When I finished writing my novel, Annabel, in 2010, I nearly lost the use of my legs. Between books I make things by hand: hats, collages, kegs of kimchi. So I went to the friperie looking for magpie materials – and found I couldn’t walk up the stairs.
“They feel,” I told my doctor, “like planks of rotten wood instead of legs.” I’d been sitting with them wound around each other in a Celtic leg-knot for a couple of years while I wrote the book. I knew you were supposed to get up and move around and I thought I’d done so once in awhile, but apparently not enough.
“There’s nothing,” said my doctor, “that can be done.” She gave me a look I was beginning to recognize as that of a youngish person pitying someone over the hill. Damn that, I thought: I’m never going to sit still again. I thought of the sixteen years I’d sat still through school and university, and the decades of sitting I’d done as a writer, and regretted it.
I walked home, cleaned off my desk, and went outdoors again. I walked to Jean-Talon Market and down Boulevard St-Laurent and through the trees on Mont-Royal. I moved down to Verdun and started getting to know the river: herons and sumacs, willows and wind. Beavers gnawing and ducks upside down in the water and red-winged blackbirds screeching holes in the living daylight. Messages from the wild flying everywhere and into my body, ideas at every turn.
I knew about ideas coming when you get up from your desk. Annabel would still be a dead manuscript under the bed if I hadn’t budged to make soup or take a shower or walk to the café. The most important metaphors and plot developments and the novel’s deepest psychological structures came to me “out of the blue” when I escaped from my desk. I’d made those escapes as last resorts, when sitting and thinking had brought me to the end of my tether. But now, trying to keep moving to heal my ruined legs, I realized movement might be my new first line of action as a writer: I could write with the body.
I’ve always known writers walked. One of my favourite books is Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth, in which Dorothy and her brother cover hundreds of miles of heath before collapsing to devour boiled eggs or meat pie against boulders. So I started using every hour of daylight as my personal body-writing time. When November hit and I took out my Seasonal Affective Disorder lamp as I always do in order not to become marrow-deep dismal, I realized I didn’t need it anymore: striding around the riverbank and the city streets in the daylight hours means I have so many ideas gifted to me by the light and the environs that all I have to do is spend an hour or so standing up at home in the night, scribbling it all down. My legs, after months of this, have come back to life. If ideas or images come too fast when I’m moving about, I write or sketch them in my tiny notebook, standing up, in all weather.
“If ideas or images come too fast when I’m moving about, I write or sketch them in my tiny notebook, standing up, in all weather.”
Drawings by Kathleen Winter
I’ve always felt the brain organizes and computes while writing, but the body is the place where story lives. I guess I just didn’t know until I nearly lost the use of my legs that I have to forget about sitting down in a chair altogether if I want to thrive, both as a writer and as a human. I used to have posted on my wall a quote from Eugenia Zukerman: “Apply your ass to the seat.” I guess maybe that works if you’re a virtuoso flautist. I ripped that quote down – and my ass is smaller now.
Kathleen Winter’s novel Annabel was a #1 bestseller in Canada and has been translated worldwide. Her story collection boYs, edited by John Metcalf, won numerous awards. Her Arctic memoir Boundless (2014) was shortlisted for Canada’s Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust and RBC Taylor non-fiction prizes and has been sold internationally. The Freedom in American Songs (stories, Biblioasis) also came out in 2014. Born in the UK, Winter lives in Montreal after many years in Newfoundland. http://tinyurl.com/Kathleen-Winter