I’ve spent the last year developing a curriculum for my upcoming workshop Dancing on the Page: Moving into Embodied Writing, but I find that the class description doesn’t demystify the process enough for some people. This blog post describes my own personal journey into embodied writing and is meant to give a sense of what one might experience during the workshop.
I have always been a writer. Since I was old enough to could string together written sentences, I have kept a journal. But I have not always been particularly embodied. About ten years ago, after experiencing a significant trauma, I was the most removed from this fleshy temple that I have ever been. I felt as if the part of me that was really me was a tiny marble, rattling around in the burnt clay shell of my body. Usually, this “I” was hiding out in my big right toe, where its density was least likely to shatter my fragile container. That year, life played pinball with this marble me with no time, space or support to feel into the emotions I could not or did not want to feel: the fear in my nauseated gut, swirling as an electric mixer does; the anger in my heart, pounding a battle drum; the heavy sadness in my head, keeping my floating body from drifting off as I slept by anchoring it to my pillows.
When my sister passed away suddenly a couple of years ago, I found myself carrying, in a bodily way, on my shoulders, in my arms and hands, much more than the grief of her loss. Rather, her passing was the first piece dropping in a domino effect of violent change: mourning the loss of the long-dreamed for life I had just began in Istanbul, working through childhood trauma for the first time, a painful divorce. Everything that I had spent a lifetime trying not to feel came knocking at my door. It was at that time that I found myself engaging my body with far more rigor than ever before. For hours every day, I ran along the Columbia River (my sanctuary during a dry childhood in arid eastern Washington), swam in the pool at my childhood home, danced ballet, scaled the climbing wall at the local gym and took out my anger at losing Afifa on a 50 pound punching bag I picked up at a thrift store.
I began seeing a woman to help me move through my grief and by our second meeting, we began to draw pictures together. Mine were usually abstract. She gave me a book with Mandarin characters along with their definitions and the very particular way in which one is to paint Chinese calligraphy, along with an elaborate ritual to prepare the ink. I spent several sessions making my canvas just right for the eventual character I would create over it. I don’t remember the exact character now, but I recall it meant “standing at a precipice.” This time in my life was indeed a turning a point, a physical movement into embodiment.
When I asked her why she wanted me to draw, she told me that she wanted me to get out of my head and into my body, to access the creative, nonlinear right brain and stop analyzing. I was blown away by this notion. It was something I had never considered; that there was more to me than the thoughts in my head. She introduced me to John Lee’s Writing from the Body: for writers, artists and dreamers who long to free their voice, a book that forms a core part of the workshop. She suggested that we do one of the exercises together, which involved us beating the crap out of each other with foam swords. This woman in her late sixties with a bad hip and more than a little extra body weight really whaled on me; I was freaked out and cracked open. We sat and wrote afterwards. It was the first time I ever experienced the oft-mentioned “mind-body connection” in a visceral way.
I went on to embrace deeply embodying experiences and dug up an incredible pattern: after long periods out of the mind and in the body, my writing flourished and became far more sensual, visceral, raw and wild. Two notable events were my first Vipassana course, a ten day silent meditation retreat that focuses on awareness of bodily sensations and mandates a strict policy against reading and writing, and two weeks I spent working on an organic farm, the first time I found myself much more interested in sitting outside quietly, watching the mountains and the clouds, than in picking up a book. Less than a week after leaving Vipassana, I found myself at a dirty rock concert in Richland. The next day, while eating dinner alone in a sushi restaurant, one of my best poems came to me, unbidden. I had to compose it on my phone. It is due to be published this September in Juked Magazine, but here is an excerpt:
we are artists & musicians & writers because we are cobwebs on the branches of the most magical jungle plants, & they are heartbreakers & investment bankers & exotic dancers because they are vacuum cleaners with flashlights & machetes. that’s just the way of the world, beautiful, to love that which is so different & horribly dangerous.
I noticed that previously, I had written about my own body in an objectifying way in my writing, comparing it to Indian musical instruments and Egyptian sailboats, rather than feeling into what the sensations were truly like inside my skin and muscles and nerves. Were his kisses frail as crystalline crepe paper, was her smell a million elephants marching through the nostrils? Did we dance with the wild abandon of hungry eggplant purple beasts? These sorts of questions are far more interesting to me now. My writing looks out from my center, rather than at myself from the external world.
Now, it happens like clockwork. I’ll walk out of a Nia or yoga class, or in returning from a swim in the sea, an idea pops into my mind. Many people notice they get their best ideas on their morning walk or while washing the dishes. I no longer have the luxury of taking a few weeks off to completely drop into my body but I’ve developed a set of daily practices that keep my creativity flowing. I no longer struggle with writer’s block in the way that I had for most of my life.
This summer I am primarily supporting myself by writing poetry on demand at farmer’s markets. People ask for a poem on a particular topic, they pay what they want for it, and I compose it on an ancient Royal typewriter on the spot. I have developed a deep trust in the creative process. I have fed myself with the sights, sounds and smells it needs to pulled metaphors out of cells buried in the deepest corners of my body. And I didn’t realize, until a customer mentioned it, was that I close my eyes and take a deep breath before every composition.
John Lee writes about breath, about how it literally means “inspiration” and how to harness the breath’s powers of the muse. In this workshop, we’ll practice a daily breathing and writing exercise. The “dancing” on the page is more metaphor than daylight rave, but we’ll have lots of opportunities to get into our bodies through movement. We’ll titillate the senses with taste, sound, smell, image and touch. We’ll take advantage of Fort Worden’s trails and the proximity to the beach in order to explore writing in, about and with nature. We will draw from a diverse range of somatic practices including Nia dance, tai chi and the Feldenkrais technique.
We will move away from the critical internal editor of the rational left brain and write from the right brain. We will share when and what we want in a safe group of peers. We will develop daily rituals to create a sacred space around our writing. We will create an alchemical laboratory where we cook up new ways of relating to the written word; we’ll ask what individual words feel, taste, sound, smell or look like? We will walk away with a diverse plethora of practices to bring to our writing as and when it is right. We will play, explore and learn to create word compositions with wild abandon. Most of all, we will have fun and inject joy and pleasure and bliss directly into the gold vein of verse.