A radical rethinking of the teaching of writing

“Writing from the Body” — a book outline, 15 chapters

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1. Introduction.

If you are a writer of any sort–college student, business person, doctor, lawyer–I want to make you care about something you may never have cared about before—things.

When I lived in Miami, I used to drive out to Key Biscayne on a causeway, park and walk out to a beach, and out there I would look across the water and see houses on stilts out in the bay, houses that were islands in themselves, that could only be reached by boat. They stood on pilings or stilts above the water. You could see the water and waves underneath the houses, which magically floated solid and dark above the lighted sea surface. On some days you’d see the horizon and clouds on the horizon. The houses stood above the changing tides and currents. You couldn’t see the floor of the bay, where the piles must have been driven in or cemented in place, but you could sense the bay bottom because the sturdiness of the house was built on it. If a house ever came unmoored from the bay bottom it was anchored to, it would collapse.

Compared to the volume of a house, with its ladder and deck, roof and rooms, the pilings took up almost no space. When you look at them, the piling are almost nothing, just narrow sticks or stilts. But they were crucial to the structure. That kind of house stands on its stilts. I am going to argue, fellow editors and writers, that any piece of writing “stands” upon its physical objects the way a bay house stands on its pilings.

Most of us do not much attend to the things in a piece of writing—or if we do, we misunderstand them. We think of them as details, examples or ‘color’ but we are mistaken. The objects in a piece of writing are primary facts; they are the pylons or stilts on which a piece of writing is built; good scientific research, which we will get into later in the book, supports this. A writer who overlooks the thing is a writer who does not know how his craft works.

I have spent most of my life as a writer, and I have also taught writing for about 25 years. As a writing teacher I experimented endlessly. Having set myself to teach only the essentials, in the smallest space of time possible, I learned through repeated experiments what those essentials were and how writing works in the reader’s mind. This book is aimed at general readers interested in writing, people who bought Bird by Bird and have a copy of Strunk and White in their offices. I want to intrigue those readers with the issue of “objects;” to induce them to trying writing “from the body” even when talking about ideas; to impress them with what college freshman do when they write this way; to refresh their memory of certain great writers; and, and to lay out for them the newest theory of the thinking brain, embodied cognition, which says that even your most abstract thinking comes from the way you feel your own body.

2. Seduced by abstraction

Student papers are often unreadable not only because their grammar is bad and their sentences incomplete, but also because they are way, way too abstract. Assigned to write about some idea, students can’t think of examples easily. They get caught in the sphere of ideas and stay there. Abstract words multiply on the student page in unpleasant clusters. If you ask freshmen to write about, say, The relationship between wealth and productivity in a market society, watch out. Few will have noticed that the terms relationship, wealth, productivity and market society need definition or examples. They will just move those vague terms around like checkers on a board, repeating them, and hoping that through repetition something will be said. But nothing will be—the paper will be mush.

The classic writers on style have talked about this abstraction problem going on a hundred years. Henry Fowler coined the term “abstractitis” for this multiplication of abstractions, about which he said:
A writer uses abstract words because his thoughts are cloudy; the habit of using them clouds his thoughts still further; he may end by concealing his meaning not only from his readers but also from himself.
If the professional writers whom Fowler addressed had to be warned away from over-abstraction, how much more do our students need that advice! Yet the writing textbooks say nothing about abstractitis. Nor do instructors deal with over-abstraction, probably because they don’t know what to do about it. For my part I decided to cure Fowler’s “abstractitis” by counter-training students—training them to be concrete. I begin my course with physical objects. I don’t let them get abstract and try to hector them out of it. I insist that all writing start from concrete nouns.

“If you are writing about markets and wealth, recognize that market is an abstract idea, and find a bunch of objects that relate to it,” I say. “Give me concrete nouns. Show me a wooden roadside stand with corn and green peppers on it, if you want. Show me a supermarket displaying six kinds of oranges under halogen lights. Show me a stock exchange floor where bids are shouted and answered.”

“What is a concrete noun?” a student might ask.

“It’s something you can drop on your foot,” I always answer. “It’s that simple.”

“So if I am writing about markets, productivity and wealth, I am going to….”

“Yes indeed—you are going to write about things you can drop on your foot, and people, too. Green peppers, ears of corn, windshield wipers, or a grimy mechanic changing your car’s oil. No matter how abstract your topic, how intangible, your first step is to find things you can drop on your foot.”

