I discovered that the capital-I Ideals I loved to write about were all the more palpable when I rooted them in the real world. “Love is the meaning of life” is a nice sentiment, but I began to realize it wouldn’t hit home the way an image of a woman lifting a wedge of orange to her dying husband’s mouth would. — Gayle Brandeis in Fruitflesh: seeds of inspiration for women who write

When you let go of what is no longer necessary, the authentic essence of yourself and your writing bubbles up. This is freedom. This is flexibility. This is being utterly, completely alive. Are you ready? Take a deep inhale. Expand your belly. Now, let is all go. Hold nothing back. Relax your jaw. Release your shoulders. Soften your gaze, and step into yourself, one warrior word at a time. — Laraine Herring in The Writing Warrior: Discovering the Courage to Free Your True Voice

In college, I took a philosophy class, and we learned about the “brain in a vat” theory. The basic gist is that human beings could simply be brains in tubs of goo, no bodies, no experiences beyond the vat and the goo. It’s the basic system that Neo is breaking free from in The Matrix.

When I first learned of this idea, it actually sounded pretty good to me. I’m not a physically gifted person, and so the idea of using what I believed to be my best asset – my brain – for everything and eschewing the physical needs of arms and legs and hips and stomachs sounded pretty good.

See, I had been taught – directly and indirectly – that it was only my mind that mattered, that my body was unessential. It’s a lesson that many people, particularly women, absorb because we find that our bodies do not live up to the mainstream idea of good and beautiful. This self-conception served me pretty well for academic writing, which is usually brainy and structured. I could outline and argue with the best of them.

But when it became clear that I wanted to write more creatively, I needed more than my brain, more than the linear, logic of academics to serve me. And the only route I knew – and still the only one I know – is through my body, that miraculous, powerful, complex, energetic part of me. I couldn’t just separate myself from my body any longer – it wasn’t just a vehicle; it was part of who I am.

The two women I quote at the top of this page helped shape my writing in this regard in ways they could never imagine. Gayle Brandeis showed me that my body is beautiful and rich and ripe with life, that I could drink from it and find language and strength. She taught me to explore my body as fruit for writing.

Laraine Herring taught me to look for the stories written into my body. She encouraged me to look for places I held pain or tension and to study those places for the way they told me about myself. She also taught me to shake, physically shake, a practice I use when I feel particularly brainy and stuck in my head.

Getting in touch with my body, honoring it, respecting its needs, looking to it for the stories that my mind has missed or forgotten or chosen to ignore has been an amazingly freeing experience for me. Now, writing is both a physical and mental activity. When I hit that “zone,” my body nearly hums with the kind of vibration I hear when monks chant. My chest is wide, my shoulders down, my brain still.

I can’t always get to that place, and because my writing is a practice, a discipline, I don’t let that place be the determiner of whether I’ve had a good writing day or not. But knowing how my body feels when I am there is another tool I use to find slip into that quiet where it’s on me and the words.

So, I’m not a brain in a vat. None of us are. We are wild, crazy creatures whose very fingers tingle with electromagnetic energy, whose life force is stored in a substance we could not create, who take our life from the breath, the wind, the air. How would I have ever wanted to ignore that?

How is your body part of your writing practice? What do you learn about yourself when you study your body as part of you?