Ensouling Language: On the Art of Nonfiction and the Writer's Life

Ensouling Language: On the Art of Nonfiction and the Writer's Life

by Stephen Harrod Buhner
Ensouling Language: On the Art of Nonfiction and the Writer's Life

Ensouling Language: On the Art of Nonfiction and the Writer's Life

by Stephen Harrod Buhner


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The first comprehensive work on nonfiction as an art form

• Shows how nonfiction, especially how-to and self-help, can take on the same power and luminosity as great fiction

• Develops processes to reliably induce the dreaming state from which all writing comes

• Teaches the skill of analogical thinking that is the core perceptual tool for writers

• Explores the subtle techniques of powerful writing, from inducing associational dreaming in the reader, to language symmetry, sound patterning, foreshadowing, feeling flow, and more

Approaching writing as a sacred art, Stephen Buhner explores the core of the craft: the communication of deep meaning that feeds not just the mind but also the soul of the reader. Tapping into the powerful archetypes within language, he shows how to enrich your writing by following “golden threads” of inspiration while understanding the crucial invisibles essential to the art of both fiction and nonfiction: how to craft language with feeling and vision, employ altered states of mind to access the writing trance, clear your work by recognizing the powerful sway of clichéd thinking and hidden baggage, and intentionally generate duende—that physical/emotional response to art that gives you chills, opens up unrecognized aspects of reality, or simply resonates in your soul. Covering some very practical aspects of writing such as layering and word symmetry, the author also explores the inner world of publishing—what you really will encounter when you become a writer. He then shows how to develop a powerful and engaging book proposal based on understanding the proposal as a work of fiction—the map is never the territory, nor is the proposal the book that it will become.

This book, written using all the techniques discussed within it, offers a powerful, experiential journey into the heart of writing. It does for nonfiction what John Gardner’s books on writing did for fiction. It is one of the most significant works on writing published in our time.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781594773822
Publisher: Inner Traditions/Bear & Company
Publication date: 08/23/2010
Edition description: Original
Pages: 480
Sales rank: 725,393
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Stephen Harrod Buhner (1952–2022) was an Earth poet and the award-winning author of many books on nature, indigenous cultures, the environment, and herbal medicine. He comes from a long line of healers including Leroy Burney, Surgeon General of the United States under Eisenhower and Kennedy, and Elizabeth Lusterheide, a midwife and herbalist who worked in rural Indiana in the early nineteenth century. The greatest influence on his work, however, was his great-grandfather C.G. Harrod who primarily used botanical medicines, also in rural Indiana, when he began his work as a physician in 1911.

Stephen's work has appeared or been profiled in publications throughout North America and Europe including Common Boundary, Apotheosis, Shaman's Drum, The New York Times, CNN, and Good Morning America. www.gaianstudies.org

Read an Excerpt

Ensouling Language

On the Art of Nonfiction and the Writer's Life
By Stephen Harrod Buhner

Inner Traditions

Copyright © 2010 Stephen Harrod Buhner
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9781594773822

Chapter Eight
Following Golden Threads

I feel ready to follow even the most trivial hunch.
--William Stafford

The term “golden thread” was coined by William Blake but developed as a theme in writing by the poet William Stafford, someone whose poetry I like very much.

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. Light pours through a window in a particular way, a person moves their body slightly, you enter a summer field and experience it as a property of mind. Something inside those things brushes against you. . . . Ripples flow up from the depths of the unconscious and touch your conscious mind. A particular feeling envelops you and you stop and focus your whole attention on what is right in front of you. Notitia. The touch of a golden thread.

You can begin to follow it then 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 lift your nose to the slight breeze, a delicate touching. Seeking. Ah, there. Your feet move of their own accord as you trail what you have sensed through the meadow in front of you. You twist and turn slightly, following where the scent leads, adjusting your movements to the rise and fall of the land through which you walk. Following the scent home. Finding the core that gives rise to it. Following tiny impulses through the meadow of language.

