Writing is a physical act – Sally Franson

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By Sally Franson

The process of writing a book really changed for me when I remembered I had a body. I use the word remember intentionally because you could argue that its antonym isn’t to forget, but rather to dismember. Remembering, or anti-dismembering, is a refusal to cleave ourselves, to compartmentalize or separate. It is the act of putting ourselves together again.♥

It wasn’t fashionable to have a body, at least when I was coming up as a writer. As an undergraduate I prided myself on denying my body essentials like sleep, water, physical activity, and nutrition in favor of caffeine, diet pills, and adrenaline. During reading week at Barnard, I spent twelve hours a day at the library, studying and drinking so much coffee my hands would shake. Graduate school was better, but not by much. I lugged my body to the gym several times a week, but it was a joyless act, borne solely of necessity, like walking the dog on a frigid winter morning.

And perhaps like the owner of such a dog, I listened to the whines of my body as little as possible. I found its neediness annoying. My consideration of it covered only that razor-thin territory native to the American female: general disapproval to outright contempt.

When my father died, however, in the midst of my writing my first novel, I found that I could no longer ignore my body’s lamentations. Grief exists in the body, not the brain, and for months I was overtaken by an intense desire to move it out of my body and into something else. I began lifting weights, heavy weights, for the first time in my life, I took exotic dancing classes, and in the hours that I used to write, I walked to a secluded area of a nearby park and threw tennis balls against dead trees.

If this sounds mad, believe me, it was, but occasionally madness can be instructive. I came to understand, through the jet propulsion of my own grief, that the forces driving the characters in my novel – be it desire, fear, or rage – were just as physical, just as primal, as what had recently blown through me. Fiction, I realized, was not solely a place for silent, heady people to monologue silent, heady thoughts, but a dynamic arena in which characters acted upon the best and worst impulses of the human condition. Fiction was not academic philosophy, in other words. Fiction was a play.

What a perfect word that is: play!

And so I began to treat my office as a rehearsal space, not a library carrel; I became actor, director, and muse. Before I wrote scenes, I acted them out, with dialogue, and every thirty minutes I took a walking break. The more I paid attention to my physical body, and the more I used my body in the writing process, the more dynamic my novel became. This surprised me, though I wish it didn’t.

But this wish is part of a broader wish, that our educators and institutions and technologies did not encourage disembodiment in favor of efficiency, testing, and simulacra. Though our bodies are frail and needy, they are us, and they are all we have. For me, there has been no better teacher of the human condition than this body of mine, and no better conduit into writing fiction. After all fiction at its best is a punch in the gut, and what could be more physical than that?


Sally Franson received her education at Barnard College and the University of Minnesota. Her work has appeared in such varied places as The Guardian, NPR Weekend Edition, and Witness, and she has received recognition from The Macdowell Colony, the Ucross Foundation, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, Glimmer Train, Best American Travel Writing, and more. A Lady’s Guide to Selling Out is available now.

sallyfranson.com

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