The Body is Nonfiction
December 13, 2022 § 45 Comments
Learning to become aware of our story at a cellular level
By Charlotte Wilkins
It’s old but flawlessly restored, glinting metallic new-penny paint, a color that didn’t exist “back then.” A Chevy pickup, the 1940’s shape unmistakable. I’ll have to wait till it passes to pull into the street.
The truck reels past, the shutter freezing on a single frame in my windshield. Sound, movement, thought, breath all suspended, my fingers clamp round the steering wheel, foot jams harder on the brake. Bodily reactions leaving brain cells to catch up or ‘fess up. In The Body Keeps the Score, noted trauma specialist Bessel Van der Kolk, MD writes, “trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain, and body.”
Now there’s a catch in my mind like a crochet hook reaching, turning, dipping to pick up the next strand, chaining one loop of memory to the next. Neuronic dendrites reaching back into my hippocampus, attempting to connect body sensations and pickup trucks with a “back when” event. Something, still wordless, is being remembered in the body.
Sometimes a writing instructor suggests we should re-create a past event in our body so we can write about the experience. Re-creating engages the thinking process and attempts to produce a likeness to the original experience, rather than first becoming physically aware of sensory information stored in the body. In Tell it Slant, Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola encourage the writer to pay attention to the body’s sense gateways, which will lead to writing
. . . in a way that naturally embodies experience, making it tactile for the reader. Readers tend to care deeply only about those things they feel in the body at a visceral level. We experience the world through our senses. We must translate that experience into the language of the senses as well.
At the next stoplight, the driver’s thick, hairy arm elbows out the small window. Compelled by an intractable gut-goading, I roll down my passenger window, lamely calling, “Looks great!” then throw in a thumbs-up.
“Thanks,” he tosses down, as I lie indecorously stretched across my Prius’s center console, face craning up at him in the little cab.
“Brings back memories,” I babble on.
I tear up.
I’m crying over a 1940’s Chevy pickup?
We can re-create sensory elements as a writing technique, or we can learn to become aware of our story at a cellular level. Judith Barrington in Writing the Memoir holds that, “The key to writing that shows rather than tells is the senses.” We can begin by becoming aware of bodily sensations within a specific memory—taste, sound, smell, touch and sight—a trustworthy place to start.
The light changes and the Chevy truck rolls on. My Adam’s apple clutches at the flood of tears as my body pushes forward a long-forgotten first stick shift lesson with my then-husband. I turn left, swatting my eyes with the back of my hand, the 75-year-old skin so dry it could be a towel. The 50-year-old incident reels out on my interior movie screen:
A crayon blue sky
me hunched in the driver’s seat of our 1941 Chevy pickup, hands nervously circling the smooth steering wheel, pebbly brown bench seat smelling like warm oilcloth
his taunts and snickering laugh
my sweaty terror as the truck slides backwards downhill at the stop sign, stick shift jumping under my hand, legs unsure whether to brake or clutch
the grating grind of gears mis-shifting
him cursing me.
We are born with the ability to be aware. During the 25 years I’ve taught meditation and mindfulness, I’ve amused and irritated my students with the emphatic comment, “Thinking is overrated!” hoping to shimmy them out of their heads, into the truth residing in their bodies. But of course, we are thinking creatures and for our writing to be full-bodied, we need both the sensory body and thinking brain, the showing and telling. We can learn the language of our body’s lived experiences and bring that truth, which ultimately is a universal truth, to the page.
The fear, humiliation, and fury warehoused in my cells, cavities, and crevices for five decades was unlocked by a passing truck. But I’m aware this is a re-run. I allow the film to spool out. Years of meditation allows me to access, accept and appreciate my body’s cellular memory and how it helps me discover my true nonfiction. I keep in mind that whatever shards and shadows show up, I’ve already survived them. I’m not there and they aren’t here. The memory has no agency. Now I’m here as a witness, not a victim.
Charlotte Wilkins is a retired psychotherapist, a longtime meditator, and emerging memoirist. Her essays have been published in Memoir Magazine and Social Work Today. She lives in Connecticut with her spouse and two ridiculously precious cats who do nothing to earn their keep. Find her at charwilkins.com