From a teacher’s perspective, the lovely thing about this technique of writing with things you can drop on your foot is that both the skilled and the unskilled find the assignments interesting. Students led into writing about abstract ideas in terms of concrete objects find it strange at first, but least doable. They start to write vividly, which pleases both them and me.

A command to put in concrete nouns—defined in a simple way as “things you can drop on your foot”– cuts through student confusion. If you noticed something, and it interested you, and you could drop it on your foot, that was enough for you to begin writing about it. All that mattered was getting objects in—the more humble the better. But what an adventure it was, and how inspiring it was to the class to read what other students were producing, sentences like this:

The copper weathervane atop Quincy Market’s dome squeaks and clatters in the wind.
Actual funerals, with glossy caskets, and bodies with folded hands.
With my blade in one hand and straight edge ruler in the other I confidently sliced away the unwanted chipboard, thus building up and breaking down my cube.
My mother would be cooking all day: chopping green bell peppers in even strokes and adding paprika to the browning chicken.
Two women eating ice cream discuss bathing suit sizes.

This trick of writing with objects produced a cascade of good effects. The biggest was increased confidence. When a student saw she had put solid things on the page, and they came across vividly and “cast shadows,” she gained confidence, not only as a writer but as a noticer. Many students said their ability to observe and to trust their observations improved. The best effect of all was an understanding of good prose. Students critiqued each other’s work succinctly. “This part of the paper isn’t physical enough,” one would say to another.

The next chapter shows the kind of student papers that resulted. They are unedited by me, and typical of the top 20 per cent of each class. The unusual richness and clarity of these papers arises from the density of concrete nouns and the sparseness of abstraction. The first paper you will read, the work of 19-year-old Jason Patera, startled me.

3. Three Student Essays (A)
How three freshmen transformed their writing with things.

This chapter demonstrates what can happen to student writing when the paramount rule of clarity is to be physical. Roughly 1,000 students have taken this course. Three short essays from Jason, Katy and Brian are included in this chapter to show how students, even in their first semester of college, take eagerly to the challenge of writing physically—a challenge which when they meet it, sets them free being impressive and engages them in the higher challenge of trying to be clear. The chapter includes a brief sketch bio of each student, and reveals what they did when challenged to be physical. Each of these papers is written in the present tense and to fit a set of constraints. Jason and Brian were told to write about walking home through a Boston neighborhood, Katy to write about waking up before dawn.
JASON: A very tall man wearing brand-new Nike shoes blocks my path and asks for some spare change. I try to mumble “sorry” and walk around him, but the human traffic in this area is too congested to make an easy getaway. The panhandler persists, and I silently curse myself for getting caught off guard. I reach into my right pocket, grab a handful of change, gum wrappers, lint and God knows what else, and dump it in his cup. He praises me in the name of the Lord and moves on.
KATY: The girl’s room is still dark. Somewhere in the dorm an alarm goes off and she asks herself which girl is crazy enough to get up so early. Wondering what time it really is, the girl twists in her bed and reaches her roommate’s alarm clock at the foot of her bed. 5:23. Too early. So tired. As her thoughts began to calm and the girl imagines herself sleeping until noon, she can hear a love song playing on her radio. She had forgotten the radio was even on. She gets up and switches it off. The wind rustles again and all is still.
BRIAN: The cold has gnawed through my jeans and I can now feel it sinking its teeth into my kneecaps. I quicken my pace in an attempt to regain my warmth. A man suddenly emerges from an entranceway so close that we almost collide. The sudden encounter startles us both, but neither one of us acknowledges the other and we each continue in our opposite directions. A red neon cocktail glass flickers in the window of a darkened bar.

Although I do not have before-and-after samples from these, my best writers, I will include some typical “before” writing to give the reader the context. All the student essays I quote are student first drafts—they have had no conferences or individual feedback from me.

4. From Plato to Hayakawa—Historical Background–How the philosophers and rhetoricians wrestled with the real and the ideal

In story-telling, great writing has been physical from the beginning. The Iliad is full of chariots, ships, spears and armor and Homer devotes an entire chapter to describing the shield of Achilles. The Bible is full of physical things. Just the Book of Exodus alone offers locusts, clay, bricks, bulrushes, baskets, manna, swords and the parting waters of the Red Sea. Human beings act upon their desires in this world that is inescapably tangible. Just in order to tell stories, the story tellers must get real and use objects.

