When it comes to evaluating writing, how do we judge ourselves and others?
Is good writing, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder? Or is there some universal standard that can be applied to all, experienced and beginning writers alike?
Consider these words, penned by Dr. David Abram, from his stunning book, The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in the More-Than-Human World.
“Of course, not all stories are successful. There are good stories and mediocre stories and downright bad stories. How are they to be judged? If they do not aim at a static or literal reality, how can we discern whether one telling of events is any better or more worthy than another?
“The answer is this: a story must be judged according to whether it makes sense.
“And ‘making sense’ must here be understood in its most direct meaning: to make sense is to enliven the senses. A story that makes sense is one that stirs the senses from their slumber, one that opens the eyes and ears to their real surroundings, tuning the tongue to the actual tastes in the air and sending chills of recognition along the surface of the skin.
“To make sense is to release the body from the constraints imposed by outworn ways of speaking, and hence to renew and rejuvenate one’s felt awareness of the world. It is to make the senses wake up to where they are.”
What a liberating passage! Abram recasts the role of the modern-day writer, challenging us to lift writing to a higher standard than we might have otherwise. In the end, there is so much more to the writer’s art than applying ink to paper. Books are essentially dead tree carcasses. But they can serve as storage systems for writing that can enliven the human body and spirit.
In TGI’s Writing and Oral Traditions Program, we are diving deep into a study of the ecology of the imagination. Writers like Abrams call us to imagine ourselves as inhabitants of what he calls the “more-than-human world”, embracing a sensibility that many of us have forgotten since childhood and yearn, on some deep level, to return to.
Abrams is an ecologist and philosopher who represents the kind of thinking that can inform a new generation of writers and story practitioners.
Psychologist and Author James Hillman has this praise for Spell, “I know of no more valuable work for shifting our thinking and feeling about the place of humans in the world.”
Ecologist Bill McKibben writes, “This is a landmark book. Scholars will doubtless recognize its brilliance, but they might overlook the most important part of Abram’s achievement: he has written the best instructional manual yet for becoming fully human. I walked outside when I was done and the world was a different place.”
This is the kind of writing that can awaken us all to a new way of looking at our world.
Abrams says, “Writing, like human language, is engendered not only within the human community but between the human community and the animate landscape, born of the interplay and contact between the human and the more-than-human world.”
To writers who choose to take up this challenge, a vast landscape of possibility lies before us; the traditional genres of fiction, non-fiction, biography, drama, poetry, fantasy, science fiction and mythology melt away and we are left with a new literature which will re-define what it means to be human.
As Nobel Prize-Winning Poet Gary Snyder says, “David Abram lights up the landscape of language, flesh, mind, history, mapping us back into the world.”
This is a noble goal for this, and any other, writing program. We are diving deep into the cool, still waters of a pool of inspiration which may very well determine how human we can become.