Change the Outside

January 6, 2022 § 14 Comments

I naturally have a serious face. When I’m concentrating or writing, I look angry and I feel intense. When reading, I frown automatically.

I don’t like how that feels.

When I was a theatre professor, my partner and I taught actors using masks. One exercise: the actor chooses a mask, studies it, and creates exaggerated shapes in their body. Donning their mask, the cartoonish body supports the dramatic architecture of the mask. The actor explores how this new character moves and interacts while sustaining the body. A mask on a neutral body looks lifeless— “You’re wearing your mask like a hat!” we’d say if an actor’s physical choices faded.

Actors often said they discovered their face underneath mirroring the mask. They found their new bodies reacting and taking actions their “normal” self might not do, in the safety of the exercise. Physical commitment created emotional sensation.

Scientific studies of “embodied cognition” have shown: change your posture, change your mood. Try it: slump. Round your shoulders. Press your bottom lip upward. After a moment or two, how do you feel? Disappointed? Sad?

Draw your shoulders back. Lift the top of your chest, lift your chin. Raise the corners of your mouth. It’s a breath of fresh air.

In 1979, embodied cognition theorists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson wrote Metaphors We Live By, examining how spatial and physical relationships characterize metaphors we usually think of as abstract concepts:

We understand control as being UP and being subject to control as being DOWN: We say, “I have control over him,” “I am on top of the situation,” “He’s at the height of his power,” and, “He ranks above me in strength,” “He is under my control,” and “His power is on the decline.” Similarly, we describe love as being a physical force: “I could feel the electricity between us,” “There were sparks,” and “They gravitated to each other immediately.”

The Scientific American discussed their work:

Metaphors We Live By was a game changer. Not only did it illustrate how prevalent metaphors are in everyday language, it also suggested that a lot of the major tenets of western thought, including the idea that reason is conscious and passionless and that language is separate from the body aside from the organs of speech and hearing, were incorrect.

Our reason—what we like to imagine as our sophisticated, logical brain—is affected by our bodies, and how those bodies shape themselves in reaction to the world.

My serious-writing face had crept into my life. I got “resting angry face.” My husband asked if I was upset. “No!” I said, surprised. “Just thinking.” But I did feel…intense. Even a little grumpy, after a day’s work that should have left me fulfilled and exhilarated.

What fixed my grumpiness was Botox. A little jab below each mouth-corner and my frown muscles relaxed. When the treatment kicked in, unaccustomed to the new feeling of my lips, I felt like the Joker. In the mirror, though, the manic grin I thought I had was actually a slight, serene smile. My “neutral” face now included gently upturned mouth corners. Two weeks later, I fell into conversation with a fellow tourist at breakfast. “My friend and I keep saying you look so happy!” she said.

Reader, I felt happier. Calmer. Smiling was physically easier and frowning took deliberate motion. My concentrating face was still more serious, but without the frown that had affected people’s perception of my mood—and my mood itself. Changing the outside changed the inside. And yes, when the Botox wore off, I went back for more.

The last 18 months have been brutal on just about everyone. Many of us have seen our disposition dampened, happiness harder to find, and yes, our writing habit more difficult. Our bodies are reacting to constant stress and uncertainty, creating a cycle where the feeling creates the body that creates the feeling. Breaking that cycle is hard. But you don’t need Botox.

The habit of not-writing—any habit of not-doing—is easier to fall into than to climb out of. I want to write another book this year, so I added an outside change—co-writing. Showing up for other people (mandatory as the host) makes me show up for myself. By making my outside self “a person who writes,” I’ve changed the inside, too. When co-writing time rolls around, I can say “Sorry, Giant List of To-Dos, but I’m unable to work on you for the next 90min,” and the discomfort of leaving other work undone vanishes as if I’d Botoxed the guilt muscle.

You might have a different outside change: clearing all non-writing work off your writing desk, or buying a more comfortable chair or nice new pen. Leaving the house so you can’t be interrupted. Rewarding yourself with chocolate or a new book at 5000 words. Look for your own Botox: what makes “sit down and write” easier than not writing?

Want an outside change to help you write more this year? Co-writing happens five days a week, 12:30-2PM Eastern time, and free. No RSVP needed. Format is a brief check-in, 75 minutes of writing on mute (cameras optional), and a brief check-out. All writers and creatives welcome, come when you can.

(These are linktrees, scroll for the specific co-writing link which will take you directly to the Zoom meeting.)

Mondays & Wednesdays (rotating hosts include me, Alyson Shelton and Sarah Bringhurst Famillia)

Tuesdays & Thursdays with Myriam Steinberg

Fridays with Judith Van Praag


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. For more outside change, join her for the webinar This Year You’ll Finish Your Book January 12th, recording available.

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