Holding the breath and fisty feet

When I write, I hold my breath. What’s disconcerting is that I noticed this for the first time just the other day (cue the jokes: ‘you wrote a whole novel without breathing?  How are you still alive?’).  It prompted a number of fun conversations on Twitter about other strange writerly habits.  Chrissie Manby used to hold her breath when she played the cello, though these days she pulls funny faces when she writes.  Jenn Ashworth stands up and moves regularly or she gets pins and needles in her feet, which she screws up unconsciously, like fists.

So writing probably isn’t great for my health. It’s bad for my posture and undoubtedly terrible for my asthma (the not breathing bit). I’m alarmed that my physical self is so disconnected from my inner self for such protracted periods of time. But it also suggests that, when I’m working on a story, something transformative is taking place. Like the six year old me who would hide under the dining table with an Enid Blyton book on a sunny day for fear of my mother chasing me outside (yes, really), writing transports me somewhere else.

In her book Characters, Emotion and Viewpoint Nancy Kress suggests that when we write, we need to be three people at once:

• the writer, thinking of the technicalities of how to get the words down on the page and in which order
• the character, who undergoes the emotion of the story – fear, anger, exhilaration; whatever the story situation dictates
• and the reader, viewing the actual words on the actual page; someone who is coming to it cold.

So are these weird physical habits a result of writerly effort, striving to accomplish the right techniques?  Getting ‘into role’ as our invented fictional characters?  Or maybe holding the breath as we write, and pins and needles in our fisty feet and pulling faces to get into character are manifestations of readerly pleasure. They’re signs that we’re undertaking a similar journey to our readers. More likely though, they point to a complex – probably unconscious – movement between all these things.  To me, that oscillation, a continual shifting of writing selves, is what writing is.

Question: what strange or quirky things happen to your body when you’re writing?

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