Thinking about objects, however, is a lot harder than just using them in story-telling. Western philosophy really begins when Plato grapples with thought and reality in his allegory of the Cave. The Cave analogy expresses man’s deep puzzlement about the Idea and its relationship to the Real. Plato is struck with the power of Ideas, and decides the Real is just a shadow cast into this world from the world of Ideas. Though Plato is wrong, it’s interesting that the Thing-versus-Idea problem marks the beginning of philosophy. It’s the first problem in Western history, Mind vs Matter, and it continues through Descartes and Berkeley.

Later, the grammarians and rhetoricians pretty much followed Plato and not Aristotle when it came to ideas and things. These guys were essentially speech coaches working for public figures trying to win elections and lawsuits. To the ancient grammarians, Plato was right, period, An Idea just a special kind of non-physical thing that existed in an invisible parallel universe called the Platonic Realm of Ideas.

The modern grammarians and linguists, however, have reopened the questions of Idea and Thing. So have the prose style advisers with their handbooks and reference works. For a writer, the practical problem is “How concrete or abstract do I make my style?” This chapter will quickly survey how this issue was treated philosophically from Plato and Aristotle on, but focus strongly on relatively modern advice givers on style, with reference to Flaubert and Chekhov, and then the grammar writers from about 1900 on.
It will cover, in order, the insights on grammar and advice about writing given by H.W. Fowler, George Orwell, S. I. Hayakawa, Rudolf Flesch, and E.B. White. I’ll give a full treatment of Hayakawa’s famous Ladder of Abstraction, which overturns Plato’s Realm of Ideas, and brings both Things and Ideas back into the world together.

5. Why readers pick up on things faster than ideas: what the brain
researchers report

When tested with a stop-watch, people usually understand concrete nouns faster than abstract ones. This pattern has been long established and tested, but the cause of the faster processing has been unclear. Now researchers are using FMRI to study the question, and their focus is the location in the brain where language is processed. Looking at the brain light up in the process of understanding words, they have found that non-visual words light up less brain-tissue than image-words. The image words seem to be processed both as words and as images, which may account for the ease with which we understand them.

Your brain is connected to, and mapped onto, your body, including your arms and legs, and all your limbs and organs are mapped back via neurons onto your brain. Not only can your mind move your muscles, your muscles can prime and “move” your mind. People who hold a pencil in their teeth, engaging the muscles of a smile, comprehend pleasant sentences faster than unpleasant ones. And it works in reverse: holding a pencil in the teeth in a different way, to make a frown, speeds the recognition of unpleasant sentences and delays the understanding of pleasant ones.

This chapter covers these examples and other revelatory research gradually shedding light on the human brain understands the world through language. There’s good evidence that perception of objects is the most fundamental act of the language brain, and that even abstract concepts are not fully abstract, but are derived by summing up concrete human situations within which a human being might take action. The concept of “justice,” for instance, sums up many things we can visualize about the police, courts, trials, judges, juries, jails.

Somehow the physical body is involved in our comprehension of physical objects. When you read the word “hammer” your hand muscles make invisible grasping motions and these are part of your comprehension of the word. (Tucker & Ellis study, 2001.) This chapter will explain as we go what the research findings mean for someone who is trying to write clearly. The takeaway: insofar as images are physical, they recruit our bodies into the task of comprehension.

6. The design of a writing course that starts from the body.

What if the craft of writing were taught in a new way? Classic rhetoric has its brilliant insights which have developed gradually over centuries—a plus. The ancients developed their rules from the practical problems of conducting law practices in Athens. The original experts were the hired hands who taught lawyers and politicians how to speak in public, win debates, and earn election. Their rules of thumb covered the structure of arguments, arrangement of parts, development of metaphors. They were brilliant insights at the time and they have served well for centuries. They would still work for college students today if our students were well-read and well-prepared, but alas it’s not the case. We need a better way to teach writing. Could we use insights from brain research on how the reader takes in information to reconstruct students’ writing habits from scratch? What would a course that starts from the body look like?

When I first realized that my teaching needed to focus on requiring students to write about things that could fall on their foot, I designed a writing course that started from the body. It began by focusing on objects—writing with objects—putting objects into the paragraph assignments. The definition of “object” we used was “something you could drop on your foot.” Any activity that could increase a student’s noticing of the physical in a written text was used. They made lists of objects related to all assigned topics. They read magazine articles and circled all the concrete nouns. They wrote short paragraphs without objects and then rewrote them with. They wrote about abstract subjects like freedom or authority with a mandate to be as physical as possible, making sure to hit a target percentage of objects, often 1 in 15 words or 1 in 25 words. They learned that an object inside a metaphor counts as an object—and in a sentence like “He was a man of steel” they circled both “man” and “steel.”

