thoughts on a writer’s perception

Before there is meaning, there has to occur some personal act of vision.

– Eudora Welty, “Words into Fiction”

A few years ago, a student brought up this question: Is there a distinctive style of perception that underlies the creation of art through writing? It had not occurred to me to try to trace the process of writing all the way back to the moment of perceiving something, which must happen before there can be anything to write about. All I can say about this is what’s true for me, and for some writers who have strongly influenced me. I’m not sure I can or should generalize about all writers, but I can try to describe one distinctive kind of relationship with the reality around oneself, one notion of reality that feels intimately connected to writing.

Some habits of perception that support writing are not particularly distinctive; writers share them with carpenters, with fishermen, with masters of all sorts of crafts. I’m talking about habits of mind like being on the alert for details, close observation, curiosity, ability to get intrigued, readiness to be engrossed.

A writer, or any kind of artist, needs to be receptive to strangeness. You need to be willing and able to see the unexpected, to put aside your habitual expectations about the world around you. Rather than perceiving what you “know” (i.e., assume) is out there, you perceive with the assumption that you don’t know all that is out there. All these things could be said with equal validity of scientists.

What is distinctive, I think, about the mindset of art-making is that it involves a willingness to believe and assume that everything may mean or say more than what it functionally, factually presents on its surface. In an art-making frame of mind, I perceive that the world contains naturally occurring metaphor. This is a bit like the Transcendentalist attitude – reading the word of God in the book of Nature, assuming that non-literal meaning resides in everyday things – though in my case, it is not connected to any religion.

Another way to put this is that the outer world harbors an inner world. We are surrounded by an outward, visible physical reality, and any story that’s worth a damn must create the experience of such a reality for its reader; at the same time, there is an invisible inwardness to this reality as well, just as there is an invisible inwardness to oneself. The inwardness of the world of a story, I would say, is what ultimately makes it worth reading.


It may seem that I’ve strayed from the topic of perception and wandered instead into talking about the imagination, but I am not so sure these are two entirely separate functions.

If you look at how our perceptions come about, in a quite literal, biological, neurological way, a major lesson to be learned is that our perceptions are always a construct of our own. Incoming stimuli from the outside world are obviously selected and limited by the characteristics of our sense organs, but that’s only the beginning of why we never are perceiving the thing-in-itself. Thanks to recent brain imaging techniques, neuroscientists can give a more and more detailed account of the elaborate processing outside stimuli undergo before they become the perceptions of which we are aware, and from which we make meaning. For example, Walter J. Freeman’s book How Brains Make Up Their Minds shows how raw sense data are used in the construction of patterns of neural activity, after which they’re discarded; what becomes perception, thereafter, is neural patterns that have been constructed within the brain, in accordance with the human brain’s own way of functioning. No forms from without are being taken into our awareness; no copy of the outside world exists within us.

Moreover, Freeman argues that it’s not the case that we first perceive the world around us in some relatively raw, unaltered way, then process it in our minds; rather our perceptions in the first place are already influenced by mental processing such as intentions. Paying attention, focusing attention, is purposeful, intentional, bound up with what the person paying attention wants. There is always a personal frame around perception, and a truly objective reality forever eludes our grasp.

It may seem intuitively obvious that we act in response to what we perceive, but current neuroscience suggests that what goes on is almost the reverse: perception itself is shaped by a determination to act. Intention – orientation toward a goal, whether it’s tiny and immediate or the fulfillment of a lifelong ambition – sets the stage for perception through a brain activity known as “preafference.” The word afferent, when used to describe neural impulses, means they are coming in toward the brain; preafference, then, is what prepares for the incoming signals. The brain predicts sensory experiences that will occur as a result of intentional action and renders itself ready to pick those particular sights, smells and so forth out of the onrush of stimuli.

So before perception occurs, it is framed and guided by an intention to act. The brain is constantly forming and testing a hypothesis which, if it were translated into language, would take the form of “If I do this, then such-and-such will be the result.” Perception, supporting the continual testing of this hypothesis, is an action that has an intent. A writer in an art-making frame of mind, like anyone else, perceives under the sign of her particular mindset. I would propose, on the basis of Freeman’s work, that a certain type of imagining is a factor in perception for anyone at any time, but it seems nearly self-evident that because the writer is oriented toward use of the imagination as a lifelong goal, the intention to imagine is a distinctive part of her act of perceiving.


An ancient maxim of Hinduism is “thou art That” – in Sanskrit, tat tvam asi. It means something like “the self is the whole, even though the self is only a part of the whole.” A similar thought may be intended in the Christian saying “The kingdom of God is within you.”

I believe an artist’s perception has something to do with this ancient notion of the relationship between the individual being and a greater whole. Virginia Woolf, in her autobiographical work “A Sketch of the Past,” recounts some potent realizations of that relationship that occurred in her childhood, and she attributes her being a writer to her ability to perceive the world in this way.

The second instance was . . . in the garden at St Ives. I was looking at the flower bed by the front door; “That is the whole” I said. I was looking at a plant with a spread of leaves; and it seemed suddenly plain that the flower itself was a part of the earth; that a ring enclosed what was the flower; and that was the real flower; part earth; part flower. It was a thought I put away as being likely to be very useful to me later.

