Body Works

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Anjali Joseph

I have a cold. No wonder there – it’s February, a time of peculiar weather: often gloomy and cold, occasionally windy, more rarely warm and sunny. But I woke up exhausted and sore in the throat. My boyfriend wasn’t well either, it turned out, so both of us were at home. In the morning, we sat around, drinking coffee interspersed with honey-ginger-lemon drinks that somewhat soothed my throat. The feeling of an unexpected holiday descended, but when I got up to do even something simple, I realised disappointingly that in fact I didn’t feel very well.

It was a familiar experience. In childhood I’d had recurring bouts of tonsillitis, eventually kept under control only by homoeopathy. My twenties were hypochondriac, but I also easily fell ill with whichever virus was doing the rounds of whichever office I happened to be working in. Now, here it was again, that well-known place of physical lassitude and, in the imagination, a great feeling of possibility, backed up by no actual energy whatever. Being ill was a bit like being some sort of high level conceptual thinker for the day. “I know,” I’d think to myself, “I’ll read Infinite Jest/learn about physics/listen to some difficult twentieth-century classical music”. Clearly, the moment of being ill was not actually the time to undertake any of these projects; that’s why it was the perfect time to think them up.

Being ill can be liberating. My serpentine to-do list suddenly ceased to hold any interest. Obviously, I couldn’t do anything of use. Instead, I returned to the essentials – writing, reading, maybe a bit of yoga if energy returned. It also made me think about writing, and writing with the whole body, whatever that might mean. We can read books as though they had been written by disembodied brains, something like the postulate of human experience we studied in philosophy of mind when I was at school. Different texts have varying emphasis on the human body, or sensory experience. Hemingway is good on food and eating; so, as far as I recall (and slightly differently, yes) is Enid Blyton. I think Geoff Dyer, of the contemporary writers I’ve read, writes well about sex. So does an Indian writer, Parvati Sharma, whose first book of stories came out last year. Amit Chaudhuri writes beautifully about music, and listening in general. Another of my favourite writers, the Indian novelist Upamanyu Chatterjee, writes brilliantly about the oscillation between appetite (for various things) and disgust.

The body, and the experience of being in it – at once so exasperating and, in health, so easily forgotten – are important to the writer, when writing. Pain, and illness, can focus the mind like nothing else. Fever sometimes offers associations with the spontaneous brilliance only otherwise achieved in sleeping dreams. And physical disciplines – for me yoga, but for others dancing, or swimming, or running – bring ways of inhabiting your own experience more fully, that in turn alter the possibilities writing brings. Endurance, flexibility, and a better understanding of frustration: these are part of what it means to write with your whole body.

Photo credit: Body parts layer: Merel van der Sar   words: Kelly Teague

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