“Writers may not be special, sensitive or talented in any usual sense. They are simply engaged in sustained use of a language skill we all have. Their ‘creations’ come about through confident reliance on stray impulses that will, with trust, find occasional patterns that are satisfying.”
William Stafford, Writing the Australian Crawl note1
For several years now, and in ways that continually change, I’ve been using the principles of the Alexander Technique to teach writing at Cornell University, in classes for students at all levels, and in a tutorial course I designed for writers who are contending with special difficulties, such as ‘writing blocks.’
These changes in my teaching began shortly after my wife, Marty Hjortshoj, began her training at the Alexander Foundation of Philadelphia, in 1987, and invited Bruce Fertman to give a weekend workshop in Ithaca, New York, where we live. I attended this workshop, and immediately noticed the powerful somatic changes that new students often experience. When I entered the classroom the following week, however, I felt that the principles of the Technique were still experimenting with me, and with my students as well. I was moving differently, of course, but I was also teaching differently in a deep sense that included uses of language: more slowly and calmly, with more clarity, less effort, and heightened awareness of myself and my students in that place. The students in this small, advanced writing seminar immediately responded to me and to one another in ways that were at once more lively and more relaxed.
Because I liked these changes, I tried to hold on to them, and found that the worst classes I taught often followed the best ones. The students immediately sensed some new, hidden expectation they didn’t understand, and waited for me to tell them what it was. Gradually realising that effective teaching is not a position one assumes, but a kind of movement, I continued to experiment that semester and in following years. Sometimes I noticed, for example, that all of us had become habitually frontal, as though the classroom began at the ends of our noses. Words then spilled out on to the empty expanse of the seminar table and lay there, like unclaimed property. If I got up and moved around, breaking the circle, a subtle tension would often break as well, and we could talk more easily with one another. When our presence in the classroom became more lively and open, student writing became more lively and open too: more directly and fully voiced. I still can’t explain how these connections between language and movement work, and I can’t really control them. I simply know that they are always working, for better or worse, with unfathomable complexity.
Awareness of these connections was a revelation to me, because an unwritten canon of the university suggests that we should attend to language and thought in our work and pay attention to the body elsewhere–at the health club, perhaps–or ignore it altogether until it cries out in pain. As a consequence, there are whole realms of information we routinely disregard–information not only about the use of our bodies, but also about the interactive qualities of our presence, our effects upon others, and their effects upon us. Through unconscious uses of voice and bearing, teachers can easily cause students to use language with caution and formality. Be careful! Don’t make a false move! Because we learn fear too well, these messages tend to undermine the flexibility and responsiveness that young writers retain from childhood. By the time they graduate from college, therefore, most students have learned to write in voices so habitually disguised and constrained that their own parents wouldn’t recognise them. Dissolving these layers of interference with the use of voice has become my primary goal as a teacher.
What I am rediscovering in my teaching is a kind of deep knowledge we have all possessed throughout our lives. All Alexander teachers know how freely small children use their bodies and acquire new movement skills, in response to kinaesthetic information they just absorb from their environment, like little sponges. All linguists know that small children absorb and use language like oxygen, as naturally and freely as they breathe. But we tend to forget that these extraordinary abilities develop simultaneously–in whole, integrated fields of perception and response.
When Hannah, the two-year-old who lives next door, entered our kitchen last summer on her daily visits to stalk our cat, she used to make two statements: “I want to find Babycakes. She’s my friend.” One day, then, I noticed that Hannah had begun to use subordinate clauses in complex sentences, to express causal relationships. “I want to find Babycakes,” Hannah announced, “because she’s my friend.” Knowing that Babycakes would be wasting the day in one of the second floor bedrooms, Hannah ran straight to the stairs, lengthened to grasp the railing above, and told me at each step , “I hold the rail, so I won’t fall.” Because Hannah told me what she was doing and why, I noticed that she no longer bent over and crawled onto each step with her hands on the next one.
“Oh, she’s been doing that for a month,” Marty observed, because she notices what people do with their bodies without having to be told. What Marty noticed and what I noticed, however, made little difference to Hannah, who was putting language and movement together in her own brilliantly co-ordinated fashion, in the whole of her experience, without needing any help from grammarians and Alexander teachers.
Language teachers typically believe they are working with language and thought. Alexander teachers typically believe they are working with movement and thought. But all of us are actually doing more, even if we remain oblivious to the full dimensions of our work. Like Hannah, we are using our voices and our bodies in whole fields of perception, in intricate ways that include, reach, and affect others.
