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Foreword: Felt Sense and the Wrong Word, by Peter Elbow

When I tried to write my papers during my first go at graduate school, everything I wrote seemed wrong. I spent all my time crossing out and ripping up and often not ending up with a paper. It was this experience that eventually got me thinking hard about writing, and it explains what you might call a negative framework for this foreword. Yet I’d wager that most people’s most recurrent experience in writing is also negative—even when their writing goes tolerably well: again and again coming up with a word and realizing that it’s the wrong word. Whether the word arrived easily or by dint of struggle—whether it’s still in mind or already written—we know it’s wrong. Surely this is one of the main reasons why writing brings so much discouragement.

But when we understand how felt sense works and learn to attend to it and use it in writing—and I don’t know any better guide than what Sondra Perl gives us here in these pages and on the enclosed CD—we can move productively past that discouraging experience. Not by impatiently pushing the wrong word away and frantically searching for the right word—as I did in graduate school—but by honoring the wrong word and dwelling in the experience that tells us that it’s wrong. The wrong word may be wrong, but it usually provides a string to the feeling of what we are trying to say—our felt sense of meaning.

Gendlin and Perl give us guidance in learning to attend to that felt nonverbal sense triggered by a word. It may feel like a discouraging experience—a negative buzzer going off yet again saying “No, that’s not the word I want.” But it’s not the discouragement we need to dwell in, it’s the vein of rich meaning that the discouragement often tries to hide: “What I’m trying to say is … ” It is here, in this nonverbal space, that we can dwell with a positive and hopeful sense of expectation. And this here turns out to be rooted in the body. In short, the experience of “Uh oh, wrong word” is good news—if we know what to do with it. It means that now the leverage is available for finding words for exactly what we do mean. If I had known then what Gendlin and Perl have taught me, I wouldn’t have had to quit in failure. (I don’t mean to give the impression that the only doorway into felt sense is through the wrong word. There are various doorways but it’s the one that strikes me most, and I love it that wrongness can usher us to rightness.)

Of course it’s controversial to claim that we all possess these rich veins of meaning in our nonverbal bodies. Few people will believe that claim unless they actually learn to use felt sense—and notice what they are doing. (For of course people often do use felt sense without noticing or understanding the process.) Nevertheless, Gendlin gives a disarmingly simple argument for the claim. He asks a simple question: How do we know that the word we just produced is not what we mean? On what basis do we sometimes say, “No, that’s not quite it.” Against what standard do we make that judgment? Do we compare the words to other words inside our heads that are a correct rendering of “what I really mean”? Even if we were to do this unusual thing, then how do we decide that those words were a correct rendering? In short, if we can tell that the words that came from our mouth are “not what we mean”—we must be comparing those words, ultimately, to something non-verbal. That something has got to be the body or rooted in the body. Of course I’m not excluding the head from the body—I’m just excluding words in the head.

But writing—in contrast to speaking—poses special problems for felt sense. When we speak, our goal is usually just to say what we mean. In writing, however, our goal is likely to be different: not so much to say what we mean as to adjust or change what we mean till our words are true or well argued or valid or interesting—and clear and well organized. Writing usually heightens our concern about standards of good writing and readers’ responses. When we’ve spoken, we can often say, “Yes, those words might be wrong and awkward, but I don’t care because they say what I meant to say.” After writing, we’re less likely to say that.

Is writing the culprit in drowning out felt sense? It seems so. After all, the very fact of having to find the letters for spelling every word we write adds an external standard for judging written words wrong. But in fact it’s not the medium of writing itself that does the most to drown out felt sense. It’s the situation in which people so often do their writing: writing for teachers, writing for scholarly publication, writing for tenure. So often, writing is done for someone with authority over us who will judge whether our words are acceptable or not—which tends to mean whether we are acceptable or not. It’s easier to learn to attend to felt sense during writing if we make a crucial decision about writing situations: we need to do some writing where we don’t have to worry whether readers like it or disagree with us. For example, if we write in a diary or if we write important personal letters, we are much more likely to be able to say “I don’t care whether it’s good writing, all I care about is whether it really says what I’m trying to say.” This is fertile ground for noticing felt sense. Conversely, there are speech situations where it’s harder to hear felt sense because we are worrying so much about listener reactions—for example on job interviews and first dates.

Of course we can’t ignore readers and external standards of good writing, but if our awareness of readers and standards drowns out all awareness of felt sense as we write, this is a reason for working harder at felt sense when we write. For when people get tricked into turning off their felt sense of internal meaning, their writing tends to degenerate. Sondra Perl’s original research showed students falling apart when they attended mostly to their sense of external standards of good writing. (The research is summarized in “Understanding Composing,” which is cited in the book.) When students have been told over and over by others that their words are bad writing, they are especially likely to turn off the internal buzzers that signal the presence of felt sense. Without a source in felt sense, people are stuck trying to spin out strings of words they hope readers will like—or at least accept. Even when writers are skilled enough to get this kind of writing to make sense, it tends to have an unsettling, ungrounded or floating quality. The writer has given up on finding words for what he or she really means or wants to say.

It’s the experience of managing to say what you really mean that I’d call the most lasting and reliable reward that writing can offer us. The buzzer finally goes off with a positive sound: these words give us a palpable bodily feeling of “Yes! I’ve written exactly what I wanted to say—but it’s something I’ve never been able to say before.” The words may not be what the reader wants to hear, but they say what I want to say. Once I get to this point, then I can decide whether I’m willing to make adjustments in order to satisfy external standards or readers. I have learned—and I think I’ve seen this over and over in students—that there is little hope in pleasing readers unless we can at least find words for the meanings inside us.

One last important point. It turns out that these meanings we build out of felt sense are intricate and precise. Gendlin often uses those two words. The words are startling and important because they contradict how most people think about nonverbal knowledge. They usually think of “hunches” and “intuition” as vague and fuzzy and only capable of pointing in a vague general direction—never spelling out anything with intricate precision. Work with felt sense shows otherwise. Think about it: when we hear the “offness” in a word we’ve used, we hear it even if it’s just slightly off. If you continue with this book, you’ll discover that your work with felt sense can lead to the working out of intricate and precise structures of articulated meaning. In other words, felt sense provides us with a kind of blueprint for a precise intricate meaning—but it’s a blueprint written nonverbally in our bodies.*

*For access to many writings by Gendlin and colleagues who work with him, see I’ve written more about felt sense in the following three works:

Introduction to the new edition of Writing With Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process, Oxford University Press, 1998 (original edition 1981).

“The War Between Reading and Writing—and How to End It,” Rhetoric Review 12.1 (Fall 1993): 5-24. Reprinted in Everyone Can Write: Essays Toward a Hopeful Theory of Writing and Teaching Writing, New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

“Three Mysteries at the Heart of Writing,” in Composition Studies in the New Millennium: Rereading the Past, Rewriting the Future, Lynn Z. Bloom, Donald A. Daiker, Edward M. White, eds. pp. 10-27, Carbondale IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2003.