Embodied Writing

I fell in love with Rhetoric and Composition upon first reading about the role of embodiment in writing. Writers like Patricia Dunn, Kathleen Blake Yancey, Malea Powell, and Jacqueline Jones Royster (among many others) engaged my attention by linking writing practices to bodily preferences, proximities, pressures, and possibilities.

Most of my early interest in embodiment arose from my digital practices; I started blogging about moving and writing, yoga and writing, Facebooking and writing. On Oct. 8, 2009, I ended a blog post by asking: “Do writers know/think to use their bodies in the process? What is the benefit of using movement when brainstorming and drafting? How can movement affect the revision process?” Today, I would expand that last question a bit to read: How can movement affect drafting, thinking, resting, collaborating, and revising? In this blog post, I want to make a few personal writing observations on embodiment.

For me, yoga is a constant metaphor for writing. Focus on breathe helps sustain bodily postures that otherwise seem impossible to maintain. This kind of focus also applies to stress maintenance necessary for grad school survival. I spent most of the first year of my doctoral program with a painful connection to my stomach. I lived in constant fear that my consistent stomachaches indicated my inability to handle grad school’s pressures. At the same time, I feared others would view me as apathetic or slacker-y if I didn’t run around stressed out all the time. Yoga helped me use breath as a safety net in these hectic multi-pressured situations (where stress comes from students, professors, what others think about me, what I think about myself, how I want others to see me, how those things affect my ability to collaborate, get excited about my work, or win departmental positions). The pain I faced was too overwhelming to ignore, and it required me to create new habits of mind and body around learning. During this time, my yoga teacher explained to our class that the pose called warrior two (pictured above) reminds us to live in the present moment. With arms stretched equally forward (toward the future) and backward (toward the past), the pose reminds us to turn our attention to the center of our bodies–our hearts and cores (the present). Posing here helped soothe my stomach pain (which existed in my core) and turn my attention to breathing as a way of handling pain and bringing my mind into immediate time and place with my body. This connection I experience between mind and body shapes my understanding of embodiment.

Still, there are historical links between learning and pain. Learning is often related to pain when some stressful or painful situation makes you remember something more vividly. I’ve heard professors explain that learning—to be genuine, effective, and meaningful—has to be painful. Some questions I have in response are:

Is it true that the pain of sitting too long, acquiring too much info at once, or stressful lifestyle choices really make us learn more or better?

What studies exist among graduate students to show the relationship between learning and pain? Is this relationship really beneficial? Or best? Or even effective?

Where does reflection/stillness fit into the simple equation that “real” learning is pain?

About taylo206

I am an Assistant Professor of Composition, Rhetoric and Professional Writing at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.
This entry was posted in Embodiment, Feminism and Queer Studies, Public Rhetorics, Theories of Composition and Rhetoric, Writing Exercises. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Embodied Writing

  1. Don says:

    Great post, Katie. I desperately need to find my yoga.

  2. episcotheque says:

    Interesting, Katie — so much to think about. I guess I do think pain is part of the learning process. Pain is usually unpleasant, but it’s important — it can protect us from great harm/danger, and after injury protects the body until the body can heal. That’s why people w/ congenital insensitivity to pain have really low life expectancies. We’ve all been burned by oven racks or baking sheets, and learned to be careful.

    I sort of feel like most of my pain in academic learning is emotional rather than physical (though I never had a migraine before I started grad school…), and I think this is because of the change involved in learning — because learning does mean change, either in behavior or in mental associations, and change is often painful, or at least upsetting, to me. So when I recognize, “this is painful,” I’m made aware of the fact that change and development is happening, I resist entering the change too deeply before I’m ready (though sometimes I just fall off the edge — that happens, too), and I’m tender with the sensitive parts until I’ve had time to synthesize them. And, sure, I go right back and hurt myself again, which sounds a bit like masochism, but avoiding the pain of learning would be like experiencing heartbreak and thinking, “I’ll never let myself fall in love again.” Being open to pain is, I think, part of what makes us human.

    I don’t think this is synonymous with forcing your body to sit on uncomfortable chairs for hours at a time, or cramming knowledge until your head’s about to burst, or sacrificing sleep night after night. This is like ignoring pain entirely and holding your hand on the stove until it blisters and blackens. Some people do this (figuratively), and they look very successful and prolific, but I… can’t. That’s where the yoga comes in, right? Breath and balance. (But golly, am I sore after some yoga sessions.)


  3. taylo206 says:

    Thanks for these thoughts, Alissa. I agree that pain is part of it all. Some of the most frustrating experiences prove most productive, but I like what you say in your last paragraph about how productivity can’t be all there is to it. Sometimes-painful sustainability is becoming increasingly more important to me than incredibly-productive pain.

  4. Katie! My article on yoga and writing may be in JAEPL next year–it is due Feb. 1st. So glad to know others are writing on this 🙂

    Hope all is well!

  5. Katie Taylor,

    Well, you said it!

    I’m proud of you to question what, in “grad land” seems to be un-question-able assumptions about how learning and working are/is/should be.

    There is a difference between awakening, curiosity, and pain. And I do not believe that pain is necessary to learn. What I say here is both “real” and, also, a matter of semantics. One need not feel pain or even use the word or think the word “pain” (or suffering, trauma, etc.) if one maintains equanimity, if one maintains peace and breath. Staying in the present moment is key…not wishing for things to be other than they are.

  6. Lynn says:

    Good information Katie!

  7. bridgetholding says:

    Thanks for this article Kathryn, which I have just discovered. I’m an art-based psychotherapist working with writers using a body-based approach, through my company Wild Words- http://www.wildwords.org-. I’m fascinated by ideas around embodied creativity. Thanks again


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