Writing through the body

Opinion by Josh Wagner
Nov. 30, 2017, 3:00 a.m.

Write through your body!

I return to this seemingly simple command every few weeks, whenever I am faced with difficulties writing. At first glance, “writing through” seems like an odd expression of the physical act of composition – a neural impulse that registers in my brain and is transferred to the appropriate nerves that move the proper muscles to create characters on a page. But “writing through” also implies a thoughtlessness and immediacy speedier and more urgent than writing to-do lists, class notes or legal documents. It implies the authenticity and closeness of bodies, a physical expression, that the abstract fiction of language can lack.

My body likes short sentences. Staccato. Thoughts that don’t really deserve to be full-blown sentences, yet are somehow artificially thrust upon the structure. They’re strange and wayward. They stray. Things not seen. They elude purpose. Sometimes they might even be specific, but they quickly grow blurry and evasive in the middle. They taper out, muffled and muted. Directionless.

Such a practice of “writing through” seems both juvenile and effective. In moments of forgetfulness, the body can give expression to ideas that you haven’t thought of yet but that are latent in your consciousness. It feels as if thought, especially too much thought, hinders creation – murderous bondage. Random, automatic reactions help bring out what hours of thought could not distill. At the same time, allowing yourself only immediate responses is an arbitrary restriction on the creative process. It’s like those art exercises I did in elementary school where we were only allowed to use two colors or draw one kind of shape. Weird limit cases emerge.

The only problem is that I often forget that I have a body – missing meals, overeating, losing out on sleep. But more than such obvious lapses, it’s difficult to figure out what my body wants or needs. There’s no neat language to make such intentions known. What are the ideal conditions under which to produce a Daily column? What should I be looking at when working on a term paper? Should I orient my desk towards my bookshelf or towards the grassy knoll of Casper Quad?

It’s far easier to ignore the body and exist in the mind. Most of the art galleries, concerts, poetry readings and other sensory events that I attend, I experience through language. I think about how I am going to recount the experience of looking at Philip Guston’s “Overcoat” at the Anderson Collection or what vocabulary word most aptly describes the way in which an acorn bounced on my head and landed on the grass in Meyer Green. Any moment has the latent power to transform into such a moving experience. It’s an automatic action to experience our tangible reality though the abstraction of language – without words to think about, it’s hard to know what we are feeling or to feel anything at all.

Yet, in brief moments of estrangement, language doesn’t really work. Heinrich von Kleist writes that “we see that in the organic world, as thought grows dimmer and weaker, grace emerges more brilliantly and decisively.” Sometimes, it’s just not enough to think about the world in terms of language, forcing a structure on the formless, or to place so much value on the intentionality of thoughts. The more you try to do something, that harder it becomes to accomplish. It is the natural, thoughtless actions – of living and of writing – that are the most arresting and authentic.

There is simply too much to look at and feel and remember and think that the simple acts of listening and being present are all too easy to ignore. Distractions are everywhere. But in moments of aesthetic revelation, we are distracted by ourselves. Instead of turning our minds outwards to our endless stream of responsibilities, our bodies require us to turn inside, to reflect on what’s happening and to consider what we could have missed out on. It seems like any given moment has this hidden potential to become psychically special, and what determines that specialness is the willingness not just to hear but to listen.

To me, it seems like the most desirable thing would be to become purely analytic, thinking in terms of logic, action and rationality rather than sentiments, emotions or tangential association. Such clear thinking certainly works wonders on term papers and in class presentations. But the kind of living that requires the quietude of listening feels more real, immediate and human. Maybe it is possible to turn on the intentional part of you in class and to turn on the feeling part in the aesthetic experience of the real world. But I’m no genius; enacting such a divide is difficult for me, so it is easier to choose one. Live through your body.


Contact Josh Wagner at jwagner4 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Josh Wagner is a senior staff writer, studying romantic poetry (and sometimes philosophy). He spends his time navigating the treacherous bike paths near the Main Quad and reciting his favorite George Herbert sonnet to strangers.

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