Posted tagged ‘Stephen Harrod Buhner’

Three Books for the Writer Self – 3) Ensouling Language

February 6, 2022

It was feeling that brought you to writing, you know. Something in the books you read touched you, something in you wants to create writing that will touch others similarly, some deep feeling has driven you on.
— Stephen Harrod Buhner

A couple of the more popular posts on this site are the two I wrote way back in 2007 about Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Olen Butler’s book of lectures on fiction writing, From Where You Dream. Butler is adamant that real writing, true writing can only come from the unconscious, from our intuition and our capacity to “induce” a writerly “trance.” This seems to mean making line to line contact with sensual imagery which makes up the voice of the unconscious and of your fictional characters.

And although he describes some of the ways that he uses to get to that place where the truth of what you are writing wells up, I’ve always been left with questions about that process. Oh, I’ve come up with my own haphazard ways of trying to get at that for writing of novels. But I’m always on the lookout, as many other writers must also be, for a clearer way of understanding how to do that.

In the third of this series about books that the writer self can plumb for meaning, Stephen Harrod Buhner provides that clarity, in Ensouling Language: On the Art of Nonfiction and the Writer’s Life (Inner Traditions, 2010).

Buhner has written a wide range of non-fiction books on plants, herbalism and environmental philosophy, including The Lost Language of Plants, a BBC Environmental Book of the Year. This explains the reference to nonfiction in the subtitle, and he does include sections about that. However all kinds of writing come within his scope.

My primary interest, as an unpublished novelist of course, is fiction, and much of what he says about writing hits home there just as much.

A Current of Feeling

There is a current of feeling within us which often willy-nilly determines the direction of our lives, and, often unrecognized, is the core of ourselves. Part of it is a faculty of feeling which is capable of perceiving extreme subtleties, a kind of perception we are not used to developing or putting into words.

Buhner writes: “One of the tasks that lies before us as writers is this reclamation of ourselves, this ecological restoration of our interior world, this restoration of our capacity to feel.”

People use the word “feeling” to mean different things. Buhner wants to focus not so much on emotional perception, although that can be a result, but on what he calls environmental perception.

He calls it a non-physical form of kinesthetic touching. A physical form would be touching a hot stove; a non-physical form would be the sensation of coming home to an empty house. “How does it feel?” That is his repeated catchphrase for taking in the world, and people, around us.

“It is your passions and your deep feelings that are the key to your writing ensouled communication, to inhabited language. As Garcia Lorca put it, you ‘must awaken the duende in the remotest mansions of the blood.’ This can only occur if you reclaim your capacity to feel deeply and keenly.”


‘Duende’ means those unusual moments, big or small, when something is deeply recognized and makes one tremble. Buhner goes to considerable lengths to try to give the quality of this experience. He quotes the poet Robert Bly about a long floating leap at the heart of the most moving work, “a leap from the conscious to the unconscious and back again, a leap from the known part of the mind to the unknown part and back to the known.”

It is one thing to describe these leaps, and another to do them. Sorry to say, I am not always a-tremble with the ecstasy of life, able to delve at will into the well of the unconscious. I wish I was more often.

Fortunately, Buhner takes up the challenge of trying to tell us what the process of feeling deeply through our writing could be. He calls it following the “golden threads,” a term he borrows from William Blake.

Taking hold of a golden thread means to be attentive in our feeling to any meaning we may encounter, and focus on it entirely so that we may follow where it goes. This is what happens with writing capable of catching the heart of the reader. This can be a very delicate and tentative pursuit, easily fumbled, so we must bring our complete focus.

A Golden Thread

Buhner explains: “To the alert person, a golden thread may emerge from any ordinary thing and open a doorway into the imaginal, and through it, the mythic. Because no one can know when or where or from what it will emerge, the writer remains attentive to everything that is encountered, always paying close attention to how everything, even the tiniest little thing, feels.”

Stephen Harrod Buhner

He goes on: “You can begin to follow it then, if you wish, by simply writing down, as concretely as you can what you are experiencing, what you are feeling, what you are seeing, hearing, sensing. Bly describes this, brilliantly, as ‘following the tiny impulses through the meadow of language.’ It must be done slowly. Carefully. Feeling your way. Tiny movement by tiny movement. It is the feeling equivalent of catching the hint of an elusive scent. … You write a line, perhaps several, then you stop and begin to compare what you have written to the feeling that has demanded your attention.”

He provides some simple exercises to illustrate and develop this, and he takes it to the point of asking “How does it feel” of even inanimate objects, which I found particularly interesting. To me, the book is worth it just for this discussion of “golden threads” which is considerably more detailed than what I’m able to recount here.

But think of poetry which is particularly meaningful to you. Poetry is the most concentrated form of this way of approaching writing. As an example, he quotes the following from the Spanish poet Antonio Machado:

It is good knowing that glasses
are to drink from;
the bad thing

is to not know what thirst is for.

This is a duende, a long floating leap, as Buhner says: “The long trembling moment, and then the silence.”

Buhner writes:

“Mostly we feel only what we have been taught to feel, not what we truly feel. With the attentive noticing of the soul, we step away from our programming and what we think we know. We feel something and then we stop and genuinely look, identifying what has caught our attention. Then we begin to really see it, noticing whatever it is as if for the first time. The senses begin to bring us tidings of invisible things, all of them filled with meaning.”

He is careful to point out that these experiences are not only for those of us who write and feel compelled to describe our experience, but for all who want to live an “inhabited life.”

I would encourage anyone who is interested in these matters to read Buhner’s book, whether or not you accept all that he says. The essence of it is inspiring. And there is much more to it than I have recounted here, especially in a large section called “Dreaming and the Journey to the Imaginal.”

