Walking with a shell– Writing as a Somatic Practice
Landings, paths, edges, and layers – what else? In my essay, I will discuss contemporary approaches to writing as an open-ended and transformative practice with enormous potential of producing spaces of hybrid understanding. However, the great contradiction of writing lies in the fact that writing is often defined as an artifact separate from the body that produces it, and accordingly, we often know what it is or should be instead of understanding how to get there. Writers are responsible for the production of their own maps, and even before that, they need to grant access to the landscape. I look at different attempts of defining the happening of writing (somatic, nomadic, companionship) and some tools that have been used in developing specific site-sensitive writing practices. Additionally, I discuss some hybrid memoirs as examples of how the multi-material writing fiber is produced, collected, and weaved together, as seen from the finished product perspective. My essay aims to discuss how embodied writing happens and why knowing about writing does not ensure one’s own writing to happen.
Atlantic sea. A beach. A footprint in the sand. A visible, solid mark of someone’s momentarily presence. Sand, equal to each of us, is a true holder of our bodily weights and shapes. Our willingness to be held, our ability to move at the same time. A sea, sand, a footprint. The elements of water and earth stay, a footprint may disappear at any moment, its time is counted in the cycle of the waves. But why worry about their temporarity? The waves bring a pulse of pushing, flushing, and resiling, a different rhythm than that of a walker’s one: lift, down, lift, down.
Somatic writing is writing that happens within the body as a whole. It is practice that defines itself. It actually feels more like a relief to give up with definitions and to go with the flow of the practice and accept the quality of knowledge it produces. Knowledge is a channel, a stream, a pulse. Dissolving foam at the sand bed, instead of the bucket one could fill with findings and then carry away and use somewhere else for their purposes. This is how we often want our understanding, in a solid and long-lasting form, prepared and ready for both better and worse days. A period. Somatic writing does not follow a pantry-filling, preparation smart, be-ready approach. It takes one such as they are, empty-handed, just being, just sensing their weight at the sand, the pressure of the wind, intensity of the sun. To inquire about the developing sense of emptiness that is not just emptiness, I start walking. It definitely is nothing new. It is one of the oldest mediums of moving towards a changing status, in hope of understanding.
Some of my deepest memories are auditive. I remember many moments from my childhood when I was reading a story or otherwise immersed in my dream worlds, and then I heard some random background music. I still can connect an Enid Blyton suspense story with a hymn my aunt listened from her tape recorder or some Vivaldi pieces connected to my favorite horse stables chapter book series. Some pieces of music, actually a growing list as the years pass by, simply squeeze a cry out of me. When I start my inquiry walks, I choose not to listen to any kind of music for a reason I cannot specify. Instead, I listen to audiobooks. I enjoy inhaling a fluent stream of words that someone else collected and ordered, and then another one pronounced and recorded. The layered voice from my device becomes part of my breath, my skin, a self-evident, almost invisible, porous borderline between me and the world. In the safety of the well-chosen words, I take step after another, feel the sand grain after another, and wait.
What the world knows as ”somatics” is often connected to Thomas Hanna’s (1928–1990) groundbreaking work in the field of somatics, or Richard Shusterman’s (1949–) somaesthetics. Hanna defined the ”soma” as a body perceived ”from within by first-person perception”, through ”immediate proprioception” and ”unique sensory data”. That makes a clear distinction to the body seen and defined from an outsider, third-person perspective. Shusterman, however, has critically explained the body’s capacities of ”locus sensory-aesthetic appreciation”, and again, he also uses the term soma instead of a body. In addition to these researchers whose ideas are widely accessible in terms of published research, there is a diverse and ever-growing field of various practices and approaches that explore and develop somewhat similar ideas: Focusing, Alexander-technique, Feldenkrais, and Body-Mind Centering as well as many more. The use range of such practices runs from performing arts to healing and therapy applications, although in the sense of honesty and open-endedness of the process, many professionals seem to call themselves somatic educators or practitioners instead of therapists. The common denominator for these approaches is that the body as a soma holds the ability to express and heal, and through the first-person approach, its capacities can be reached and then widely developed. My entry point to the field was of a different kind of interest, although both academic and practice-based. I wanted to know more about embodied writing approaches and get back to the raw intimacy of writing that I felt I had lost. I was tired of being the subject in and of my sentences, but at the same time, I was hungry for a language that would shimmer from meaning, opening instead of closing. I soon realized the relatively scarcity of written sources concerning somatic writing and started journeying to various Zoom workshops on somatic writing in late 2019. The closing of libraries and opening of online interaction due to pandemics made my touring much easier. Like the whole world, I felt trapped inside my house, so it was a perfect momentum to start zooming in.
