Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Guest Post by Keith Hjortshoj

Kevin Dooley

What are you actually doing? 

I 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.
If asked what I mean, I could just say that, honestly enough, and most people would be satisfied.

But 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 moving, exactly? 

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 problem.

An example will help to explain why.

A 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 . . .

On 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!”

But 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.)

Dualistic 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?
Not 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 are inseparable.

But 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.

What 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 write!”

How does writing itself move, beyond us? That’s another complicated puzzle and topic, perhaps, or another post.   


  1. Hi Keith Hjortshoj,

    My name is Jill Adams, and I'm a student in Dr. Peary's graduate class. As a student with a literature concentration, I am loving her writing class. I am learning so many productive concepts to help with my own writing and also wonderful ideas to use with my students. I teach tenth grade English and a creative writing elective.

    First, I wanted to tell you that I find your book UNDERSTANDING WRITING BLOCKS to be so helpful. Your first chapter about what writing blocks actually are is so clear; you ascertain that blocks are not imaginary. I also could relate to the example you give in chapter four about Monica, a graduate student who is blocked while writing her masters thesis. I did not begin to have blocks until graduate school. It seemed for me that as the stakes got higher, I began to worry more about what my professors expected of me.

    I really enjoyed reading your post. Our class was very excited that you were guest posting on Dr. Peary's blog. Your explanation of writing as "embodied movement" is so cool! I often think about writing as mental, but you make good points about how it is physical, too. I liked that you said, "William Stafford called writing 'one of the great, free human activities.'” I have never heard that quote before, and I think I might have to add it to my classroom wall. My broke high school students would appreciate it!

    Thank you,
    Jill Adams :)

  2. Thanks Jill. I'm working on a book for grad students, and in recent years I've pretty much devoted my teaching to them, because the struggles they face are so neglected.One of them told me that while his undergraduate papers were a "series of one-night stands," his dissertation and research articles were "long-term relationships," with all the patience, frustration, and persistence that entails.I told this to another grad student, and a few months later she came to see me with her finished master's thesis, ready to file.When I asked her how it felt, she said, "Long-term relationship, I'm SO ready to break up with you!" It reminded me that we shouldn't take the damned things TOO seriously, that they come to an end, aren't supposed to last forever.I have to remember that Stafford also said, "all these things are expendable, and the more expendable you keep feeling these things are, the more likely you are to have things happen to you." Serial monogamy?

    With best wishes,


  3. I love your relationship analogy! It is sooo true! Thank you :)