Body Language: What Writers Can Learn from Artists


Body language is the nonverbal expression of emotion and thought—a form of communicating arguably more effective than the system made up of words. Words are adequate for the less complex task of conveying information, but body language and tone do the heavy lifting.

By some estimates only 7 percent of all communication is verbal. Our ability to read body language is embedded in our DNA. Our ancestors survived by understanding body language. We interpret it intuitively and instantaneously.

The skillful depiction of body language should be considered an essential aspect of literary art. It can tell us so much more about a character than language can.

We can see inside a character, we can understand how that character feels by observing, for example, the way she walks. Does she slouch or point her chin upward? And exactly how is that done? With a high and mighty attitude or does the gesture reveal a hint of vulnerability? We can understand a person’s true intentions by reading body language. Is he making eye contact, does one eye twitch when he speaks, is he leaning in or stepping back?

The language of the body is contained in every part of it: the hands, shoulders, hips, legs, feet, spine, and in every feature of the face. What is it about the gesture that telegraphs a certain feeling? Does your character’s expression of shyness and longing reside in the tilt of the head or is it in the pigeon toed, slightly knock kneed stance? Or is it a combination of both?

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Pop Survey: Do You Write in Your Books?

It’s a digital age, but we’re still mad for paper! Even as readers embrace the connectivity and convenience offered by iPads and Kindles, there are still many good reasons to celebrate a book’s physicality. In PloughsharesBook Arts series, we’ll be looking at some of the artists, curators, and craftspeople who work to keep things fresh and relevant.

Jane Buyers, Notes on Macbeth: Enter Lady Macbeth, 2004. Lithograph, etching, chine colle. 81.5 x 102 cm. Photo credit: Laura Arsie. (Via Numero Cinq, used with permission.)

Marginal notes re-purposed to create fine art: “A black rose is planted over the scrawled notes of some long ago student struggling with the text of Macbeth….The student’s handwriting is so uncertain and you feel the tremendous desire to understand. I like the anxiety and striving to grasp the meaning of the printed word.” Jane Buyers, Notes on Macbeth: Enter Lady Macbeth, 2004. Lithograph, etching, chine colle. 81.5 x 102 cm. Photo credit: Laura Arsie. (Via Numéro Cinq, used with permission. Visit NC’s site for the full interview.)

Okay, Ploughsharers, it’s time to share some of your opinions! Today we’re taking a little squiggly, ink-stained side road in our journey through book arts with a special question just for you:

Do you write in your books?

Or do you prefer to keep them pristine?

(Tell us in the comments section below!)

Readers are a passionate bunch. I did a little informal pre-survey of some of my friends and found the responses ranged from horrified gasps of “No, never!” to enthusiastic, fist-pounding  “Hells, yeahs!”

Along the way, I gathered some colorful (and sometimes methodically color-coded) stories I’d like to share with you.

A Confession

But first a confession. I’m a careful abstainer, a longtime, diehard member of the Keep It Pristine club.

A conservative approach: My copy of Don Delillo's Mao II from the mid-1990s with its tiny scrap of Post-It still sticking strong.

A conservative approach: My copy of Don DeLillo’s Mao II from the mid-1990s, its tiny shred of Post-it still sticking fast to a passage I loved.

Writing instruments never touch my reading materials. I’ll mark pages and passages with a Post-it, jotting down my thoughts, with their corresponding page numbers, in a notebook. There’s always a crisp roll of Brodart book jacket covers at the ready in my desk drawer.  I take care to use bookmarks and never dog-ear. My books are scrupulously clean.

Doesn’t sound like much of a confession, does it?

Well, here’s the thing: I’ve always somehow wished I was the kind of person who wrote in books, who was so full of spontaneous creativity, literary passion and spark that I just had to scrawl all over them. Once, as a teenager, I even tried to deliberately cultivate the habit, but my heart just wasn’t in it and the whole thing felt contrived. As I self-consciously circled and underlined and annotated, all I could think was You’re ruining that book.Continue Reading

For Those About To Write (We Salute You) #4: Go Big

For Those About To Write (We Salute You) will present a writing exercise to the Ploughshares community every few weeks. We heartily encourage everyone reading to take part! 

See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsIt was mid-morning but there were no shadows on my wall; the sun was being shy, so I knew it was grey and drizzly outside without even pulling the curtains aside. Perfection. I grabbed a pile of blank notecards I meant to write and send during the holidays but never did (just like every other year…), tore out a handful of sheets from a composition book I had laying around, tossed a few pencils in my bag, and biked on down to a cozy cafe to write my letters from our previous exercise.

I started with the loose leaf, to compose the letter that was staying with me. Though it took a minute or two of staring out the window at the people passing by, lead hovering over and occasionally tapping the blank page, eventually I just just took a deep breath and went for it. There’s a strange thrill associated with articulating things—secret, unspoken things—you want to express to a flesh-and-blood individual but for whatever reason, under normal circumstances, can’t or won’t. It’s equal parts exhilarating and emotional and embarrassing. The glory with this exercise is you can get as earnest as you want and no one will be any the wiser. In fact, allowing yourself to be honest in this kind of “direct” communication can often help to sort your own thoughts and feelings. After the length of a cup of coffee I was done. I folded it up, and put it in my bag, and haven’t decided yet whether to tear it up and toss it out or slip it in a nook somewhere so I can revisit it later.

The notecards were a more lighthearted affair—itty bits of good times and fun memories shared with old friends that had me smiling to myself as I scribbled them out. They were intentionally brief—essentially a single memory and quick “miss you!”—but when it comes to hand-penned missives, it doesn’t take much to make a nice impact. I stamped them and dropped them off at the P.O. on the way back home again. As ever, I vow to do this more often.

Y’all ready for the next round?

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