When I pay attention, my students constantly teach me this lesson: that I am not just working with the written texts they produce, with the ‘skills’ they use to produce those texts, or with the structure of written English. Instead, I am always working with what Noam Chomsky called our “underlying competence”: an innately human ability to use the “hidden organising principles” of linguistic co-ordination to communicate with others. note2 If this ability represents a kind of ‘skill,’ the poet William Stafford observed, “…it is the skill we all have, something we must have learned before the age of three or four.” In writing, we can remind ourselves of our underlying competence by using the freewriting exercises that Peter Elbow–who studied the Alexander technique with Frank Pierce Jones–first described in his book Writing Without Teachers. note3
All of us can write freely, spontaneously, and continuously, if we simply stop ourselves from stopping. When we write without stopping ourselves, we are using what Elbow has called our ‘freewriting muscle’–an ability to co-ordinate language, thought, and physical movement without interference. Like the ‘primary control,’ this ‘muscle’ is what always allows writing to happen, if it happens at all, even if we habitually use this ability with self-consciousness, hesitation, confusion, or fear.
The students who have taught me the most about the connections between language and movement are the ones who experience the most interference with their ability, to the point that they feel incapable of doing what they are fully able to do. When these writers do not believe in their underlying competence, or do not trust it, the deliberate effort to orchestrate the structures of language interferes with the co-ordinated use of language, just as the deliberate, self- conscious effort to move correctly interferes with co-ordinated movement. In the embodied moment of its occurrence, writing, like walking, is a kind of falling into empty space, with faith that our ability to use language will be there to support us.
Movement into that void–across what William Stafford called “…that precious little area of confusion when I do not know what I am going to say and then I find out what I am going to say” note4–will occur only when we release ourselves into motion, not when we prepare to do so. When writers have lost faith in their own competence, therefore, they feel paralysed and disembodied in their efforts to write, and they often tell me that they have lost their ‘voices.’ If I pay attention, I can usually see the somatic effects of this effort and loss. And when these writers rediscover their voices, they find them not just on the page but also in their bodies, in the world.
With obvious discomfort, a student named Joanna was describing the agonising process of constructing academic essays for her classes when I asked her who was orchestrating this construction and when she felt that she was writing in a voice of her own. In response to this question about her voice, Joanna looked at me directly and began to cry, silently, with a sense of loss so deep and open that I was also overwhelmed. Then she said, very quietly, “I don’t think I have a voice of my own.”
After this first meeting, at the end of spring term, Joanna left my office with hope that she could resolve her difficulties with writing in the fall. But some kind of release had already occurred, and during the following summer Joanna began to solve the problem on her own–not through writing, but through dance. Joanna had been studying modern dance for several years, but she had always thought of dance movement as a set of ‘skills’ she had learned, and of dance performance as choreography: ‘written’ compositions that dancers execute with the skills they have been taught. These perceptions of dance corresponded with her ideas about writing ability: that we learn writing skills primarily in school, and then use these skills to produce compositions that conform to preconceived designs and expectations. Through the equivalent of ‘freewriting’ exercises in a dance workshop, Joanna realised that the acquisition of ‘skill’ depends upon the use of abilities we already possess. When she returned in the fall, she had already recovered her writing voice to the extent that she could describe what she had discovered:
Besides technique courses I enrolled in improvisation. The teacher led us through weeks of very specific exercises that worked with qualities, rhythms, interactions. Born out of the class was a new personal vocabulary of movement. But most remarkable was my ability to improvise to music with clarity of intent. Clarity of movement occurred when I ‘conversed’ with music not allowing time to choreograph. I achieved a continuity between my environment/audience (classmates sat and watched one another) and my self when I forgot effort and reflected the music. In light of this experience, of clearing a lot of inner space in order to dance better, I am very optimistic that having found my dancing voice I can go about exploring language as an unselfconscious way to express myself.
Joanna and I had both discovered that somatic changes can directly affect uses of language, but the opposite is also true. Linguistic co-ordination can release people into free movement. By the time Andrea, a PhD. student, came to see me about her difficulties with writing, her dissertation topic had become a conceptual labyrinth she inhabited alone and could not describe to anyone, even in a one-page statement she was supposed to submit to her thesis adviser weeks before. When she entered my office, Andrea was pale and tense, and when I asked her direct questions about her research she looked startled, cleared her throat repeatedly, and spoke in meandering, halting sentences she never completed. While she was struggling with these sentences she looked away from me and seemed to drift off into inaccessible corridors of thought.
