Ensouling Language

Stephen Harrod Buhner’s Ensouling Language is more of a manifesto than a guide to writing nonfiction. His central argument through much of the book is that creative nonfiction has fallen on hard times — at least from an aesthetic point of view — due to the fact that the book industry and creative writing programs have done their best to codify, and thus to eviscerate, the genre. The trouble, according to Buhner, is that mainstream arbiters of quality crush imagination and passion by offering easily digested but largely useless bromides like “Show don’t tell,” “Use fewer adverbs,” or the less specific “Don’t give up.” Such advice misses the point, Buhner argues, because the real lesson writers need to learn is how to translate their deepest feelings to the printed page. Teaching this lesson, however, is easier said than done.

Much of Buhner’s advice about writing hinges on getting in touch with what he calls “the secret kinesis of things,” or the notion that all things have a kind of psychic “feel” to them. After asking the reader to select an object — a desk, for example, or a pen or a cup — Buhner instructs the reader to “Look at it carefully, note its shape, notice its color. Really look at it; let your visual sensing take it in. Let your eyes touch the thing as if they were fingers capable of extreme sensitivity of touch. Immerse yourself in seeing the thing that has caught your attention. Now, ask yourself, ‘How does it feel?’ ” Likewise, Buhner also exhorts writers to get in touch with the feel of certain words. Language that is saturated with feeling will, Buhner argues, serve as a bulwark against what he disparages as the “dispassionate writing” that is endemic to mainstream nonfiction.

To help writers gain an appreciation for the feel of words, Buhner offers a number of exercises in “piling up meaning behind the word like water behind a dam, in creating writing that is soaked in life force.” That much of his advice comes off as similarly mystical may prove frustrating to some writers, especially those who are less kinesthetically inclined. For readers and writers who are tired of hearing the same advice that writing instructors and editors have been handing down through the ages, however, Buhner’s mystical (some might say touchy-feely) approach to writing may well be what the doctor ordered.



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