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.    

He laughs.

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

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§ 45 Responses to The Body is Nonfiction

  • Amanda Le Rougetel says:

    Beautiful writing, Charlotte. Thank you. Love this line in your bio — “two ridiculously precious cats who do nothing to earn their keep.” ‘Tis how cats are, isn’t it!

  • Thanks Amanda. And yes, cats have no problem being themselves and somehow in doing so, they give back so much more.

  • joellefraser says:

    This is so encouraging to me, both as a writer and as a person with some of those haunting memories. Not a victim, but a witness… I love the alliteration in your essay, too!

    • Thanks Joelle. I’m glad it feels encouraging in both those ways. So important for us as we try to put words to our experiences. Your support of my writing in CNF’s 30-Minute Memoir helped me do just that.

  • Just what I needed to read this morning, thank you.

  • kperrymn says:

    Thank you for this. I love the dual acknowledgement–that trauma still dwells in the body, and as Joelle noted above, the writer is “not a victim but a witness.” Nothing short of inspirational. Thank you!

  • You brought me right into my first gear-grinding driving lesson and the (mostly) kind encouragement of my then boyfriend. How lucky I was. Thank you for starting my day with those fond memories.

  • Susan says:

    Beautiful writing captures past memories through present awareness and brings the fullness of the experience to be felt, as you say, “aware this is a re-run. I allow the film to spool out.”

  • Fscott says:

    Reblogged this on Fscottwrites and commented:
    “Now I am here as a witness, not a victim.”

  • Deborah says:

    I was moved, and reminded, by your writing (and also your lovely reference to your cats…even went to your website to see if their pictures were posted). Thank you for providing the vivid examples of ‘showing’. And appreciate your references as well (have moved 2 to the top of my stack and ordered the Barrington also).

    • Deborah, it seems many of us engage through the “showing”, through the telling of our stories that illustrate and connect us. On my newbie site you saw Charlie, one of my cats. She’s not one to get worked up over my writer’s block! 🙂 Thanks for taking the time to read my blog.

  • Carolyn West says:

    Lovely, Char…..the incident so vividly recaptured for the reader at the same time your description of the process yields such wise counsel for those of us who aspire to know what we know and then give it words.
    Thank you.

    • Thanks for taking the time to read this, Carolyn. I love how you caught the essence of what I took many more words to say! ” . . .for those of us who aspire to know what we know and then give it words.” Lovely.

  • Mel says:

    Good writing instruction right here: “We can begin by becoming aware of bodily sensations within a specific memory—taste, sound, smell, touch and sight—a trustworthy place to start.”
    Word! And so well said, Char! Love this essay.

    • Thanks so much your comment, Mel. You’ve pointed to the foundation of what I think is so important in our writing because we can all relate to the senses, they’re universal, and therefore they connect us.

  • Kristina Walton says:

    Fantastic. So well written. Such a good illustration of balancing past pain with present safety and healing.

    • Kris, thanks so much for taking the time to read this. In a way, I think the act of writing insists we cultivate that balance so that we can write with from a perspective that has integrity and keeps us whole, a witness to our experience, rather than still victimized.

  • sonyaewan says:

    Beautifully written, Charlotte.

  • Thank you Sonya for taking the time to comment, and your kind words.

  • Holly says:

    How powerful the body memory is indeed. To feel and know what is happening, to log past events informing current experiece. Deeply appreciate the insight of present moment awareness Char.

  • Lore says:

    Char, your words convey so much about listening to the body, patience and wisdom. I was moved as I read. Beautiful writing!

    • You’ve said it so well Lore. I think the body’s wisdom can be accessed with patience, its language translated into words that connect us to ourselves and each other and move us towards health. Thank you.

  • Charlotte, such poetic writing, full of imagery. Love the way you are able to remember as an observer rather than a victim. It takes work and you have mastered it 🙂 Thank you for sharing.

  • Heidi, thank you for your comment. They say the body is always moving towards health, so why not listen and learn from it? I spent many years as a victim. Transformation is an ongoing process.

  • aprilboyingtonwall says:

    Charlotte – I loved how you all the information about trauma body, memory and craft throughout the piece and included such vivid images that brought the entire interaction to life. I especially love the crochet hook. Wonderful stuff!

    Your tagline really made me laugh.

    April Boyington Wall

    Sent from my iPhone

    • April, writing this was a learning experience. When I submitted it the story came first, the craft part came second. Allison’s editorial critique was to weave the two, just as you noted. The old crochet hook approach! Thanks for your insightful comment.

  • Cindy Ruscitti says:

    This is extraordinary, touching, and well done. You capture feelings, details that show the reader more than one time and place, the memories evoked for you and your own healing. I appreciate the references you give us and that I will use! Beautifully written, Char—thank you for this. One more note (I could go on and on) I love the ending, positive and powerful.

  • Rose Dufour says:

    Beautifully written Char. Especially the last line “ The memory has no agency. Now I’m here as a witness, not a victim.”

    Thank you

  • sdenman61 says:

    Charlotte this is so well done! I loved your movement through time intertwined with the lesson. I loved the crochet analogy and all of the sensory cues. And growing up in the San Francisco area, I could relate to the stress of the stick shift lesson and the terror of letting off the brake while clutching and accelerating on a hill. You transported me on several levels. Congratulations and thank you for this.

  • sarahmulca says:

    Just beautiful, Charlotte, and gives me something to work towards in remembering/processing the most challenging memories. Thank you for this!

  • Diane Reibel says:

    Your writing has indeed engaged my senses and I am deeply touched. ” Now I am here as a witness not a victim”. I will remember your inspiring words when challenging memories arise. Beautiful, powerful, healing!

    • Thank you Diane, for taking the time to read and comment. If these words in some way suggest a possibility of how to meet the difficult memories and moments in life to even one person, that would be enough.

  • lgrizzo says:

    Thanks for this Charlotte. An important reminder to meld heart, body and mind.

  • Amy Goldmacher says:

    Charlotte, this is a beautiful piece. I will keep in mind “whatever shards and shadows show up, I’ve already survived them. I’m not there and they aren’t here.”

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