The body also moves. Therefore we moved to the subject of movement, which in writing is the subject of verbs. How do we make things move on the page as the do in nature? How do we animate? Without assuming any grammar residue from grade or high school, we relearned the basics of verbs as a writer must know them: active, passive and neutral. The verb drives the sentence, and no one can write without understanding that. Any activity that brought verbs into focus was used. Students made lists of verbs, circled verbs in both boring and interesting writing, made lists of verbs, extracted the verbs from an article they found interesting and wrote a new passage using those same verbs. They practiced distinguishing the verbs that activate sentences from the verbal adjectives that are mere décor. (Compare: The flowers wilted through the afternoon to He noticed the wilting flowers) Active verb sentences became mandatory. They wrote short assignments in which they counted the active-verb sentences and figured the percentage of activity they had achieved. They learned to flip passive sentences to the active form quickly. They hunted down “is” and “are” sentences and recast them as active. They practiced writing sentences in which an inanimate object like an orange is active. Her orange rolled across the table and fell to the floor. They took six-block walks in the city and described their movement and the environment as active–7 sentences out of 10 had to be active. They made all-passive paragraphs bristle with active verbs.

The human body is a social being. The next phase of the course concentrated on capturing people, on putting people into one’s prose. We worked from a short list of seven types of words that put people into a passage—the three most potent being personal names, personal pronouns, and direct quotations. (David handed her the dish towel and said, “Be my guest.”) Again, the same series of activities were used as was used with concrete nouns and active verbs. Students had search out and become sensitive to the seven categories of personal language. They read articles and circled the personal language. They made lists of what they found. They wrote short paragraphs and then longer assignments where the requirement was to include the personal language phrases. The question at the top of their minds was: Is this human enough? Are there human beings in here?

The course stuck to the bodily roots of language—to objects, actions, and people—and produced a transformation in the students’ mindset about writing. Their tastes were formed differently. They had formerly sought to impress their teachers with grand abstract statements, but they’d now had a conversion, and were focused on vivid physical clarity, one sentence at a time. Seeing the clarity of what they’d said, their confidence grew. I have plenty of samples of syllabus, assignments and learning games to put into the book wherever they fit best.

7. Three Student Essays (B): Bringing active verbs into the foreground

This short chapter (3000 words) presents three student papers from first-semester writers with distinct viewpoints. The requirement was three fold: putting in objects, using mostly active verbs, and including human characters. You’ll notice a confident realism here because writing with objects makes an essay feel more real, both to the reader and to the student writer. Here each student is relating an experience of set-back and frustration. Emmy Lou writes about severe shyness in grade school, Elizabeth about flunking out of college, and Ethan about attempting to return a videotape during a blizzard. Samples:
Emmy Lou: Once I got to high school I became aware that most girls were the exact opposite of me. They were loud field hockey players wearing short skirts and pigtails, flat chested, stringbean cheerleaders who never stopped smiling and the girls who always knew what to do and what to say and were just perfect. It overwhelmed me and I hid.
Elizabeth: The year is 1995. Our car is humming steadily at cruise control speed over the white-lined asphalt of I-95. My parents are poised in the stately black leather of the Lexus’s front seat quietly beaming with pride over their 18-year-old daughter. I am shifting uncomfortably in the back seat against my stereo and laundry rack trying to find a stable emotion to feel. We are on our way to Worcester, Massachusetts, destination Clark University, where my first college experience will begin.
Ethan: I grabbed the videotape off the kitchen table and stuffed it into my oversized jacket pocket. My five-dollar-per-week allowance wouldn’t be enough to pay another late fee. Due to the blizzard, Music Forum Video would be closing at six o’clock p.m. instead of eight. It was about 4:15. I pulled my hat down over my ears as best as I could and stepped out into the whitewash.

8. The concrete style for adults who must write
letters, memos, articles and reports

Most people have to do some writing for their jobs. Unless technology somehow transforms everyone into disembodied patterns in the Cloud—until that day—everyone you are writing for is a biological creature. Your reader is biological. The laws of readable writing could be called The Laws of Writing for Biological Creatures. We now know that that too many abstractions on a page wears the reader out. The cure is concreteness.

