Home > Focusing and ... > Creative Processes > Composing Guidelines
These writing guidelines will help you discover more of what is on your mind and almost on your mind. If they seem artificial, think of them as "exercises." But they are exercises that will help you to perform certain subtle but crucial mental operations that most skilled and experienced writers do naturally:
Your teacher may guide you through the Perl guidelines in class. If it feels too mechanical to follow them in a group setting, remember that the goal is to teach you a procedure you can use on your own. But we can teach it best by giving you a taste of it in practice--which means trying it out in class. It's hard to learn the guidelines alone because your old writing habits are so strong.
After some practice with each of the directives or questions that follow, you'll be able to sense how to distribute your time yourself.
These guidelines sometimes work differently for different people--and even differently for you on different occasions. The main thing to remember is that they are meant for you to use on your own, flexibly, in your own way. There is nothing sacred about the exact format or wording. They are not meant to be a straitjacket. To help you in adapting them to your own needs, here is a list of what are probably the four pivotal moments:
The specific details of the procedure are much less important than the charitable, supportive, and generative spirit behind the whole thing.
Felt sense may seem a vague concept, but we get new leverage in our writing if we realize that there is always something there "in mind" before we have words for it. In one sense, of course, we don't know something till we have it in words. But in another sense we do indeed know quite a lot, and it's a question of learning to tap it better.
So what is it that's in mind before we find words? Is it some set of words that's farther inside our heads-fainter or in smaller print? If so, what lies behind them to guide or produce them? Behind our words, then, inevitably, some nonverbal feeling or "sense."
You can easily prove this mysterious phenomenon to yourself by asking yourself after you've been writing a while, the crucial question: "Is this what I've been wanting to say?" What's interesting is that we can almost always give an answer. Then we need to ask this: "What is the basis for our answer--for our being able to say, 'Yes, this really is what I was wanting to say,' or 'No, that's not it,' or 'Sort of, but not quite'?" We haven't got words for what's in mind, but we have something against which we can match the words we've used to see whether they are adequate to our intention. We know what we want to say well enough to realize that we have or haven't said it.
"Felt sense" is what Eugene Gendlin has named this internal awareness that we call on. And his point--which we too want to emphasize--is that we can learn to call on it better. (It may seem odd or unfashionable to suggest that our felt sense of what we're writing about might be located in a part the body. But many people experience what's "in mind" not just "in the head" but also--as they say--in the "gut.")
The crucial operation in the Perl process is when you pause and attend to that felt sense--pause and say, "What's my feeling for what I'm getting at" (or "What's my image or word?"). You then ask yourself, "Have I said it?" The most productive situation, ironically, is when you answer, "No." For in that moment of experiencing a mismatch or nonfit between your words and your felt sense, you tend to experience a click or shift that moves you closer to knowing this thing that you can't yet say. In short, pausing, checking, and saying "No" usually lead you to better words.
One reason people don't pause and check their words against their felt sense often enough is that they get too discouraged at the negative answer. They think that the question is a test and that the negative answer means they've failed the test. ("Again I've proved that I'm no good at finding words!") They don't realize that if you ask the question of yourself in the right way--in a charitable and constructive spirit--"No" is the better answer: it can always lead you to a better understanding of what you are trying to get at.
Remember, however, that when we urge you to attend more to your felt sense and then pause and check your words against it, we're not saying that thing that perhaps you've heard too often: "Stop! What is your thesis?" It's not, "What is your thesis?" but rather "What is the physical feeling or image you have that somehow stands for what you're wanting to say?" You haven't got a thesis yet--haven't got the right words yet--but you do have a genuinely available feeling for what you're trying to get at. If you check any trial set of words against that feeling, you can tell whether or not they are what you were trying to say.
What happened in using the Perl process? In particular:
- When finding or choosing your original topic?
- When pausing to sum up in a phrase or image or to get yourself focused back on your chosen topic?
- When seeking your "felt sense" and checking your writing against it?
What happened in using the open-ended process? In particular:
- When finding or choosing the idea you started with?
- When summing up or finding a center of gravity?
- What about the overall path or progression? Where did it take you?
What did you notice about the difference between doing these process in class and at home? In what ways did the teacher's prompts help? get in the way?
So much of this week's writing is private. How (if at all) did this affect what you wrote and how you wrote?
What did you learn about your writing? language? thinking? And what did you learn about writing, language, and thinking in general by comparing your experience with that of your classmates?