Recently I read a book by Laraine Herring called Writing Begins with the Breath. Herring’s thesis is that writing doesn’t only come from the writer’s intellect, but from the writer’s whole being. According to Herring, the physical space around the writer, the writer’s emotions, and even the writer’s body influences what is written. As Herring puts it, “the stories that spring from the authentic voice that is ours and ours alone come from within our bodies. Our cells have memories. Our bodies have stored all our experiences—those expressed and unexpressed, even those forgotten. They are there, waiting for us.”
I’ll admit that I’m skeptical about this, though it might be more consistent with Mormon theology than I’d first like to think. After all, D&C 88:15 says, “the spirit and the body are the soul of man.” As a Mormon, I shouldn’t underestimate the powerful value and influence of the body—even on our thoughts, our writing.
Every few pages the book has a segment called “Body Break” in which the reader is invited to assume a yoga position or breathe in certain patterns. Herring insists that it’s all relevant to the writing process. Honestly, I skipped those parts in the book, but I’m not saying I’ll never try them. I’ve taken yoga classes before and enjoyed them. It might take a while, though, before I see writing and breathing as more than coincidental.
Nonetheless, Herring’s Buddhist approach to writing is a valuable offering, especially when she discusses “the impermanence of writing.” In the spirit of Zen, she asserts that all things are transitory. Joy is temporary, but so is suffering. At times one’s writing comes in abundance; at other times it doesn’t. Herring says, “The lesson of impermanence teaches us that whatever we’re currently feeling will pass. The lesson of acceptance allows us to find joy in every part of the writing process.” When one’s writing is not going well, Herring advises, “Stay with the discomfort. Stay with the uncertainty.”
Herring has a lot of great one-liners for writers. After reading the book I reread it and highlighted significant quotes. Then I wrote down a few in my writing journal, especially those that spoke to questions I’ve faced in my own writing lately. Here are just a few gems from the book:
- “Writing is not a task to be accomplished; it is a relationship to be nurtured.”
- “Writer’s block doesn’t come from having nothing to say. It comes from being afraid to take the next step with our characters, so we create a frozen limbo to hold us up.”
- “Deep writing … forces us to dive into those areas of our being that we have consciously or unconsciously shut ourselves off from. It demands of us to move deeper inside and face what we have not wanted to look at.”
- “If there’s nothing at stake for the author, there won’t be enough energy to sustain a longer project.”
- “If you’re not curious, the reader won’t be curious.”
- “When we finish a novel, we should be changed.”
- “You don’t have to know so much. You don’t have to be the boss of everything…. Witness your stories. Don’t direct them.”
- “Humility is a state of questioning.”
Two of those quotes seemed especially interesting in a Mormon context. Have we ever heard a Mormon equate humility with questioning? It seems to me that we more often equate humility with submission. But Herring’s equation makes more sense. And on the matter of a book changing the writer, I’ve experienced this myself. This idea—that the book you write should change who you are—resonates with a corollary for readers: the books you read should change who you are.
Herring has some other gems that apply even more specifically to Mormons:
- “A writer without empathy is cold, detached, and preachy.”
- “A writer without empathy creates stick-figure characters who represent ideas or judgments rather than people.”
- “We have been taught to speak what we think people in authority want to hear. We have been taught to mimic, to parrot, and we have seen those who write or speak outside the established rubrics suffer the consequences.… And so we self-censor and sabotage our work.”
- “The ego, also called the false self, is very strong. It is in business to survive…. It wants you to write safe, sweet stories. It wants you to stay in previously explored territory…. The writing wants to release you.”
“Play it safe” is a good mantra for a peaceful life in the suburbs. But one’s art should take risks and ask questions and make the artist and the audience a little uncomfortable. And I think Herring has hit upon something profound in her description of “stick-figure characters who represent … judgments rather than people.” Not only is the stereotype unimaginative and inaccurate, but it might also represent a smug judgment on the part of the one using it.
The book’s subtitle is Embodying Your Authentic Voice. I’m still not sure what I believe on the subject of my body’s influence on my writing self, but more and more I’m willing to keep that question open.
What about you? You’re a writer. What role does your body play in the things you write?