In any writing effort on the job, when you think something you wrote is unclear, it probably is, and it’s probably too abstract. Flag the abstract words and strike as many as you can. Most abstract words in English can be flagged by checking their endings. Most common is the –tion or -ion ending, derived from Latin words that end in –tio. Other Latin-based abstract endings include: ence, -ance, -ity, -cy, hood, -ness, -graphy, -ology, and so on. The Anglo-Saxon side of English has its own set of abstract endings, including –ness, -hood, and others. Strike out most abstractions.

Then tip the balance the other way, and add things you can drop on your foot (or things you can run up to and kick). Instead of transportation, try trucks and buses.

Here are ways to put in things you can drop on your foot: ♦ Tell a story, and put in the objects. ♦Tell a story, and put in the physical background to the people’s action. ♦Describe a man or woman, and put in the objects he or she usually has around him—tools, items of clothing, eye glasses. ♦If you are writing about an general subject like an industry, ask what physical things or physical settings are implied. The fisheries industry is a huge collection of boats with men on them working hard. ♦If you have vague-ified physical things, put the objects back in. An innovative system of storm water control becomes Porous asphalt pavement, rain gardens, and tree boxes. ♦Make a physical image more so by adding another object. ♦Vary the size of objects, putting in small, medium and large. ♦When talking about people, you can add body-part nouns: her hands, his eyes. ♦Use a metaphor that is physical. The call-center team worked like stallions this weekend.

The more you notice and address abstraction in your writing, the faster you’ll develop an instinctive ear for physical writing. (Many other problems and examples from real life will be included in this chapter, and I’ll address the question “Can you be too physical?”)
It’s possible that I will make this two chapters, and in the second chapter show how the physical style works in specific fields, including finance, biological science and hard science, software writing, engineering, business (generally) and law,

9. Revisiting the famous works of famous writers:
flaming swords, serpents, river rafts and magical irons

Most of our memories of great literature are memories of objects: the blood on Lady Macbeth’s hands and the cauldron of the witches in the same play, the harpoons sticking out of Moby Dick, Huck and Jim’s raft on the Mississippi, the apple barrel Jim Hawkins hides in, in Treasure Island.

Now that we know the cognitive science—now that we know scientifically that the object has priority in the mind—we can take a brief trip through the history of literature. I am not sure what I am going to write here, except I want to bring back to the reader’s mind some of the most vivid objects from literature, and to meditate about how evoking, naming and creating the resistant physical world is so crucial to memorable stories and poems.

In short modern poems, the named object stands in a kind of spotlight the writer has made for it. William Carlos Williams (“no ideas but in things”) is the easiest example. so much depends/upon/a red wheel/barrow/glazed with rain/water/beside the white/chickens. The image poets like Williams give us the object impenetrable, resistant to analysis—like reality itself, stubborn and glorious. The more liquid fluency of Wallace Stevens gives us the object within a shifting natural surround, as in Sea Surface Full of Clouds.

In the unself-conscious older works, say the Garden of Eden story, the objects are the setting and the pivots of moral lessons: the garden, the tree of knowledge of good and evil, the serpent, the apple, the flaming sword. The mother and father of the race do not enact their first moral choices in a vague cloudy heaven—they are on the ground, where their actions, like all our actions, have consequences. In the Greek tradition, the riveting thingness of the extended stories in the Iliad and Odyssey are a breakthrough in story invention. Conscious design is seen in Homer’s chapter focused on one object–Achilles’ shield. Homer’s repetition of “wine-dark sea” originally served as a rhythmic device and line-filler, but its endless recurrence in different contexts comes to seem like the sea itself.

Some writers create super-sized objects to give scale to the puny dreams of their characters, like the windmills in Don Quixote. Some worked with tiny things: the black spot on the paper in Treasure Island. Some writers, like Dickens, narrate passages in a frenzy of things and action:

“There was a freedom and freshness in the wind, as it came bowling by, which, let it cut never so sharp, was welcome. As it swept on with its cloud of frost, bearing down the dry twigs and boughs and withered leaves, and carrying them away pell-mell, it seemed as though some general sympathy had got abroad and everything was in a hurry like themselves.”

