Anatomy of a Writer

photo by Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library

I’m not a doctor, and I don’t even play one on TV, but I’m comfortable giving an anatomy lesson here because, well because the damn blank page can stretch on forever, and somebody’s got to do something about it. One might think the standard anatomical components of a writer are the same as for your basic human, but one would think wrong. We writers know—we’re made of stranger stuff.

Let’s begin at the top.

Head. It’s a lovely consideration that our heads are the seats of Apollonian logic: ideas are sifted and weighed, decisions are the result of perspective and balance. Nuh-uh. The writer’s head is much more a seething cauldron of blurky sludge, peppered by pinpoints of light—think Neil deGrasse Tyson on the new Cosmos, explaining dark matter. Writing is work, but as we know from the word “heady,” writing is whimsy too. The mouth-part of a writer’s head will word-splurge on why a character behaves the way they do, from a Frankensteinian perspective, a Freudian perspective, or a Franzenian perspective, but really, that’s just a dodge: those careening-character directives come from the serendipitous moments when those pinpoints of lights converge: epiphany! When those epiphanic events aren’t directed toward writing, they move urgent messages from your subconscious: “Uhh, sale on paper towels, must buy!” A writer’s head: you’ll never finish peeling that onion.

A writer’s head: you’ll never finish peeling that onion.

Neck. Writer’s necks are unusually wrinkled: they are always craning them around corners, searching for an idea. This contortionist’s trick is also quite useful when eavesdropping in coffee shops, seeking muttered quirks to employ later in story dialogue. Writers tilt their eavesdropping ears toward jewels like these: “Well, why, exactly were you in the zip-up panda suit when the contractor came over for the appointment?” “Never mind that—I think these lowlife baristas are putting high-fat milk in these low-fat lattes!” Remember, writers are thieves: we steal from life, an inexhaustible fire. Stretch the neck.

Heart. A writer’s heart, an inexplicable thing, so let’s explain it. There’s a Scott Fitzgerald passage I love that says this: “He saw she was lying, but it was a brave lie. They talked from their hearts—with the half-truths and evasions peculiar to that organ, which has never been famed as an
instrument of precision.” Precise, no—the heart’s a throbbing, clenching thing: when a writer’s heart is closed, the silence behind the door is dust dry; when open, there’s the manic exultation of a thousand bright birds rising, in winged chorus. My father was a waist-gunner on a B-17 in WWII. I was amazed by the
tone of his journal, which recounts in spare, modest words the carnage and horrors of his many bombing sorties. Some years before he died, he sent me a photo of himself in a restored B-17, standing near a floor-mounted machine gun, smiling. On the back, he’d written, “I stormed the hell clouds of Europe.” Him making a joke, half-truths and evasions, on the magnitude of those times. A writer’s joke, with heart. The mysteries of the heart have me ever shaking my head—and yes, heart and head can be so at odds, but you can’t deny the connection, nor the contradiction. But I know this: if your heart stays young, then your writing can beat forever.

Arms. Writers reach for the impossible. Upon not having reached it (it’s impossible, after all), they tend to slink around for a bit, moping and watching trash TV. But writers never learn: they reach again; they reach for a story set so close you feel its heat on your neck, reach for a quick turn in a tale where you’re flung to the floor, reach toward a whisper of the hushed sound of a tormented character, one so softly closing a door that it makes you burst out in tears. Writers have to keep reaching. They can’t help it.

Hands. Issac Asimov said, “Writing, to me, is simply thinking through my fingers.” Hands are marvels of bio-mechanics, and a writer’s hands
especially so—their hands render the shape of ideas, they can torque a tale so it screams, they can dial a tiny adjustment in the tension of a character so the reader’s blood freezes. Asimov had another fine retort regarding a writer’s hands: “When asked what I would do if my doctor told me I had only six months to live, I answered, ‘I’ll just type faster.'”

Gut. Writers have a certain fire in the belly that doesn’t simply come from Sriracha sauce. Why else would they cry out to an often cool, indifferent public, “Read this. This is my story, it came from me, over me, through me!” That takes a certain kind of guts, tough ones. (And oh, there might be a thin narcissistic membrane lining those tough guts, but consider, if writers didn’t want to wave their bullfighter’s cape now and then, we’d never watch (read) them in the ring.)

Writers all have that restless leg syndrome. They are impelled by stories and through stories, kicking and kicked by words.

