Touching Into Bodily Sensations

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Here are two beautiful examples of effective use of body sensations on the page. First, a few lines from the poetry of John Keats.

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
    My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
-Keats. Ode To A Nightingale

Secondly, in Orwell’s 1984 (p164) he describes his character Winston’s fear of the rats that have been brought to torture him.

 His bowels seemed to turn to water… Winston could hear the blood singing in his ears’

Wild words put flesh on the bones of the story by using bodily sensations. The wild words are living, breathing, shivering and perspiring creatures themselves.

As with the use of sensory impressions, when we describe movements in the body to the listener or reader, they truly experience them. In the case of body sensations, information from the receptors of the somatosensory system is sent to the brain. You are giving your reader a real, lived experience of the situation described. They walk in the shoes of the character/narrator. If we can hook them in this way, if they can be made to care, then we’ve got them for the rest of the story. As with sensory impressions, using body sensations grounds our storytelling. It makes it vivid, and real. Without it, our account, poem, or story has no anchor, and flies off into abstraction.

Tracking The Wild Words

In order to track the Wild Words, we have to get to know our bodily experience: the tensions, the pains, the numbness, the sensitivity, the beating and the flow. It’s only when we know it, that we can write about the common experience of being in a human body, and find a connection with the listener or reader through that.  More than that, we have to learn to trust our visceral experience enough to write from that place, initially without the intervention of the rational mind. After that, it’s also useful to refer to lists of ‘movement words’, as well as to read widely, to expand our vocabulary and fit it to our experience. Then, what comes out of our mouths, or on to the page, will be more powerful and more true to the human experience than our storytelling has ever been before.

The Fears

Remember the caged writer? They feel unbearably stiff and uncomfortable in their body. Their head feels as if it is about to explode. They pace the room. They return to a childhood habit of biting their nails. They eat junk food to comfort themselves. Their anxiety levels are high and they manage them by drinking alcohol, and smoking. They are tearing their hair out.

Sometimes, we storytellers are no different to a caged tiger, mad with confinement, gnawing at holes in his sleek orange coat. To get into this state, we must have cut-off to a large extent from our physical experience. And then, the thought of having to go back to feeling all that is understandably frightening. We fear being confronted with the impermanent, fragility of being in a human body.

After all, bodies house discomfort, as well as movement. These sensations scare us. Contact with the body can stir up a sense of our fragility and mortality, and reminds us that one day we will die. Contact with the body can arouse sexual desire, which for some, is an uncontainable force, and for others has long been buried, and brings sadness in its wake.  Body awareness can also bring to the forefront of our mind the myriad of ways in which we feel we don’t fit with body-type ideals. If we’re not to thin then we’re too fat. If we’re not too pale, then we’re too dark. And so it goes on.

It’s not easy to find and trust the knowledge and experience stored in the body, to drop down into our physical experience. Most of us chose to shut off from our bodily experience a long time ago. Our bodies no longer remember how to act, without the tyranny of the rational mind cracking the whip. And the rational mind fears the loss of control that would occur with any move in that direction. It’s a long road back. Restoring that connection, however, is an important step on the journey to being a better storyteller, a vital part of learning to write from a place of wild.

In some cases the opposite can occur. Some people find it easy to engage with body sensations. Too easy. People who make a living from an experiential knowledge of the body, can sometimes engage with body sensations to such an extent that they get lost in them, and lose perspective. This particularly happens with body-based practitioners, when a simple ‘How are you today?’ might be met with the reply ‘I’m vibrating from my pelvis’. Don’t get me wrong. I consider myself a body-based practitioner in both my psychotherapy and writing tutoring roles, and have great respect for my fellow practitioners.  However, whenever we become too fluent in any one language or realm of experience, we must take care not to use that as a way of avoiding and distancing from other realms of experience. In the case of bodily sensations overuse of them is sometimes a sign of avoidance of getting in touch with emotion. 

Fear On The Page

If we fear experiencing and telling stories that include bodily sensations, it shows in our speech and on the page. We will digress, summarise, and cut away at key points in the action, rather than risk getting too deep into descriptions of body sensations. We will over-focus on other, more comfortable aspects of our story and miss opportunities to go into the detail where it would most impactfully heighten the drama.  (Please note: I’m not saying that to digress, summarise and cut away is always wrong. These are useful techniques, but only if applied from a place of creative inspiration rather than fear).

If we shift to the perspective of the listener or reader: they feel the fear also. They cannot identify or sympathise with the voice of narration or lead character in the story. This unnerves and confuses them. Once this gap of identification has opened up, it’s difficult to close. The receiver experiences it as getting wider and wider as the narrative progresses. They feel increasingly far from the action. The story strikes them as abstract, rather than grounded, and connected to human experience. After only a couple of chapters like this, we lose our listeners and readers for good.

Conversely, if we use body sensations to avoid experiencing emotion, we may find body sensations dominate the page. If this is the case, those receiving our stories don’t have any perspective on the action, and feel trapped in the body of the character or narrator.  This is equally damaging to our relationship with the listener or reader.

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Photograph courtesy of Peter Reid.