Some objects are evanescent, and some are permanent backdrops to the action of the characters, like the Mississippi River and the raft Tom and Huck live on for months, or the Pequod on which Ahab sails, or the soccer ball Tom Hanks calls “Wilson” in the movie Cast Away. Shakespeare’s construction of images is super physical. Some objects are the beginning of a story—like the clues at the start of every Sherlock Holmes story—and some are the climax. Bill Sykes’ attempt to escape over the rooftops at the end of Oliver Twist is stomach-twitching in its moral and physical suspense. Eliza’s escape over the ice floes at the end of Uncle Tom’s Cabin is similar.

In popular novels, the quotient of named physical things (taken as a ratio against the other words carrying the story forward) has to be high. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels are vivid because so full of objects mysterious and magical. Objects are by definition real (Latin res) and the clustering of objects on the page, if not overdone, creates the feeling of the 3-D world we live in. It can be no other way.

10. Three short essays: Grief observed

This short chapter presents three more short essays from students who accepted the challenge to write about a setback severe enough they didn’t know if they could face it. Again the requirement was three fold: to put in objects, to use mostly active verbs, and to include human characters. The style constraints assisted each writer to work only with kind of materials that worked, and the results were three small simple gems about a loss that was a turning point for them. David writes about the death of three high-school friends in car accidents in one week. Scott writes about his family’s rejection of the Mormon religion when he was a boy of nine. Sasha writes about the last months of her mother’s life. Samples:
DAVID: The third event that reshaped my life took place later that night. After waking up from my mid day nap I took a shower, loaded up my equipment, and headed for the Rockin “R”. When I arrived about fifteen people were scattered throughout the bar. As time passed the crowd grew. By ten thirty the room was packed wall to wall. I stayed outside greeting people at the door for most of the evening. Since three people had just died in alcohol related accidents I expected that drinking would be kept to a minimum by most people out of respect. Nevertheless, I was appalled when I entered the bar. Everyone was drinking and carrying on as if nothing had happened
SCOTT: With my future so well planned, little worry entered my mind concerning my decisions in life. Every action I completed coincided with the larger scheme designed by the Mormon Church. As long as I followed the rules set forth by my parents and the church, heaven would wait and reward me with eternal salvation. The world existed in a simple folio around me; everything having a proper explanation. God had created people in his own image, not a long period of evolution from earlier creatures. Right and wrong existed, right being described as all the actions that would land you ultimately in heaven with God. I had a framework or “foundation” to base my life and every decision upon. I had a crutch. I had organized ignorance.
SASHA: By April my mother had bought two pairs of jeans and a black cardigan. She hardly diverged from that uniform all spring. Her knitting and needlepoint went untouched. Her face became pale and wooden. When it came time for my senior prom my mother insisted that she brush my hair and paint my nails even though she could barley stand up. I wanted my nails to be bright red to match my shoes. She held my hand gently as she painted with broad strokes. Then my mother smiled for the first time in months. It was the last time that we both looked beautiful.

11. More style moves–action, rhythm, and character
from the new perspective.

This section is aimed somewhat at professionals, people who write and edit for a living, answering objections, and explaining the implications of earlier ideas.

Verbs. How do we make objects move on the page and in the reader’s mind? Even better than the solid object and more pleasing is the solid object in motion—the soccer ball sailing way down the field as fans stand and cheer. A discussion of verbs as the animators of sentences. Some reference to the cognitive science research on verbs, which is quite interesting. How do passive and active verbs work? Readers expend more energy to understand passive sentences than active. If a sentence is a string of words, what is the best place in a sentence for the verb? Some verbs are more active than others—what are they?–can a writer use that fact consciously? What about is, are, were, etc? How a professional can develop high-end verb skills. With examples.

Are people objects? The hairbrush can be dropped on your foot. But are people—too fleshly flesh—themselves a special kind of object? Yes, of course. What does it mean when we read the name of a person, real or fictional? What does it do to a reader to encounter a man, woman or child in a passage? What when a character talks aloud, in a direct quotation? How physical is that? How to put people in to almost any piece of writing, even the driest. With examples.

Rhythm. In writing, rhythm is real and it always matters. Poets know this but so do gifted writers of prose paragraphs. Good writing can be read aloud easily. It sounds like English and it sounds like somebody speaking English, as Robert Frost once pointed out. I may compare a few poems to paragraphs of rhythmic prose here.

The eardrum itself is specialized skin, right next to the brain—so is rhythm really some kind of mentalized touch? Is rhythm a touch-thing? The root of rhythm is the beating heart, after all. Standing by a parade, you do physically feel the boom-lay boom of the bass drum. Is sentence rhythm a kind of physical experience, therefore? Is this why one-syllable words have such power in prose? How do poetry techniques like rhyme, assonance, alliteration work in prose? What effect on the body does the sentence-ending period have? With examples.