- Hanna 1995; Shusterman 1999. See also Rouhiainen 2006.
-  This experiment does not allow a detailed discussion about the foundations for somatic writing. However, I want to mention two possible theoretical grounds. Philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s (1908–1961) focus on the lived body and embodiment as a locus of consciousness and self, perception and language, clearly is one. Another is neuroplasticity, meaning the brains ability to reformulate through sound, images, and movement, for example, allowing deep learning. See Merleau-Ponty 2005 and Doidge 2007.
I inhale the salty, fresh air of the South Carolina coastline in late December (2020). It is a closed world now, but the sea remains open. The sand on the beach is formulated into dynes. The word ”rest” or ”pause” does not belong to the sea vocabulary. Although a seemingly popular place to walk especially in the hot summer months, the closeness of the sea does not allow any path formulation. Sand is ever-changing. I do walking in the different beach spheres like this was a scientific experiment. The upper side of the beach, closest to the dynes that are to be protected, is dry, yellow-golden, light sand, soft and only faintly supporting steps, although I recognize its value when it later in the spring warms up in the sun and allows the sun-worshipping bodies to half-dig into it. Now it is relatively cold. The second sphere is what I call the trash lane, over here where the waves last time pushed it. It consists of pieces of reed, other plant remains, shells, lots of shells, and some human waste, like plastic bottles, single Crocs, and swimming goggles, their plastic lenses scraped with sand so thoroughly that the see-through functionality is a shadowy memory only. As I move closer to the waterline, the third sphere is darker as it is moist, salt-strengthened salt, kind of best to walk as it provides some relatively hard ground, and again, the footprints press nicely to it. Closest to the water, sand gets so wet that walking gets more strenuous. This is what one would call the fourth sphere before the actual water. I do not step into the water. Not this time. I am doing this because I am seeking grounding. I am asking the earth to carry me, hold me back, support my feet, protect and guide my steps, as I go forward. I ask to be part of it. Belonging in a place I do not belong. The roots are still there. Somewhere in the ground is a stream, and it has an ability to run through what I call my body. Soma. From an outsider’s perspective, I do not necessarily belong, but as a soma, I just am where I am. I am doing the body scanning for the beach.
Each somatic writing practice is individual, far better experienced within the soma than explained. Moving from the head to the soma may physically not be a long way, just through the neck downwards, but it necessarily is a process that is formulated through a process. What recognizing, feeling, and expressing through the body and within the body is for me, is ultimately what I have experienced this far. Even though sharing experiences with others helps to create a register, what is found is merely or not at all suitable for generalization. Nothing I write about somatic writing is meant to define, let alone argument. It is actually really hard to give up with such suppositions. Soma does not like to show up in the closeness of the ego. The ego, a long-time, moving-resistant habitat of the head wants clear, loud talk. Egos love definitions as they convince their importance. Egos also love goals, plans, and achievements. Looking from the outside, they enjoy to define, border, and control. The reasoning is their main tool, a calculator, a second-best friend. Finding the courage to leave the ego behind is the start of the somatic practice. I personally had to process my odd fear of ”being egoistic” before I was able to accept the first-person perspective within the soma as the new working residence. The fear of ego did not help me to handle the shift. Instead, it underlined its importance and I found myself creating obliqued, slanted ideas of ”non-personal”, ”objective” writing. Afterward, the bias seems very clear and out of question. The destructive ego is not to be dealt with attempts to escape and to push out. Instead, it needs some comforting acceptance and then just gentle omission, like a faint of a bad smell in the room air that slowly dissolves without doing so much personal or social harm. My fear of ego is gone now. Now I understand that being within my body happens in a different channel. The ego resided in the head and yelled ”me”, but the voice through my body comes from the ground, and what I still call ”I” can listen.
