Lesson No. 2: Bodies at Work

body language





“Though we may think of characters as visible, they are more like a set of rules that determines a particular outcome. A character’s physical attributes may be ornamental, but their features can also contribute to their meaning” (Mendelson, 34). 

While Mendelson is talking about fictional characters in the above quote, his assertions can be applied to creative nonfiction, as can Francine Prose’s points in her craft essay, “Gesture.” Regardless of truth or fabrication, a character/narrator must be created and the reader needs to be able to see her, to see what she is doing in order to accompany her throughout her story. As Mendleson describes, authors are able to gesture towards what a character looks like—give small details, most of them significant to who the character is as a person—and let the reader fill in the rest of the information. Written bodies, then, when not specified, become bodies with which the reader has more room to engage. 

As Prose describes throughout her essay, when we have characters perform certain gestures, a lot of information about who they are as people is revealed. There are the easily recognizable gestures—tapping a foot when nervous or rolling eyes when annoyed—and so the author’s job is to bring out the personality of each character (narrator as well) through little personality quirks. For instance, I wrap my fingers around my forearm just under a mole in order to assure myself that this is my body and I actually live in it (to gain some self-esteem, basically). My mother scratches out items on her to-do lists so ferociously that she constantly scratches through the page. Why does she do this? Because she’s crazy. Though perhaps more importantly she does this to feel a sense of accomplishment. I’ll have to ask her next time I see her. 

Any type of movement the body makes—gestures, especially—is a way in which a body speaks. At times, our spoken language can fail us. While we are writers, every so often we have to seek out a language beyond our own alphabets in order to really look at the facets and complexities of what it is we want to say. Hey body, come here for a second! Tell these kind readers what it is I’m trying to say! And so we bring our bodies into our writing, describe their looks, their gestures, the ways in which they touch the world. All of these things make our bodies more alive—both on and off the page. 

 Now go show the reader some skin. 



  1. Mendelson states how “features matter only in that they help to refine a character’s ” How do you feel about this statement? In what ways is it helpful to not give a full description of a character or the narrator, and in what ways is it not helpful to do so?
  2. Mendelson asks, “What is the difference between seeing and understanding?” Indeed, what is it?
  3. In what ways do you think a gesture can affect the flow of an essay? And what about a lack of gesture? How do you think you’ll be able to recognize when  gestures become more harmful to a piece than helpful?
  4. Through Cappello’s discussion about tact and touching, she draws a lot on what language means to our bodies and how our bodies have their own type of language. Thinking about this, how do you think a body “talks”? What words or phrases do you think live in your body? 


Writing Exercises

  1. Think of someone who you are close to and have a strong relationship with. Describe who she is as a person (using at least three different aspects). Now, think of how she looks and chose to describe different physical features that help convey who she is as a person.
  2. Now flip it! Describe two physical attributes of yourself that you like, and one that you do not like. From these descriptions, write about how they represent or are a part of who you are as a person.
  3. Think of a situation in which you were embarrassed and/or felt incredibly awkward. Describe everything about this event through the gestures your body made (or perhaps could have made) in order to convey what kind of person the narrator is.
  4. Think of an incredibly meaningful object that you have. Imagine picking that object up and thinking about the story that is behind its meaningfulness. Now, focus on your fingers. Describe what thoughts you are having about the object through the ways in which your fingers touch it. 



Weekly Deadlines

  • Saturday at 6pm:
    • All readings are to be completed
    • At least one discussion response is to be posted to the course website
  • Sunday at 6pm:
    • Weekly draft of essay(s) (no more than 1000 words total) is to be emailed to instructor and other participants
    • Responses to peer comments posted on the course website
  • Tuesday at 6pm
    • Responses and feedback to peers’ essays emailed to instructor and other participants


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