Writers on Writing #97: Alex McElroy
On Writhing: A Closer Look at an Underappreciated Art
Recently, in the graduate level workshop I teach, I paused class while discussing a student’s work to ask a simple, straightforward question: What is writhing? We had spent months studying the craft of writhing, its unheralded artistry, debating its most radical theories, yet never, in all of that time, had I stopped to ask them—nor had they, it seemed, stopped to ask themselves—what, exactly, we were doing. The student being workshopped lifted her head and untangled herself, somewhat, while keeping her legs twisted in that marvelously haunting fashion that only she can achieve, and answered, “This. This is writhing.” “Yes,” I responded. “But you’re not entirely right.” Class ended, and it dawned on me that perhaps I had let them down by failing to provide a proper definition of writhing. I drank heavily that evening. It was a long, brain-straining night, as I tried to articulate writhing’s particular immanence, and though my conclusions likely fall short of their mark, I do feel that what follows is a generous delineation of writhing, its history, and what it feels like to give in to the writhing life.
Perhaps the first thing any aspiring writher should know is that writhing—despite our daydreams and indefatigable praise for the masters—will not make you famous. Writhing is not, and has never been, for the fame hungry. It is for those who accept the termination of self. Self-destruction gives writhing its strength, and, if one writhes with all of one’s heart there will be nothing left over to serve as celebrity. This has always been difficult for me to accept. My earliest, semi-serious attempts to writhe were done to impress people, friends, lovers, instructors, and only recently has the desire for praise begun to wane. Writhing, although done by oneself is never done for oneself. Praise is selfish and fleeting. Received, it retreats to the depths of the soul, where it hardens, gunks, and dissolves, leaving a rift that can only be filled by itself. Writhing is for its viewers—audiences, friends. It is dually public and intimate, meant to convey emotions and feelings that words, both spoken and written, cannot, and might never, express. One writher I particularly admire, Sandra Molana, sees writhing as a potlatch for the soul, the sacrifice of material boundaries done to strengthen communities.
Writhing is not a modern phenomenon. It dates back nearly two thousand years. The ancient Komani people, of what is now southeastern Quebec, built an entire society around the interpretation of public writhings. They believed that the writher writhed to reveal the world unseen. Writhers were public prophets. Writhers were touched by gods. To the Komani writhing was the manifestation of community ethos. Of feeling felt but misunderstood. A joyous writhe filled with leaping and spinning might dispel, throughout the community, the feelings of shame and embarrassment that accompanied disappointing harvests. Whereas darker performances, in which writhers zigged roachily on their stomachs, or snapped their bones on the ground and continued performing, could sink the most buoyant Polly Annas. Bleak performances were frequently met with violent backlash from viewers unable to accept intense expressions of darkness and pain. Writhers themselves, though celebrated during performances, were routinely mistreated after performances. Community elders believed that in order for writhers to truly express the will of the people—their emotions, desires, fears, and their futures—that writhers must live in squalor, close to the earth. Hardly unique. Physical hardship is commonly linked to spiritual and emotional insight. But the symbiosis of pain and performance has dwindled over the centuries. And many conservative scholars have noted a steep decline in the quality of modern writhing. Critics, such as A.E. Tinsen, argue that writhers have debased the true nature of writhing. Increasing stylization and individuality, a cult of personality never before seen in the writhing community, signals, to Tinsen, the beginning of the end of quality writhing. And though her ideas are alarmist, she is right to critique the increasing insularity of contemporary writhing, as many young writhers—including my students, and even myself—seek glory in oddness, in bizarre gestures and intoxicant squirms that do less to express the glory and woes of the community, than incite ire and shock. The reasons for this shift are manifold and complex, and, if the history of artistic creation has shown us anything it is that diagnoses are best made in hindsight, but I will say, briefly, that the desire for self-expression can distract from requisite study. What writhers need is not the grand expression of interior motives but the patience to wait for the collective unconscious to take over their bodies. Young writhers might take inspiration from the Komani. They understood that valuable writhing requires the sacrifice of comfort and time, that the distillation and presentation of the universal necessitates compromising oneself, with oneself, but not as oneself.
All this talk of inspiration is not to dismiss the training crucial to becoming a writher. The study of great writhers, past and present, should precede any serious attempt to live one’s life as a writher. I have benefitted greatly from my friendships with older writhers, and when I was in school, certain professors put forth a great deal of time to act as writhing mentors. Is a mentor necessary? I think so. Though I wouldn’t go so far to say that writhing requires a master’s degree. Yes, that is the route I took, twenty years ago, because I knew that I would benefit in a community of like-minded people. And though I learned a lot from my peers, what I gained, more than anything, was the confidence to ignore them. The desire to please others—like the desire to showcase oneself—is a major hindrance to writhing, and the best thing I can teach my students is how to discard my advice. Grad school did help me develop and commit to a schedule. The best writhers are disciplined in their routines. Personally, I writhe every morning. My wife, also a writher, prefers to writhe in the late afternoon. But without our schedules we would not have improved as we have. So, while academic writhing is not for everyone, it’s clear to me that good writhing comes from disciplined practice and irreverent study, a form of learning not, as some prefer, like water being poured down one’s throat, but like wading in and out of a stream, scooping water and slurping it, and, eventually, damming the streams to split the water in unforeseen directions.
To conclude, writhing, by my definition, is an act of love and devotion, a transmutation of feeling through the physical twist, twitch, jolt, jump, hump, tremble and flutter of bodies splayed on the floor. Writhing is done for the other at large. For the infinite and achronological. It requires discipline and commitment, the concentration to roll in front of a mirror for hours on end, noting errors, or dishonest movements, as if you were not the one writhing but a stranger seeing you writhe for the very first time. It requires patience, pain, and focus. An ear attentive enough to auscultate the earth. And most importantly writhing will not make you famous, nor will it bring you comfort or happiness. But the writhing life can be filled with love and devotion. It teaches us both, by demanding we embrace and embody that which exists beyond and within us. It makes us anonymous and synonymous, and in a world obsessively personal and hatefully individualistic, anonymity might be the highest and bravest expression of human potential.