Sondra Perl's Composing Guidelines
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