Legs. Writers all have that restless leg syndrome. They are impelled by stories and through stories, kicking and kicked by words. Most writing projects, especially novels, need that treadmill/Stairmaster attention, where it might seem you’re going nowhere day after day, where even a resonant paragraph seems like an endless hike, but real writers have the legs to see a finish line, no matter how far ahead, they have the knees—no matter their knocking—to finish the race, they have the hips to bring that baby home. (The restless part does make you jump off the treadmill now and then and get a frosty highball, but hey, efforts need rewards.)

Feet. Not of clay, not of stone, but yet solidly planted. Writer’s feet suggest their foundations, the writers who have strode (even stridden) the paths before and left footprints to follow. Read widely, read deeply, stretch those toes. As William Burroughs said, language is a virus, and I think it’s best to be infected inside and outside your viral boundaries. So mix some Oryx and Crake with your Pit and Pendulum, dance with a Trollope, sit shiva with Ginsberg, sew socks with Marilynne Robinson. None of these feet will fail you. (By the way, I have very large feet, and I can tell you, so true the old joke: big feet, big socks.)

Bonus Parts:

Time. Time is also of the body, changing from now to now to now. Our writer’s body and the body of our writing change with time. We’ve all looked at things we’ve written, slapped our foreheads and said, “What was I thinking?” Forgive that person who wrote that folderol, and know that your writing body is moving in time, and moving forward. But time can also bounce back a little, as this following tale illustrates. My mother has a note that I wrote her when I was five or six, which she framed; it rests still on the wall of the house in which I grew up. The note reads: Mom, I have gone to the store. I will be gone for five years. And down at the utter bottom of the page, this: PS I won’t really be gone that long. How things change and not: my writer’s neck is way more wrinkled, but I’m still trying to make my mom (who could use a smile now) laugh. These days, I’m a bit better at not telegraphing the punch line, but only a bit.

Oh, I forgot:

Genitals. Not going to touch them. At least not here. And just because I can, I’ll end this piece with a lovely quote from a genius, who tells us to use our writing bodies to slay (or seduce) our writing dragons:

Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage.” — Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

Writers, O you bright and risen angels (thanks W.V.), are parts just parts? If you can track your writer’s soul, does it leap from the head, the heart, the gut? Or like Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man, are all your parts proportionate?


About Tom Bentley

Tom Bentley is still trying to figure out what flavor of writer he is, but so far he’s a short story writer, novelist, essayist, travel writer, journalist, and business copywriter. He edits all that stuff too. His new book, Think Like a Writer: How to Write the Stories You See is available as an ebook on Amazon. His singing has been known to frighten the horses.


  1. says

    A thoughtful post, Tom. Thank you.
    My parts are proportionate, though I think my heart and hands dwarf the other parts. (Love the Asimov quote). And those genitals…er, I mean dragons…yeah, not going there…

    • says

      Graeme, just keep those parts in good working order (or work them in order of their parts).

      In some ways I think we write with all our parts. So thank God in the computer age we can just delete and retype, so nobody has to go and fetch the Wite-Out [16th century reference] anymore.

    • says

      Mia, I love that quote too! It is remarkable how much of a story can be revealed just by typing through its caverns, fingering your way through its chutes and ladders. Undoubtedly there’s some neurological association between the keys and the words begetting more keys and more words (and more ideas, and thus on and on).

      Of course, it’s best when they are the right words. Or at least the almost-right words you can go back and part the hair of later.

  2. Denise Willson says

    Tom, I love how you can write in a flourish, “It’s a lovely consideration that our heads are the seats of Apollonian logic: ideas are sifted and weighed, decisions are the result of perspective and balance.” Then follow-up with, “Nuh-uh.” Just awesome. :)

    My body thanks you – all it’s parts.

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth, and (coming soon) GOT

    • says

      Denise, yes, my “Nuh-uhs” often follow my rhetorical flags—it’s a way of doffing the purple robe and doing the dishes. And I do appreciate the full-body thanks.

  3. says

    This is brilliant. You are brilliant. Your timing and wit are masterful. I’m so glad you are a contributor.

    As for parts . . . I’d like to mention the skin of a writer. I have long known that I simply have an excessive number of sensors and nerve endings on my epidermis. I think most writers do. We absorb the good and bad of what’s around us. If we weren’t so porous, I believe, we wouldn’t write as well.

    Yet if we are lucky and brave, we allow certain parts of our hypersensitive skin to thicken up, get a little callused. It ain’t pretty, that callused skin, but having it means we ain’t scared of a little rejection. Or, at least, it means we are weathering the rejection.

    I’m grateful for this post!

