Ellen T. McKnight

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I write contemporary fiction, including novels, short stories and flash fiction, as well as poetry. My short work has been published in literary journals and anthologies. My soon-to-be-completed novel, The Ex-Mom, made the Finalist Short List in the Faulkner Writing Competition as a novel-in-progress. I belong to the Writers, a juried critique group of published authors, and have helped to bring programs to hundreds of writers as a Board member of Off Campus Writer's Workshop. Connecting through Story, my blog for writers and readers, is featured on my website at ellentmcknight.com.

Writing as a Full Body Experience

b2ap3_thumbnail_441px-Da_Vinci_Vitruve_Luc_Viatour.jpgPhoto courtesy of Luc Viatour / www.Lucnix.be

Writers learn to work on more than one level. At the same time we’re writing, we’re also reading – we’re both creating and reacting. While my mind keeps track of the story and the character’s progress through a scene, my heart is connected to her mood and my gut is registering tension. All my senses are alert to what her senses would be. (I could add that my hands are typing, but you get the idea.) If I have a character say something that doesn’t suit her state of mind, I get a sense of disconnection which tells me that I have to go back. If the tension flatlines, the first clue is that my stomach has unclenched. To some, this full body approach to writing comes naturally, but it can be an acquired skill. Often I go over a scene numerous times, focusing on three levels in particular.

Next, the gut check: is there tension? Would a reader need to read on? Is there a mystery, a worry, an unfulfilled desire, a conflict, or even just a disquieting imbalance, something that a reader would want to see through? As writers, we must try to anticipate the sensation of reading our work as honestly as we can. To captivate others, we have to captivate ourselves. As you write, is your stomach so tense that the world outside falls away? Or do you find yourself starting to skim? The feedback of your body doesn’t lie. I assign this one to my gut, which is where I actually experience this kind of independent processing. What I’m talking about here, of course, is our identification with our readers.

Last, I return to the mind, which is also where I start. The mind has the biggest job. Character development, dialogue, plot, setting, language, metaphor, the list goes on and on…. Writing is submersive. You have to bring all your talents and faculties to bear. But that is how we can spend so many hours by ourselves at the computer, or with nothing but pen and paper. We carry inside us more than one experience, more than one person. We create a world outside ourselves by expanding the one inside.

For more, please visit ellentmcknight.com.

Recent Comments
Rosy Cole
I've often thought how fit, preferably in top form, writers need to be. The practice mines everything we have and there's always a... Read More
Wednesday, 18 November 2015 18:21
Ellen T. McKnight
Thanks, Rosy! I've noticed that too, but hadn't considered how it might reflect on the involvement of our bodies in the work, othe... Read More
Wednesday, 18 November 2015 18:45
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The Poetry in Prose

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A novel is a work of sympathetic imagination. To achieve that, we need to allow ourselves to sink into our characters, share their heads and eyes, delve their feelings, and find their truest words. When Olive’s husband observes her alone in the garden in the beginning of Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, “[h]e wanted to put his arms around her, but she had a darkness that seemed to stand beside her like an acquaintance that would not go away.” We get both his insight about Olive, which is stunning, and his confession of the distance between them, which is all the more heartbreaking in its restraint. We see two lives in one flash.

Another striking example appears in The Hours by Michael Cunningham, when Virginia Woolf grapples with one of her headaches: “Strands of pain announce themselves, throw shivers of brightness into her eyes so insistently she must remind herself that others can’t see them. Pain colonizes her, quickly replaces what was Virginia with more and more of itself, and its advance is so forceful, its jagged contours so distinct, that she can’t help imagining it as an entity with a life of its own.” Her words are too analytical for most of our characters, but they seem so right for Virginia – I ache for her as she tries to manage the unmanageable with her fierce intelligence, all the while knowing how futile it is.

But the character doesn’t have to be a poetic writer herself for the writer to find the poetry in another mind. In Disobedience by Jane Hamilton, the teenage Henry confides in the reader: “To picture my mother a lover, I had at first to break her in my mind’s eye, hold her over my knee, like a stick, bust her in two. When that was done, when I had changed her like that, I could see her in a different way. I could put her through the motions like a jointed puppet, all dancy in the limbs, loose, nothing to hold her up but me.” I believe the writer found that insight by submerging herself so deeply in Henry’s perspective, that she could look up at his mother along with him and discover how he felt.

In essence, that’s what deep connection with a character is: writing the poetry our characters would write if they could. Their perspective, their voice. The confessions of another soul.

 

Recent Comments
Stephen Evans
Very good examples. I thought.
Tuesday, 14 July 2015 01:28
Ellen T. McKnight
Thank you, Stephen. I got a lot out of those books.
Wednesday, 15 July 2015 17:22
Rosy Cole
This is so insightful, Ellen. A lovely post. Rhythm is the key to life. Rhythm stirs fluency and belongs as much to prose as to p... Read More
Wednesday, 15 July 2015 17:13
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Hungry Writers and Smart Readers

My blog, Connecting through Story, is for writers and readers both. I can't separate the two. Growing up, I was the kind of kid who wrote in the attic and read in a hollowed-out hedge. The characters in books were as alive to me as my own they'd have adventures together in my head. When I first saw the film of a favorite story, Peter Pan, I loved it, but was startled that what I saw on the screen didn’t match up with my vision. My Peter had more of an edge (and was rather hot). Writing and reading are a collaborative act. The writer takes the lead, but together we do more than apart. The minds of writers and readers connect through the act of reading to forge something new and unique.

Writers can anticipate this by reading our work as a smart reader would. To allow our minds to visualize, our guts to react and our brains to question, even as we revise stories that we’ve worked on for months. If your stomach tightens, then that’s a good bet that the tension is working. If it doesn't, then you need to consider what would increase the stakes. Continue to read other people’s work, both to learn more about writing and to train yourself in how to be a better reader of your own. Writers should hunger – to create characters that yearn to breathe, to tell stories that need telling, to reach readers that would care. To become a stronger writer with each sentence you lay down.

I see us all as hungry writers and smart readers, deserving of inspiration, celebration and support. I want my blog to be a place you can go to learn and be valued. A place for connecting through story, mind to mind, heart to heart.

Recent Comments
Rosy Cole
This is such an important issue, Ellen, and one that is often forgotten. Learning how to be an objective reader of one's own writi... Read More
Thursday, 04 June 2015 18:32
Ellen T. McKnight
Thank you, Rosy. You put it so well. That balancing of guidance and space is truly an art. There's an aspect of trust in the relat... Read More
Thursday, 04 June 2015 18:48
Jitu C Rajgor
I liked reading your post. It has insights for writes and readers as well. Thanks for connecting me.
Thursday, 04 June 2015 19:37
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Latest Comments

Monika Schott A rickety bridge
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Thanks, Di.
Diane Rampertshammer A rickety bridge
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Pure poetry - very evocative - you are a painter with words..Di
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