The writing life dictates that we spend time thinking; casual reflection just won’t do. Active mental work on literary craft components is vital to making our art and making it well. In brief, we’d better have our brains in gear. It sounds simple enough, or at least it always has to me. But what happens when someone calls us out on the “writing life” processes we’ve come to assume are best? When those processes are put under a bright light and forced to defend themselves as valuable? When you’re sweating on a yoga mat, getting reading to pick up a pencil and write, and your instructor shouts, “Get out of your head. It’s a bad neighborhood!” you have to start figuring it out.
I live in my head. Most writers do. I won’t say we can’t be fit and healthy, but I can say we aren’t exactly known for those characteristics. We are stereotyped as pasty, tortured, intellectual, deeply troubled people with a penchant for alcohol. We are known for having a terrible time getting out of the bad neighborhoods of our minds. Our bodies are seen as unfortunate roadblocks to our work. More coffee. More sleep. Less sleep. More time alone, bottom firmly attached to the chair. “Apply butt to chair” is actually something we tell each other as a mock literary-physician’s prescription for getting the work of a writing life done. Stay inside, drink coffee or wine, sit still. Write.
But I went to Stowe, Vermont, with a group of humans who wanted to understand more about what the writing life truly requires. We did not stay inside, and we did not sit still. We did yoga, sometimes on horses, sometimes to the rap music of Eminem. We experimented with something many of us had never done before in our writing lives: we consciously inhabited our bodies, which in turn provided a fast-track to some surprising twists in our written expression. I began to realize I’ve been stubborn, intellectualizing my writing life to the detriment of my craft. I can spin a complex narrative, show you layered and intriguing characters, describe rich and compelling places. I can think the hell out of almost anything that I need to write. But what I don’t do is let you see past what I decide to show you. I am not always good at allowing the reader to participate. As Stacey D’Erasmo says in The Art of Intimacy: The Space Between, I struggle to allow the reader to be included; it’s much easier and decidedly less painful to write only from conscious concepts. Our intellect is what allows us to steer around our best literary pain, the material often most relevant to the reader. Too often, my writing life manifests a desire to keep out of striking distance from the knowledge in my body.
My time in Stowe resulted in a kind of breakdown. Between active yoga poses, some spontaneous kick-boxing, and the clarity that comes with vegetarian eating for thirty-six hours, I began to rewire how I process a writing life. I started resolving with relative ease narrative roadblocks I’ve struggled to overcome for years. Once I decided to allow myself to cry, a lot of painful truths about my creative nonfiction subject matter showed themselves. I had held these things at bay by never leaving the confines of my head. Genuine hard tears are a physical experience; after all, my intellect didn’t cry. My body cried. After one particular session I had to retire for the rest of the day. The experience was so foreign and intense that I had nothing left to give. I slept for several hours, got up and washed my face, and went back to sleep with the blanket over my head.
When I awoke, my body ached but my mind felt refreshed. It felt better. I looked at the words in my journal, the things I had accessed during writing prompts between sun salutations and cat-cow stretches. I had stopped intellectualizing my writing. I was simply writing, putting words to emotions like fear and love. These weren’t pretty or random feelings. On the page were what I had thought of as disconnected responses, but a day later I recognized subconscious links to things I didn’t like to—wait for it—think about. Suddenly those pasty, tortured, deeply troubled thoughts didn’t have a safe harbor in my head. They’d been kicked out of the bad neighborhood and into the world of my vinyasa practice. They had shriveled to almost nothing, and in their place I saw new bridges to understanding my life’s experience.
My writing life changed forever in Stowe. It changed because I changed. I allowed myself to trust my body to be a good place to live. My physical self knows things, and it’s much more genuine and complete in its storytelling than is my intellect. Back home, I scrolled back through some essay drafts to a piece I’m developing called “On Vertigo.” In the draft, I reflect on my first and only encounter with a compulsive desire to throw myself off a ledge two hundred feet above a marble floor. It happened twenty years ago, and only now is it starting to reveal its lesson to me:
It is possible to read this narrative and conclude that the roles of saboteur and savior were exactly the opposite of what I think they were. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to say my body tried to save itself from my mind. The road diverged. This I know. Maybe in my life I let my component pieces function apart from each other too often. And maybe I lie to myself—a lot. Maybe it’s not that my body wants too much of the wrong things, because when I’m honest I hear it asking me for the right things. It wants to go for a brisk walk. It wants to go to yoga for an hour and a half. It wants to lift weights, and drink lots of water and eat yogurt and raw broccoli and go to sleep early every night. It’s my mind that doesn’t seem to want any part of this agenda.
A writing life can, in the end, be whatever we decide it is. If one is fulfilled and finding creative expression that satisfies, it is perhaps not for me to say who does and does not live in a bad neighborhood. But I know I did. I plan to keep moving.