Body Narrative: Writing the Story of Your Body

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We take these sounds as testimony: violin, skin, tongue. Our bodies know these testimonies as beauty. –Susan Griffin

Words have mysterious and profound power. The process of writing can be life changing and therapeutic. Research suggests that expressive writing can improve health and well being. Dr. James Pennebaker, the premier researcher in the area of writing as healing, says, “Story is a way of knowledge.” Let your story tell you where it wants to go. This column will address resistance in body-narrative writing and how to use stream-of-consciousness writing as a way to counter resistance as well as taking your body back to its roots.

In his book Writing from the Body, John Lee calls us to remember the primacy of the body in writing. “The call to write is a call received in the body first. Creativity is not tidy or polite—it’s insistent. It calls us to feel, not dimly, not safely, but widely, passionately, in every cell and fiber.” Lee writes, “If we are to answer this call, we have to be able to feel every part of our lives…To write from truth, we have to radically reclaim and renew the body.”[i]

Be strong then, and enter into your own body;

There you have a solid place for your feet.

Think about it carefully!

Don’t go off somewhere else!

Kabir says this: just throw away all thoughts of imaginary things,

and stand firm in that which you are.

Kabir from “#14” in The Kabir Book translated by Robert Bly

Writing body narrative can be approached as journaling for your own benefit or as something that would eventually be published. Keeping a daily journal allows one to explore the intricacies of life and any beliefs, judgments, or feelings we have difficulty releasing. Using everyday language to write body narrative, your body story can facilitate insight and transformation. Furthermore, using imagery and metaphor in the creative process aids in healing.

French anthropologist and ethnologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss, argued “the transformations of healing involve a symbolic mapping of bodily experience onto a metaphoric space represented in myth and ritual. The narrative structure of the ritual then carries the participants into a new representational space, and with this movement, transforms their bodily experience and social position.”[ii] Thinking about this in terms of body narrative, sometimes adding just a few sentences to your journal entries about the surprises you came across while writing, what you want to further explore, or what you are learning about yourself through writing fuels further reflection and clarity. 

At each writing session, it is necessary to

  1. Devote time to yourself
  2. Create a safe space
  3. Protect your privacy 

If you get stuck or feel resistant, ask yourself how being resistant serves you. Make a list of what you are resistant to. For each item, ask yourself, what you get to do or avoid because of the resistance. Can you imagine the possibility of what might happen if you let go of your resistance? Before returning to your writing, let your imagination float around freely. Allow the process of writing to lead you into the heart of what needs to be written.

After much thought, I realized that the trouble I had writing that bleak Friday afternoon was due to my approach. I was trying to analyze…trying to explain rationally… I was failing miserably because I was approaching the task through my head… I had to drop into my belly.

Marion Woodman, Interview, Common Boundary, July 1992

Self-awareness encompasses an awareness of movement and body sensations as well as thoughts and feelings. To help get you into your body, first consider the following: What does body awareness mean to you? What words or images would you use to describe body awareness? Do you view the mind and body as separate entities?

Enter into your writing fully without hesitation. Write with intention. Stream of consciousness writing allows you to let your words spill out as fast as your thoughts. It doesn’t matter if your writing is disconnected or repetitive, or whether punctuation is correct. Free-write for ten minutes. Sink into the depths.

“Delve deep into your roots—the roots that connect your body to your family, to the earth itself, the roots that dangle beneath your desire to write. Your words will blossom more freely when they are grounded in your own fertile soil.”iii         

Take your body back to its roots, to its ancestral homeland. Enter the body of your mother or grandmother or great-grandmother. What would it be like to live inside her skin? How did she feel about her own body–as a child, a teenager, a young mother, or an older woman? Write from her voice. Let your body tell the tale of the bodies that came before you, the bodies that brought you into being, the bodies that still sing through your blood.

Think about place as well. What landscape has informed and constructed you? What corners of the earth have you felt a deep union with? Bring this place –and your body’s response to it—to full, three-dimensional life on the page. Remember and name each little detail, from the wild mustard scent of the breeze to the burrs that clung to your socks long after you ran through the scrubby field. Write about being at home in your own flesh, not just a visitor in your own skin[iii]  

If you need emotional distance, write prose from a third person point of view or write as an observer. Putting your writing aside for a length of time–enough time that allows you to see with fresh eyes may be helpful. 



[i] Lee, J. (1994). Writing from the Body, St. Martin’s Griffin, p. 1.

[ii] Kirmayer, L. J. (2004). The cultural diversity of healing: meaning, metaphor and mechanism. British Medical Bulletin. 69(1): 33-48. Retrieved December 10, 2013 from

[iii] Brandeis, G. (2002), Fruitflesh: Seeds of inspiration for women who write. New York, New York: Harper-Collins. p. 23.


 Debbie spent 30 years as a registered nurse. She became a certified applied poetry facilitator and journal-writing instructor in 2007. She is currently a student in the Johns Hopkins Science-Medical Writing program. Her publications have appeared in Journal of Poetry Therapy, Studies in Writing: Research on Writing Approaches in Mental Health, Women on Poetry: Tips on Writing, Teaching and Publishing by Successful Women, Statement CLAS Journal, The Journal of the Colorado Language Arts Society, and Red Earth Review.



Body Narrative: Writing the Story of Your Body

Our bodies conceptualize not only themselves but also each other, murmuring:

Yes, you are there; yes, you are you; yes, you can love and be loved.

–Nancy Mairs, from “Body in Trouble” (2011)


What is Body Narrative?

