In every memoir class I teach, we do a writing exercise. I used to find it difficult to write along with my students. I was too busy looking at the clock, planning what to say next. Or maybe I worried they would judge me. What, you’re the teacher and all you could come up with is that? But now I do the three-minute meditation and the fifteen-minute exercise, too. If they’re willing to be vulnerable and raw in front of others, shouldn’t I be?
At the last class, we discussed the “Writing the Body” chapter in Tristine Rainer’s Your Life as Story. I asked everyone to try to locate emotions and reactions in their bodies, to make their writing more visceral and immediate. We did an exercise called “free write a feeling.” The point is to reject clichés like “our eyes locked” or “I felt a bolt of electricity go through me” and find fresh imagery. We tried to imagine ourselves experiencing an emotion and noted what happened to our breath, our heartbeat, our muscles, our mouths—every part of our bodies.
I asked the class to name emotions, which I wrote on the whiteboard. We chose one and wrote it about without lifting our pens from the page. I chose “joy.” The bodily sensation that came to mind was “heat.” The image you can probably guess from the picture. This is what I came up with:
This is a scene I conjure again and again, as a way to calm down, but also to remind myself it’s the little moments that are the most exciting. James—my now-husband, then-boyfriend—is standing in the living room of his Brooklyn Heights apartment in front of his highly organized closet, in only his white briefs—the same kind he wears now, over a dozen years later. But it’s not the underwear I linger on. It’s not his strong pectorals, pumped up from swimming a mile every other day. It’s the expectation of what this dressing means: that we’re about to go on a date.
At this point we’ve been dating over a year, but every time, right before, he pauses in front of his closet, looks through his button-ups, and pulls on a “date shirt.” My two favorites are the violet striped cotton for winter and the deep purple linen for summer.
Just like my dog now knows when I pick up her harness and leash that she’s going for a walk, I know what putting on a date shirt means. Just as my dog starts jumping and nipping her tail, I can feel my body anticipating. My faces flushes, because pleasure, for me, registers as heat. A scalding bath or steaming cup of tea. A hot washcloth on my face. An embrace. Heat on skin, broiling in the sun. Soup opening my nose. Bubbling liquid coursing through my belly. A warm hand on my shoulder. The sun on my hair, baking blonde streaks into the red.
The shirt tucks into pants. Now no one can see what I just saw. But I can associate all the pleasure—food and drink, movie or music or dance, party or tete a tete—with this one image: the underpants. White. Empty. Blank. Ready. For what I know is about to happen.
Try this at home. Three minutes of silence, eyes closed. Fifteen minutes of riffing and not thinking too much. As Rainer says, “Let it be nonsense written at 90 mph. Embrace rubbish and absurdity in the attempt to find fresh imagery for your feelings.” Maybe you’ll locate fear in the back of your neck or anticipation deep inside your belly button. Once you do, you’ll be able to show those feelings, in a physical and vivid way, in your characters.