In conclusion, I keep returning to a quote attributed to the poet Paul Eluard. It’s one you take in with intuitive feeling right away, and then you’re not sure whether it makes any sense, and then you realize that maybe it does, and your mind makes that leap back and forth:

“There is another world but it is this one.”



This is the last book considered in a series of posts:

Three Books for the Writer Self – Introduction

Three Books for the Writer Self – 1) The Soul’s Code

Three Books for the Writer Self – 2) The Winged Life

Three Books for the Writer Self – Introduction

November 21, 2021

The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling, by James Hillman, Ballantine Books, 1996
The Winged Life: The Poetic Voice of Henry David Thoreau, by Robert Bly, Sierra Club Books, 1986, republished by Harper Collins, 1992
Ensouling Language: On the Art of Non-Fiction and the Writer’s Life, by Stephen Harrod Buhner, Inner Traditions, 2010

I often have the sense that the part of me that struggles with writing is a self different than the everyday one that goes grocery shopping or the self that tries to charm my wife.  (This latter effort usually fails and all my selves, and hers, have a good laugh about it.)

I think of that crazy man and mystic G.I. Gurdjieff in this connection.  Gurdjieff, of Armenian and Greek descent, was born in what was Russia at the time.  He became a philosopher, a mystic, a composer, and a wanderer both geographical and spiritual.   As a spiritual teacher, he used methods including shock, music, dance, and hard labor to induce self-confrontation in his followers.  Although he died just after WWII, his writings and students continued to have influence.  There’s an interesting article from 1979 worth looking at in The New York Times upon the occasion of a preview of the feature film Meetings with Remarkable Men, about his life.  It gives the flavor of the man and his teachings.

Here is a relevant quote from Gurdjieff:

“One of man’s most important mistakes, one which must be remembered, is his illusion in regard to his I. … Try to understand that what you usually call ‘I’ is not I; there are many ‘I’s’ and each ‘I’ has a different wish.”

The writer Buster Benson makes a similar observation.  “We are better understood as a collection of minds in a single body rather than having one mind per body.”

(If you want to explore even more down this weird road, into one of the odder varieties of human consciousness, check out the “tulpamancers” described in an article in the journal Narratively.)

So to return to Gurdjieff’s formulation, the wish of my writing self is to conjure with words the closest, truest representations of the world and my experience of it that I can manage.  This is something I inarticulately feel strongly I have to attempt.  The act of trying to do so sets it apart from the rest of my selves, and it becomes a kind of identity.

These three books, each in its own way, have made this aspect of me sit up and take notice. I intend to write a post – part reflection, part review – on each of them after this introduction.

The first, The Soul’s Code by James Hillman, is a book I often came across, years ago, browsing in bookshops, but never really felt attracted to until recently.  Hillman, who died in 2011, was lauded as the most important American psychologist since William James

Deeply influenced by the psychology of Carl Jung, he went beyond it in incisive ways.  He founded a movement called archetypal psychology which, as others have pointed out, would be more accurately described as imaginal psychology, due to the importance he places on the imagination in the formation of our human reality.  His ideas are actually quite subversive to the usual run of thinking about our place in the world.  In The Soul’s Code, he proclaims the primacy in our lives of the “acorn” — all people already hold the potential for the unique possibilities inside themselves, much as an acorn holds the pattern for an oak tree.

The second book, The Winged Life, by the poet Robert Bly, is a commentary and examination of the writings of transcendentalist and naturalist Henry David Thoreau.  “He believed that the young man or young woman should give up tending the machine of civilization and instead farm the soul.”

Bly also refers to Ralph Waldo Emerson, that older fellow traveler of Thoreau’s, and his understanding: “…All mean egotism vanishes.  I become a transparent eyeball.”  Bly follows Thoreau’s poetic and wide-ranging investigations around the meaning of this metaphor.

The third book, Ensouling Language, by non-fiction author and poet Stephen Buhner, is the one most directly concerned with writing, and what makes it good.  Although the subtitle emphasizes “the art of non-fiction”, the book’s discussion, about how to follow the hints from the deepest parts of ourselves, can apply to any kind of writing, including and especially fiction.

In Buhner’s own words:

“I am and always have been interested in the invisibles of life, those meanings and communications that touch us from the heart of Earth and let us know that we are surrounded by more intelligence, mystery, and caring than our American culture admits of….”

The most common thread uniting the intent and meaning of these books is that of the poet Robert Bly himself.  The author of the book on Thoreau, he is also cited in the other two books, especially that of Buhner’s.  I was fortunate to take in one of Bly’s presentations many years ago, which had an impact that I recounted in a post on “The Shadow,” one of Bly’s preoccupations.  Hillman and Bly both approached psychology from a Jungian perspective (in the broadest sense) and they gave workshops together during the height of the “men’s movement” of the 1980s.

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Robert Bly

A little of his outlook can be gleaned from his statement: “It’s so horrible in high school when they say, ‘What’s the interpretation of this poem?’” He wanted to shake off the intellectualism of “modernism”, as noted by the poet Elizabeth Hoover, in favor of the passion of Spanish poets like Federico García Lorca.

It is sad to know that Bly, now in his mid-90s, is suffering in the last stages of Alzheimer’s (recounted on Buhner’s blog).  As Buhner observes:

“He is greatly missed . . . even by himself. After the Alzheimer’s had taken hold, he once said, after watching a video of himself with his family, ‘I think I would have liked him.’

So, in the near future I will work through these three books in separate posts about what I found meaningful to the writer in me in each one.