12. Three Essays by Adults

These examples of the concrete style come from older students, between 27 and 45 and so the analysis they offer is a little more complex. Each, however, works within the body-oriented style that is physical, highly active in verbs, and at least minimally dramatic, with human beings as part of the story.
Isaiah, 32, writes about his transition from addicted living to sobriety. Alyssa, 27, recounts in detail how she did an assignment for a first-year architecture class. Marny, an elementary school teacher in her mid 40s, talks about how she came to appreciate the open emotionality of Greek funerals, something she at first was repulsed by.
ISAIAH Early on the morning of November 8, 2002 I awoke bewildered, ailing and fatigued on an unfamiliar couch in a partially-finished basement. The room smelled like mildew. The shallow window wells let in just enough light to illuminate my surroundings, but gave no clues as to what time of morning or afternoon it was. I had just ended a three-day binge on various pharmaceuticals and alcohol. In mind of my personal safety, Rachel Warpinski had driven me from a crowded bar to her mother’s basement to spend the night.
ALYSSA I stabbed the thumbtack into the wall to hang my final sketch. It was 9:06a.m., and the sun streamed into the studio while sleepy students anxiously prepared for their critique. They too had been up all night constructing and destructing their cubes. With just five minutes remaining, I began to recap the last week of preparation. As the noise began to die down the instructors tapped their pens against their notebooks signifying their readiness. I cleared my throat and began to tell the story of my cube.
MARNY There was little drama in my childhood experiences of funerals. My Uncle George’s ashes are buried up on the hill behind the summer cottage beside Rusty, his Irish setter and our mutt, Charlie. I did not come home for the service. My 91-year-old Aunt Betty recently revealed to me, “Well, your father didn’t bother to bury his mother’s ashes.” So she, the reluctant hero, snuck out to the cemetery with an Episcopal priest early one morning and buried my grandmother’s ashes, a story I will never tell my father. I hadn’t come home for that service either.

13. The leap from body to mind, and back

To say the mind is different from the body means merely that our experience is divided into two types—what feels mental and what feels bodily. Until the last decade or so, however, it really felt as if to be human were to live in two worlds. We humans were the angelic soul and mind, and also the donkey beast that carries the mind about in the world.

We have thought through history –really, have not been able to escape the thought– that the mind and the body are two different types of “things.” The body could be understood as a kind of machine with a pump at its center (thanks, Galen and Vesalius) but the mind was locked away in darkness inside the skull. Now the brain is starting to be known in some detail, and we understand that it is an organ, one of our parts, fully linked into our blood and breathing. With electronics unknown 100 years ago, we now can study the brain—I refer to fMRI scanners. We understand increasingly how the brain works. It has cells; their growth, movement and connection are either part of our thinking or constitute our thinking. It’s not just the experts, now, who believe that that learning consists of synapse formation, it’s common knowledge. Most janitors take it for granted today that “chemicals in the brain” are involved in paying attention, experiencing mood, learning things etc. (Everyone knows about anti-depressants and ADD medications.) Just two generations back, these ideas were hypotheses.
This chapter will revisit the cognitive science language research we talked of earlier, but at a higher, more synoptic level. We will ask larger questions about the brain’s glorious transformation of the physical world into a world of ideas. We’ll proceed by discussing the current cutting edge of mind-versus-body research, which is a theory sometimes known as grounded cognition or embodied cognition. Two of the top thinkers in this field are the neuroscientists Art Glenberg, of the University of Arizona, and Lawrence Barsalou, of Emory University. Barsalou wrote a long review paper in 2008, laying out the full field of embodied or grounded cognition. He contrasts it with “traditional theories” that the brain knows things by processing disembodied symbols. These disembodied symbols were supposed to be like words or algebraic symbols or computer variables. They were supposed to have nothing to do with the body, and to be purely abstract, logical. In this view, your brain was supposed to be an all-purpose computer that processed ideas, and what came out was sometimes brilliant, like E=mc2. But what if your brain is not so much “pure intelligence” as the distillation of what your hands and feet know?
The new theory is a patchwork but its parts are being knitted together rapidly and a coherent pattern is showing up. Grounded cognition is getting closer to explaining the physical and the mental as two aspects of the same organic life, and, most excitingly, explaining how this works in some detail. I will introduce the key elements of the new theory, whose working concepts include: simulation, situated action, and bodily states (embodiment.) A fourth concept, affordance, links the previous three. I plan to interview both Glenberg and Barsalou at length.
Great theories unify previously disparate domains. Embodied cognition—which has grown out of brain research about how fast we understand concrete nouns!–may become the ultimate unifier, the one theory that explains the primordial mystery of humanity, the split that has defined us, called at different times body and mind, or flesh and spirit, or being and language. Until now, to be human has been to exist in two separate realities, neither of which could explain the other. The new theory of “embodied cognition” changes that, and it may be historic. It certainly helps make clear how the conduits run between writer and reader.