It begins with the simplest of things: A tiny, odd feeling in a social interaction or elephants walking, holding each other’s tail. Anything can become a door into deeper worlds. Stafford comments that “the artist is not so much a person endowed with the luck of vivid, eventful days, as a person for whom any immediate encounter leads by little degrees to the implications always present for anyone anywhere.” Golden threads touch all of us, every day, but most often only artists and children take the time to follow them.

The initial touch of a golden thread is always attended by a specific kind of feeling. Experience will bring trust in that touch and the feeling that accompanies it, familiar recognition at its emergence. You feel the touch of the thing, it captures your attention, then you work to encapsulate it in language. Working to describe it, of course, causes you to step back slightly from the experience itself. 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.

You look at the lines, focus on them with the whole of you, ask yourself “How does it feel?” and a certain emotional tone emerges. Then you step back inside the thread itself and feel it. Then you compare that feeling to the feeling of your written words. You are going for congruency, for identity.

You can get an experience of how this works from a simple exercise. Say you are sitting at a table. Place something on the table in front of you, perhaps a cup or a pen. Look at it intently, at its placing, its orientation with the other things on the table, its relation to you in space. Anchor that location in your memory and experience. Now . . . move it six or seven inches, to a different location on the tabletop.

The goal is to move it back to the exact spot it was in originally. But .. . do it this way: first, move it halfway back and then ask yourself, is this in the same spot? Notice the feeling that arises within you when you ask yourself that question. There will be some sort of uncomfortable feeling, a lack of rightness. Some part of you will say no, but it sends the negation as a particular kind of feeling. It’s not in words. Yet, you know at a deep level something is wrong. This isn’t it. You feel twitchy. It’s wrong. Now, move it a bit closer to the original spot and ask yourself again if this is the right spot. No, it’s not. That part of you is still telling you that something is not right.

Now, finally, move it back to the location in which it began and ask yourself, is it the same? The feeling that comes now is specific. There is a sense of rightness, a kind of yes occurs. Instead of an uncomfortable feeling, there is instead a good one, a kind of internal joy or sense of rightness. . . .

When a writer compares a written line to the experience the line is intended to describe an identical process takes place. You write the line. Then, you touch it and compare it to the golden thread you are following. If it is not right, there is a sense of wrongness, an uncomfortable feeling. So, you change the line. You feel into the meanings that are held in the words. You feel how the words sit with each other. You listen to and feel the sound patterns of each individual word and the sentences they create together. And you make slight adjustments, shifting meaning by altering the container. Micromolecular adjustments. The tiniest of shifts. Now, how does it feel? . . . Eventually, a sense of rightness occurs. A yes comes from the deep self. Ah. This one is done.


Excerpted from Ensouling Language by Stephen Harrod Buhner Copyright © 2010 by Stephen Harrod Buhner. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Before Buying This Book xi

