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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.

[pullquote]A writer’s head: you’ll never finish peeling that onion.[/pullquote]

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.)

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

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 [2], are all your parts proportionate?

About Tom Bentley [3]

Tom Bentley [4] is a novelist, essayist, and business and travel writer. (He does not play banjo.) He's published hundreds of freelance pieces in newspapers, magazines, and online. He is the author of three novels, a collection of short stories, and a how-to book on finding and cultivating your writing voice. His singing is known to frighten the horses. See his lurid website confessions at tombentley.com [5].