Writing is of the Body

For me, writer's block comes down to a failure to appropriately focus my attention. My thinking-brain hogs the spotlight when I need to be focusing on my bodily sensations.

Writing is of the body. Oh, yes, that's right. I'm getting New Age with you now! Capital N, New Age. Now let's all go put on our robes and get our mats and meditate for three hours about what I said.

OK, I'm poking fun at New Ageism more than I intended. But what I'm getting at is this: What I'm trying to direct your attention to is this predominance of thought, this putting of thought on the pedestal that we do so often in our culture.

I ran into a big problem in my writing life after I went to college, and during my time there. I studied Literature. I analyzed it. I critiqued it. And I was pretty good at it. But little did I know that all of this time and effort was spent strengthening muscles and processes in my brain that were going to kill my own ability to write. Kill it. DOA, she's a goner, Jim.  Why was that? Doubtless you've heard of this dichotomy between the right brain and the left brain. The creator and the editor. The child and the adult. The ID and the Ego. There's a lot of wisdom in those discussions, and I'm going to be borrowing a lot of what has been and is said about them, but what I want to talk about is the approach to writing, and how you may be getting in your own way as I was.

I'm what, four paragraphs in, and now I'm going back to my first line. I must be getting paid by word here. Writing is of the body. It is a physical experience. It is not of the mind---well, not of the thinking mind. Not the part of your brain that does math. You need to learn to embrace the physical ness of writing and keep your thinking brain out of the picture.

Writing is a complex activity. You put down a bunch of words and you see a bunch of images, feel a lot of sensations, how could you possibly pay attention to all those words? How could you possible filter through them ensuring they are correct? How could you possibly do this and maintain any kind of momentum? Create anything real, of magnitude? Does a ballet dancer think about her movements? Is her foot in the right place? Is she spinning at the right speed? Heck no, she'd fall flat on her face if she did that. Yet as writers we do this ALL THE TIME. We pay attention to the words. We think about them. THINK THINK THINK. Get it out. OUT of the picture.

Writing is physical, don't you see that? It's the sweet taste of honey on your tongue, it's the fire of anger in your belly. It's the awe of a mountain range. These sensations that comprise your fiction come from your body--not your thinking mind. Your thinking mind wants to maintain its control by keeping you from experiencing these sensations. When you try to get your writing bike going, it constantly tries to throw in wrenches.  You have to learn to keep pedaling despite the wrenches.

I'm not telling you to stop thinking. If you try to stop thinking while you write you will only think more and get blocked all the worse. When thoughts come, just let them come and keep being fluid, keep seeking the sensation. Oh here comes another thought, was that a point of view violation? Just let it go and keep going. Keep pedaling, don't let the wrench throw you off your seat. Keep pedaling.

It's a matter of attention, when it comes down to it. Everyone has limited attention--it's a limited resource. When you're at a party and there's multiple groups of people talking, you can't possibly understand all that's being said at the same time, can you? No, you can't. You have to focus on one group's conversation and your brain blocks out the rest. If you try to pay attention to two conversations equally what happens? You don't understand either of them particularly well. You get bits and flashes, some understanding and clues, but not the full conversation. I'm speaking sense, am I not?

Well what happens when you write is that your body is trying to have a conversation, and so isn't your thinking-brain. Your body wants to look at that woman over their in your imagination. It wants to see how beautiful she is, and there's another part of your body that jumps in and with feeling something else about that woman. Your body grows tingly just looking at her. You desire her. Want to kiss her so bad.

That's the conversation you need to attend to. But the thinking brain wants you to attend to its conversation. This woman is your protagonist's chief love interest, it says. Oh, you’re thinking about sex now, aren’t you? You're such a perv. People are going to read this story and think you're a perv. Nice going. Your novel is set in Victorian England yet you describe the woman as wearing a mini-skirt. That's wrong. Fix it.

It's not that the thinking-brain doesn't have useful things to say, it's that you have limited attention and need to stay focusing on your body's conversation, what it's telling you. That's the stuff that fiction is made of. That's where the fun is.

Now understand that some people can flip from one conversation to the next. They can be focusing on what their body is telling them and then listen into their thinking-brain, attend to it, and then move back to their body's sensations. But these people have mastered the switch back and forth or they’ve just never let their thinking-brain dominate the conversation. If you can do this, and it works for you, that's awesome, keep it up, but for those of you who can't seem to keep writing, or even dread starting, it's because you're attending way too much to the thinking-brain's conversation. You need to realize that your attention is limited and you need to attend to the body's conversation.  When the thinking-brain butts in with something, just let it pass on through. Don't fight it, just let it pass and keep on attending to your body. Keep pedaling.

The End

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