When I found out I’d be working with Tessa McWatt at The Banff Centre, I was anxious to talk with her about This Body (2004, HarperPerennial). This book struck me and stayed with me because I found the writing so wonderfully “embodied”. Her descriptions of what it feels like to live in a physical form, the contrast of comfort and discomfort of being in your own skin and how aging changes your relationship with your body, stood out as true and relatable. Just read this example, focused on Victoria, the main character of the novel:
She punches hard. Smack, with her knuckles, then smack again, Victoria folds the dough, forcing it to take shape, commanding it, yet her fingers are full of respect. Bread is devotion … Devotion takes needing and kneading, and it takes hands—hands like hers that are thick and enabling. Not long, piano-playing fingers … but thick palms that take hold of stubborn bread dough. (p. 96)
Tessa confirmed that “embodiment” is exactly what she does in her fiction. She aims to excavate the inner and outer reality we live in our bodies to develop moving, connective scenes. When this specificity of “writing in the body” is done well, Tessa noted that fiction has a strange and unexpected capacity to somehow transcend the body. Achieving that kind of transcendence is what many authors, including myself, wish to do. It’s only the best ones who truly do it successfully.
Here’s another lovely example from the perspective of Victoria’s nephew, Derek. He’s noticing changes in his aunt as she ages and her relationships change:
Auntie Vic is not ugly, it’s not that. It’s more that she is like a locked-up laugh. Something can’t get through. Maybe that’s why she giggles now. She’s escaping through herself and onto her skin. (p. 229)
Tessa’s “embodied” style can play out in simple or complicated ways, but it always has the effect of drawing me in as a reader. I feel that I’m going deeper than I normally would, and my terrible tendency to only skim melts away – the reading process becomes slow and intentional, even cherished. I love it when good books make me a more mindful reader.
I can’t wait until I get the chance to read Vital Signs, a novel that seems like it’ll carry this “embodied” way of telling a story to its fullest.
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