    • says

      Sarah, did your mom ever tell you you are too nice for your own good? Well, thank the stars you didn’t listen. Really, though, your words are most warm—thanks.

      And sheesh, I should have jobbed out some of my neglected anatomy to you: the skin section (our largest organ, according to those scientific types) is YOURS! So true about writers needing both the sensitivity and the callouses. I just hope I’m not sitting on most of my callouses, since I’m in this durn chair so much.

      As much as you’re grateful for the post, I’m grateful for your response.

  4. says

    You got the ‘gut’ part right.

    The rest of the parts are support structure, but if you don’t have the guts of a writer (and no, I don’t mean in your deep freeze), no one will ever find out because you won’t have the guts to put your writing out there in public where ANYONE with a couple of bucks (or a handy dandy public library) can read, in an instant – and comment on as they please – what took you forever and work to do.

    I have NO idea where I acquired the guts to put writing out on public display. It still feels like bungee jumping off the cliffs of Dover. And I’m not even for sale yet.

    • says

      Alicia, funny that you mention about a quick comment (that might cut to the quick) from a reader on a book or story that a writer might have agonized over for years. I was just thinking that yesterday when I was mulling over how I would review a piece of writing.

      That quick poke-and-run is one of those jarring disproportions that serves neither party well. (I should talk—I am the master of the flip remark.) Thanks for the reminder that behind many works that might seem easy to dismiss there lies the heart (and guts) of the writer.

      • says

        Thoughtlessness is now a national pastime – it is SO easy for people to throw a quick remark out on a FB page, or a tweet, or an email.

        To get your opinion in the newspaper, for example, used to require actually writing a letter to the editor, making sure you didn’t look like a total idiot because of typos, mailing it, and having someone set it in type.

        All that time gave people a few more minutes to consider whether their impulse was, well, worthy of someone reading it. It gave them a pause to consider the gravity of the occasion.

        This was a good thing. How many flame wars would be avoided if a bit of thought went into online comments and reviews?

        • says

          And Alicia, I think you’re on the dot in saying it’s only a BIT of thought that’s required before anyone posts some kind of sourness online; that might suffice to remind the poster of the power of words, to hurt or heal.

  5. says

    *Writers reach for the impossible*

    For me, this is the best part of creative writing. You can let your mind run absolute riot. Its surprisingly therapeutic… :)

    • says

      Yeah, Katherine, a word riot can be jolly fun. And if you have a good editor with a sturdy broom and dustpan for post-riot cleanup, you might claim both the therapy and some productive writing too.

  6. says

    You are obviously well-endowed, to so fearlessly lay yourself on the table like this, with not just a boundless wit but a stalwart (if Rilkean) heart. You’ve obviously faced a few dragons, my Prince, to have such a keen awareness of thyself (and hence thine fellow lancers of the quill). Thanks for leading the charge.

    Darn the socks and hoist the lances (I mean quills)! Onward!

    • says

      Vaughn, you do seem to be channeling Shakespeare today. Or is it Francis Bacon? Regardless, there is some bacon flavor to your pronouncements, which I appreciate.

      Socks darned, quills hoisted, and thanks!

  7. says

    Thanks, Tom. As a woman, I love the really good reason you gave for my having such a wrinkled neck, a reason that has nothing to do with my age! And I love to Asimov quote: when I feel stuck, I try to empty my head and, for that matter, all my other parts — except for my hands. I just let them go, and my head can get involved later.

  8. says

    Carole, I must confess that I am one of those writers that fuss and fret over every sentence, and have only in the last year or two made some forays into “unleash the tide and go back and dab up the puddles later.” Maybe it’s because I’m an editor too that I go mess with sentences mid-thought.

    But I have been trying to use Asimov’s method with a short story I’m now writing, though in this case I just fret about it BEFORE beginning writing and slow the progress that way. (Which is yet probably better than driving a stake into phrases and dissecting them while they are still bleeding.)

  9. Becky Blanton says

    As always, you NAILED exactly what it means to be a writer. My favorite part of this is imagining that note, “…I’ll be gone five years.” Even then you were funny!

    • says

      Thanks Becky. Though “funny” probably wasn’t the wording my siblings used. Something along the lines of “pestiferous insect” is close though.

