Academic journal article English Journal

Emphasizing the Sensuous: Writing for a Richer Life

Academic journal article English Journal

Emphasizing the Sensuous: Writing for a Richer Life

Article excerpt

In the introduction to Diane Ackerman's book, A Natural History of the Senses, she argues, "There is no way in which to understand the world without first detecting it through the radar-net of our senses. . . . Our senses define the edge of consciousness, and because we are born explorers and questers after the unknown, we spend a lot of our lives pacing that windswept perimeter" (xv). In more than 300 pages of sensory-rich writing, she explores each of the five senses-touch, taste, smell, hearing, and vision-tracing the science and history behind them along with the folklore and language that we use to understand them, ultimately making the case that our sensory experiences are, indeed, something to celebrate.

As English teachers, we are no strangers to the sensuous. We often discuss the senses as we lead readers through literary and nonfiction texts. Similarly, when teaching students to write, we stress the importance of including sensory details to create vivid and interesting work. For example, Laura Deutsch's book Writing from the Senses is a compilation of exercises that are entirely sensory based, and it is full of common and not-so-common exercises. In short, good teachers know that the senses matter.

But what if, in discussing the senses, we thought about them as more than a means to an end-that is, as more than a way to convey ideas in literary works or to strengthen descriptive writing? What if we thought of the senses as a means to help students live better lives? What if, in teaching students to write, we are teaching them how to be in the world in ways that transcend school-based learning or even creative expression? What if we are showing them how to lead fuller and more humane lives by empowering them to notice the vibrancy of the world around them?

In The Art of Description: World into Word, poet Mark Doty questions why it is worth bothering to put the world (experience) into words, ultimately concluding, "At that instant when language seems to match experience, some rift is healed, some rupture momentarily salved" (10). Doty's use of the word salved is key because it suggests a type of healing-after all, salves are used to treat ailments or disease.

It is my belief that using writing as a means to explore the outside world, via the senses, is a beneficial task that leads to a greater sense of well-being, and that the act of writing provides the invaluable benefit of helping students learn to attend to the present moment. In short, writing can be a form of mindfulness or meditation (for the purpose of this article, I use the terms interchangeably). This idea is certainly nothing new, and many writers discuss the meditative nature of writing. For example, in her landmark book, Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg compares writing to meditation, stating, "The present is imbued with tremendous energy" (10), and Ray Bradbury alludes to a meditative-like state writing can induce in the title to his book Zen in the Art of Writing.

Teacher-scholars, too, have connected writing and mindfulness. James Moffett makes the case that the actual act of writing is a meditative practice, noting, "The composing process requires exactly the rearrangement of experience that jogs loose unused material and connects the heretofore unconnected" (320), and Kate Garretson teaches meditation in conjunction with writing to her ESL basic writers, positing, "Perhaps the regular activity of scanning their thoughts and just following the mind, even if students find it initially difficult, will contribute to a gradual change in thinking and enable students to better know their thoughts, become better observers of their inner states, and become more connected to their bodies and minds" (54).

In the discussion below, I will describe an approach to descriptive writing, via the senses, as a way to promote both being present in the moment and creating vivid and evocative writing. It is important to note that this approach focuses on writing, not mindfulness or meditation training directly. …

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