Language and Body

I am currently reading Helen Humphrey's latest book, Machine Without Horses. It is more than a story about the famous fly dresser, Megan Boyd: it is also a book about writing, about how the author comes to understand her subject, and how she creates a character.

At one point, Humphreys writes,

Pacing a novel is both natural and deliberate. On a basic level, the rhythms of an author’s body influence the way a story is told. Where a sentence pauses is often where the writer takes a breath, and the alignment of language with the body operates beneath the layers of the story, the syntax of the words themselves, and in the placement of the punctuation. (page 138)

Humphreys is not the first writer to note this relationship between words and body. When Toni Morrison wrote how she learned what to discard and what to keep, it is about understanding the rhythms of her body: she has learned to listen to the rhythms of her body and to know when something is in alignment, and when not.

I have a paused to consider this: the author’s body and alignment of body and language. We often read about the physical conditions of their labour: the books that surround them; the state of their desks; or their state of mind. What we seldom hear about how those elements of a writing life factor into editing.

An editor needs to understand an author’s rhythm, to find the alignment between language and the body of the author, to use Helen Humphreys’ phrasing. In trying to understand Megan Boyd, Helen Humphreys takes fly tying lessons because she needs to understand the meticulousness of the task: the careful winding of the thread, the different feathers that make up a Jock Scott, one of Megan’s signature flies. She needs to come to understand what Megan Boyd sees through her window, what occupies her mind as she engages in a repetitive task for fourteen hours a day. Likewise, editors need to understand the conditions from which an author writes, and that takes work.

One of the techniques for learning how to dress a fly is to take a completed fly apart—deconstruct it and then reassemble it. A novice fly dresser unravels a completed fly to understand the textures and colours of the different feathers that constitute each new fly they learn to tie. It is just so with each new book an editor edits: they need to get a feel for the tension in the thread that binds the elements together. In other words, they have to get to know not only the physical conditions of writing, but the rhythms of an author’s body—they need to align themselves with the language and rhythms of the text.

Take a look at the four images of a Jock Scott fly that I found on the internet:


Note the tiny variations that each of the dressers introduced: more blue in one, a more prominent tail in another. These are the rhythms of the body manifesting themselves in the work, the alignment, technique, and interpretation coming to the fore. Writing is no different: a short story is a short story, but no two are exactly replicas of each other. Editors have to learn to identify the differences, and to help the author accentuate them, or correct them where they render the object unrecognizable.

Editors have to learn to move with the rhythms of the author whose work they are editing, and to bring themselves into alignment with the text. That is how they avoid avoid inserting their own voice into the text, and help writers shape the best book they can. And for that, editors have to study the layers that bring about the alignment of the body and the language of the text.