  10. Vicki Wilke says

    Vicki Wilke

    To Writer Unboxed

    Tom – absolutely loved this column! I was going to comment on some of my favorite lines, but there were just too many! Well, okay I will. I could really own the wrinkly neck, especially since my neck just turned sixty, while the rest of me is only about forty – but loved “craning around corners.” The treadmill analogy was great – go, go, go, but where? Also liked the “never finish peeling the onion,” which brings me to one little suggestion in all your wisdom: I know you have a “Head” category, but think you need a separate reflection on writers’ Eyes – so much profunity here – and it could slide easily in with the onion and its tears!

    Anyway, thanks for these words – for this “body of work.”

    Vicki Wilke

    • says

      Vicki, I’m most pleased that the anatomy lesson’s phrasings worked for you. Ahh, but the eyes, yes, the eyes: an entire post (or a sheaf of overwrought poems) could be written on the peepers.

      So much of writing is observation, both a seeing into and a seeing outward, and seeing minutely when the germ of a story is just that, a germ—but one with a proto-story within.

      You’re right, the eyes have it. Keep ’em open!

  11. says

    I’m always amazed at how much my hands know … far more than my head and heart put together. Love that Isaac Asimov quote. It’s a reminder to quit procrastinating and let the fingers figure some things out. Thanks for a lovely post.

    • says

      Vijaya, I really like that phrase of yours, “… how much my hands know” The fingers indeed can figure some things out that the head might be lost in abstraction over. Isn’t it a delight to see a skilled potter shape a hunk of clay, and work with the wheel so that motion and material combine into something unexpected? Those kind of surprises can happen in writing when you let the fingers fly. (Though better trained fingers can fly higher.)

  12. says

    Tom, I love how your mind works . . . or is that not the right verb? For reasons of length, you probably were at pains to exclude other body parts. But I’m glad Sarah reminded us of skin. Sooo right, she is.

    Emboldened by her lead, I offer another essential piece. The butt (as in, butt-in-chair). Without the sitter part, most of our creativity would be as solid as daydreams, would never see the light of ink.

    [Did you know (I didn’t) that the OED has 12 different listings for butt, each with multiple definitions? One of those uses is a verb for the head. We writers have to bull through with our inspiration, don’t we?]

    As always, thanks for yours.

    • says

      Tom, yes, you gotta bull that butt into the chair. One thing that butts up against the chaired writer is that cussed Internet, which lures me too often with its sweet/sour siren song of email (sparkly!), tweet (twinkly!), blog post (melodious!), and then the day is gone and the writing is none.

      In regards to buttressing one’s knowledge of butts, I always liked the term for a certain size (big!) barrel of wine, that being a butt, which is 126 gallons. A buttload, to be sure.

  13. Carlye Knight says

    “And oh, there might be a thin narcissistic membrane lining those tough guts”

    This could explain why some of us are prone to ulcers, couldn’t it?

  14. says

    Kathy, now you’ve made me think what WOULD happen if you peeled a writer’s head. Would you hit layers of dreadful shrieks, rotting ideas, a barnyard level of bad grammar, a clutch of pin-shaped puns—what? The horror …

  15. says

    Tom – I’m glad there was no mention of hair in your post,
    because I have all the other things of which you wrote.
    Entertaining and telling. Thanks.

  16. James T. (Stew) Stewart says

    Tom – – I’m posting late. but I just saw your post. I’ve
    spent the day doing my taxes and have been neglecting my reading!
    You mentioned one of my favorite authors, Isaac Azimov, and I
    simply have to tell a story about him. I had just finished Air
    Force basic training, and taken a bus to Biloxi, Mississippi for an
    11 month Electronic Warfare Repairman course of study. After an
    hour or so, I finally found my barracks and bunk. I began storing
    my things in an empty dresser and then was accosted by my new bunk
    mate who told me he had the bottom bunk, mine was the top one and I
    could NEVER sit on his bunk! He was pushing and shoving me and we
    were close to getting into a fight, even knowing the trouble we’d
    be in for fighting. He threw my half opened duffle bag onto the
    floor and a couple of science fiction paperbacks fell out of the
    top. He laughed and said, “I bet you’d have liked to have met my
    next door neighbor?” “So who was your neighbor,” I asked? He looked
    at me with an evil grin and sneered, “Isaac Azimov . . . I used to
    mow his lawn!” I guess I was as impressed as he expected! The
    S.O.B. just knew Azimov was “famous,” but he had never read a word
    Azimov had written! Just as the saying goes, “Youth is wasted on
    the young,” and Azimov was wasted on him! The least Azimov could
    have done would have been to find a fan to mow his lawn! Azimov
    & my bunkmate lived somewhere on the East coast . . . he
    simply HAS to have had a lot of fans there in the mid-1950’s!