A few summers ago, my reading of Alias Grace kicked off a Margaret Atwood obsession. The inside cover listed 26 novels, 7 nonfiction works, 8 children’s books and 16 books of poetry. Other titles have since joined this dizzying inventory. While I listened to scores of online interviews to glean every bit of her wisdom, I most remember her advice to a pair of eager high-school-aged would-be writers. Take care of your back.
She reminded us that a body of work comes not only from cerebral exertion, but from unsung heroics of the body.
Essayist Zadie Smith wrote in Man with Strong Hands about requiring biweekly massages because her “spine hurts” from hunching over a laptop. A massage therapist’s kneading tames my own lower back every six weeks. Yoga does the work between appointments. My body relaxes into softness and writing happens. My hands reach for a pen and thesaurus to refine the story.
Pre-covid, I attended a lecture series by historical writer Jennifer Robson. She spoke at length about her commitment to finding the just-right combination of pen and paper because the act of writing requires smooth ink flow so her fingers can shape letters to keep time with her bubbling creative flow. I too have a favourite pen brand for writing drafts, another for editing and revising, and even a fav lucky graphite pencil with a rubber grip. My eyes need words in different colours to compartmentalize writing tasks: blue for creative work, red for to-do items, black for journal entries, graphite for marking quotes and books.
My body takes me for walks to help me remember what I haven’t yet written. The body remembers even when the mind forgets — the ache of first loves and losses, triggering smells and sensations spanning fear to joy — and informs how to write emotion through a gesture or behaviour. My body pulls me to the floor to re-enact a fall or to imagine watching clouds drift overhead. Humans do these things and I must understand the mechanics of the experience to explain.
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“For all the novel features characters that are alone, it is a story driven by human connections (…) With vivid descriptions, natural dialogue and in-depth characterization, Tuinman compels us to look beyond the surface. The ending is triumphant.” –Historical Novel Society
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