Meeting the Minds – Dr. Reinekke Lengelle

Dr. Reinekke Lengelle teaches “Writing the Self” and “Narrative Possibilities” for the MAIS program at Athabasca University. She also teaches for The Hague University where she has developed “Career Writing” – writing used to foster the development of a career identity. She is also a poet and playwright. You can find her peer-reviewed publications here:

You use music to assist students in writing. How does this process work to improve writing for students (and yourself)?
I work mostly with graduate students. I teach writing for personal development ? how to use narrative to become more aware and develop one’s identity. My students, in part, use music during learning. The idea is for them to start listening in to the music. I am not a music expert, but I can tell you my personal experience with music, and the students and their experiences with improving their writing.

I teach both online and face-to-face. There is a method that I use to help students elaborate on their writing and it’s called “proprioceptive writing”. It was designed by two people, who were tenure-track English professors; they left the university and started their own institute.

They are [Linda Trichter] Metcalf, and [Tobin] Simon. Their method is a 20-minute writing exercise where you listen to Baroque music or, maybe, Indian ragas, and you write about any topic that comes to mind.

But the idea is to listen for what wants to be said, and to really pay attention to what is written on the page. Those are the first two rules of the writing exercise, and the third thing is to ask what is called the proprioceptive question, which is, “What do I mean by?” So, somebody will write “I was really frustrated at work today.” And they then write, “What do I mean by frustrated? Well, I really meant exhausted. And what do I mean by exhausted? Well, I actually meant that I have not been getting enough sleep lately.” Somebody else will have a completely different definition of frustrated, or exhausted. So, the idea is to unpack the words that we generally use and get to the heart of what we mean to say.

Now, where music comes into it? Music in the background creates a kind of flow for students so they actually stay in their writing more effectively, and the choice of music is based on the heart rate. So, it’s in tune with the body. It, sort of, helps you get into the body, and it helps you stay grounded at the desk or wherever you are writing, so that you can actually access more of your thoughts and uncover and map those because a lot of problems with writing and teaching writing is that students can’t connect what they’re thinking (or could potentially think) and translate that to the page.

There is interesting research out of the University of Toronto, the writing teacher and researcher, Guy Allen has written that, and found that, students cannot really learn the expository essay very well directly. If you teach them the expository essay first (or the position paper, say) they struggle. But if you teach them the personal essay first and work with them on editing that very well so they really express something that feels true about their lived experience, they can usually transition very well to writing an expository essay. So, that’s the interesting part. The idea is to use the music to go more deeply into the writing of personal matters, so that you start to learn how to think, and that’s what writing is, is to be able to think and be able to put into words what you’re thinking (and feeling). And then as you begin to see that on page, to think again and to decide if that’s what you really meant to say. It becomes a recursive process.

There’s an undercurrent with what you’re saying, where the words that people typically use for something aren’t necessarily what they mean to say.
That’s right. That’s right, exactly. So, there’s an exploration that goes a bit deeper there.

The music really functions as a way of keeping you focused and anchored, and in a way that is connected to the body. The body can almost tell you if a phrase sounds right or not! Writing is a whole body experience.

You’re teaching online and in-class.
Yes. If I am online, the students get the CDs as part of a course package that is sent home to them. The Yo-Yo Ma cello suites is generally what they get, and when I am in the class I will either have a smart board or a set of speakers on my laptop that I’ll use to put the music on. And they’ll start that exercise, the students online, the graduate students, they write about five times a week. They are asked to write five times a week using the proprioceptive method with music.

Yo-Yo Ma, though, he’s a classical cellist. He seems to restrict himself to Mozart and a bit of Bach?
Yes, he plays the Bach unaccompanied cello suite.

Is classical the only genre that seems to provide these benefits?
Not, not really, it’s instrumental, mostly. In recommending it, the creators of the proprioceptive method specify music that is in tune with the body’s rhythms. So, I’m not sure you can write as successfully with tango music in the background! I have written with various music in the background, and I think if I were writing a very active scene for a play for instance, then I probably would enjoy some tango music, but for the more introspective type of writing that we’re doing in class, I think that the music that has that quieter rhythm is better.

I would wonder what the research would show in terms of assistance to writing if one was doing Classical versus Baroque versus Hip-Hop versus Blues versus Tango versus Waltz music, and the ways in which it helps writing, or even the ways in which it helps particular styles of writing more or less.
I don’t know. I don’t know if there is any research in that area.

In an interview I was asked to do recently, I talked about listening to music while I wrote my dissertation, and how that helped me, and like I say, I am not a real expert or connoisseur of any kind of music. You know what I like, I like what I like, but I am not an expert by any stretch of the imagination.

Any coda statements on your own experiences with this that might be of use to students, undergraduate and graduate, at Athabasca? Thematic advice?
You know, some people really do love to write in silence. They say, “No, no, no, I have to write in silence.” I say, “Okay, that’s what you need.” And I trust that. I say, “you could experiment, if you’re feeling open.”

For instance, I wrote with headphones on. I wrote to Chopin. I wrote most of my Ph.D. to Chopin. It kept me focused because it wasn’t distracting. I like the piano myself. It kept me on track, and also all ambient noise ? my kids running around wherever, it kept that from disturbing me as well. I really felt that the music actually helped create more beauty to the language. It was harder to write a dissonant sentence with beautiful music playing.

If you write a lot, the written word?there’s a rhythm, a tone, a lot of emotional undercurrents that come with finding one’s voice, and when one gets better at what one means, those things tend to come out more often in the prose, especially – it’s better too – because it’s not the same as everyone else’s because it is your own voice.
That’s right. That’s right. That’s the point of proprioception writing too. It is to cultivate your own voice (or voices!) What is it that you’re really feeling and thinking? We have to access that. We have to gain or regain access to that ? that’s moving beyond a lot of censors that we grew up with, you know?

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