She describes such moments in childhood as “sudden violent shock,” often accompanied by emotional distress, but says

. . . though I still have the peculiarity that I receive these sudden shocks, they are now always welcome; after the first surprise, I always feel instantly that they are particularly valuable. And so I go on to suppose that the shock-receiving capacity is what makes me a writer. I hazard the explanation that a shock is at once in my case followed by the desire to explain it. I feel that I have had a blow . . . it is or will become a revelation of some order; it is a token of some real thing behind appearances; and I make it real by putting it into words. (my added emphasis)

Woolf separates two steps that go to make up writing: there is a first step of perceiving, and a second of actually writing words. What’s crucial here is the definition of what is perceived: “some real thing behind appearances.” Clearly it is the instant of seeing that “real thing” that supplies both some essential material for writing and the drive to write. Yet notice that the “real thing” must be made “real by putting it into words.” This thing we call reality is not only the product of our human perceptions, but depends on consensus: if we don’t hold it in common with at least some others, it isn’t reality. The way we achieve that consensus is through our shared use of language. The presence of the “real thing” is intimated by the emotional “shock,” but what is present remains obscure until she finds some words for it.

It is only by putting it into words that I make it whole; this wholeness means that it has lost its power to hurt me; it gives me, perhaps because by doing so I take away the pain, a great delight to put the severed parts together. Perhaps this is the strongest pleasure known to me.

Apparently for Virginia Woolf, the world had suffered a kind of dismemberment; its reality, behind appearances, could therefore be terrifying, crushing. The pain of not-wholeness was clearly very intense for her – think of her eventual suicide – and the need to put together the severed parts was equally strong. Words could make them into a whole again; doing that by writing was a way of saving her own life.

It [the pleasure] is the rapture I get when in writing I seem to be discovering what belongs to what; making a scene come right; making a character come together. From this I reach what I might call a philosophy; at any rate it is a constant idea of mine; that behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we – I mean all human beings – are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art.

I would say that this “constant idea” of the pattern behind appearances, or the idea the “the whole world is a work of art,” is one description of the intention or mindset that frames a writer’s perceptions and makes them what they are. Woolf goes on to say, “we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself. And I see this when I have a shock.”

This strikes me as “thou art That” all over again. The truth-of-the-world is constantly coming into being through all of us. The truth is just as much in here, inside us, as out there around us. It doesn’t need to be caused; it already is; it is everywhere and everything, including us – though only in rare moments can we perceive this.


This same notion of pattern, and a similar relationship to it, comes out in Eudora Welty’s essay on the novels of Henry Green (“Henry Green, Novelist of the Imagination”):

. . . his delight, his hope implied, his deepest feeling, seems to abide in indelibility in the face of chaos, and through his novels, in every one, a shape for indelibility is what he has made.

And this, discovering a shape or pattern to some set of experiences, is the way we all take of imagining what life is up to. I think the novelist through the long act of writing evolves his pattern, and it is this resulting and unpredictable thing, which was intuitive but discernible only through art, that is impressed, without announcement, on the mind of the reader.

(The Eye of the Story, p. 26)

Welty’s understanding of our position in the world, like Woolf’s, is that one creates “in the face of chaos,” and that what one creates is a vision of order: a shape or pattern. “We all” (not just writers) share this imaginative task, but writers undertake it in a specific way: they intuit a pattern as perhaps we all do, but they make it discernible through their art, first to themselves and then to their readers – just as Woolf made wholeness real by finding the words. The vision of pattern meets a deep need in us, Welty seems to be saying, for some kind of “indelibility,” something that stands up to the threat of chaos once and for all.


Here is another passage from Woolf that gives strong hints of what a writer’s perceptions are like, for her:

What is meant by “reality”? It would seem to be something very erratic, very undependable – now to be found in a dusty road, now in a scrap of newspaper in the street, now in a daffodil in the sun. It lights up a group in a room and stamps some casual saying. It overwhelms one walking home beneath the stars and makes the silent world more real than the world of speech – and then there it is again in an omnibus in the uproar of Piccadilly. Sometimes, too, it seems to dwell in shapes too far away for us to discern what their nature is. But whatever it touches, it fixes and makes permanent.

This “making permanent,” which sounds to me very much like Welty’s “indelibility,” comes about through an erratic and undependable process that is out of the writer’s control; its workings are impossible to predict and yet the vision has permanence.

That is what remains over when the skin of the day has been cast into the hedge; that is what is left of past time and of our loves and hates. Now the writer, as I think, has the chance to live more than other people in the presence of this reality. It is his business to find it and collect it and communicate it to the rest of us. So at least I infer from reading Lear or Emma or La Recherche du Temps Perdu. For the reading of these books seems to perform a curious couching operation on the senses; one sees more intensely afterwards; the world seems bared of its covering and given an intenser life.

(A Room of One’s Own, p. 110)



I must carry this one step further, at the risk of seeming to take it all back. I’m not saying that the “real thing behind appearances” is an objectively existing fact; that would be totally contradictory, considering that I’ve already argued we’re unable to perceive the thing-in-itself, or objective reality. No, the existence of and the search for “the real thing behind appearances” is a commitment that writers and other artists make; it is a belief system and a way of life. I strongly suspect that scientists make this same commitment in totally different terms, and attempt to ground their search for the “real thing” in data, to the point where at times it looks as though it has actually been found. One could argue, then, that science imagines something even more audacious than imagination itself; but that is a topic for another day.

The commitment, the belief system that I’m trying to describe here is not, in my opinion, something that writers choose. It’s something they feel chosen by, that they can’t help. One is driven by an intuition that there is something more – more than we’re able to perceive, more than we have yet experienced, more perhaps than seems possible for a human creature to understand. Something very peculiar about human beings is that we are able to imagine states of being, ourselves being some ways, that can never possibly come to pass. How can we live with imagining such things? Why should we have such a capacity in the first place and what in the world are we to do with it? These are mysteries that drive writers to create something from nothing, with words.


You can download this as a Word document here: A Writer’s Perception