Body narrative is simply writing the story of our bodies. In this type of writing, we blur the mind/body boundary through an activity that is typically more closely associated with the mind. As author Nancy Mairs writes, “Even if one has lived within a mind cut off from the body, the body has been there all along.”[i]

Body narratives encompass our mental, emotional, physical and spiritual power. They allow us to integrate body awareness, sensations, and movement into our writing and help us connect with our bodies as we write. They allow us to get in touch with ourselves.   

Body narrative can be a powerful catalyst for self-discovery. Writing the intangible and the invisible—the internal experience of the body–heightens our awareness of body sensations and emotions, provides insight and understanding, helps translate experience into language, and facilitates connection and healing. In the process of writing a body narrative, we may begin to accept our bodies and understand how our bodies hold our stories.

Imagine what it would feel like to accept your body, and stop viewing yourself through an out-of-focus lens.  Take for example, Walt Whitman’s “I Sing the Body Electric,” a poem that celebrates and glorifies the body in all its manifestations, whether stretched, flabby, or swollen:


The love of the Body of man or woman balks account—the body itself balks account;

That of the male is perfect, and that of the female is perfect.


In writing our body narrative we can develop the sense that our bodies belong to us, and come to terms with our oftentimes fragmented existence. Through “writing the body,” we can move from living in the shadows to accepting ourselves.


To write as if your life depended on it; to write across the chalkboard,

putting up there in public the words you have dredged;

sieved up in dreams, from behind screen memories, out of silence–

words you have dreaded and needed in order to know you exist

 -Adrienne Rich


The doing of writing about and through the body helps us make meaning of what dwells within our bodies and helps us access our innate wisdom, which is often lost in daily life.

In one of her personal essays in Voice Lessons, Mairs writes, “Fortunately one cannot be without being a body. One simply is blood, thud of heart, lick of tongue, brain humped and folded into skull. And it is a body that one inhabits the past and it inhabits one’s body.”[ii]


Why Write Body Narrative?

We write body narrative to unearth our perceptions, judgments, and beliefs about our body, to increase awareness and esteem, release tension, unleash restricted physical, intellectual, and emotional movement, and celebrate our uniqueness and self-hood. Body narrative also allows us to explore our identity, sexuality, and ideals.


Here in this body are the sacred rivers: here are the sun and moon, as well as the pilgrimage places.

I have not encountered another temple as blissful as my own body.  -Saraha Doha, Indian Mystic


The process of consciously entering into conversation with your body, exploring body story, can enable deep and direct connection with issues that most need expression. The goal is exploration and reclaiming voice through the construction of reflective and insightful body narrative. Narratives written from the body can help improve our writing. Even if you’re a highly skilled writer, your writing can still benefit from body narrative.


How to Get Started Writing Body Narrative

Professor, poet, literary critic Hélène Cixous wrote, “Writing is writing what you cannot know before you have written.”[iii] To get started, try exploring even the most basic questions about physical experiences.  For example,

  • What do I think of my body?
  • What I like about my body most is…
  • My body was…
  • I was capable of…

To go deeper into the experience of the body, write from the following prompts.

  • I believed…
  • My body has a story to tell and this is the story…
  • What my body needs from me is…

Our body can also provide us an opportunity for reflection. British novelist and essayist, Nicola A. Griffith writes about life before multiple sclerosis,

I have always enjoyed my body. I grew up using and pleasuring it hard. I played tennis, did gymnastics, competed on the track. I worked as a laborer with pickaxe, shovel and wheelbarrow at an archaeological dig. I dug trenches and planted trees for the city council. I studied karate and taught women’s self defense. I had three lovers as well as my live-in partner. Drank whiskey, ate magic mushrooms, took a lot of speed, sang in a band half the night, went home with one woman or another and cycled to work at dawn after no sleep. I was invulnerable, unconquerable (probably insufferable). The fiction I wrote was physical: explosions, travel through space and time, fantasy figures rescuing fairy tale characters, and so on.[iv]

For people who have suffered physical or emotional trauma, please note that writing about painful or shameful issues is inherently risky. One can never be sure whether such writing or reading will lead to re-traumatization or recovery. Write with care, and take breaks as needed.


Look at pictures of yourself at different ages and stages. Look at the change in yourself over time. What do you see that you didn’t see before? Can you remember what you felt at the time the photograph was taken? How do you feel now looking at it? Have some characteristics stayed the same over the years? What has changed or shifted? How has “life” changed you?

Study these pictures of yourself and answer the following prompts.

Before today I never thought about________. I believed I understood_____________, but now I’m considering ________.

Thinking deeply is how we grow. And writing your thoughts commits you to examining them more fully than you can in internal monologue, or even in spoken conversation with others.

Future columns will discuss specific issues and writing techniques used in body narrative.



[i] Rainer, T. (1998). Your Life as Story.  New York, New York: Tarcher Publishing. p. 202.

[ii] Mairs, N. (1997). Voice Lessons.  Beacon Press.

[iii] Cixous, H. (1994). Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing, New York, New York: Columbia University Press, p. 65.

[iv]  Griffith, N. (n.d.). “Writing from the Body.” Retrieved December 9, 2013 from Permission provided via email.


Debbie spent 30 years as a registered nurse. She became a certified applied poetry facilitator and journal-writing instructor in 2007. She is currently a student in the Johns Hopkins Science-Medical Writing program. Her publications have appeared in Journal of Poetry Therapy, Studies in Writing: Research on Writing Approaches in Mental Health, Women on Poetry: Tips on Writing, Teaching and Publishing by Successful Women, Statement CLAS Journal, The Journal of the Colorado Language Arts Society, and Red Earth Review.