According to a New-York-based somatic writing teacher Madelyn Kent, somatic writing practice is learning how to listen better, how to tune in instead of yelling or quieting. ”Tuning in” is an active, accepting grounding with what is in the soma, in its presence and history. What kinds of imagery and responses does it carry within, does it hold trauma or pain? Another American somatic writing developer and coach Tanya Taylor Rubinstein emphasizes connections between the soma and its grounds. How does the soma connect to the land, how does it connect to the biological and spiritual ancestors in terms of present influence as well as genetic and social heritage? Being where one is simply is enough. The somatic writing practice is nurtured with imaginary activities, guided meditations, body scanning, and reflections – just how to name it – and free and prompted writing activities. Another somatic writing teacher and writer Cheryl Pallant uses various movement exercises and guided meditations as openers to writing. She writes in her book Writing and the Body in Motion: Awakening Voice through Somatic Practice: ”Connecting somatically with words tied to the body is an opportunity to get out of our way. We listen to the body conveying its messages. We open the ear of our heart, our gut, our motion.”
-  The image of a body as a receiver comes from somatic writing developer and teacher Madelyn Kent (www.sensewriting.org). She uses the radio metaphor. If the bodily voice is disturbed, it is tuning that helps, not adding volume or shutting down the device.
-  Tanya Taylor Rubinstein (www.somaticwriting.com)
-  Cheryl Pallant (www.cherylpallant.com). See also Pallant 2018. The quote is from the chapter ”The Verbal Body”.
The beach is empty of people, but the ground is full. It is impossible to be without noticing the shells. They are just everywhere, some in the dry sand, tons of them in the trash line, again some more in the wet sand and below the waterline. Small and bigger, bone white, yellow and peach, gray and blueish. Shells are living creatures without a head part, but here in the sand are just their hardcovers without signs of life. The sea brings shell parts and flushes them back to the sea. Some small shells are unbroken, but the bigger they get, the more they seem to be in pieces. Like the audio narrative that flows into my ears, my eyes cannot stop noticing the shells. There is no point where one has seen everything. I start to collect the most beautiful of them. This body within me wants their bodies. My holding capacity is very limited, just two hands and one pocket, so it is obvious that my preferences change. I tend to put some shells back into the sand when I find another that is even better. Bigger, unbroken ones are rare, so I adjust myself and start to think that the broken ones are beautiful as well. At some point, palms and pockets full, I turn to the breakwater made of huge gray stones and jump from one stone to another like a kid. Somewhere down in there, stuck between two stones and filled with sand, is a gorgeous white and gray-striped conch shell, almost 10 centimeters long, swirled around its axis. I release it carefully, rinse the sand off in the sea, hold the shell firmly in my right hand, and continue walking. I know I have found perfection, thus only by change, not through attempt or plan. I continue walking along the beach line, still keeping an eye on the trash. There are so many of us, within our bodies, who have been so hard and are still broken. And the broken ones are beautiful, too.
Through continuous practice in different daytimes, situations, and energy levels, the writing starts to formulate in my notebook’s pages. I do not call it fluency, I call it continuum that starts to hold itself. Like the footprints pressing to the sand, the side of my right-hand presses the surface of the paper lays there a moment, then moves on. The ”I” dissolves as the body opens as a writing space. Ego wanted a hardcover, but this practice softens, stands up, and makes the borderline of the body soft, thin, and flexible, like an eardrum. Listening becomes resonance. I start to imagine writing as something that the waves bring to my feet as words or something that my body emits when I let it move. The writing does not feel anymore like some kind of production, but like kind of sharing, passing on. Letting the ego go does not evolve any chaos or confusion, it only brings trust, time, and acceptance. No wonder the hard shells so often get broken. The beauty is in the pieces, and the words are pieces of something I am up to follow. Or just to wait.
