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.

The Writer’s Truth Writing Workshop at OCWW

I’m very excited to be speaking at Off Campus Writer’s Workshop this month. The topic is important to me as a writer. Our own truth underlies our work even if we don’t always realize it. Awareness of it can help us crack open our characters and increase the tension and complications in our plots. We can also use it to move from one to the other: to find the best plot for a intriguing character or the best character for a clever plot. Perhaps best of all, it can give us the key to talking about our book to others in a meaningful way. I’m especially happy to be presenting this topic at OCWW, the oldest continuously running writer’s workshop in the country. I served on the OCWW Board for 15 years. The details are excerpted below, or you can visit the OCWW website.

The Writer’s Truth: Connecting Character, Plot and Thematic Values

Thursday, March 26, 2015, from 9:30 to Noon

Winnetka Community House, 620 Lincoln, Winnetka (North of Chicago)

Members: $10; nonmembers: $15. All are welcome.

The Writer’s Truth is something that you as a writer believe in your heart to be true. What, at the deepest level, you’re trying to say with your work: your thematic values, not merely “theme.” Awareness of your truth can lead you to the characters and plot that will most profoundly express it. If you begin with character, but have trouble with plot, this will help you to discover the challenges your characters need to face. If you begin with plot, this will help you to create characters in resistance to your truth: characters who need to be tested and either fail or grow. You can use this awareness to begin a new book, intensify a book in progress, or break down stumbling blocks along the way. And at the end, you’ll be able to articulate to others why your book really matters, with a pitch that carries the ring of personal truth.

Ellen is a fiction writer and poet whose work has been published in literary journals and anthologies. She is currently at work on a novel, The Ex-Mom, which made the Finalist Short List in the Faulkner Writing Competition as a novel-in-progress. As a Board member of OCWW for 15 years, she helped to bring programs to hundreds of writers in the Chicago area. Visit Ellen’s new website at EllenTMcKnight.com and follow her on Twitter @EllenTMcKnight.

Members of OCWW may submit manuscripts in advance for critique by March 19. Please visit the OCWW manuscript submission guidelines for more information, including an email address for submissions.


Blue Angel

Prose, Francine. Blue Angel. HarperCollins Publishers (New York: 2000).

Blue AngelIn honor of International Women’s Day, Francine Prose is an author not to be missed. In Blue Angel, she takes on the point of view of a cynical, aging professor of creative writing in small New England college. Swenson hasn’t published a novel for years, and it’s been even longer since any of his students showed promise. When a pierced, tattooed student in his workshop reveals a rare talent for writing, he’s anxious to help, but also finds himself increasingly obsessed with her. Through a series of missteps, his secure life unravels, culminating in a disastrous sexual harassment hearing. Wickedly funny and fatalistic, and yet with compassion. For writers: Prose manages to be funny without diluting the tension, akin to Jonathan Franzen but less widely known, and makes us sympathize with someone we might condemn if the point of view were reversed. The story within a story by the talented student shows just how seductive good writing can be. Writers should also be sure to check out Prose’s pointed send-up of writers’ workshops – she perfectly captures how painful the bad ones can be.