On Felt Sense: Sondra Perl’s Composing Guidelines
by Erica Kaufman
One of the things I enjoy most about the Language & Thinking program is the way students are almost organically led towards the “final essay in the humanist tradition,” a writing experience that enables them to make use of the various and varied kinds of writing, reading, and thinking they do over the span of the class. However, because the question “what does it mean to be human…” is such a rich and daunting inquiry to pursue, one of my difficulties as a teacher has been to create a space where students are able to come up with questions specific enough to serve as the foundation for a paper that goes on a journey—that explores and represents “thought in action.”
In her foundational work, “Understanding Composing,” Sondra Perl writes,
…writing is a recursive process, that throughout the process of writing, writers return to substrands of the overall process, or subroutines (short suc-cessions of steps that yield results on which the writer draws in taking the next set of steps); writers use these to keep the process moving forward. In other words, recursiveness in writing implies that there is a forward-moving action that exists by virtue of a backward-moving action.
When approaching a longer work, a final paper, students often revert to the formulaic modes of writing experienced in high school—make an argument, summarize, use quotes, etc. Even when students spend weeks writing in various modes and forms, this reaction to more high stakes scenarios seems to still surface, undermining the growth they might have experienced throughout the pages of an entire notebook. But, in thinking about the writing or composing process as a process that inherently needs to move both backwards and forwards, the notion of composing takes a human form, represents the kinds of movements our bodies naturally make—aligning the writing process with the question of “what does it mean to be human.”
Perl attributes one aspect of this recursiveness to “felt sense,” a term coined by philosopher and psychologist Eugene Gendlin that Perl employs as “a kind of bodily awareness that…can be used as a tool…It is body and mind before they are split apart.” Felt sense is a technique of acknowledging the importance of the body and the self of the writer. As Perl states, “what is elicited, then, is not solely the product of a mind but of a mind alive in a living, sensing body.” We respond to certain topics in certain ways, and learning to accept and embrace this unique felt sense is crucial to the composing process. Our bodies are often the tools that can help to determine when a piece of writing is working and when it needs work, even if this notion cannot be articulated in words.
In encouraging and enabling students to enter into “thought experiments” and “language games” that tend to both mind and body, I think students are then able to find that they know a lot more about the project at hand than the previously empty page might indicate. “The physical is an essential aspect of the human experience,” Perl importantly reminds us. And, I wonder if this reminder isn’t exactly what students truly need to hear.
Just as “the loop writing process” enables students to “voyage in” and then “voyage out,” as Elbow calls it, by approaching a writing assignment from a number of different generative modes and angles and then returning to the topic at hand, Perl’s “Guidelines for Composing” taps into the many different directions our minds take when we write. Without prescribing any set topic, yet following almost a mind map of associative questions, these “guidelines” really empower students to actually focus (something Hayles aptly points out that today’s “Generation M” and its propensity for “hyper attention” might not do). Perl writes, “What Gendlin’s felt sense offers is an experiential way of understanding and exploring how we, as humans, operate with and in language.” It strikes me that this organic process of tending to “the knowing” we all experience creates a new (and extremely productive space) where composing in this 2.0 world can take place through real thinking through of ideas (sans Google, Wikipedia, Facebook, etc.) and taking the time/space to allow the writing to happen.