Writing as a Full Body Experience

Photo courtesy of Luc Viatour / www.Lucnix.be
Photo courtesy of Luc Viatour / www.Lucnix.be

Writers have to learn to work on more than one level. At the same time we’re writing, we’re also reading – we’re both creating and reacting. While my mind keeps track of the story and the character’s progress through a scene, my heart is connected to her mood and my gut is registering tension. All my senses are alert to what her senses would be. (I could add that my hands are typing, but you get the idea.) If I have a character say something that doesn’t suit her state of mind, I get a sense of disconnection which tells me that I have to go back. If the tension flatlines, the first clue is that my stomach has unclenched. To some, this full body approach to writing comes naturally, but it can be an acquired skill. Often I go over a scene numerous times, focusing on three levels in particular.

First, the heart check: is the character carrying forward her emotional experience up to this point? If something angered her in the last chapter, that should still be throwing off some heat. If she’s anxious, that should color what she says. If the story is in first person or close third, then everything in the scene should be filtered through her state of mind, even the description of objects. The most effective and authentic way to accomplish this is to carry that state of mind inside yourself. This will allow you to go beyond the analytic (she should) and experience the filtering directly in an act of sympathetic imagination (she would). I assign this to my heart simply as a way of ordering the experience. What I’m talking about here is deep identification with our characters.

Next, the gut check: is there tension? Would a reader need to read on? Is there a mystery, a worry, an unfulfilled desire, a conflict, or even just a disquieting imbalance, something that a reader would want to see through? As writers, we must try to anticipate the sensation of reading our work as honestly as we can. To captivate others, we have to captivate ourselves. As you write, is your stomach so tense that the world outside falls away? Or do you find yourself starting to skim? The feedback of your body doesn’t lie. I assign this one to my gut, which is where I actually experience this kind of independent processing. What I’m talking about here, of course, is our identification with our readers.

Last, I return to the mind, which is also where I start. The mind has the biggest job. Character development, dialogue, plot, setting, language, metaphor, the list goes on and on…. Writing is submersive. You have to bring all your talents and faculties to bear. But that is how we can spend so many hours by ourselves at the computer, or with nothing but pen and paper. We carry inside us more than one experience, more than one person. We create a world outside ourselves by expanding the one inside.

Resisting Your Own Autosuggest

iphonesWe’ve all been there – when we’re running late or feeling lazy or trying to dash off an email during a stoplight – those moments when we’re grateful that our phones seem to anticipate what we want to say. “That sounds good.” “I’ll call you later.” The words pop up on the screen before I even think them. Predictability eases me down the well-worn path. See, it just happened again.

Good fiction writing requires us to resist the predictable, both the sort that everyone overuses – common cliques, trite metaphors, tired character tropes – and our own personal collection. All of us have favorite gestures, facial expressions, descriptions, and snatches of dialogue. In your first drafts, I wouldn’t worry about them. In mine, the characters start out shaking their heads like a contagious tic. But when you edit, make an effort to resist your own mental autosuggest. Here are a few good reasons why (besides not wanting to drive your readers nuts):

To keep readers from tuning out. No one feels a need to bother picturing people who are doing typical things. In a chapter of mine critiqued by the talented Rebecca Makkai, author of The Hundred-Year House and The Borrower, my characters were eating and sipping drinks at a Christmas party. She suggested that I give them more unusual food – for example, they could be cracking nuts with old nutcrackers – or unexpected small actions such as making a paper airplane out of an old takeout menu. The same goes for what they say and how they look. In other words, work to make your characters’ behavior different and interesting enough to catch and hold your readers’ attention.

To make everything count. Gestures, expressions and descriptions can all convey meaning. They can be an opportunity to add layers or increase the stakes. Readers notice when a gap opens up between what characters say and what they do. Everyone loves to watch for clues. Thinking of the extra messages that you’d like to send can help you to avoid the repetitive and potentially boring.

To convince yourself of the reality of the scene. Your first and most important reader is you. If you make your characters less predictable, then all of sudden you’ll find yourself needing to pay them more attention. Each time you add another distinctive action or expression to a character, she or he will become more singular and real. Characters will get more specific, gestures more laden, and descriptions more riveting. Your scenes as a whole will take on more texture and complication.

So when you’re ready to revise, try to push yourself past what’s easy and automatic. Try surprising yourself.

The Poetry in Prose

When fiction writers refer to putting poetry in our prose, we’re usually thinking of extended metaphors, expansive descriptions, and lyrical writing, all of which are indeed poetic and bring beauty and depth to a piece of prose. In The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, as mentioned elsewhere in this blog, the bees act as an extended metaphor, foreshadowing the early threats in the plot and becoming part of what is nurtured by the end. Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha is rich with exotic descriptions. And all the novels recommended on these pages have lyrical writing, by which I mean words that are soaked in the voice of the protagonist and laid down with an ear for the rhythm behind sentences and the build of beats that drives each paragraph to its end. I hope to say more about all of these in the future. But a less obvious kind of poetry underlies the most engaging of fiction, regardless of genre: that of deep connection.

A novel is a work of sympathetic imagination. To achieve that, we need to allow ourselves to sink into our characters, share their heads and eyes, delve their feelings, and find their truest words. When Olive’s husband observes her alone in the garden in the beginning of Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, “[h]e wanted to put his arms around her, but she had a darkness that seemed to stand beside her like an acquaintance that would not go away.” We get both his insight about Olive, which is stunning, and his confession of the distance between them, which is all the more heartbreaking in its restraint. We see two lives in one flash.

Another striking example appears in The Hours by Michael Cunningham, when Virginia Woolf grapples with one of her headaches: “Strands of pain announce themselves, throw shivers of brightness into her eyes so insistently she must remind herself that others can’t see them. Pain colonizes her, quickly replaces what was Virginia with more and more of itself, and its advance is so forceful, its jagged contours so distinct, that she can’t help imagining it as an entity with a life of its own.” Her words are too analytical for most of our characters, but they seem so right for Virginia – I ache for her as she tries to manage the unmanageable with her fierce intelligence, all the while knowing how futile it is.

But the character doesn’t have to be a poetic writer herself for the writer to find the poetry in another mind. In Disobedience by Jane Hamilton, the teenage Henry confides in the reader: “To picture my mother a lover, I had at first to break her in my mind’s eye, hold her over my knee, like a stick, bust her in two. When that was done, when I had changed her like that, I could see her in a different way. I could put her through the motions like a jointed puppet, all dancy in the limbs, loose, nothing to hold her up but me.” I believe the writer found that insight by submerging herself so deeply in Henry’s perspective, that she could look up at his mother along with him and discover how he felt.

In essence, that’s what deep connection with a character is: writing the poetry our characters would write if they could. Their perspective, their voice. The confessions of another soul.