some dancing” too. The interviewer commented on Soloway’s approach saying, “We think of writing as such a cerebral thing but this sounds like it was really imbued with physicality. What do you think being in that physical space adds to your work as a writer and director?” Her response: “When I’m writing, it’s never coming from my head through my hand. It’s coming from some other place into, in the best of all possible worlds, my heart and then my hand…” (emphasis mine).

That “some other place,” I’d argue, is an embodied place.

The clearest link between the use of embodied knowledge and writing lies at the feet of Sondra Perl and is detailed her book, Felt Sense: Writing with the Body. Perl “became interested in felt sense after [she] observed college students struggle with writing” (5). In her book, she expands on the term, “felt sense” coined by philosopher and psychologist Eugene Gendlin, and makes the leap from theory into practice (2,7). Felt sense, Perl tells us, “refers explicitly to the body, and in particular, the way the body and mind are connected” (xiii). It is, she explains, “a bodily experience…[f]elt sense is also a term, an idea, a phrase…that refers to this bodily knowing” (1). To facilitate students’ connection to felt sense in writing, Perl crafted the “Guidelines of Composing” in order “to get writers to start writing” (xvi). She explains that the “[guidelines] give us an experiential base from which to examine how our bodies and our minds are connected, how meaning emerges not only from cognition but also from intuition, and how the body itself is implicated in knowing and in the construction of knowledge” (xvi). During the exercises, Perl tells the writer, “the idea is that you write, not only with your hands and your brain, but with your body” (Guidelines for Composing). Or – to rephrase in light of our conversation here – to write with the bodymind.

Perhaps what most intrigues me is the use of felt sense to answer the question, “What happens when we reach the edge of our thinking?”(50). In part of the guided composition lesson, Perl instructs writers to “contact a direct bodily sense of what the whole of this topic evokes in you. Go to that place where you might just sense the edge of this issue” (Guidelines for Composing). This issue of the “edge” or as Gendlin calls it, “the murky zone” is a psychophysical space where new ideas and possibilities exist as potential (qtd. in Perl 54).

This concept of working at the “edge” of awareness and understanding is not just a phenomenon explored by Gendlin and Perl. It’s an idea that reverberates in the theater and performance world as well. Herbert Blau spoke of it in his book Take Up the Bodies: Theater at the Vanishing Point when he explains that actors should be “at the edge of a breath, looking” (Blau 86). Phillip Zarrilli reiterates Blau’s idea in an essay of the same name and in “Acting at the Nerves Ends: Beckett, Blau and the Necessary.” Here Zarrilli explains that the “bodymind is precariously counterpoised and counterbalanced ‘on the edge of a breath’” (Zarrilli 103). It’s also echoed in the explorations of Thomas Richards (regarded as avant-garde creator Jerzy Grotowski’s “essential collaborator”), in his interview essay, “On the Edge-Point of Performance” (The Workcenter). Here, Richards explains that “creativity ‘lies on the edge of the unknown’” (qtd. in Baumrin 81).

For Blau, Zarrilli, and Richards, as for Perl and Gendlin, there is something that happens when we think we’ve reached our edge. Perl indicates that it’s at this edge that many of us turn around instead of facing the precipice. We think of the “edge” as an end. Our wall. Our stopping point. But what if we reframed this edge, not as an end point, but as an opening, not as failure, but as one Feldenkrais practitioner puts it, as a “not yet,” or as Perl puts it, a “not yet in words” (54-55). Felt sense isn’t about always feeling comfortable; felt sense is about learning to listen to our bodymind and use the feedback to help steer writing and “carry forward” (Perl 54). If we dare to go to this edge and “pause and wait patiently” we might find new “insights, creative answers, [and] new steps—in living and thinking” (Perl 51-52). We might discover new knowledge.

Can we look to embodiment as a legitimate approach to exploring writing with our students? I think it’s worth considering. Maybe we can use our bodyminds and felt sense to translate those “spaces in between” what we know and what we “don’t yet know in words.” Maybe embodied writing can help students draw or type a series of intentional letters into words, into phrases, into sentences, into fully formed thoughts, rhetorical appeals and Toulmin claims, proofs and warrants. Maybe we can lead our students to a productive edge and give them an added tool by helping them become aware of their sensate selves. It’s not a magic bullet for writing (nor should it be), but it certainly is a starting point.

WORKS CITED

Baumrin, Seth. “Heart of Practice: Within the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards (review).” Theatre Topics. 20.1 (2010): 81-82. Online.

Blau, Herbert. Take Up the Bodies: Theater at the Vanishing Point. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982. Print.

Carnicke, Sharon Marie. “Stanislavsky’s System: Pathways for the Actor.” Actor Training. Ed. Alison Hodge. New York: Routledge, 2010. 1-25. Print.

Lutterbie, John. “Resisting Binaries: Theory and Acting.” Playing with Theory in Practice. Ed. Alrutz, Megan, Julia Listengarten and M. Van Duyn Wood. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. 139-147. Print.

Oates, Joyce Carol. “To Invigorate Literary Mind, Start Moving Literary Feet.” New York Times.com. New York Times, 19 July. 1999. Web. 28 Oct. 2014.

Parker-Starbuck, Jennifer and Roberta Mock. “Researching the Body in/as Performance.” Research Methods in Theatre and Performance. Ed. Baz Kershaw and Helen Nicholson. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011. 210-235. Print.

Perl, Sondra. Felt Sense: Writing With the Body. Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook, 2004. Print.

—. Felt Sense: Guidelines for Composing. Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook, 2004. CD-ROM.

Schechner, Richard. Performance Studies: An Introduction. Media Ed. Sara Brady. 3rd ed. New York: Routledge, 2013. Print.

Soloway, Jill. Interviewed by Todd VanDerWerf. “Transparent creator Jill Soloway discusses her brilliant show’s first season.” Vox.com. Vox Media, 2014. Web. 18 Oct. 2014.

The Feldenkrais Institute. N.p. N.d. Web. 30 Oct. 2014.

The Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards. N.p. N.d. Web. 30 Oct. 2014.

Zarilli, Phillip. “Acting at the Nerve Ends: Beckett, Blau and the Necessary.” Theatre Topics 7.2 (1997): 103-116. Online.

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5 thoughts on “On the “Edge” of Writing: Embodiment in Writing Practice

  1. Thank you for the feedback, Caroline! I’m not familiar with Arola and Wysocki’s book, but I will definitely check it out. Thank you for passing the title along! There seems to be more to explore in regards to how media is changing the landscape of how we define experience…

  2. Really beautifully written and thought-provoking essay, Christine! I am so curious to explore this more. My experiences when writing–both essays and nonfiction, as well as poetry–often take place in the liminal space between thought and emotion, mind and body, and I think why I was able to develop such a passion for writing because I never saw it as divorced from intuition and body and emotion. However, I have often thought: how do I teach that to my students? Rebecca Lindenberg, a great contemporary poet, said that “poetry is how thought feels.” I wonder: how can I translate that to prose writing? How does a central claim feel? Where in our bodies do we experience an unexpected connection between ideas or between text and experience? Thank you, Christine, for this insightful piece!

  3. Pingback: Writing and the Body: What’s the connection? | Art of the Story

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