When our second meeting continued in the same bewildering fashion, I asked Andrea just to tell me, in one complete sentence, what her dissertation was about. She froze for a moment, with a look of panic, and then slowly said, “Well. . .what I’m really trying to get across is that. . .well, I think…”
I interrupted her then and said, “No. Just finish the sentence. You said, ‘What I’m really trying to get across is that…’ Just start over, patiently, until you complete the statement.”
On the third or fourth try, Andrea did complete a statement I could understand–a powerful argument she had apparently known all along, but would not allow herself to state. More powerful, however, were the accompanying changes in Andrea. When she had completed this sentence, I noticed a great release through her whole body. She sighed, laughed, relaxed in the chair, and then became flushed and animated: full of moving blood and energy. She was also fully there with me in the room for the first time, looked at me directly, and was able to talk about her work without hesitation.
This was the beginning of an extraordinary process of recovery that continued over the following months, with effects in every aspect of Andrea’s life. I immediately asked her to write that sentence down, and over the next weekend she expanded it to a couple of pages. After her thesis adviser read her proposal, he began to give her the active support she needed from him. Because Andrea recognised that the release she had experienced was at once linguistic and somatic, she began to study the Alexander Technique with Marty while she was working with me.
Within a few weeks Andrea was writing her dissertation, two professional articles, and postdoctoral fellowship applications with a kind of ease and speed so unfamiliar that she found it almost alarming. One afternoon, when she tossed the latest chapter of her dissertation on my desk, with playful disregard, Andrea said, “I’ve decided that anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” It was the kind of unpredictable statement that Alexander himself might have made to his students, to undermine the association of effort with value.
In speech, while he was teaching, Alexander freely used these interactive, intersubjective connections between language and movement. Alexander did not teach in silence, entirely with his hands. He talked constantly to his students, using the creative power of language to stimulate responses and reconstruct perceptions. Examples of Alexander’s instructions to his students demonstrate that he continually used language to dismantle misconceptions, alter perceptions, and direct movement. When the conventional meanings of words represented false categories and stimulated habitual responses, Alexander constructed un-conventional, often paradoxical statements that gave these words new meanings. Here are a few examples:
The things that don’t exist are the most difficult to get rid of.
The experience you want is in the process of getting it. If you have some thing, give it up. Getting it, not having it, is what you want.
The right thing to do would be the last thing we should do, left to ourselves, because it would be the last thing we should think it would be the right thing to do.
You all want to know if you’re right. When you get farther on you will be right, but you won’t know it & won’t want to know if you are right. note5
Even in print these statements convey Alexander’s playful, thoughtful, unfettered use of his voice, embodied in the moment, in co-ordination with movement and in direct interaction with his students. These inventive uses of language are possible because the meanings of words are not intrinsically fixed; they become fixed, instead, within conventional patterns of usage, just as the functions of muscles become fixed in habitual patterns of movement. Language therefore moves in two senses of the term: it moves within and through syntactic structures, and it moves others to respond, within or beyond their habitual patterns of response. When Alexander’s use of language was freely co-ordinated with kinaesthetic perception and interaction, he also moved and moved his students beyond the confines of their time and culture. Because Alexander was using language to convey acute perceptions in the moment, his statements to his students do not seem dated or culture-bound. They sound as Eastern as Western, and more Post-Modern than Edwardian.
This lively quality of voice is easiest to maintain in conversation, when the language we use is fully embodied, and when it reaches the listener directly, even visibly. As Alexander realised, this sense of ease is harder to maintain in public speaking, when we feel we are performing for a potentially critical audience that does not immediately respond. In writing, a lively, embodied voice is still harder to maintain because written communication occurs across time and space, through the medium of a disembodied text. When we are writing, the reader is not there; when we read, the writer is not there. Unless we feel very close to the imaginary reader, therefore, it is extremely difficult to avoid ‘end-gaining’ in the act of writing: the effort to anticipate and control the outcome of this act.