I The Touch of a Golden Thread

1 The Bookman 2

2 The Secret All Beginning Writers Want to Know 12

II Inhabiting the Word

3 On the Art of Nonfiction 22

4 You Must Begin with Something Deeper in the Self 35

5 "The Road of Feeling" 51

6 "It Burns the Blood Like Powdered Glass" 62

7 The Skill of Duende 79

8 Following Golden Threads 90

III Dreaming and the Journey to the Imaginal

9 "A Certain Adjustment of Consciousness" 115

10 "The Secret Kinesis of Things" 126

11 Aisthesis 138

12 Synaesthetic Writing and the Beginnings of Analogical Thought 149

13 Analogical Thinking 166

14 The Dreamer and the "Secret Room where Dreams Prowl" 183

15 The Imaginal Realm 209

16 Poesis 223

IV On Technique

The First Draft, Revision, Clariv, and Refinement

17 The First Draft and the Beginnings of Revision 233

18 Problems and Further Revisioning 252

19 Clichéd Thinking and Killing the Genuine 264

20 Hidden Baggage 284

21 Some Subtle Refinements of the Art 302

22 Grammar Nazis and Editors-from-Hell 346

23 Some Final Words on the Writing Life 363

Epilogue 375

The Appendices-On the Business of Writing

Appendix A The People in Publishing and the Business End of the Profession 380

Appendix B The Art of the Book Proposal (Training in the Big Lie) 407

Appendix C Further Reading, Resources, and Recommendations 425

Notes 433

Bibliography 448

Index 457

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Ensouling Language is Stephen Harrod Buhner at his most spellbinding and enchanted. Every sentence is infused with a livingness that is rare in today's nonfiction. More than simply a book about writing, it is about wielding power—and responsibility—of language itself. Stephen encourages us to breathe the Breath of Life into the words we write, to call forth such a deep richness of meaning that it transmits feeling from the writer to the reader like some otherworldly telepathy. If you can feel you can write, write in this way, turning otherwise empty leaden words into golden Ensouling Language."

"Buhner's book describes how any writer, even one writing about, say, adobe walls, can achieve the sense of expansion—of traveling into larger worlds—that has always marked the best art. And although the subject is nonfiction, what Buhner has to say applies to serious writing of any kind."

“The most subversive book on writing I have ever encountered—and the most important.”

“If Lao-tzu and Emerson could have a dialogue on writing, they would welcome the company of this remarkable book.”

“Stephen Harrod Buhner has produced a manifesto and guide to bring American writing back from the cages of the academy and release the power of language into the streets and wildernesses where the wild things live. If you love to read, if you like to write, you have finally come to the right place.”

“Stephen Buhner’s Ensouling Language invites you to sit down for 23 cups of coffee and talk about the mystic journey of the writer, the solitary pilgrim, the witness yearning to tell the world indelible stories that cannot be known by any other voice than yours. If you are a teacher, a writer, a friend of a writer, this book will offer companionship in this life quest. This book harvests lessons from a writer and helpless lover of books who is old in experience but young in perennial devotion.”

Ensouling Language is a fierce and generous meditation on the writer’s life. Fierce, because Stephen Buhner goes right at prevailing commercial and academic assumptions about literature. For him, writing is above all a portal into vividness, compassion, and discovery. Generous, because he weaves his own quest as a writer into his reflections about the art of nonfiction. Books, in both the reading and the writing, have absorbed him for a lifetime. And the connections he conveys here are always arresting, sometimes extravagant in their intensity, and very often funny. As a writer and a teacher, I’ve learned more from Buhner’s book than from anything I’ve read about writing since the works of John Gardner and William Stafford. I’m truly grateful to him for having written it.”

“I can’t easily imagine a more useful book on the craft of writing. Covering all the steps—from glimpsing a first, furtive idea foraging in the mind’s brambles to tracking that idea and coaxing it to unfurl on the page, from finding the right words to securing the right publisher—this volume also, in the process, transforms your take on the universe. For Buhner brings all his inspired lunacy to bear, illustrating his passionate insights with lively stories and poems and with glimmering nuggets from other authors, fashioning this instructive, how-to book into a breathing compendium of word magic.”

"Provocation is Buhner's mission in this unusually passionate and delving writer's guide. The author of books about plants, healing, indigenous culture, and the environment, Buhner not only tackles the art of writing with conviction, vigor, expertise, and a touch of devilry but also outspokenly advocates for the maligned form of "genre nonfiction.". . . Buhner sagely covers technical matters and the pragmatic business of book proposals and such, albeit not without lambasting corporate publishing. But his is a heroic view of writing."

“Stephen Buhner writes with passion and perception about the entire range of the writer’s experience. He shows us in detail how to write, issues of craft and art, but also how a writer lives—the commitment, the dreaming, the business, the way a writer uncovers secrets on many levels, even how a writer loves and hates.”

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