From Literal to Concept

Language is an encyclopedia of ignorance. Words and concepts become established at a period of relative ignorance – which each period must be, compared to the subsequent period. Once the perceptions and concepts are frozen into the permanence of language, they control and limit our thinking on any subject because we are forced to use those concepts. – “I Am Right – You Are Wrong” by Edward de Bono, one of his 80+ books on creative thinking

How do you go about extracting concepts from literal experiences that are “stuck” into a already-assembled package?

Decades ago, before I had really learned to write, I was assigned the job of describing Marj Barstow’s new innovations about teaching Alexander Technique to groups. It was quite a difficult job for many reasons. Learning Alexander Technique occurred on many levels for a student – everyone was located along a continuum of the learning process – but this process of learning the subject was not linear…and everyone followed a different pathway.

To complicate this, my teacher was also quite literal, very specific and a superb editor. She was so much of an editor, she couldn’t write for herself. There was something wrong with everything because it didn’t contain the whole. So my job became to write, write, write and allow her to cut up whatever I had written to shreds…and go back and write some more, undaunted. To complicate matters, nobody else but the founder had written about his own driving conceptual & innovative principles, although everyone acknowledged their importance who had experienced the power of his teaching. It was a little like daring to describe what nobody else would touch.

Since I knew that compiling was a much easier job than the simplifying of concepts that I really needed, I started out by collecting selected “impressions” my teacher’s students had written to her. There were interesting quotes from people that I selected, assembled and grouped so they “flowed” in topic. The sequence of the topics were arranged to match my teacher’s introductory presentation sequence – because they had to posses some sequence. At the time, it seemed to be an arbitrary selection of deciding what quote should follow the next. The learning process and application of the skills of Alexander Technique was so subjectively circular. What organization would be best for introductory teaching?

My attempts were widely distributed among her students for feedback. The acknowledgment came back from her more experienced students: the sequence I stumbled on was the same one they had been effectively using in action to teach others. So, now I had a sequence to present content (that I had arranged so “arbitrarily”) and it had turned out to be in agreement with what others who did not write had learned.

Now I was ready to write a “concept synopsis” where each topic changed into the next. To simulate the out-of-sequence form of learning, I split the conceptual chapter headings from the raw quotes and added some experiments for examples. The idea of a tri-sectioned book emerged to allow the information to be read out of sequence as well as in sequence.

the cookbook style thing, divided in three separate books bound together into one book was funny to read in practice. It frustrated people who wanted to read it in sequence.

So – that was how I took one very complex subject that didn’t have a conceptual organization and simplified it.

Hope that my story from my experience in Alexander Technique inspires for you how to extract concepts from literal experiences and express them successfully in words.

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