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Embodied Writing: introduction to a portfolio

Updated: Aug 21, 2019

Coming up on this blog are excerpts from a writing portfolio I created during an amazing dance class I took this spring called Embodied Writing. Most concisely, it's the intersection between movement practice and writing practice. It's "writing dances" and "dancing words." How can these two seemingly disparate worlds of artmaking collide? We spent ten weeks trying to answer that question. My other writing from that course can be found here, here, and here.

Embodied writing is active. Whether you’re writing it or reading it, it takes energy to engage your self holistically. You may be exhausted after writing with your whole self, or reading something that forces you to use your whole self to make sense of it. We’re not used to doing that—feeling things in so many ways at once. But it also gives you energy. How exciting is it to read something that challenges your mind to make connections you’d never have made, that registers physically in your body, that stirs emotions you may not always be vulnerable enough to feel? Reading or writing embodied writing is energizing and exhausting because it engages our whole empathy so intensely and from so many angles. It has a resonance like sound reverberating through a cathedral. How beautiful it is to be overwhelmed.


Engaging with embodied writing has heightened my awareness of my own processes, not just in how I make work or take in other people’s work, but in my processing of the world at large. Learning—discovering—how to use written language to communicate the feelings of the body, mind, and heart, which are so ephemeral and difficult to be objective about, validates them as knowledge of the world. They are not “just” feelings—they are truths, and words can let us be specific about those truths. But these feelings can also open up language. Making emotional, mental, and body truths visible, communicable, can help us find ways of making multiple meanings out of words. I like to borrow the concept of “interpretation” from the museum field, the approach we take of making sense of an object for the viewer, and deciding what we want to communicate, to prioritize. Written words are the object on the pedestal, and movement is the label telling you about it—there are so many ways of moving “into” the text, and each one brings new meaning to what is written. When layered all together, all these ways of moving to interpret words build new connections and understandings, illuminating how complex the words are.


Photo by Jim Coleman. Dancers: Johanna Berliner, Nora Buonagurio

The concept of embodiment seeps through in almost everything I read now. Samantha Allen writes about the visceral experience of gender dysphoria in Real Queer America (“That profound and unsilenceable bodily knowledge was—for me—coextensive with being alive”). In his novel Sourdough, Robin Sloan writes about the tension between cold, logical technology and the labor that humans do to make it work, and the way that our bodies tell us what they need by experiencing pain or discomfort when we push too hard or cease to take care of ourselves—our whole selves, including our bodies, just as important as our minds and emotions. As my brain keeps firing that neuron that yells, embodied writing!!! at me whenever I sit down to read now, my understanding of what that means for me deepens.


Now, it means trusting the body in a way that I think we tend not to, as our lives more and more require us to rely on our intellect and consider the body as an inconvenience. While waiting for our toast a few nights ago, my roommate and I talked about our shared experience of gradually shifting from wishing, when we were both in darker places, that we did not have to be people with bodies, to now becoming excited about the humanity our bodies and their many needs gives us. Instead of being annoyed that we have to sleep and feed ourselves and clean ourselves, we are discovering the gift that it is to have to eat, to have to wash, to have to rest. I don’t think I would have been able to give this gift to myself without embodied writing.


For this portfolio, it has meant continuing the work of pressing into vulnerability. It’s feeling less like squeezing a bruise and more and more often like massaging a sore muscle. For my critical writing, it means being open to putting myself in the writing, acknowledging my own presence—as an observer and a critic and a person. For my creative writing, it means paying closer attention to the sensations of the details and trusting the moments that feel truest.

©2019 Johanna Berliner