Often the thing we’ve come to say in an essay hovers just at the periphery of our first drafts and in us as well. There are places in those drafts where we can almost bring our most important thoughts to full articulation via reflection, narration, or the artful arrangement of images. Subsequent drafts are usually necessary to more fully integrate what we carry inside us with what we say on the page. Since the MFA students in my creative nonfiction workshop will soon be turning their attention to revision, I’ve promised them an exercise to help them along. I’m happy, of course, to share that exercise with you and with the assumption that it could work equally as well with other genres.
But first some background. Beginning in 1953, the psychotherapist, Eugene Gendlin, spent fifteen years analyzing what made psychotherapy successful. His conclusion was that success depended on how well the patient was able to focus on a subtle and vague internal awareness during therapy. Gendlin called this internal awareness, “felt sense.” Sondra Perl’s book of the same name locates felt sense within the field of composition studies in an attempt to better understand what happens in a successful composing process. I’m interested in how this might also be useful in the revision process. My prompts for this exercise, then, borrow from Perl with certain subtractions and additions. It’s my hope that the exercise will be a means of discovery for writers who want to find deeper emotional and intellectual connections to the hearts of the drafts that they’ve written. The exercise is designed to help us say more, think more, and feel more as we connect our drafts to what we carry inside us.
1. Identify a place in your draft that makes you feel uncomfortable, or a place that seems too vague but also important. Spend some time writing from this prompt: “I don’t want to say anything more about this because if I do. . . .” Your objective here is to articulate the fears that keep you from fully exploring your material.
2. From your response to prompt #1, admit what attracts you. What have you said that you can’t look away from? Begin writing with the prompt, “I know intimately. . . .” Don’t stop writing for whatever period of time you’d like to set for yourself. There are no rules to how you might approach this step. Images, lists, stream of consciousness writing, notes to yourself—whatever keeps your pen moving and keeps you moving more deeply into your material.
3. Stop writing and give these questions some thought: “What makes this material interesting to me?” “What’s the heart of the material?” What’s important about the material that I haven’t yet explored?” Wait quietly for a word, image, or phrase to arise from your “felt sense” of the topic. Write whatever comes.
4. Now step back and think about what you’ve written. Ask yourself what it’s all about. Describe the feeling that you get when you think about it. Where in your body is this feeling centered? Write about what you’re feeling inside you right now as you continue to write. Ask yourself whether you’re getting closer to what you really want to say. See if you feel yourself getting closer. See if you feel something click into place inside you when you get close and you can say, “Oh, yes, this is it. This is what I’ve come to say.”
5. If you reach a dead end, ask yourself why the material is so hard for you. Spend a few minutes writing about what’s keeping you from writing more deeply into the material.
6. Ask yourself what’s missing. What have you yet to get down on paper?
7. Ask yourself where this is leading. Where does the essay want to go?
You should feel free to take liberties with the prompts in order to best suit your revision process. The important thing is to attend to the physical feeling or the image that stands for what you want to say so you can have a genuine sense of what you’re trying to get at in your essay. You can then check any passage of the essay against your “felt sense” to make sure that everything is in service of what first brought you to the page, brought you there before you were aware of why you were writing and before you even had words for what was inside you that made you want to speak. Sometimes we need a revision process that requires us to consider our purpose for writing and to locate that purpose within our visceral reaction to the material.