Post Road Magazine #24

Writing The Body: Creative Nonfiction

Amy Boesky, Guest Editor

Lobsters. Cells. Tattoos. Scars. Messages from the dead. Seasickness. Appetite. The journey away from embodiment, and back to it again. The desire to shed the exigencies of of the body, and the corollary desire to be pinned down by corporeal experience.

What do we mean by embodiment, and what challenges and opportunities do writers of creative nonfiction face as they describe the experiences of sentience in prose? Is the body envisioned as a site of shared experience, or one of difference? We presume bodily sensations and experiences bring us closer: we understand but don't always question the extent to which identity (race, gender, ethnicity, age, health or well-being) depends on embodiment; that in addition to who we are, how we are (illness, health, aging) and what we do (labor, vocation, ease) is involved in the ways we know and represent our bodily selves.

Writing about the body is not simple. In recent years, cultural and literary critics have been absorbed by the ways in which the body functions as a site where difference is occluded or denied. We fetishize bodies that are young, erotic, healthy. But what happens when bodies (our own or others) become vulnerable, fall ill, change, or age? How can nonfiction capture (and expand) the possibilities of embodied representation?

As writers in this Folio suggest, such questions often demand challenging prescribed forms. Whose body does the writer take for subject? From whose perspective is the body described? What do we mean by presumed binaries (between life and death, sickness and health, familiarity and estrangement)? How do those binaries get expressed, challenged, or resisted?

In this Folio, six writers of creative nonfiction take up the subject of embodiment from markedly different points of view. Priscilla Long juxtaposes stricture and structure in her analysis of aging in "O is for Old," using the letters of the alphabet to frame twenty-six meditations on the science, philosophy, and personal experience of growing older. Part meditation, part manifesto, Long's essay explores the challenges of aging as well as its untapped potential. In one section of her essay, she advocates "uber-aging"—the capacity to grow old with vigor, passion, and curiosity. Her essay carefully weaves the general (genus, species) with the personal, challenging readers to consider the costs of aging both for individuals, and for large portions of the population.

Long asks us to consider one group of people often neglected in our culture, and the ways in which our bodies necessarily change over time. Caitlin Moran's essay asks us to consider the dynamic nature of the body from another angle. In "No Good Way," Moran explores the vulnerability of the soldier's body as she recounts the experience of saying goodbye to a cousin deployed to Afghanistan. Even as she records the wrench of separation, Moran is aware of how abstracted she remains (as writer, recorder) to her cousin's vulnerability. Brendan's body—his pale Irish skin, like hers; his wrists decorated with tattoos—is both known to Moran and inevitably unknown, as he circles away from her and home again, leaving many of his experiences ineffable. To remember (by etching a memento to Brendan on her own wrist) is imagined at the close of Moran's essay as a ghostly shadow that must finally be put aside.

The body can be known only in flashes, through experiences difficult if not impossible to capture. We see this in Christie Rogers' essay "At Sea," a piece which charts the embodiment of labor and the visceral, corporeal sensations of displacement. Rogers, who comes from a family that has earned its living for generations by lobstering off the coast of Maine, explores a memory of displacement through a series of overlapping scenes: her sudden seasickness out on her father's boat, her sense of her own body and its vulnerability juxtaposed with the bodies of the lobsters, caught, banded, "placed" both by the trap that holds them and the unsettling "trap" of recollection.

While these first three writers explore issues of vulnerability and alteration, the last three in the Folio explore issues of physical pain, surgical intervention, and lessons gleaned from witnessing disease and dying. Each of these last writers experiments with the representational idea of the journey, tracing lessons learned (and spurned) by experiencing serious illness and moving away from its ravages. For Floyd Skloot, the figure of the ellipse becomes a trope for embodied possibilities of movement: the elliptical machine at the gym; long, loose orbit-shaped walks through the woods; a pilgrimage inside of a longed-for journey to Spain—each of these "ellipses" carries within its orbit the awareness both of the acuity of pain, and the joy of its release. Martha Stoddard.Holmes, in "Without Organs," connects theories of the "body without organs" to her experience, more than ten years after treatment for ovarian cancer, of living lighter, tauter, free of the "seeds" of disease (ovaries, fallopian tubes, uterus) that defined her as female, while recognizing the alteration to her identity in living without them. Finally, in "The Start," Grace Talusan presents a profile of a man whose career in medicine began while assisting at autopsies, leading to his eventual training as a surgeon. Paradoxically, his increasing confidence and skill lead him to greater respect for the blurred lines between life and death, between the messages offered by the body in health contrasted with those that come only after life has ended.

Each of these six writers entreats us to question representations of the body as much as to conclude from them, to probe the borders between the known and unknown. Most strikingly, these writers experiment with formal and discursive borders, eschewing the too-easy or clear-cut in favor of writing that leaves us—breathlessly, tentatively— feeling the body as much as understanding its limits and potentials.


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