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Sondra Perl's Composing Guidelines

Author: Sondra Perl

A Community of Writers: A Workshop Course in Writing by Peter Elbow (University of Massachusetts at Amherst) and Pat Belanoff (State University of New York at Stony Brook) (pp. 118-120, 124, 126-128) Copyright © 1987 by Peter Elbow and Pat Belanoff.

Sondra Perl is a professor of English at Herbert Lehmann College and founder of the New York City Writing Project.

Felt Sense: Writing with the Body is now available in our bookstore!

Taking Courage, Taking Heart: Writing with Felt Sense - a workshop with Sondra Perl at Esalen Institute, July 9-14, 2006

Sondra Perl's Composing Guidelines

About the Perl Guidelines

On Felt Sense

Process Journal Questions

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:

  • Continue writing, even when you don't know where you're going.
  • Periodically pause and ask, "What's this all about?"
  • Periodically check what you have written against your internal sense of where you're going or what you wanted to say--your "felt sense."

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.

  1. Find a way to get comfortable. Shake out your hands, take a deep breath, settle into your chair. Close your eyes if you'd like to; relax. Find a way to be quietly and comfortably aware of your inner state.
  2. Ask yourself, "What's going on with me right now? Is there anything in the way of my writing today?" When you hear yourself answering, take a minute to jot down a list of any distractions or impediments that come to mind.
  3. Now ask yourself, "What's on my mind? Of all the things I know about, what might I like to write about now?" When you hear yourself answering, jot down what comes. Maybe you get one thing, maybe a list. If you feel totally blocked, you may write down "Nothing." Even this can be taken further by asking yourself, "What is this `Nothing' all about?"
  4. Ask yourself, "Now that I have a list--long or short--is there anything else I've left out, any other piece I'm overlooking, maybe even a word I like, something else I might want to write about sometime that I can add to this list?" Add anything that comes to mind.
  5. Whether you have one definite idea or a whole list of things, look over what you have and ask, "What here draws my attention right now? What could I begin to write about, even if I'm not certain where it will lead?" Take the idea, word, or item and put it at the top of a new page. (Save the first page for another time.)
  6. Now--taking a deep breath and settling comfortably into your chair--ask yourself, "What are all the associations and parts I know about this topic? What can I say about it now?" Spend as long as you need writing down these responses. Perhaps it will be a sustained piece of freewriting or stream of consciousness, or perhaps separate bits, a long list, or notes to yourself.
  7. Now having written for a while, interrupt yourself, set aside all the writing you've done, and take a fresh look at this topic or issue. Grab hold of the whole topic--not the bits and pieces--and ask yourself, "What makes this topic interesting to me? What's important about this that I haven't said yet? What's the heart of this issue?" Wait quietly for a word, image, or phrase to arise from your "felt sense" of the topic. Write whatever comes. (For more on "felt sense," see "Ruminations and Theory" at the end of this unit.)
  8. Take this word or image and use it. Ask yourself, "What's this all about? Describe the feeling, image, or word. As you write, let the "felt sense" deepen. Where do you feel that "felt sense"? In your head, stomach, forearms? Where in your body does it seem centered? Continue to ask yourself, "Is this right? Am I getting closer? Am I saying it?" See if you can feel when you're on the right track. See if you can feel the shift or click inside when you get close, "Oh yes, this says it."
  9. If you're at a dead end, you can ask yourself, "What makes this topic so hard for me?" or "What's so difficult about this?" Again pause and see if a word, image, or phrase comes to you that captures this difficulty in a fresh way--and if it will lead you to some more writing.
  10. When you find yourself stopping, ask, "What's missing? what hasn't yet gotten down on paper?" and again look to your "felt sense" for a word or an image. Write what comes to mind.
  11. When again you find yourself stopping, ask yourself, "Where is this leading? What's the point I'm trying to make?" Again write down whatever comes to mind.
  12. Once you feel you're near or at the end, ask yourself, "Does this feel complete?" Look to your "felt sense," your gut reaction, even to your body, for the answer. Again write down whatever answer comes to you. If the answer is "No," pause and ask yourself, "What's missing?" and continue writing.

About the Perl Guidelines

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:

  • Relax, stretch, clear your mind, try to attend quietly to what's inside--and note any distractions or feelings that may be preventing you from writing.
  • Start with a list of things you could write about. Often we can't find what we really want to write about till the third or fourth item--or not till that subtle after--question, "Is there something else I might have forgotten?"
  • As you are writing, periodically pause and look to that felt sense somewhere inside you--that feeling, image, or word that somehow represents what you are trying to get at--and ask whether your writing is really getting at it. This comparing or checking back ("Is this it?") will often lead to a productive "shift" in your mind ("Oh now I see what it is I want to say").
  • Finally, toward the end, ask, "What's this all about? Where does this writing seem to be trying to go?" And especially ask, "What's missing? What haven't I written about?"

The specific details of the procedure are much less important than the charitable, supportive, and generative spirit behind the whole thing.

On Felt Sense

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'tknow 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?

DMU Timestamp: May 26, 2018 14:45

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