Writing Craft

Body is Story: Le Guin on embodied writing

It’s by embodying persons — truly being them, in our bodies — that we come to write their authentic story

Dear Franz,

I understand (again) that regardless of what I write in these times and spaces of the morning hour, by the act of writing I am holding this space open and sacred for the act, the practice. That is: body is story, in more ways than one, and I am using my body to inhabit this hour so story can come. But, worries Ursula K. Le Guin, isn’t it sometimes simply stringing words together? Is that the best use of a writer’s time?

Essays are in the head, they don’t have bodies the way stories do; that’s why essays can’t satisfy me in the long run. But head work is better than nothing, as witness me right now, making a string of words to follow through the maze of the day … Any string of meaningfully connected words is better than none.

For Le Guin, a story has bodies — actual bodies of people that she inhabits (“There are no characters,” says Hemingway of writing, “only people.”). It is the feel of the bodies that allows Le Guin to write the story, because it is what happens to those characters’ — sorry, persons’ — bodies that shapes their world and their reactions: what they see, smell, touch, love, fear. Le Guin continues:

My plan for stories that don’t become stories all lack that key, the person or people whose story it is, the heart, the soul, the embodied inwardness of a person or several people.

Body is StoryThis is super interesting, Franz. I shift a lot between writing fiction and non-fiction, what might here stand for Le Guin’s “essay” form; that is, in Le Guin’s terms, I shift from writing that comes from the head and writing that comes from the body… and I find the head easier. Perhaps this is why it is so hard for me to trust in writing fiction: that I trust my body less than my mind. Or rather, because I “know” they are the same being, I trust the emanation of my cerebral thoughts a lot more than I trust, or can even feel sometimes, the emanation of my embodied knowledge.

But it makes a lot of sense (literally!) that good stories, and authentic fiction, comes from this embodiment of the person or persons at the centre, the heart of the story.

Ah, some may say, Franz, I am aware, that this is just an intellectual playfulness by Le Guin, in that the persons of her story come from her head, her imagination. But no, first off she really doesn’t believe this; and second, I think she is right. “It’s more than voice,” she writes, “it’s a bodily knowledge. Body is story: voice tells it.” I would say that on this, Le Guin can be trusted. She has the evidence to back it up, after all, with some of the greatest novels of the last century.

Body is story.

Isn’t this right? That it is the bodies of people moving through a drama, tension, over obstacles, even in the most heady, literary works — think of Herzog, composing his letters on that train — it is still his bodied experiences, told through memory, we encounter; and even that he is on that train, moving towards the denouement, is important.

Le Guin suggests that rather than write anything when one is in a fallow point, that is, rather than simply stringing words together, “it is better to hold still and wait and listen to the silence. It’s better to do some kind of work that keeps the body following a rhythm but doesn’t fill up the mind with words.”

The large theme of her collection of essays(!) The Wave in the Mind is this rhythm. The rhythm of literature, of writing story. That it has rhythm, its own rhythm, and our job as writers of story and literary prose is to find that rhythm, the right one for this story, and allow it to emerge. It is not the meter of poetry, and it is not the flatness of textbooks. Literature is the heartbeat of its writer and persons, of their story — imagined or real. That is: non-fiction can be literary, too, it has its own rhythm. It is not that only literary fiction has rhythm — but that each work, each writer perhaps, has her own, and that in fiction this matters most, in story this emerges most, as it comes from listening to, with one’s body, the noises and beats of that other body at the heart of the story.

And yes, reading through my new novel, as I was yesterday, I felt it — the rhythm of the piece of work, in which sentences as well as in the overall, perhaps fractal, structure, repeated the same rhythm and beat, as Le Guin says happens in Lord of the Rings, beating John Yorke to the conclusion on structure by quite a few years.

Perhaps this is why my new novel works — because I did listen to the rhythm of that body of the person at the heart of the story, because in many ways that person, my protagonist, embodies many of my own experiences. He is also me, and has my childhood, if not in the detail but in the feeling, in the embodied knowledge of the guilt, the fear, the shame.

So, Franz, some learning!

  1. Practice: waiting for the voice in silence, rather than typing out any old essay?! Perhaps, but there’s no doubt — no doubt! — in my mind that the essay is part fictional too, in terms of its literary rhythm, the essay can also tell a story, for example, in my address to you. And yet if Le Guin says :”X” works for writing fiction, it’s worth listening, and trying out her ideas.
  2. Practice: putting myself in the bodies of these people, these persons in my fictional writing, and letting story emerge from there, rather than fretting I don’t have enough drive to write fiction… this is not just headily writing out lists of height, eye colour, favourite ice creams, but living, spending time with these persons, “taking them for a cup of tea” as my friend the writer VA says and does. And this for animals too, of course. Animals are persons. Embodying the other creature as a way to come to know their knowledge, feel their world. It just needs time, time listening, being in their bodies.
  3. Practice: anything that allows me, or any writer, to trust their body more, to come closer to and be able to listen to one’s own bodily knowledge; so yoga, massage, reiki, mindfulness, etc.
  4. Practice: a different form of art, such as playing music, or listening to music, something that gives the body work in rhythm but that is not words. Time to buy that oboe?

Here, Franz, is my learning from today, this morning’s essay: body is story. And this morning sacred time to write, to hold open for learning, is putting my body in the place for story. For when the flood of fiction comes, to be already in the everyday habit of sitting down first thing before anything (okay, after feeding the cat) to write.

About Alex R Lockwood

I learn as much about the the art of living through literature (especially Kafka) as I do through other people. I read and write fiction and non-fiction, and research the cultural value of the creative writer; the ways that literature impacts our lives; the craft of writing, particularly what it means to be a non-anthropocentric (vegan) writer; the representation of animals; and the ethics of human-animal relations in literature, media and culture since 1945. This site is a platform for capturing the threads of different literary projects and, I hope, offers something to those thinking through the value of reading and writing in their lives.

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