What are you actually doing?
am grateful that Keith Hjortshoj has given his thoughts to this blog. Keith's
book,Overcoming Writing Blocks,has been seminal to my
understanding of writing blocks and very insightful for my students. Dr.
Hjortshoj is the John S. Knight Director of Writing in the Majors at Cornell
University. He has published in Asian and Islamic studies in addition to
Composition and Rhetoric.
When I tell people that I teach
writing as movement (or as “embodied movement”), I hope they won’t ask me what
I mean, exactly. They rarely do. Perhaps that’s because the idea pleases them
(they often smile when I say it) and rings true. We all want writing to feel
more like dancing. Or perhaps the statement seems, in an oxymoronic way,
vaguely obvious. When we write, after all, we are doing something, not just with our brains and our fingers but with
our whole selves in space and time. And when people talk about this activity
they use the language of movement. They say they got somewhere, that the project is moving along, or (if it isn’t) that they’re stuck, blocked, or running into trouble: not moving. They
say that writing itself flows or is choppy, like moving water, or that it’s graceful or awkward. Writing can skitter across the page or plod along in
dreary iambs, like a tired donkey. In fact it’s difficult to talk about real
writing (as opposed to abstract plans for writing) without reference to motion.
asked what I mean, I could just say that, honestly enough, and most people
would be satisfied.
I’m not, because the answers to the further questions they might have asked get
very complicated, and I’m still in the process of figuring them out. What is
In some ways it’s the writer; in other ways it’s the writing,
the language itself. And although these kinds of movement, of people and of
texts, are related, they aren’t the same. Through coordinated movement of the
embodied mind (self), sentences and passages move along the page and resonate,
for readers, with qualities of a living voice now detached from the writer (who
is doing something else). But we can’t reduce either of these dimensions of
writing to the other. And when writers and their writing run into trouble,
these distinctions become important. Saying “Just do it!” rarely solves the
example will help to explain why.
graduate student who met with me every week, while working on his dissertation,
typically arrived with less than a page of handwritten draft that set off in an
interesting direction but ended abruptly. When I asked Carl why he stopped, he
said that he got “stuck,” uncertain or confused, and really felt he needed to
do further reading before he could continue. But then his ideas changed, he
started a new page, stopped again, reverted to reading and thinking . . .
one level, the problem seems fairly simple. Becoming fainthearted, Carl made
the common academic blunder of confusing actually writing with reading and
thinking about writing—two very, different but also embodied activities that
felt safer. So I could have explained that confusion each week and said, again,
“Don’t stop writing!”
these explanations didn’t help, and one day I asked Carl to tell me exactly
what happened at the moment he stopped, because I noticed that his handwriting
gradually deteriorated and trailed off. He said, “The pen falls out of my
hand.” As his doubts about what he was saying accumulated, he explained, his
hand became increasingly cramped until he couldn’t hold the pen, and this
physical inability to continue told him he had to stop writing and read, both
to rest his hand and to collect his thoughts: to restore the physical and
mental composure necessary for composing. Just keep writing? He couldn’t. (Carl
wrote with pen, I should mention, because typing was even more paralyzing.)
thinking will now tempt us to conclude that what we thought was a psychological
(cognitive or emotional) problem was really a physical one, such as “carpal
tunnel syndrome.” Time for the writing teacher to recommend physical therapy?
if the therapy is confined to a wrist brace or a set of exercises. Carl’s hand
was connected to the rest of him, including his mind. When his fingers
tightened on the pen, this effort to coordinate language and thought—to
fabricate the kind of writing he felt unworthy to produce—gripped his entire
being. As his hand began to cramp, the fluency of his thought and his writing
deteriorated as well. Which was the cause and which was the effect? It’s
impossible to say, and pointless to try, because these dimensions of the self
this doesn’t mean the problem is hopeless. With awareness that writing (like
everything else we do) is psychophysical movement, we can address the problem
from either direction, through release. “When I’m falling,” Willem de Kooning
said, “I’m doing alright. . .I’m really slipping, most of the time, into that
glimpse. I’m like a slipping glimpser.” Like painting and walking, writing is
falling into empty space, with trust in a mysteriously familiar ability
realized in motion. Like walking, writing always results, in the moment, from
release, not from control. Preparing to take a step, getting your limbs in the
right position, thinking about the right way to take this risk, is not walking.
Release your mind, release your limbs, and you move. It doesn’t matter which
way you release first.
about that risk, and the need for preparation? For the purpose of writing,
there’s nothing wrong with preparation—with reading, or with thinking about
what you want to say. But preparing to write is not writing and doesn’t
necessarily lead to writing, any more than preparing to walk will get you
anywhere. And in the moment, there is no risk in writing. This is why William
Stafford called writing “one of the great, free human activities.” While you
are writing, no one else is actually reading, or judging, what you say, so you
are free to say anything. It really is like dancing, at home alone, with the
curtains drawn, when you can release your body, release your mind, and move. When you release, mindful of this
freedom, you can just dance. When you release (not before) you can “Just
does writing itself move, beyond us? That’s another complicated puzzle and
topic, perhaps, or another post.