How to Make Writing a Physical Practise

Compared to other creative practices such as music, visual arts, theatre, and dance, writing is usual thought of as a mental activity rather than a physical one.

In many ways, you are trying to forget that you have a body, and that you even exist. The ideal writing session is one where you are dictating rather than creating. You are so immersed in the story that you are simply describing what you see, hear, feel, taste, smell.

Those are very good writing days.

In the same way that an artist may squeeze a dollop of paint onto their fingertip and smear it across the canvas, writers also create their art through their hands. Our hands are the medium through which we make our idea or concept (internal) a piece of art (external).

But is this process of making meaning really the same for writers as it is for other artists?

Are we perhaps missing out on something that exists within these other forms?

How would our writing benefit if we were to make our bodies part of the process, and what would that look like?

Enactivist theory states that whether we realise it or not, we all use our senses (hands/body) to explore the unknown but also as a way confirm what we already know. We learn through action and we can accumulate knowledge through embodied experiences with the environment. In this way, the body is integral to all knowing.

Perhaps you’re working on a scene and you need to describe a particular movement. Of course, you think you know what it feels like to punch someone — you were raised with brothers — but when you actually punch the air and focus, hard, on what that action actually feels like, you may notice more nuance movements. You could walk across the room and try different styles of walking while thinking about how to descried them: smooth, stilted, stiff, slinky, march, amble, confident, scarred.

This is knowing-in-action.

As I’ve written about before, powerful creative insights can happen when we move our bodies. There is a reason why so many writers are active walkers, hikers, or runners.

When we sit down our brains switches from “alert” to “relaxed.”

This is why we come up with our best ideas and the best solutions to plot holes when we are away from our computers doing the dishes, walking the dog, or weeding the garden.

If you listen to a podcast while exercising or even cleaning your house, you will remember more of the content than if you were to sit and listen to it. When the body is in motion, any motion, our brains become alert.

Our bodies contain knowledge. Muscle memory allows a musician to play a beloved piece without sheet music, a ballerina points without thought, and an actor knows how to engage their diaphragm and to project across a theatre. A novelist’s fingers (if trained) can construct a manuscript without said novelist looking at the keyboard (or in my case, even the screen!)

Writing can become a tactile act when we start negotiating with the work and this can be done in a variety of ways.

Structure

1. You can print out your manuscript and arrange the chapters on the floor in order, then consider how the sequence of events could be changed. How could you make this story coherent while telling it in a non-linear fashion?

2. Write your outline on play cards and then shuffle the cards around to see what alternative structures or view points are possible.

3. Stand up and read your work a loud. Act as though it is a live reading of a play and ask yourself: How does each character move? What is their tone of voice like when they reply to X’s query?

Problem solving

1. Try productive meditation: a practise where you go for a long walk (minimum of 2 hours) by yourself (no Fido, no phone, no music, no podcasts) with a notebook, and challenge yourself to break out of repetitive thought loops and to look for creative solutions.

2. Interview your characters. A loud. Like they were actually in the room. Don’t do this at the public library.

3. Buy or create a standing desk by piling a bunch of books onto your kitchen counter. This subtle change invites your body to become an active participant in your writing process, because your muscles are now engaged your brain will be more alert.

Inspiration

1. Fill a mason jar with random words, pull out three and then write a piece of flash fiction or a short story.

3. Read while walking around your house. (I do this often. It’s also how I used to memorise my lines for plays and how I continue to memorise speeches/presentations today).

Mixed media

1. Write a piece of flash fiction; film yourself reading a loud; post the video on social media.

Our bodies can teach other bodies how to create art.

After all, it was by reading books written by the hands of other writers that I learned how to write. The author both directly and indirectly shows me, using language, how to tell a story. It’s all there on the page. They do not say, “See here, dear reader, I made Ella enter the party by herself to convey that she is a Nigel-no-friends” or “Harlow is wearing a red, tight fitting dress to insinuate that she is a lust lady of the night”, and yet, through dissection and careful reflection it is possible for a reader to make an educated assumption regarding authorial intent.

Books are usually written in solitude sitting down, but it was by attending classes and talking to lecturers and other writing students that I was able to polish my drafts. It was during long walks that I came up with creative solutions and it was through scribbling and crossing out and adding new sentences (in bright red pen) that I figured out how I could apply those solutions.

The body can become a part of our creative practise, perhaps not in the same way or to the same degree that it participants in other forms, but it can support and inform a writer’s creative process.

Now, I’d love to hear from you. What do you think of today’s post? Does your writing practise contain physical or tactile elements? Leave a comment below and let’s get the conversation started.


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