14. About my father, a writer, a grown-up Brooklyn boy

This personal chapter tells about growing up in a family en-tranced by words, a reading and writing family that had a dictionary at the table at every Sunday dinner. My discovery of naming things. An account of my father reading Treasure Island to me, when I was five, and my shock as I suddenly saw (from my father’s voice) the apple barrel that Jim Hawkins was hiding in as he heard the pirates plotting, and the scene of my mother teaching me to touch-type in the kitchen, covering the keys with her apron as I kneeled on the kitchen chair, and my grasp at the age of five of ideal and real while looking into an opened can of peaches. The puzzle of words and pleasure in their sounds. Stories about Helen and Jack and Rachel and Gregory Maguire. It will include some brief excerpts from my father’s memoir about being a boy in a Brooklyn brownstone in the era of radio and newspapers, and what I learned from him as I watched him write and edit. (He was a reporter.)

My sister Rachel, the one in Montreal whose three children are now in their thirties, remembers with a piercing memory the day when she was four and her Daddy took her for a walk and on the spur of the moment went into a shop displaying a toy, and bought her a small plastic boat. I don’t remember the boat, but she remembers the event like it was a first Communion: and maybe it was. She must have played with the little boat in her soapy bath-times from then on, and for years, and thought of her father loving her as she saw it. The object, you see, embodies love.

The musical “Sound of Music’ contains one of the great joyous American songs: to characterize a child, the writer has Maria sing “My Favorite Things.” It should choke you up—it chokes me up-—to remember that era when we lived in a much less digitized, physical world, and it was not strange to hear an exuberant song about raindrops and brown paper packages wrapped up in string. We owe the lyrics to Oscar Hammerstein; but we love it because in his genius he nailed something we all know: things are beautiful. They are full of love and surprise. They tell us we are real in a real world. What other kind of heaven could we want?

Appendix: Notes for Teachers on Teaching Techniques

This appendix of perhaps 5000 words will provide detailed materials for the body-centered writing course, sufficient that a talented teacher could construct a similar course of her own. I will go through each of the 13 weeks of the course, explaining the learning goal of each week, and providing sample exercises and assignments to fit each goal. I will speak as a teacher to teachers, pointing out how students usually go wrong at each juncture, giving examples of common student errors, and explaining some of the assumptions of this method.
For example, the goal of Week 1 is distinguishing objects from the other kinds of nouns, the ones you can’t drop on your foot. This is tested through games and quizzes that require rapid skimming of reading materials of all sorts. A further goal is the ability to evaluate a piece of writing quickly on a concrete-abstract scale. (“On a 1-10 scale, where 1 is totally abstract and 10 is totally concrete, how do you score this page?”) Students typically challenge the definition of a concrete noun by asking how one classifies a molecule or the sun—“They’re things but you can’t touch them!”– and the answer is, “We’re talking about things in scale with the human body. For our purpose as writers, a concrete noun can be picked up, dropped or kicked. We leave out what is technically physical but not in scale with us.”
Week 2 builds on the fact that the students can now distinguish objects from ideas. This weeks skill is the rapid generation of objects in the service of any kind of abstract idea. The skill to be inculcated is a free-association style search for objects whenever the student is asked to write about an idea. The habit to be eradicated is starting to writing about ideas before a good list of objects is at hand. Various games and in-class exercises are used. Students practice this skill by writing one-page passages where a certain percentage of the words must concrete nouns.
In Week 3, the goal is distinguishing verbs from other words, and active verbs from the passive or copulative. We use exercises similar to those in Week 1 to see, distinguish, count and find this category of word. “At the center of every sentence is a beating heart, and it’s the verb.”
And so on through Week 13. And so on for weeks three through 13.

John G. Maguire
307 Market Street, #306
Lowell MA 01852
maguirejohn@comcast.net
978-761-4515