From the Writer’s Desk: The Breath? Really?

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?

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8 Responses to From the Writer’s Desk: The Breath? Really?

  1. I remember someone at a writing class somewhere suggesting that one way to deal with “the editor on your shoulder” (aka the left-brain critical part), when it tries to take over your writing, is to stand on your left foot, raise your left arm, plug your right nostril (so you only breathe through your left nostril), and close your right eye (so you only look through your left eye). The idea was that by “exercising” the left side of your body and not using the right side, you would engage (kick-start?) your right brain (aka the “more creative side”) and overcome that pesky editor on your shoulder.

  2. Jonathan Langford says:

    I agree that the Yoga exercises for writing are unlikely to help directly with writing, though they’d probably make me a healthier person. And in general, I’m skeptical of formulas or programs that describe “the right” way to write. But I really like your first bullet list of quotes, though. It speaks to some of the specific issues that I’m struggling with in my own writing right now.

  3. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Seriously? Her name is Herring? As in red herring? As in yoga exercises are a red herring for those who seek to write well? I googled. Too bad she’s brunette. I was so hoping. . .

    Oh, whatever it takes for a person to get in touch with their “true” or “deeper” self is a good thing.

  4. ““Humility is a state of questioning.””

    I think I’ll buy this book just for that quote. Thanks for the review.

    • Jack Harrell says:

      Yeah, I loved that humility quote. In Mormon culture we equate humility with submission. We struggle with questioning, despite the fact that the whole restoration started with someone asking a question.

  5. Scott Parkin says:

    I don’t know about yogic breathing, but I can say from personal experience that your physical health makes a huge difference in how you approach both writing and storytelling.

    I have a tendency to be (very) heavy. I recently lost about 130 pounds and found my entire emotional outlook significantly changed—for the better. When I’m heavy, I tend to be depressed and to see the dark cloud around every silver lining; when thinner, I tend to see possibility and hope. When heavier, overcoming inertia to start writing is harder; when thinner, I can hardly wait to get to the next project.

    Sadly, I recently gained back about 60 of those pounds—and have been painfully aware of the downward turn in my own emotional state. Your mileage may vary, but for me physical well-being equates directly to the kind of desire, outlook, and energy needed to immerse in writing and move beyond the dilettante stage and into the consistent work required of a pro.

    Interesting stuff.

  6. Marianne Hales Harding says:

    I won’t get into the long, boring story but I have been amazed lately at how connected our bodies are to things like memory, writing, emotions etc. So while I agree that this could be another way for writers to put off writing (“I really can’t start the new draft until I center my chi”) I do think it makes sense to try to access our writing in every way possible. I certainly love working through writing problems during my morning swim. Something about the exertion, the breathing, and the solitude makes my brain work better. Same thing with yoga. Hey, if you get stuck on something, why not stop and take a good long breath? Why not strike a yoga pose and see if it shakes something loose in your brain? It makes perfect sense to me.

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