On Writing About Embodiment – Part 1
Here is a new series about writing embodied nonfiction while loosely connecting to an annotated Skin of Glass. Sharing my memoir, Skin of Glass: Finding Spirit in the Flesh, in small bites allows me to include ancillary ideas that, ultimately, were not part of the printed book, but belong as tendrils, springboards, or backstory. (I love reading about artists’ process! How does that amazing piece happen?)
About Writing Skin of Glass
Writing Skin of Glass was a massive undertaking; I was learning how to write a book, and no matter how many books you read, writing one is insanely difficult. Especially the first one. I read a lot, had wonderful wonderful coaches and companions, and crucified my lower back at the computer. (A full length draft was my masters thesis for a writing degree.)
Skin of Glass began as a series of essays before it took on a life of its own as a full length memoir. I suppose we all live a life that can be shaped into narrative if we take the trouble, but when I started writing Skin of Glass’ I didn’t know that. I had anecdotes and thoughts and vignettes. I had fragments. The first batch made up a moth-eaten jigsaw puzzle. I could see what was missing. I wrote up those parts, popped them in. I still thought it would be a collection of essays. I continued on, methodically retrieving memories, inserting them into the flow the way a detective unravels a crime. Then one day, in a flash, I saw that I had a narrative. Once I knew this, it didn’t take long to get out the complete first draft. Polishing took a long time.
About Writing Literary Nonfiction
Recently, I found To Show and to Tell: the Craft of Literary Nonfiction by distinguished essayist Phillip Lopate, in my local library—a masterful treasure of what to consider and where to stand in the self in order to write personal essay and memoir well. Here he is on the difference between fiction and nonfiction: “In the traditional short story or novel, a fictive space is opened up that allows you the reader to disappear into the action, even to the point of forgetting you are reading. In the best nonfiction, it seems to me, you’re always made aware that you are being engaged with a supple mind at work.”
As a child, I read mostly fiction but over the years nonfiction has grown in appeal for many reasons including the sense of the writer’s presence. That ‘supple mind at work.’ I often enter into hypothetical dialogues with the writers I read, working out my own ideas alongside my ’interlocutor’, an expert who has researched and thought deeply and managed the enormous labor of compiling and publishing a book. This writer will likely never hear my thoughts in person, but this doesn’t dim the pleasure of knowing that there is another person out there questioning and reflecting about our world. I am not alone.
This feeling threads through writing blog posts and longer pieces. I am here inside my words. Those of us who love literary nonfiction know that we need to shape what we mine from our lives and take the reader somewhere in a distinct voice. From Lopate again, “Consiousness plus style equals good nonfiction.” It isn’t enough to whine or cry. We also have to step outside our self and see the universality of the topic into which delve. We have to grapple with continuous ambiguity and the inevitability of self-contradiction. Which is life for everyone. We are everyone as well as just an insignificant someone.
The following section, the first one I’m posting, is randomly chosen; I just opened to the book to this page and feel that it is as good a place as any to start. In this section of the memoir, I explore the topic of ‘skin’ in my movement practice and performance experiences. The sense of touch predominates. Contemplations emerge about of the edge between people, between what is inside and what is outside, between what is hidden and what is revealed.
Excerpt from Skin of Glass: Finding Spirit in the Flesh
by Dunya Dianne McPherson
Part II: Sensation, Section: ‘Skin’
A white silk gauze veil draped over my face, pressing an Eskimo kiss on my nose, and cascading in fairy folds over my shoulders and down my back like the hair of Lady Godiva. I moved slowly, hypnotically to oud music, my limbs emerging then disappearing; walls blizzarded toward me like snowflakes at a windshield. This white draping was the opposite of the burka, a darkness that swallows body contours revealing only a pale moon visage bobbing in a reticent night. The burka transforms women into black holes with faces full of everything their bodies cannot disclose. By contrast, my face vanished in a pallid shroud of white veil as my body said and unsaid misty poems.
I was barely aware of the videographer’s presence as my skin rasped along a cool plaster wall. We were absorbed in our respective tasks, mine to capture movement gliding near then into me, and his to capture the way this subject glided in and out of the camera’s eye. I grasped through feeling. He grasped through seeing. As he poured his eyes and attention into the viewfinder, I perceived the camera as a skin between us.
When we finished, I dressed in loose jeans and a T-shirt to watch my videoed self. I remembered my experience—the dancerly internal tracking of movement, the sensation of interior landscapes, temperatures, and pressures. His view, neither an enhancement nor a document, was another world altogether: offset by a blurred emerald haze of geranium leaves in the background, my hands melted into the silk’s luminosity; a madonna face slid into the frame, then a collarbone; crisscrossed muscular legs and languid feline arms became an octopus-like confusion of limbs. Skin looked one way and felt another. Unlike hidden ovaries, skin sees and feels, is seen and felt. Skin is a sort of fabric, a place for light to rest.
Afterwards, we settled in the kitchen. Evening closed it eyelid on the view out the window as we drank green tea in a pool of lamplight. I always love the intimate after-fog of shared artistic meditation. I thought of Sufi Master Shabistari’s words, “‘I’ and ‘you’ are the veil between heaven and earth…”
In the next session, a fellow dancer, John, joined us for the filming. We wore our practice clothes—stretchy skins over skin. Confined in a tall window casement, its sill three feet wide, a foot deep and the frame seven feet high, we were forced into close interaction. Glass blew light over us like confetti. John slid along my body, his muscled arm, the flat plane of his cheek, his silky hair whispering his whereabouts into the thin stocking of air lubricating our nearing skins. Pressure between our limbs and torsos hinged our balance. A buttery line of motion spread up my spine and out my arm as sunlight crossed his shoulders. We passed movement back and forth, and then came a powdery gush of unison. Dry touches. Had this been sex, we would’ve been wet.
Reviewing the footage, I saw that we resembled two fish swimming in an upright tank of effulgence. The persistent brilliance of New Mexico’s desert sky backlit and melted our twined limbs in radiance. I was struck by the unintentional description of relationship: two beings close together, restricting one another, overlapping, their edges blurring in a captive frame, as well as the intimate blaze of two flames fused.
My work and writing are sponsored by Dervish Society of America (DSA), a nonprofit 501-C3 organization dedicated to the Path of embodied mysticism. DSA provides opportunities for personal development, exploratory inquiry into embodied spirituality, and community connection through practice, service, and performance. DONATIONS are tax-deductible.