National Writing Project

Book Review: Felt Sense: Writing with the Body, by Sondra Perl

By: Sheridan Blau
Publication: The Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 3
Date: 2004

Summary: Sheridan Blau reviews Sondra Perl's Felt Sense: Writing with the Body, a book that guides writers to gain access to preverbal intuitive knowledge through attention to bodily experience.


See the related article, On the Experience of Writing Felt Sense: Writing with the Body, by Sondra Perl.

In an important but sometimes overlooked passage in Milton's Paradise Lost (V, 469-90), the sociable angel, Raphael, who serves as Adam's coach in the Garden of Eden, explains the order of the created universe, including the similarities and differences between human beings and angels.

As it turns out, men and angels are quite alike, both enjoying food (and sex) and both requiring nourishment to feed the vital spirits that give life to body and mind from which reason arises. And reason, he says, speaking of the human and angelic soul, "is her being," the defining characteristic of angels as well as men. The key difference between angels and men arises from the fact that there are two types of reason, "differing but in degree, of kind the same." These are discursive reason—the reason that is most characteristically human and exercised through the process of speech; and intuitive reason, a higher form of reasoning, that is most characteristic of angels (though also available to humans) and is exercised by angels and men in a knowledge that would seem to arrive and govern action without the need of language or any process of speech.

It is this higher form of reasoning—intuitive or angelic reason—that Sondra Perl proposes to make available to all writers by guiding them to experience what she calls their "felt sense," a term she borrows from the psychologist Eugene Gendlin. Felt Sense—the title of her new book—is what a writer listens to or consults when he is struggling to articulate an idea that he doesn't yet know in language, yet knows well enough when the words he tries on don't match his idea adequately. Whenever we struggle in speech or writing to make a thought available to ourselves and to our audience, making false starts and calling back our words, we must in some sense already know what we mean or we wouldn't know when our words are inadequate. And what guides us in these moments is our felt sense, through which we have access to our preverbal or nonverbal thought—our intuitive or angelic reason.

There is much to admire in Sondra Perl's instructive and beautifully written book. The strategy it offers to help writers discover and articulate their best thinking derives from Perl's groundbreaking empirical research—conducted more than two decades ago—into the composing processes of student and adult writers. Perl has successfully put her methods to the test in her classes and workshops ever since. But what I find of most compelling and lasting interest about her book and the studies that form its foundation is that they offer a persuasive demonstration that preverbal intuitive knowledge is the ground on which our most sophisticated and subtle verbal knowledge is built.

There is also a delicious irony in the way Perl employs her research and scholarship, her scientific experimentation, and her careful reasoning to make a powerful scholarly argument for what most conventional scholars might prefer to dismiss prejudiciously as flakey or touchy-feely—somehow less than rational: the argument that intuition, inspiration, or felt sense is not irrational or nonrational, but rather an activity of human reason, and, in fact, that it is a more rarified or purer activity of reason than the reasoning that proceeds strictly through the process of speech. Without being able to consult our felt sense, none of us would have access to any ideas that are not already commonplace or part of our inherited wisdom. New ideas and refinements of old ideas—everything we call original or insightful, everything we must struggle to articulate because it is not already conveniently packaged in words and sentences we can speak—all depend on our ability to tune in to what is known to us only through our felt sense. What is required of us as writers or thinkers, therefore, is what the Zen master offers to the insistent inquirer as the secret to enlightenment: attention, he says, attention, attention, attention.

Yet even the most appreciative admirers of Perl's research and pedagogy might balk, as I confess I did at first, at where she urges us to focus our attention. For Perl wants us to focus not on the outer edge or most subtle dimensions of our conscious thought in order to tap our felt sense but rather on our bodies. Felt sense, she insists, is a bodily experience. It refers to a kind of knowledge that she calls "bodily knowing." That concept struck me, at first, as not only a counterintuitive idea but one contradicted by my own experience and knowledge of the wellsprings for insightful writing and speaking. Aren't our bodies designed more to degrade and misdirect our thinking rather than give us access to the most subtle and elusive thoughts? In his eloquent and illuminating foreword to this book, Peter Elbow defends and explains its premises very helpfully, yet even he seems inclined to mollify hyperrational and highly skeptical readers by yielding slightly, hedging on the question of where felt sense is located and how it can be contacted. Explaining that felt sense is a bodily experience, he adds, "Of course, I'm not excluding the head from the body—I'm just excluding words in the head."

But Perl wants us to recognize that it is literally in our bodies where we experience that we are trying to say more than we currently have words for or that we know something we can't yet articulate. And just a bit of reflection or introspection while composing will reveal how right Perl is about how we experience the metabolic rhythm of composition—its movement from aridity to fertility, from frustration to inspiration as we discover new and deeper ideas in our bodily experience of being stuck or lost, and then of finding what we have been looking for. Even as I write or struggle to write these words, I experience the difficulties as a struggle to breathe properly, a skeletal discomfort, a drift toward sleep. Alternately, I feel moments of breakthrough as a kind of freedom in breath, an energized body, and sometimes a physical need to get up and walk around. Indeed, if we think about how we experience any moment of learning, whether in the course of writing or reading or silent thought, we will realize that we recognize those moments as bodily experiences, as if finally understanding any idea that had eluded us constitutes a change in our physical state of being.

Along with the distinguished scientist and philosopher Michael Polanyi, Perl takes us to the heart of the bodily experience of learning and to the ways in which all genuine knowledge is rooted in bodily experience. Perl's distinctive contribution is to show us how much the process of writing or composing takes place in what Vygotsky would call the zone of our proximal development—the place in which all our false starts and drafts function as scaffolds to assist us in moving ahead to a more advanced state of knowing—and how our capacity to guide ourselves in this movement depends upon our attentiveness to our moment-to-moment bodily experience.

Recent research on the differences between strong and weak readers has emphasized the capacity of strong readers to monitor their own understanding as they progress through a difficult text, recognizing through metacognition when and where their comprehension breaks down, so they can reread or otherwise repair the defects in their understanding of what they are reading. Weaker readers appear not to engage in such a metacognitive process; or, if they do recognize when they do and don't understand what they are reading, they appear to have no resources or strategies for making needed repairs. Sondra Perl demonstrates that metacognitive processing is equally crucial for successful engagement in the composing process of writing. What she presents students—or presents for teacher-readers to deliver to their students—is a model for the experience of tuning in to what we are thinking as we write and tuning in to the intuitive knowledge we possess that we might try to reach to make an advance in our articulated thought. The guidelines for writing that occupy more than a third of this short book (and are also provided on an accompanying CD with Perl herself heard conducting the workshops she offers to her students and to preservice and inservice teachers) model the process for student writers and give them an experience they can draw on in future acts of composing. And (as Vygotsky teaches us) what our students accomplish with instructional assistance today, they are likely to be able to accomplish by themselves tomorrow.

About the Author Sheridan Blau teaches in the departments of English and education at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he directs the South Coast Writing Project.

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