Author offers a method for reconnecting to personal identity through writing
By Jane Vick
There’s a certain irony to writing about writer’s block. But those of us who put pen to paper, or fingertips to keys, for a living are no stranger to the affliction.
Searching for the right words to convey a story, a sensation, or to translate a demanding but as-yet-cryptic feeling can be a process akin to pulling teeth. Luckily, Linda Tritchter Metcalf, an author who is all too familiar with this challenge, has developed a method of writing to counteract blockages. It’s called Proprioceptive Writing.
Metcalf, who received her MA and PhD in literature from New York University, began developing the process inadvertently as she finished her dissertation while teaching English and humanities at Pratt College. Examining her subjective response to a Shirley Jackson novel, Metcalf spent six hours a day for three months reading and writing about her experience with the work.
After this period of intense reflection, Metcalf noticed a profound change in her entire being—a notably increased sense of clarity, focus and self-awareness. Her connection to self improved to a degree she had never experienced before, and her mind felt alert and active in an entirely new sense.
Inspired, Metcalf took the practice to her students the following semester, as did her partner, Tobin Simon, a fellow professor in the Pratt English department. The changes they witnessed in their students in the subsequent weeks and months were evidence enough of Proprioceptive Writing’s potency. In 1982, Metcalf and Simon left their academic careers and founded the Proprioceptive Writing Center in Maine.
A center in New York City followed in 1996, and, in 2006, they moved West, founding a Proprioceptive Writing Center in Oakland. Simon retired in 2014, but Metcalf continues to teach and direct the center, offering teacher training, classes and immersive workshops. The next workshop will be held from June 8-12 at the Santa Sabina Center in San Rafael.
I spoke with Metcalf on a clement Wednesday afternoon—ah, the difference between May in Maine and May in California—for more details on her discovery and cultivation of Proprioceptive Writing, what the practice entails, and how she sees it benefiting her students.
“Those three months were glorious,” said Metcalf, of the dissertation work that led to her discovery. “I’ll never get another three months like it in my life, I don’t think. It was summer, my son was in daycare, I was completely alone.”
As she sat writing, working in the then highly popular style of criticism in which careful attention is paid to the reader’s subjective perspective of a novel, Metcalf said she began to hear herself in a way she never had before.
“Two thirds of the way through the process, I began to experience changes in myself. I know this may sound strange, but I suddenly became ticklish, when I never had been before. I started to feel things I’d never felt before—I had never been able to make contact with myself like that. I’d always felt divided from myself, conflicted,” Metcalf said.
In the roughly 400 hours she spent working through Jackson’s novel, Metcalf only made it through one and a half pages, such was the intensity of her outpouring. As though previously disconnected wires were rejoining, she found herself suddenly able to think more clearly, and more decisively, as a result of listening to her own thought process so intently. Though Metcalf had been successful and, as she put it, “made the ordinary advances that people make” in her then 36 years, it wasn’t until the activation brought about by this hyper-focused writing practice that she actually felt happy.
“Prior to this process, my life felt divided—thinking one thing, saying another, not knowing what I was feeling, being unable to connect to my childhood, feeling like a visitor to my own life. This was the first time I truly connected to myself.”
What came about subsequently—now called Proprioceptive Writing—is really a practice in listening to the self, and—this is my observation—validating one’s perspective and experiences. It is this style of self-investigation that creates an intimacy and trust in self-connection.
The steps of Proprioceptive Writing are specific. The conditions of the room during a “Write”—so named by Metcalf’s Pratt students—need to be as follows:
Firstly, the room must be empty of any distractions, in order to cultivate solitude—though if others are present and also engaging in a “Write,” that is acceptable.
Secondly, Baroque music must be playing. When I asked Metcalf why Baroque in particular, she simply said:
“It must be Baroque. There were tremendous studies done on Baroque music, as a specifically valuable style of classical music. But I don’t know what they are! What I know is I was listening to Bach throughout my process and endeavoring to replicate exactly what I’d done.”
I confess I’m listening to Baroque as I write this, and the keyboard is smoking…
Thirdly, one must have a blank sheet of white paper—I didn’t ask if laptops were allowed. From there, Metcalf gives three directions. Write what you hear, listen to what you write, and be ready to ask “the proprioceptive question,” which is the personal meaning of a word or phrase you’ve used. This step in particular I find evocative—to consider what might prompt one to use such a phrase as “he twisted his mouth into a sneer.” Or “she lifted herself gracefully from the couch.” Why twisted? Why lifted, or gracefully? To explore deeper into word choice is a significant deepening in self-understanding. Very Ludgwig Wittgenstein.
The “Write” goes on for 20 or 25 minutes, and when it’s over, four follow up questions are posed: What were the thoughts heard but not written? How is the individual feeling after the “Write”? What is the larger story being told? And finally, Any direction for future “Writes”?
This is the process of Proprioceptive Writing, in a nutshell, and it can go on indefinitely, providing ongoing benefit to the practitioner.
“[Proprioceptive writing] is for those looking to achieve a kind of contact with themselves that they don’t normally experience. It’s for those who sense missing links, or blockages, in their writing, their lives or both,” Metcalf told me.
For more information on Proprioceptive Writing and upcoming workshops, including the one in June at the Santa Sabina Center in San Rafael, visit www.pwriting.org.