Image from The Revenant

Last week in one of my workshops we found ourselves discussing the difference between writing from the head and writing from the body. We tend to think of writing as a sedentary activity, engaging our intellect, but it’s not. We are engaging our imagination, which involves a full-body experience. Unless we are experiencing the story in our bodies, our work risks becoming cliché.

It’s helpful to think of writing as a somatic experience.

When Mark L. Smith and Allejandro Innaritu wrote The Revenant scene where Leo is attacked by the bear, they had to allow themselves into the experience. There is nothing intellectual about this. They needed to imagine the actual experience of being mauled by a bear, the choreography of it, the truth and the terror of it, the desire to survive, the helplessness of the trapper—while also exploring the emotional experience of the bear. In order to write something that rises above our clichéd idea of a mauling we must allow ourselves into our characters’ experiences. There was something so real and frightening as the filmmakers played with our hopes. The bear retreated, then returned, toying with our expectations, but also operating in a way that rang true.

Writing is brave work. It demands that we have some skin in the game. We are going to feel something. It’s going to hurt, sting, and break our hearts. Our emotions are the tools of our trade. We are going to laugh, holler, weep, and berate our characters for being too trusting, too weak, too proud, and too compassionate as we walk beside them on their journey to wisdom or death.

Carl Jung says “the artist is not a person endowed with free will who seeks his own ends, but one who allows art to realize its purposes through him.”

Whether we’re writing a screenplay, novel, or memoir, we are exploring ways to take the reader into the experience of the moment. Story is an emotional ordeal, and as the creators of the story we must be willing to go to those forbidden places. We must be willing to explore characters whose beliefs and politics we deplore, and search for understanding. Unless we are willing to explore the humanity of apparent monsters, our characters will be two-dimensional.

To be a writer is to wear the clothes of our characters, to walk in their shoes without judgment, to explore how under their particular circumstances we might very well make the same choices that they do. To be a writer demands that we use our mind and body as a channel for our characters’ experience.

But here’s the rub: We often reach a point in our story where it gets too difficult, too scary, too raw to imagine a way out of our hero’s predicament. And this is often where the writer stops.

Here’s the solution: Imagine your protagonist transformed.

Imagine your protagonist at the end of the story and ask yourself how she is relating differently to other characters. Ask yourself what she has come to understand.

Einstein says, “You cannot solve a problem at the same level of consciousness that created the problem.”

By simply imagining our protagonist at the end of the story, we begin to embody her EXPERIENCE.

I half-jokingly tell my writers that the difference between writing class and therapy is that in writing class you are guaranteed a transformation because all you have to do is imagine it. Our imagination is powerful, because on a somatic level we don’t know the difference. When we imagine our protagonist transformed, we experience it ourselves. We step into our power. We connect to what she understands. And the miracle is that our subconscious builds a bridge to that place. In Act 1 and Act 2 she was pursuing her idea of salvation, while in Act 3, having surrendered that idea and accepted the reality of her situation, she experiences true salvation.

This is the magic of story. We tend to get stuck because we cannot imagine what happens next, so let’s stop trying to figure out what happens next and go directly to our hero’s experience at the end of the story. When we imagine their liberation, their new understanding, our subconscious naturally begins to wonder how they got to that place. Those blind spots that kept us from seeing the whole picture start to get filled in because we are no longer seeing our story as a riddle to solve, but as a dilemma to resolve through a shift in perception.