CUNY COMPosition & Rhetoric Community

Introduction: Why This? Why Now?

For twenty years, at professional conferences in Denver or Detroit, Louisville or Los Angeles, colleagues have buttonholed me in hallways or stopped me in elevators to ask about felt sense. “I’ve read your article, ‘Understanding Composing’ ” they say, “but I just can’t figure out how to use felt sense in my classroom.” Or, others admit, “I really like the idea, but talking about felt sense makes me uncomfortable. It just seems so touchy-feely.”

I understand these reservations. Felt sense is one of those elusive notions that can make academics uncomfortable. This discomfort arises, I suggest, because felt sense refers explicitly to the body, and in particular, to the way body and mind are connected. According to Eugene Gendlin, the philosopher and psychologist 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. Gendlin refers to this aspect of felt sense as “a body-sense of meaning” (1981, 10). And to work with this body-sense, we need to attend to our bodies and discover just what these inchoate pushes and pulls, these barely formed preverbal yearnings or leanings, are beginning to suggest to us.

Now, whether the idea of a felt sense makes us uneasy, it is not farfetched to say that we all live, think, and feel in bodies, and that the physical is an essential aspect of human experience. This body-mind relationship is implied in Michel Polanyi’s concept of “tacit knowledge,” a kind of knowing, he asserts in The Tacit Dimension (1967), in which we “know more than we can tell” (4), in which we have “tacit foreknowledge of yet undiscovered things” (23), a kind of knowing, I suggest, that is tacit because it is embedded in the body and nowhere else.

Interestingly, once felt sense has been explained, people often nod knowingly or experience a flash of recognition, realizing that they have called on felt sense in their own lives, regardless of their line of work. It turns out that once they understand it, people often become excited, recalling a time when they had a creative flash or were thrilled about a new idea they had just come up with. Often, they can describe, quite precisely, not only the idea but how they felt, physically, at the moment of discovery. But such moments, most conclude, are rare; they come only a few times in a lifetime and are more serendipitous than a sure bet. In fact, for centuries, the generative and creative aspects of people’s lives and work seemed mysterious and off-limits, not something one could count on with any certainty. But the promise of felt sense is that there is a place we can turn to—and turn to reliably—as the source of new thinking. Felt sense does not guarantee that our ideas or our insights will be revolutionary or even accurate, but understanding felt sense and knowing how to access it provides us with a starting point for engaging in a process that is both creative and meaningful.

The implications of felt sense are particularly relevant for teachers of writing. Showing students how to work with felt sense can help them unleash their own creativity, providing them access to language and ideas that may have otherwise remained inaccessible. Learning to work with felt sense can lead students into an open and exciting way of thinking through which they can, with guidance and training, learn to say and think what is genuinely new and fresh for them.

I say this with conviction because for the past twenty-five years I have introduced felt sense to hundreds of writers, students, and teachers. The teachers, primarily my colleagues in the New York City Writing Project, first explored and discovered the usefulness of felt sense in their own lives. Then, they brought this work into their classrooms—in middle schools, high schools, colleges and universities. Having guided their own students in the use of felt sense, these same teachers then often introduce this approach to other teachers in the dozens of inservice courses organized by the New York City Writing Project. And over the years, when I meet with Writing Project colleagues or other teachers, I hear, repeatedly, the same sort of response: “I was scared to do the felt sense exercise, but once we got started, I was amazed. Everyone wrote for at least half an hour, and this one resistant student [or teacher or administrator] just couldn’t stop. I wish every class could be so easy.”

So, what is the felt sense exercise? It is a guided process, a composing activity that I call the Guidelines for Composing. The Guidelines are recorded on YouTube and linked below. They are designed for writers to use on their own or for writing teachers to use with students in classroom settings or computer labs. In either case, the Guidelines are designed to set up what I think of as a “protected space” for writing: to help writers locate topics or research questions that are of interest to them or to help them contact their own unique stance on topics or research questions that have been assigned to them. More specifically, they guide writers through their composing processes from the first scary moments 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; one can never predict ahead of time just what will emerge. Consequently, students often find Guideline questions to be both comforting and challenging, scary and revealing, fruitful and, at times, surprisingly profound. 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.

Of course, in the field of composition studies, we have, over the past thirty years, developed a range of techniques to help students discover what’s on their minds and give shape to their ideas. Freewriting, clustering, mapping, looping, all come to mind—and all are useful. Seen from this angle, the Guidelines are another tool, another composing activity, to get writers writing. But when they are connected to felt sense, they offer us a way to examine larger issues of composing. They give us an experiential base from which to examine how our bodies and our minds are connected, how meaning emerges not only from cognition but also from intuition, and how the body itself is implicated in knowing and in the construction of knowledge.

One does not have to accept the body-mind connection for the Guidelines to work effectively or to serve a useful purpose in writing classrooms; but for those interested in these connections, I lay out a philosophy of bodily knowing. Here, contrary to many postmodern and poststructuralist thinkers, I suggest that language is not a prison that traps us but an open field in which we are free to play; that we are not only constructed by language and culture but also creators of new language and new cultures; and that this language-ing ability to say something fresh and new, to think new thoughts, can be derived, in essence, from our increasingly sophisticated ability to understand, acknowledge, and become adept at accessing felt sense.