Writing from Experience: Using Your Body to Improve Your Story

Filed in The Writing Life by on August 7, 2014 • views: 2713

Guest post by Steve Mitchell and Carol Roan

Writing from Experience 2Writing is more than something that happens in our heads.

The experiences we draw upon in order to write exist in every part of our selves.

When our writing is not going well, when we’re blocked, lots of thoughts are running around in our heads (all of which we discard), and that’s where we remain—in our heads.

When it’s going well we find that our bodies—our breathing rates, our pulses—are also involved. When our writing is going really well, we often feel as though we are in a different state of being.

Athletes, who have written about this creative state of being more often than have artists, call this phenomenon “flow.” Our sense of time and space changes. Our minds, emotions, and bodies are completely engaged and in sync.

And what do our readers want? To lose their sense of time and space, to have their minds, emotions, and bodies completely engaged.

So how do we make this happen more often? How can we get ourselves into that creative place where we’re “feeling” more than “thinking” our scenes?

Start with the Breath

We can’t always get into flow, so we tend to think of it as magic. If we’ve experienced it once, we tend to wait around, rather than write, until it happens again. We seldom think of flow as a discipline to be learned—that we can, by trial and error, find rituals and processes that bring us close to, if not in, that ideal state every day.

Experience happens in the body. We experience the world through our senses, those moments and sensations are stored in the body, where they become memories, the records of our interaction with the world. If we learn to trust our bodies, open them up to exploration, we’ll find that our experiences resonate, bounce around, and mingle with the memories of other experiences stored there.

Our breathing can teach us how to do that. Our bodies breathe in two different ways:

  1. When we’re anxious or stressed, the body breathes into the chest, the vocal cords close, and the muscles reorganize themselves from the pelvis up through the arms. This innate mechanism is very useful for giving us the strength and accuracy in our forearms to deal with the historic dangers (lions, tigers, bears) that triggered the anxiety or stress. But it’s not at all useful when we’re writing. When the vocal cords lock shut, our heads are physically separated from our bodies. Our minds are separated from the experiences and memories stored in our bodies.
  2. The body breathes differently when it’s not under attack. When we’re asleep, for example, our bodies open all the way down to the pelvis; the ribs and abdomen rhythmically expand and contract; the blood and the fluid in the central nervous system flow rhythmically and do their repair work. And our entire life experience becomes available for our dreams.

Fortunately, we can override the stress-breathing mechanism. Not by telling ourselves not to be stressed, which will only create greater anxiety. Not by telling ourselves we ought to break through the writers’ block in our heads—a blockage that may be physically in our throats. But simply by exhaling and allowing the incoming air to flow down into the pelvis.

When we breathe consciously into the depths of our bodies, we are also creating muscle memories of an open body. Our bodies will actually help us access the richness of the experiences and memories stored there. And they will help us transmit those experiences to our readers.

Tap Into Stored Experiences

Our role as artists, first and foremost, is to be present in the world. Even before writing, it’s our job to notice, to be quiet, and get out of the way: to actually see, hear and touch the world around us.

In order to do this, we must be present in our bodies. The material we draw upon for our writing comes from the experiences—the moments, sensations, single sensory occurrences we are present for. We both acquire and access them through our bodies because that is where they are held most deeply and most fully.

Writers are often advised to show, not tell. What is the emotional state of a character? This is a question we answer first in our bodies. If our character is angry, we ask ourselves how we react when we’re angry? Are we twitchy and seething, or frozen and silent? Do our faces get hot, our fists clench?

Example: “John stomped out of the room” is a more dynamic sentence than “John was angry.” Engaged readers’ leg muscles will involuntarily respond, if ever so slightly, to the first sentence, and they will “feel his anger.” Sensory information goes first to the body, then to the brain. The body responds before we have time to think about or analyze the situation. Even if readers have never been allowed to stomp when they were angry, their legs will remember wanting to release or relieve the anger by stomping.

If our character is floating in the sea, we call up our memories of the ocean and how our bodies feel when we float. Is the water cool or warm? Still or choppy? How about the exposed skin just outside the water? Is there a slapping sound as the wave passes under us and do we rise and fall in the swells? In these moments, the quality of our awareness in the past is used in the present. When our physical answers become words, they elicit similar experiences in the bodies of our readers.

Example: “Megan intended to swim as far as the point that morning.” When we write from physical memory, we’re also writing from an associated emotional memory. Does our character feel exhilarated by the cold water? If we add, “her last chance to break her record before school started,” we’ve also added sadness for the end of summer, a heightened sensory appreciation of her final swim, and anticipation of the new school year, mixed with anxiety for its unknowns. After infancy, we seldom respond to an experience with a pure affect of joy or distress. The scene becomes more truthful, more engaging for our readers when we write from the full complexity of our emotional memories.

Our readers will have different bodies, different biographies, different life experiences. But we are all born with the same set of innate affects. Babies all respond the same way to a stimulus that angers them: their mouths frown, their jaws clench, their faces turn red. That’s how they communicate their anger.

And that’s how writers communicate with readers—through our common emotional, and therefore physical, responses. The root of the word “emotion” means movement. Movement from. Movement from one body to another, like sensory experiences moving from the writer’s body to the reader’s.

Writing from the Whole Self

When we are in flow, when the words seem to appear on the page of their own volition, we are using our entire, true experience. It’s an integrative act, inching us toward wholeness. When we are writing from the wholeness of our self, our bodies, our emotions, our minds, we are reaching out to the wholeness in others.

* * *

steve photo 2Steve Mitchell and Carol Roan lead “Writing from Experience” interactive workshops in which sensory experiences become the writing prompts. Find more information about these workshops at their Facebook page.

Steve, a winner of the Lorian Hemingway International Short Story Prize, is the author of The Naming of Ghosts (Press 53) and an owner of the independent bookstore, Scuppernong. For more information, see Steve’s website.

carol photoCarol, a winner of the 2012 Porter Fleming Literary Competition, is the author of Speak Up: The Public Speaking Primer (Press 53) and co-editor of When Last on the Mountain: The View from Writers over 50.

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Comments (6)

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  1. Angela Noel says:

    I practice yoga, but the connection between the two types of breath and the flight or fight response is new to me. What a wonderful discovery. The notion that the body’s stress responses are actually REDUCING my ability to respond creatively and accurately is a beautiful light bulb.
    I love the way you describe the process of living in our characters bodies and experiences by connecting to our own. I believe the writer’s job is to show the reader to him or herself in a new way. You explained this idea beautifully.

  2. CF Winn says:

    This is such a great article. I am grateful to have found it and am grateful to Steve and Carol for writing it. There are not just writing tips here, but life lessons that can help open us up to experiences and our true selves – both of which I hope to incorporate more into my own creative endeavors.

  3. When I find posts like this, I feel proud of my path because this is the type of teaching I do. Leading classes that incorporate sensory experience to access, accept and release past trauma is my passion. This is an excellent post. <3

  4. Awesome article as always, Colleen–many thanks to your guest authors!

    It’s important for writers not to neglect out bodies–our awareness of them as well as our health–when we write. And it’s so easy to do.

  5. Thanks, Carol and Steve, for your insights on the role our bodies play in our writing. It’s helpful to have a few tips on how get out of our head, when it comes to writing. I like to idea of taking the writing into my body. It frees me!