Kant: The hand is the window on to the mind.

Two centuries ago, Immanuel Kant casually remarked: “The hand is the window on to the mind.”

Modern science has sought to make good on this observation. Of all our limbs, the hands make the most varied movements, movements that can be controlled at will. Science has sought to show how these motions, plus the hand’s different ways of gripping and the sense of touch, affect the ways we think.

–Richard Sennet, author of The Craftsman
from “Labors of Love” an article in The Guardian Feb. 1, 2008

I’m in Seattle right now, working on a paper about the 3:15 Experiment as part of my doctoral field work. Danika Dinsmore and Bernadette Meyer started the Experiment in 1993 as a way to write in non-drug induced altered states of consciousness and to discover what it would be like to write collectively (at the same time) but individually (alone) to join in a collective consciousness. Experiment participants wake at 3:15am every night during the month of August to write in a hypnogogic/hypnopompic or “between sleeps” state.

At first, the Experiment was all women and by invitation. In 1999, Paul Nelson became the first male to participate in the experiment, and other men, including Tod McCoy who developed the website, followed. I was invited to join in 2001. All four of us, as well as Jen Hofer and others, have written almost every year since we joined the Experiment.

As this is the 20th anniversary of the Experiment, I came up on Saturday night in time to join the 12th Annual Allen Ginsberg Marathon which started at 8pm June 1 and continued until noon June 2. Danika Dinsmore, Tod McCoy, and I woke Marathon organizer Paul Nelson to talk about the experiment, read poems, and lead a writing exercise from 2:30-4am; we had an audience of about a dozen poets, some in chairs, some lying on the ground on carpets or wrapped in quilts.

At 3:15am, following our reading and a brief prompt by Danika, about 16 of us pulled out paper and a pen wrote. People could share their work or not; many of them did. Around 4am, Danika and I returned to Tod’s where we all had a glass of wine and talked about the evening–then slept for a few hours before we had a brunch to discuss the future of the 3:15 Experiment, followed by a Poets Living Room style open mic.

I bring this up because writing at 3:15am many of us have experienced how the hand is a window to the mind–and to the soul–almost a direct conduit from something within AND outside of us, that gets triggered by writing in the middle of the night.

Perhaps we grip the pen differently in the middle of the night.

Perhaps it is that we are clutching notebooks, writing in semi-darkness, huddled in the blankets, in the quiet of the middle of the night.

But there is something tangible there, something important about how our hands move on the page, and how our minds move, and how our souls are engaged.

This morning, Danika and I talked about writing by hand versus writing by keyboard.She told me that in 2006, the year her dad died,  her mind was processing the grief through her fingers, through her writing. in a semi-conscious recording in this hypnogogic/hypnopompic state, sometimes not even remembering what she wrote the night before or that she wrote at all). She suggests that that could be said for any and all of our 3:15am work–that it’s processing our days and our dreams. She too finds it fascinating that at 3:15am, the hand physically does this work of communication even as we are unaware of it.

When she is writing poetry, even when it’s not at 3:15am, Danika says she writes by hand. When she is writing prose, she goes directly to the keyboard–unless she is working something out.

Many years ago, I consciously transitioned from needing to draft almost everything in longhand first. One of the ways I did so was by writing emails to friends, and one friend in particular, early in the morning, when I was still in a hypnopompic state (moving from sleeping to waking) learning how to stay connected to my creative state, how my typing hands could be connected to my mind in the way that my writing hand is.

But there are still times when the keyboard seems to small, the screen too crowded, and I need the open space of paper and pen for the varied movements of my hands to roam.

As a college writing teacher and a writing coach, when I think of “The Writing Process” I usually think of a series of drafts and of ways to generate content and revise. But now I realize that the physical part of writing is also part of the process, an important part, a key element, making me curious about the physical, embodied experience of writing as well as the mental one. I wonder how different my writing process might be if the letters on my keyboard felt differently. What’s does an R feel like after all? Often, in my pre-writing stage, I can feel the words, what I am going to say in writing in my mouth–I can taste the “paper” –not what it would be printed on, but it is almost like I have swallowed it, it is inside me. ONce I have that feeling, I know that the piece is waiting to be written.

So–what’s YOUR writing process?

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3 comments on “Kant: The hand is the window on to the mind.”

  1. Thanks for instigating a conversation on this. Maybe my writing by keyboard is “construction” and my writing by hand is “deconstruction.” It’s definitely exploration. I only go to the keyboard when I know where I’m going (or think I know, as prose writers will tell you, sometimes characters lead us astray).

  2. Reblogged this on art predator and commented:

    Part of a series of blog posts about the 3:15 Experiment events in Seattle June 2, 2013.


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