Movement as Creative Catalyst
Updated: Dec 12, 2021
One of the characters in the novel I’m working on is deeply related to her body. She uses ritual dance and improvisational movement to connect to the natural world around her. The character is physically capable and bold. I am nothing like her.
Though I exercise and take a weekly dance class, I’m physically timid. The timidity comes not just from being petite and bookish, but also from a fear of looking stupid. The fear of looking ridiculous and being ridiculed is normal and human, but left unchecked, it can be crippling. So, knowing that I have this weak spot, I’ve been looking for opportunities to grow and become freer in my physical expression.
In that spirit, I went to an experiential movement workshop hosted by Vanguard Culture in San Diego and taught by Patricia Maldonado of Improvisation Project Network. Unlike most dance classes, where participants follow a choreography given by the instructor, our instructor gave us prompts, and then we moved in response to those prompts. The point was to bring us into a conversation with our bodies, to inquire about how we learned to do certain things like sit up or crawl, and to use movement to connect to our creativity.
The exercises started with imagining we were in a bubble full of air or oil and experimenting with how we would move through that substance. Limbs floated easily through the air or slicked through the more viscous oil. In later exercises, some of us were swinging our arms or slapping the ground, while others rolled around and made sounds with our voices. At one point, one participant’s performance was so delightful, the rest of us erupted in applause and laughter. And it was a performance—not one that was meant to put on a show, but one that came from a deep inner well of expression and freedom.
And that freedom was really what the class was about—using movement to move beyond our fears of appearing ridiculous not only to others, but also to ourselves, and to experience the freedom of being playful with, and curious about, this gift of physical form.
As I moved my body to the sounds of the city—the air conditioner, the trolley, motorcycles, and car horns—I had to reach beyond my comfort zone to find the next movement. More than once, I found myself suddenly still, wondering what the heck I was doing. “That is your fear of being ridiculous!” Patricia, the instructor, would exclaim. She was right. When I started to worry about how I looked, I stopped moving.
It reminded me of that great Elizabeth Gilbert quote: “Your fear is the most boring thing about you.”
In this case, when I became afraid, I stopped moving. There wasn’t anything interesting to look at.
The antidote to this paralysis was curiosity. Getting curious about what my body wanted to do next was critical to getting it moving again. Sometimes, it was a comfortable, familiar movement that I knew wouldn’t look stupid—even if it wasn’t groundbreaking—like extending a leg with a pointed toe. Then as I focused on the sensation of doing that movement, I would get curious about how something else would feel, like bending into a forward fold, which would make me curious about how my joints work and the different directions they bend, or how different parts of the body could be used as counterweights.
As we drove home that night, my brother, who I had dragged with me to the class, asked me to describe what I had gotten out of the evening. I stumbled through putting my thoughts into coherent words. The class had taken me out of my head, allowing me to tap into a different kind of intelligence that lives at the level of instinct. I felt excited and invigorated by the physical freedom I had experienced in the class. But how could I bring that freedom to my work as a writer?
Certainly, there are metaphorical lessons about life and overcoming blocks in our creativity to be had from a class like this. The curiosity I had to bring to my movements could also be used to break free of writer’s block or any other experience of stagnation in my life.
But movement is also a key element of experience. As we dive into how the nonverbal world works, we discover so much about ourselves and human nature in general.
Studying movement, whether in the formal setting of a class or just becoming curious about the genesis of our own movement patterns and limitations, can help us infuse our characters with realistic physical responses to their situations. It can move us beyond relying on thoughts and feelings to express character and create opportunities to show our characters in action. We can see the characters’ thoughts and feelings come to life through their actions, drawing the reader into a fully formed world. Action doesn’t have to mean running, fighting, and dancing. It can be as simple as sitting, eating, hugging, or standing. And we can use movement to choreograph scenes that reveal character.
As an example, let’s look at a paragraph from Helene Wecker’s 2013 novel, The Golem and the Jinni. In this scene, the Jinni has recently been accidentally released by a blacksmith from a bottle where he’d been imprisoned for millennia by an evil wizard. Before he’d been imprisoned, he’d been living alone in the deserts of ancient Syria. Now, he finds himself in the year 1899 among Manhattan’s tight-knit Lower East Side Syrian immigrant community, forced to attend the wedding of people he doesn’t know. The blacksmith, Arbeely, is the only person who knows his true nature.
Inside, the tables had been pushed to the edges of the room, and a group of men was dancing in a fast-moving ring, their arms about each other’s shoulders. The women crowded around them, cheering and clapping. The Jinni stood out of their way, in the back of the room, and observed the bride through breaks in the crowd. Of all the people at the wedding, she was the one who’d caught his interest. She was young and pretty, and clearly very nervous. She barely touched the food in front of her but smiled and spoke with the well-wishers who approached their table. Next to her, Sam Hosseini ate like a starving man, and stood to greet everyone with hugs and handshakes. She listened to her new husband talk and looked up at him with obvious fondness; but occasionally she would glance about, as if looking for reassurance. The Jinni remembered what Arbeely had told him, that she was only a few weeks in America, that Hosseini had proposed to her on a visit home. And now, the Jinni reflected, she was in a new place, on unsure footing, surrounded by strangers. Like himself, in a way. A shame that, according to Arbeely, she now belonged to this man only.
Look at how Wecker uses the juxtaposition of movements (underlines added for emphasis) to bring the scene to life. She doesn’t just tell us that the bride is new to America and nervous, she shows us by having the bride barely eat and wait for well-wishers to approach her, while her husband scarfs down food and jumps up and hugs people and shakes their hands. Likewise, she juxtaposes the dancing ring with the still and observant Jinni. We know that whatever may happen in this story, the Jinni is an outsider.
I don’t know what Helene Wecker’s relationship to movement is, but it’s clear from this paragraph that she thought deeply about how her characters move within their world and how she could use that movement to express a character’s inner world in a way that was visceral to the reader.
And isn’t that expression of the inner world what we are all trying to accomplish? We’re trying to bring an idea that lives deep in our intangible beings out of hiding and give it flesh and blood.
Exploring the edges of our own materiality through movement gives us a whole different experiential vocabulary to wield. Having that vocabulary at my fingertips feels pretty freeing. It’s like having more colors to paint with, or more tools in the tool box.
So, next time you feel stuck in a scene—in life, in writing, or whatever you do—try making a move. Reach that pointed toe out and get curious about what’s next.
 Helene Wecker, The Golem and the Jinni (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2013), 101.