Jerusha Cowless, Agony Aunt: "Are my passionate convictions why I can't get published?"
Snowstorms and straws in the wind

The real sixth sense

Have you ever learnt a dance step, or a musical instrument, or a tennis stroke? Felt how it gradually makes sense, how getting your weight in the right place makes the other arm move sweetly to where it needs to be, over and over again, whether it's a bow or a golf club? How suddenly your dancing body finds its place in the music, so that you're free by virtue of being part of the pattern? Can you imagine now, this minute, riding a bicycle down the road, pedal by pedal, push and turn and swoop? No, not the road beyond the window, that one at your grandmother's: the steep lane with the stony bit all down the middle which was bone-shaking if you strayed onto it, and the sharp bend at the bottom? And how once you didn't take the bend right, but flew off into the gravel and nettles? And got a graze on your chin, of all places, as well as the base of both hands?

One of the more valuable dividends of the Darwin bicentenary, for me, has been encountering the book Sparks of Genius, by Robert and Michèle Root-Bernstein. I'd been asked to give a lecture on the family, and while the offer of a trip to Mexico was too tempting to resist, I badly needed to shift the focus away from that 3% of my genome, and towards something which I could actually talk about with some authority. The connecting thread between enough of my ancestors to provide the requested Cook's Tour of the family stories, and what I do, turned out to be creative thinking, and my brother-in-law sent me a copy of the Root-Bernstein's book. It's done up as a self-help book, with a subtitle The 13 Thinking Tools of the World's Most Creative People, but it's much more interesting than that. And one of their thirteen kinds of creative thinking is proprioception: 'our sense of muscle movement, posture, balance and touch'. It's one that the musicians in the family would recognise, and maybe the engineers, too. And as a writer I knew it, and now I have a word for it.

The other word for proprioception is body thinking. The Root-Bernsteins describe how Feynmann imagined himself as a sub-atomic particle, and only then worked out the maths to express what he'd felt. Choreographers make dance by doing it: they think with their bodies to create. But in the normal use of 'think' proprioception isn't thinking, which is logical, conscious, and divorced from physical experience. It seems to me that it's far more of a sixth sense than the phenomena which are usually given that name, because intuition, second sight, ESP or seeing ghosts, are mental. Proprioception is a sense because it's bodily, but it's not simply touch either, or taste or smell or hearing or sight, and yet it is utterly physical and sensory. Many - most? - all? - writing tutors will talk about using all five senses to write, because it's in the particulars of sensory experience, which is actually the only way that we can encounter the world, that we persuade readers that everything else we've invented is authentic too. So, next time you're imagining a scene, don't just think of the smell of the Gauloises or the taste of the coconut milk, the rattan of the café chair under your thighs, let alone the colour of the doves wheeling around the belfry or the feathery rattle of their wings. Here comes the lover, or the enemy: how does your body feel the move forwards, the spring up, the knees straightening and the ground newly hard under your feet as you stand, with your hand still pressed onto the table, to steady your heart.

But the Root-Bernsteins don't stop there, as many neuropsychologists do, with movement real and imagined. They argue that proprioception includes 'how we feel viscerally and emotionally' and I agree with them: all emotions have a bodily aspect beyond (or instead of) facial expression. One of my favourite challenges, in writing, is the problem of conveying how strong emotion feels, in real, physical terms. From the sting in the palms of your hands and feet when you look up from your work and see a figure standing in the doorway, to the - what? - pouring through you when you tell him it's all over, or he tells you that it's not...

One of the oddities of writing as an art form is that, as an object, a book is virtually devoid of sensory content. Even the paper and ink, though it may be nicer or nastier, has very little to do with the words, and the physical existence of the book is largely irrelevant to the text that we write, read, analyse and re-publish. Poetry has prosody - sound and rhythm - it's true, so it shares that with music, but reading a poem is a far more complete experience than reading a score is. By contrast the paint of a painting is part of the viewer's experience, music is all sound, and reading a list of steps is not the same as watching a ballet. You could argue that each art spends much time trying to do what it does least naturally: painters on canvas spend years learning perspective, sculptors do everything to show movement, composers want to make their audience think. Even so do we try to bring about in our readers some kind of mimesis of these quintessentially non-verbal phenomena: hate, shock, love, desire; the spin of a waltz step, the recoil of a gun; the weight of a baby, and the ache in your upper arms when it's gone.

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