On Felt Sense
On Felt Sense
Felt sense refers to way our bodies and our minds are connected. In "Understanding Composing" Sondra Perl explains the concept and how it relates to writing. To see how the idea works in practice, try her Guidelines for Composing presented here.
Sondra Perl "Understanding Composing" (a short essay on felt sense)
The Felt Sense Exercise: Sondra's Guidelines for Composing
(Excerpted from Sondra Perl, Felt Sense: Writing with the Body. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2004. If you'd like to hear Sondra lead you through this exercise, you can order her CD
Felt sense refers explicitly to the body, and in particular, to the way the body and the mind are connected. According to Eugene Gendlin, the philosopher who created the term, felt sense often comes first as an unclear, barely noticeable bodily sensation. Frequently, it is slightly disturbing because it calls attention to what is just on the edge of our thinking but not yet articulated in words. To work with this body-sense, we need to attend to our bodies and to discover just what these inchoate pushes and pulls, these barely formed pre-verbal yearnings or leanings, are beginning to suggest to us.
The Guidelines for Composing help us do that. They are designed for you to use on your own or in a classroom setting. Either way, the Guidelines are designed to set up a 'protected space' for writing: to help you locate topics or research questions that are of interest to you or to help you contact your own unique stance on assigned topics or research questions. More specifically, they guide you through your composing process from the first often scary moment of facing the blank page to selecting and developing a topic, from waiting for a felt sense to form to seeing just what it suggests, from jotting down notes and images and ideas to eventually finding a shape and a point of view for a first draft.
The Guidelines for Composing are exploratory in nature; you can never predict ahead of time just what will emerge. Consequently, you may find the Guideline questions to be both comforting and challenging, scary and revealing, fruitful and surprising. I often think of them as providing company for writers of any age, at any level, professional or novice, as each faces his or her own urge to say and write something that actually matters.
To do the Guidelines, I suggest that a teacher or a peer read the questions aloud and then pause between one to four minutes after each one so that you have time to jot down your responses. During this exercise, you should assume that what you write is private-for your eyes only. At the end of the exercise, you can decide if you have a topic worth pursuing. Eventually, once you become familiar with felt sense, you can use it to guide you whenever you write, especially when you are wondering if the words on the page actually capture what you had hoped to write.
I include the guiding questions here as if I were reading them aloud to you and following each question, I offer suggestions for the amount of time to devote to writing. If you follow my suggestions, you can complete the process in less than 40 minutes. If you have more than 40 minutes available, you can increase the amount of time you spend writing and produce a fuller draft. When you are ready, begin here:
- Since felt sense connects the mind to the body, the first step begins not with writing but with a breathing exercise designed to help you focus attention on your body. So, find a way to get comfortable. Stretch your body, put your feet on the floor, and begin to notice what is going on within you. If you are comfortable doing so, close your eyes. If you prefer to keep your eyes open, then look down and create your own private space wherever you are--knowing that you will just sit quietly for a minute or two.
- Now, with your eyes closed, focus on your breathing. As you inhale, see if you can feel yourself sitting in the chair. And as you exhale, let go of any tension or discomfort you might be feeling. Inhale again and direct attention to your hands or your arms. As you exhale, shake out your hands or your wrists. Inhale again and bring your attention back to yourself. Know that you're about to go on a writing journey by paying attention to your ideas as they unfold. As you exhale, get a sense of what it is like for you just to sit here, breathing quietly and slowly. And as we go through the process, I will remind you, from time to time, to return to this quiet place. Time: 30 seconds.
- Now I'm going to ask you some questions that you then ask yourself silently. When you hear yourself answering, make a list. Do not delve into any one item on the list. Just keep compiling as if you are making an inventory. Begin by asking yourself, 'How am I right now? Is there anything in the way of my writing today?' Jot down whatever comes. Time: 30 seconds.
- Set aside what you have just written so that you can have a clear space in which to explore. Whatever is there will remain there and you can return to it later on. Now, though, you're going to create a list of possible topics for writing. Inhale deeply and relax. With your eyes closed, ask yourself, 'What's on my mind? What am I interested in?' When you hear yourself answering, open your eyes and make a list. Time: 1 minute.
- Now ask yourself, 'What else is on my mind? Is there a topic or issue I've been thinking about lately that I might want to write about? Does a particular person or place or image come to mind? Are there memories or situations that strike me as interesting or compelling?' If so, jot these down. If you came here with an assigned topic or a topic you know you want to explore, make sure you also add that to the list. Time: 1 minute.