Interference with writing ability results from that effort, which affects not only the writer, in the moment, but also the qualities of voice conveyed in the writing: the sounds and meanings of the language itself. Even across decades and continents we can hear those qualities, like the resonance of tones struck in one bell ringing in another, because we humans are linguistically tuned to similar frequencies. With linguistic information, as with kinaesthetic information, we can perceive effort, tension, and distortion as well as ease, strength, and grace. That is why so many of the words we use to describe qualities of language–fluent, poised, graceful, or awkward, stiff, ungainly–also describe qualities of movement.
When I read Alexander’s writing, I notice a lot of stiffness and posturing for the imagined audience–a kind of effort very similar, I suspect, to the posturing that once interfered with his speaking voice in performance . If I had learned of Alexander’s work only through his books, I wouldn’t have found much of relevance to my own work, because in his writing Alexander tended to ignore the roles of language, both in his teaching practice and in his conception of the self. When Alexander refers to the use of the self, he rarely includes the use of language as a medium of communication.
One reason, I suspect, is that Alexander distrusted language. In The Use of the Self, Alexander noted that “…knowledge concerned with sensory experience cannot be conveyed by the written or spoken word, so that it means to the recipient what it means to the person who is trying to convey it.” note6 In relation to sensory perception, he observed, language is often not only impoverished but misleading. The conventional, socially constructed meanings of words such as ‘head’ and ‘neck’ represented the misconception s Alexander had to overcome when he revised his map of the body. He was less inclined, however, to notice the positive ways in which he used language to bring this revision about.
In books such as Man’s Supreme Inheritance, Alexander was also trying to establish the validity of his ideas among prominent philosophers and scientists in his generation. In his effort to join the ranks of Tyler, Frazer, and Thomas Huxley, he clothed his discoveries in the ponderous formalities and sweeping generalisations of 19th century rationalists, evolutionists, and racists. In the language of positive science, Alexander describes the student as an individual “psycho-physical organism” or “human machine” that is not working properly, due to incorrect perceptions and habits. The Alexander teacher conveys correct information to this organism through “expert manipulation.” In Alexander’s literary imagination, these kinaesthetic transactions represent no less than an evolutionary force, through which enlightened Europeans might transcend both the mental deficiencies of the “savage races” and the physical afflictions created by industrial civilisation. As a writer, therefore, Alexander became a creature of his time.
Alexander no doubt believed that he was accurately describing the nature and significance of his work. But “All the damn fools in the world,” he once said to a student in a very different voice, “believe they are actually doing what they think they are doing.” I suspect that when Alexander was teaching, he was doing much more and much less than his writing tells us. In practice, language and movement were co-ordinated, interdependently, in the embodied self. This work was not only ‘psycho-physical,’ but also linguistic and intersubjective. Sensory perceptions were stimulating uses of language, which were stimulating somatic changes and new ranges of perception, not only in the individual ‘organism’ he happened to be teaching, but among all of the people present.
In relation to his practice, the weakness of Alexander’s writing does not result from the poverty of language or from the passage of time. The voices of writers can move people to awareness, action, or tears across centuries. Many passages from Alexander’s writing still ring true and illuminate his practice. Even in Alexander’s time, however, it was his teaching, not his books, that moved people in new directions. And it was Alexander’s teaching, more than his writing, that led John Dewey toward a progressive, fully integrated vision of individual development: in “…rich and manifold association with others,” Dewey wrote in The Public and Its Problems, through “…the means and ways of communication” in “…interdependent activities.” note7 This is how we still discover the richness and vitality of Alexander’s teaching afresh: through the hands, voices, perceptions, memories of his followers, resonating in the fullness of our own experience.
(1) Stafford, William, Writing the Australian Crawl, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor (1978) p.20 go back to text
(2) Chomsky, Noam, Language and Mind, Harcourt, Brace and World, New York (1968) p.14 go back to text
(3) Elbow, Peter, Writing Without Teachers, Oxford University Press, London (1973) go back to text
(4) Stafford, William, op. cit. go back to text
(5) Maisel, Edward, The Alexander Technique, The Essential Writings of F. Mattias Alexander, Carol Communications, New York (1989) pp.3-12 go back to text
(6) Alexander, F. Mattias, The Use of the Self Centerline Press (1988) p.viii go back to text
(7) Dewey, John, The Public and Its Problems, Swallow, Athens (1988) pp. 150, 155 go back to text
About The Writer
Keith Hjortshoj teaches writing and is the Director of Writing in the Majors, an interdisciplinary language and learning program at Cornell University. He is completing a book called Ease and Difficulty in Writing, based on his studies of language and movement.