Why writers need to embody their work

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Photo by Galen Crout on Unsplash

The state of flow, the optimal state for writing, is a strange experience. We tend to feel weightless, out of time and forget we have bodies that need to eat or drink or go to the toilet. It’s such a powerful sense of being other and elsewhere that writers can easily fall into the trap of forgetting to connect. But soon after that the inspiration dries up and flow ceases.

In The Heart of William James, he says:

A purely disembodied human emotion is a nonentity.

Emotion, body and language are contiguous

Long before there was any scientific backing for his ideas, James wrote about how emotions and our corporeal existence intertwine, emotion reverberating through the body as effects such as ‘surprise, curiosity, rapture, fear, anger, lust, greed…’

James argued that we generally think a mental perception leads to an emotion which in turn is expressed in the body. X happens, it makes us feel Y and so we do Z. But he argued that we have feelings because of what we physically do. Feeling sorry comes after and because of crying. Feeling anger comes after and because we have lashed out at someone physically.

Without the bodily states following on the perception, the latter would be purely cognitive in form, pale, colourless, destitute of emotional warmth. We might then see the bear, and judge it best to run, receive the insult and deem it right to strike, but we could not actually feel afraid or angry.

We are physical beings and embodiment is fundamental to what we are:

If we fancy some strong emotion, and then try to abstract from our consciousness of it all the feelings of its characteristic bodily symptoms, we find we have nothing left behind, no “mind-stuff” out of which the emotion can be constituted, and that a cold and neutral state of intellectual perception is all that remains.

The notion that coginition and emotion are embodied is much more rooted now in both science and philosophy, following on from such thinkers as Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and John Dewey.

We see it most simply in our use of metaphors. In Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff looks at how the language and the body are of a piece, demonstrating that

our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.

We talk about being ‘up’ as a metaphor for happiness or ‘down’ for sadness for example. The physical, embodied directions become metaphors. Similarly, several metaphors originate in physical interactions from childhood, so that, for example, affection becomes synonymous with warmth.

Writing in Scientific American about another of Lakoff’s books in this area, Philosphy in the Flesh, Samuel McNerney notes:

Studies like these confirm Lakoff’s initial hunch — that our rationality is greatly influenced by our bodies in large part via an extensive system of metaphorical thought. How will the observation that ideas are shaped by the body help us to better understand the brain in the future?

Thought requires a body, not in the obvious sense, but in the sense that the structure of thought-itself arises from the body. Nearly all of our metaphors are based on shared bodily experiences. In short, thinking is embodied:

… the peculiar nature of our bodies shapes our very possibilities for conceptualisation and categorisation

The centrality of metaphor

If metaphor is fundamental to who we are as humans and if this in turn is embodied, it behooves writers to embody their work. Despite the seemingly disembodied state of flow, in fact we always remain bodies in context. We can see this when we realise how easy it is to disrupt flow with interruptions or distractions, even if we can go so deep that cold and thirst don’t stir us.

Rilke understands this perfectly when he says, in Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke:

I am not one of those who neglect the body in order to make of it a sacrificial offering for the soul, since my soul would thoroughly dislike being served in such a fashion. All the soarings of my mind begin in my blood, for which reason I precede my work, through a pure and simple way of life that is free from irritants and stimulants, as with an introductory prelude, so that I cannot be deceived over the true spiritual joy that consists in a concord, happy and as if transfigured, with the whole of Nature.

With the whole of nature

Our writing should take note of embodiment not only because we are bodies but because it is how we connect — to others, to animals, to plants, to the universe.

We are intimately connected to everything and unless we wake up to this, as individual writers and as a species, we will run out of a planet on which to live and think and love and write.

Alan Lightman, in Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine, notes that:

The material of the doomed stars and the material of my doomed body are actually the same material. Literally the same atoms… It is astonishing but true that if I could attach a small tag to each of the atoms of my body and travel with them backward in time, I would find that those atoms originated in particular stars in the sky. Those exact atoms.

And Mary Oliver says the same thing, but pushes further in terms of the consequences:

… I would say that there are thousand unbreakable links between each of us and everything else, and that our dignity and out chances are one. The farthest star and the mud at our feet are family, and there is no decency or sense in honoring one thing, or a few things, and the closing the list … — we are risk together or we are on our way to a sustainable world together. We are each others’ destiny.

Writers, now more than ever, cannot afford to be creatures of the mind. What we are about is not cerebral, remote, and of no consequence. It is urgent.

We stand at a point in history when we either witness to our embodiment and intimate connection to all that is alive, to all that is material, or we face exitinction with it. This is not to decry our state of flow that can be experienced as other-worldly and mystical and touching on the numinous, but it is a call to bring back what we find there and connect it. This is how Mary Oliver expresses it in Upstream:

I have begun to look past reason, past the provables, in other directions. … What I mean by spirituality is … attitude.

I would therefore write a kind of elemental poetry that doesn’t just avoid indoors but doesn’t even see the doors that lead inward —

Being connected, being embodied, being in flow; experiencing the numinous of nature or of the profound transcendence of writing are not dichotomies, but of a piece. Like the naturalist writer John Muir, when he first encountered Yosemite, we need to feel ourselves:

part of wild Nature, kin to everything.

if we are to be writers who make a difference to the world’s story.

Becoming a different story

Thank you for reading — sign up to my email list and I’ll send you a free PDF on writing and the writing life as well as a fantastic special offer for my suite of online mini-retreats, Diving Deeply into Your Story The next module will be out on April 29. Take a look at Writing the Bright Fire. While you’re there, download my free course, Giving yourself time to become a different story.

Written by

Editor, author, feminist & part-time nomad. Helping others develop their writing life and practice. Blog @ https://janfortune.com/

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