Readers sometimes like to describe writing as though writing was a body. They like to size up a piece of prose as they would a model in a magazine, a woman on a sidewalk, or a corpse on a slab. They use words like muscular, sinuous, toned, lithe, clumsy, skeletal, anemic, or flabby. Prose can walk on its own two feet. It can make untoward advances upon you. It can pin you in a corner and bare its teeth. It can keep secrets from you for the rest of your life. It can touch you in ways you have never been and never will be touched.
Perhaps you’ve noticed this. Perhaps you’ve also noticed that this application tends to be imprecise. A reader can say with certainty that this or that author’s writing is this or that personification. Beg them to elaborate and see how far you go. At best, they are like me and know better what a piece of writing isn’t. Writing by George Orwell is not fat; writing by Jonathan Franzen is not robust. All in all, it seems a shallow way to talk about literature. It’s an unfortunate abuse as I like the concept for my own purposes.
It would be hard to deny that many, though by no means all, writers want to achieve a sort of liveliness in their prose. This is the desire, some might say obsession, of the stylist. Words can and should exist more than in servile obedience to the content. The words create a twin of the person putting them down: improved and carefully accentuated. Where actions failed the stylist, words will cover the loss with unambiguous triumph of his or her own making. The stylist ultimately desires triumph; usually, in the eyes of critics, at the expense of the opinion being espoused, the story being told, or the information being imparted. The twin is just a mannequin upon which accessory after accessory is placed until it can no longer bear the weight and it falls apart.
Stylists have never argued that point, at least not with notable passion; so long as the critics never called their art bodily. Anything but that. We, the stylists shall claim, are not writing bodies. We’re not writing things with limitations. We don’t write things that can struggle, plateau, fatten, or deteriorate; or that can run away from us or be dismembered and imperfectly reattached. Bodies give way to control up to a point. Soon enough, they bite back and they refuse; they don’t give you what you want or do just as you please. A writer of bodily prose is a writer with no control, who is indifferent to control, or who willfully creates monsters.
Something I find very important when I think about writing as a craft is that not everything works. Nor does one thing work for everyone. This is often overlooked, as a necessity, in the process of teaching people how to write within the bounds of certain forms. But once someone finds him or herself writing mostly with their desires, fixations, and aesthetic proclivities to guide them, the lessons they retained previously — assuming they had any to begin with — must make space. Some people write slowly with a concise method and routine. Some people write quickly and under duress or restriction. Some people write playfully, manipulate form, tone, and intent. Some people adhere strictly to previous models, preferring to renovate rather than innovate. Some write to impose order. Some write to sow chaos. Some write for money. Some (can afford to) write for glory. Most try to do both. This does not mean that not trying constitutes good writing. Good writers try; good writers also respect, are curious about, and are open to learning from the processes of the writers in their orbit and whom they admire.
It would appear at first that there isn’t much worth learning from or admiring about bodily writing. It’s certainly not a type that writers intently seek out. It’s everything any self-respecting writer fears: the unseemly byproduct of vision poorly translating into execution. Less a failure than it is a mutation, but one that vexes and embarrasses all the same. A lot of writers flee it, but some writers choose, or at least resign themselves, to dwell with it.
Writing is a process of humiliation. Bodily writing is more humiliating than most. It is a relationship with the text that never has a clear endpoint. There is no finality, no crescendo, no closure. The text is not something the writer simply commits to paper but manages over an indefinite period. It makes demands on the writer; it contradicts the writer; it calls the writer’s motives into question. The writer accedes to this arrangement for whatever reason: habit, natural taste for it, for the love of a challenge, or very possibly all three. For this writer the text is always enduring growth. One version lets itself go. Another version becomes leaner. Elsewhere, an entire passage that made sense before looks utterly foreign several months later, it must be clarified or removed. At first, this seems a lot like the revision process of any piece of writing. But the difference here is that revision and publication are not clearly separate. One version may go public but can reappear elsewhere in vaguely recognizable form.
This is most true of the essay, always born soft, crude, and vulnerable, but which is hardened and matured through different editions. Lionel Trilling’s literary criticism went through many changes before arriving at their now-classic collected versions. Of course the chief practitioner of live revisions is Montaigne, whose Essais are now printed complete with every amendment Montaigne ever made to them. De Quincey’s essays were noted for their “vertiginous” formlessness. “The virtue of the essay is that it reflects a thought in the process of discovering itself,” his biographer Frances Wilson writes, “and De Quincey dramatized this process.” The U.S. Constitution is a collaborative bodily text, and is hated for it. Fictional texts are no less bodily. Edgar Allan Poe routinely published, revised, and republished his stories in different newspapers and collections. To this you could also add the earnestly impure stories of Winesburg, Ohio and the sentimental anarchism of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentlemen.
For all its examples, though, the bodily mode lacks one ideal text. Otherwise what would be the point? Bodily texts pose problems for reader and writer alike. They are like any stranger you see on the subway: ornery, messy, amusing in spite of themselves one minute, more trouble than their worth the next. They are crankish and untrustworthy, but also mysterious and tempting. Not many readers give into that temptation, and those who do tend to be other writers viewing it from a safe, possibly respectful distance. To them these works provoke sufficient curiosity but no envy. Not many bodily works get embraced by posterity. With optimal timing they may sneak in through the back.
I would have interjected myself into this essay earlier were it not for its structure’s unyielding forbiddance. Seeing an opening now, however, I shall do just that.
It would appear that aligning myself with the bodily mode after all I’ve just said about it is paying myself a high compliment — or at least it is annoyingly clever. I’m not so sure that alignment is earned. What makes my work bodily? That it is rough around the edges, rife with scar tissue and lesions, subject to amendment from time to time, and occasionally embarrassing? Sure, like, it’s possible, but also not entirely true. Sometimes a text I write really does have finality. It can only go so far. I see a flawed text like “The Juggalo’s Progress,” I see all the things I should have done differently — like reining in, or completely cutting, the opening four paragraphs. Or I see a text like “Guidance” or “A Plea to My Readers” and deem it perfect. In either case I opt to do nothing. It is less about the limitations of the text than it is about my own limitations and strengths in the moment of its creation, of which I need sufficient reminder as I continue to write. In spite of myself, I can’t stop pretending to mastery.
It is more that bodily writing has a certain appeal — temperamentally, yes, but morally as well. The pursuit of perfection has made a clearing to found a well-manicured estate, where it lounges in relative security. The bodily mode looms off in the remaining forestry, where mastery, authority, and other pets under perfection’s care cannot survive for very long. Bodily writing does not oppose perfection. They do not get along, yes, but each respects the other as they manage the persistent and necessary problems of writing. They are, at day’s end, good problems to have.
My gut tells me that I should not end the essay on that note, but I have no better alternative, nothing more impactful that is also less portentous, on which to leave you, my clearly enchanted reader. But at the same time it is only fitting, given the spirit the subject, that the piece should break down and sustain injury. Maybe later I will take steps to heal it. Maybe.