- Now that you have a list -- it may be long or short -- ask yourself, one more time, 'Is there anything I'm overlooking, maybe even a word I like, a color, an object, an event, a line from a song, something I've read or seen, an image or a dream, a question or a project I might at some time want to write about that I can add to this list?' Time: 1 minute.
- Now, you may have one definite idea or a long list of items. Look over this list and ask yourself, 'Which one of these items or topics draws my attention right now? Which item or group of items seems to stand out? Is there one that has more energy or says, "Me, choose me"'? If so, mark it in some way. If nothing stands out, then choose one topic or item you're willing to work with for now. Time: 30 seconds.
- Write the idea or the item you have chosen at the top of a clean page. You can save the list for another time, but for now you are going to develop the topic you've just selected. So take a deep breath, close your eyes, inhale, relax your body, exhale, and settle comfortably into your chair. If you think about it, you already have some ideas about this particular topic or issue or item. So, without delving into any one idea, see if you can jot down your associations or your thoughts on this topic. Ask yourself, 'What are all the parts I already know about this? Which bits and pieces come to mind?' Jot down whatever comes. Time: 3 minutes.
- At this point, I'm going to interrupt you and ask you to set aside everything you've just written. I want you to set aside the bits and pieces and take a fresh look at the topic or issue, to grab a hold of the whole topic and see if you can connect the topic to your felt sense. Stop writing now for a moment, close your eyes, and imagine that the whole topic is right here with you, in the room. Breathe deeply, repeat the topic to yourself, sense into your body and without writing, see if you can locate where this topic lives in you or what the whole of this issue evokes in you.
30 seconds of silence.
Now, ask yourself, 'What makes this topic or issue interesting to me? What's important about this? What's the heart of it?'
5 seconds of silence.
Wait patiently for a word, a phrase of an image to arise from your felt sense of this topic or issue.…And now, or when you are ready, write down whatever comes. Time: 4 minutes.
- Let the writing go now wherever it wants to go. Take whatever you've written so far and ask yourself, 'What's this really all about?' Keep writing and as you write, let your felt sense deepen. Pause occasionally to see if you're on the right track. Ask yourself, 'Is this right? Am I getting closer?' See if you can experience the inner shift that tells you, "Yeah, these words feel right," and then continue writing. If, for any reason, you are unable to write right now, sit quietly and wait for the next set of questions. Time: 4 minutes.
- Ask yourself, 'What, if anything, makes this topic or issue hard for me? What's the crux here?' Or, 'What, if anything, is difficult about this?' Pause and see if a word or a phrase or an image comes to you that captures the difficulty or the hardness in a fresh way. Write whatever comes. Time: 3 minutes.
- You can continue along now writing what comes to you. When you find yourself stopping, ask, 'What's missing? What haven't I said yet?' And again, return to that quiet place and look to your felt sense for a word or an image. Time: 1 minute.
- Now, ask yourself, 'Where is this leading? What's the point I'm trying to make?' Again, write down whatever comes. Time: 1 minute.
- Ask yourself, 'Does this feel complete?' Look to your sense of it all, how it feels to you in a bodily way as you try to answer. If your answer is "Yes, this feels complete," ask yourself, 'How do I know that?' Write about where in your body you found this answer. If your answer is "No, this isn't complete," pause, and ask yourself, one more time, 'What's missing? What might I need to write or to do to complete this, at least for now?' Time: 30 seconds.
- By now, you may have from one to several pages that can serve as the basis for a piece of writing. So it's time to consider what form these ideas might take. You want to see if what you have written so far suggests a shape and a point of view to you. Ask yourself, 'What form would work best for what I'm trying to say? Is this a story? A poem? An essay? Is it an argument? A personal narrative? A report? Could it be a dialogue, a play, a series of letters? Or something else?'
And also ask yourself, 'Who's talking here? Whose point of view is emerging? Might I take a different point of view? If it's a story, might someone else serve as narrator? What would happen then?' Ask yourself, 'Can I hear a possible first line? Can I see a new possibility or a new shape for this piece?'
If you have time, begin drafting your piece now. If you don't have time, make some notes about possible directions your piece might take so you have a place to begin if you choose to develop what you have written here. Time: 1 minute.
- You have just completed the Guidelines. Now, I'd like you to look over what you have written and to write a short description of what this process was like for you. Although the content can remain private, it is useful to share your observations of the process with your instructor and your classmates. So, look over your notes and ask yourself, 'Where did I start? What happened? Where am I headed? Time: 3 minutes.