I wish this could all stop here. I could have turned back, left the beach, and walked back on the solid asphalt street that follows the coastline. Just my beauty in my pocket, memories untouched, undisturbed. But I do not do so. I continue walking, I let my eyes still wander around the trash line. A hungry human, never good, always seeking more. Shells are still there. Lots of brokenness, lots of minerals in the piles. And then my eyes hit something. An unusual geometric shape here, just perfect in its five-string star-shaped quality. It is a sea star, lying on a reel raft, close to dry sand, some three or four meters from the waterline. I squat down to be able to see it closer. It is about the size of my palm, and the five strings are about the same size as my index fingers. The tips of the strings are getting white. I wonder if it is already dead or just dying. Those creatures need to be in the water. Dry sand means death for them. It is a bit of a mystery how it has ended up so far from the waterline. Maybe the waves have been that high in the past night. I glance over my shoulders. Nobody else is close, this part of the beach is still almost empty. If I hear something inside me, a warning signal maybe, I do not pay attention as I am so excited about this latest find. The unbroken shell bulges in my pocket. This one is not pocket quality. I take a few longer reel sticks, put them under the sea star, and lift it. As I hold it, I see the small movements of the star. Its flesh is still alive, and it pulses. On that part of the beach, the road goes very close by, and by the road, just a few steps away, is a gas station. Still in my thoughts, audiobook still on, without thinking that much, I decided to go to buy a drink in the gas station. I cross the street and go in. Holding the sea star with one hand, I pay for my ice coffee at the register. The young lady takes my five-dollar bill eyes on me with her big brown eyes and asks gently. ”Oh what do you have here? Take that guy back to the water.” And so I tell her I am doing it, suddenly with heightened sensitivity, greatly aware of what my plan was. I was about to make a mistake, and my body, the one who holds me and whose sensitivity I now trust, did not warn me. Or did it? What if I was not just listening, again? How quickly and treacherously did my pure pleasure of finding something surprisingly precious and beautiful change into a devastating plan? Was it really in my hands to choose whether that beautiful creature was about to dry and toughen up l– just like that sea star I saw at the souvenir shop, painted all red, with a Christmas elf’s face drawn in the middle of it? Was that really from me? What had happened to my voice? Muted, unlike the audiobook? My receiver, my tuner?
This world, extremely beautiful, and yet so dangerous for each of us. Like Joy Harjo puts it in her memoir Crazy Brave (2012): ”Earth is a heavy teacher”. (Harjo 2012, 20) Today, the beautiful seashell, still unbroken, is in my home, on a small shelf, reminding me of the difference between hardcover and soft, living flesh, receiving and taking. In my mind, the laying cylinder -shape conch shell has a shadow of a five-finger sea star. Together they both remind me of the fact that once one chooses to live and process within the body instead of a head, the natural implication is that one chooses to honor all bodies, not only the one that she is carrying with. A body, anybody, is connected to the ground, it supports and feeds, as do all the bodies, and through the shared ground, be it earth or water or air, all the bodies are somehow connected. This may something similar to what Douglas Robinson calls somatic exchange when discussing how the groups of human beings interact within their somas: happens what he calls ”the simulatory internalization of other people’s evaluative body language as our own body states”, and ”what we are simulating in and displaying on our separate bodies is group evaluative effect, the somatic exchange circulates norms, or ideosomatic pressures that can be cognitivized as norms”. (Robinson 2012, 49.) The ego, still lurking around, wants to remind us about the relative difference between me and the creature, and gain some advantage, but the body wants to resonate with the pulse of life, learn from each of us, and therefore it seeks to listen and care. So I listen their words. Ethical implications are unavoidable when the soma holds the space. To be with it is to be with everything.
The waves do not get tired. When I leave the beach, someone else continues to leave their footprints between the soft, light, and golden sand, between the trash line and the more solid, salt-layered line. Between here and there. Between the pulses, the waves. Within. With, and in.
Doidge, Norman. 2007 (2005). The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. New York: Penguin Books.
Hanna, Thomas. 1995. ”What is Somatics?” In Bone, Breath & Gesture. Edited by Don Hanlon Johnson, 342–352. Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books.
Harjo, Joy 2012. Crazy Brave. A Memoir. New York: W.W. Norton.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 2005 (1945). Phenomenology of Perception. Translated by Colin Smith. New York: Routledge Classics.
Pallant, Cheryl. 2018. Writing and the Body in Motion: Awakening Voice through Somatic Practice. South Carolina: McFarland and Company.
Robinson, Douglas. 2012. First-Year Writing and the Somatic Exchange. New York: Hampton Press.
Rouhiainen, Leena. 2006. ”Mitä somatiikka on?” In Liikkeitä näyttämöllä. Edited by Pia Houni, Johanna Laakkonen, Heta Reitala, and Leena Rouhiainen, 10–35. Helsinki: Teatterintutkimuksen seura.
Shusterman, Richard. 1999. ”Somaesthetics: A Disciplinary Proposal.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 57, no. 3 (Summer 1999): 299–313. https://doi.org/10.2307/432196
Johanna Pentikäinen: I am a devoted writer as well as a writing teacher and researcher. My publications are on teaching literature, writing, and self-reflection skills through reading and movies. Besides that, I have developed a more innovative, reflective, and often arts-informed approach to writing when teaching writing in the universities of art. Recently, I have been writing hybrid essays and fiction.