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Meaning-making and the Power of Writing

This essay originally appeared as the first chapter of Chelsea Rose Odhner's undergraduate thesis entitled, “Write to Heal: An Analysis of Writing Therapy in the Treatment of Gynecological Cancer,”; completed in 2008. Chapter One, included here, dissects the elements in the process of writing and contrasts these with the process involved in other forms of communication. -editor.

Among all forms of language, the written word has particular power. With respect to the styles of writing in the Word, Emanuel Swedenborg (2007) explains that the people of the earliest church1 “expressed themselves in words representing higher things [and that] they also spun those words into a kind of narrative thread to lend them greater life” (§ 66). Spinning the words into a kind of narrative thread gave the people “the fullest pleasure possible.” It is unclear whether Swedenborg’s use of the term “earliest church” here refers to a time during the earliest church that had the written word or not. In either case, the key point is that the narratives involved a composing process whether written or otherwise. If it is true in general that some greater life can be imparted to language by being woven into a narrative thread, how could writing serve as an optimal medium for this process? By investigating qualities unique to writing as a form of language we may be able to develop an understanding of how language could acquire greater life by being woven through writing. Does language acquire greater life by being written because the process of writing serves as a medium for making meaning?

This investigation will start by setting a foundation of the origin of writing using the revelation of Emanuel Swedenborg: we can uncover some inherent qualities of language by taking a look at core qualities of spiritual language. In the work Heaven and Hell (2000) we are told that “the natural world, including everything in it, arises and is sustained from the spiritual world” (§ 106) and this takes place through the agency of correspondences. Correspondence is the “relationship between spiritual and physical things, and the means of their union” (Swedenborg 2003a, § 374). Presumably then, it is by correspondence that natural language has its origin from spiritual language. From birth we all have a spiritual language as well as a natural language within us: this innate spiritual language is “in the deeper part of our intellect” (Swedenborg 2000, § 243). Indeed, the human mind is actually spiritual in nature, as we are told in Divine Love and Wisdom (Swedenborg 2003a): “our mind is our spirit, and the spirit is a person, with the body being a covering through which the mind or spirit senses and acts in the world” (§ 386).

Like human language to people in the world, spiritual language to people in the spiritual world is differentiated into words and is spoken audibly and heard audibly because angels have spiritual bodies that contain all the same organs and parts that physical bodies have (Swedenborg 2000, § 235). Spiritual language is said to flow from angels’ affection and thought (Swedenborg 2000, § 240). Unique to spiritual language, an angel’s love and wisdom are united in speech and this fills their language with such wisdom that an angel can express in a single word what natural language cannot say in a thousand words (Swedenborg 2000, § 239). Simply put, the speech of angels has such depth on account of this direct flowing from their affection. Even so, and this is a vital point for this study, Swedenborg says that there are also written materials in heaven (Swedenborg 2000, § 258). Further, writing enables angels to express many things they cannot say in words (Swedenborg 2000, § 260). Therefore heavenly writing is so powerful that it outperforms a spoken language that is a thousand times more efficient than ours. Does it follow from this that earthly writing does things that earthly spoken language cannot do?

A frequently heard proposition is that the power of writing is in its ability to help the writer create meaning out of an otherwise overwhelming miscellany of experience. We are constantly coming into being. As explained in Swedenborg’s (2003b) work Divine Providence, existence is not on account of “something that just happened at its creation...Maintenance is constant creation, just as enduring is a constant coming into being” (§ 3). There is perpetual creation; the Lord creates us and then sustains what is created. Perpetual creation means we are constantly sitting before the flood of numerous new experiences that immediately replace the moments just previous. The moments quickly become past experiences. If we are to accept and appreciate life as it passes we need to acknowledge and classify experience: we need to give order to our experience so that we can extract meaning.

Writing can be a thread that sews together seemingly disparate occurrences, resulting in a tapestry of meaning. This sentiment that writing is a medium for making sense of our perpetual coming into being is expressed by Erich Auerbach (1953, p 549), the well-known twentieth century scholar and critic of literature. In his essay, “The Brown Stocking” from Mimesis, we read that “we are constantly endeavoring to give meaning and order to our lives in the past, the present, and the future, to our surroundings, the world in which we live; with the result that our lives appear in our own conception as total entities.” Here Auerbach is writing with respect to modern writers (Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Marcel Proust, and others), though his thought can apply to any individual’s experience. Auerbach (1953, p 548) states that these modern writers “prefer the exploitation of random everyday events.” It is through this exploitation that writers try to make sense of the continuum of existence. In the midst of an ever-changing life we are pressured to interpret life at a very fast pace. By exploiting a random moment, writing becomes the scythe with which we cut through the surplus details of experience to clear our view of the essential components from which we derive meaning.

But how does the exercise of writing help us to accomplish the task of constructing meaning from our life experiences? Analysis of aspects unique to writing as a language medium may shed some light on how it can function to help one create meaning. David Crystal2, a professor of linguistics, considers there to be four mediums of language: speech, writing, computer-mediated communication, and sign language (Crystal 2005, p 159). Sign language and electronic communication, although extremely interesting mediums of language, are beyond the scope of this discussion. A comparison between spoken and written language will suffice to uncover aspects of writing that make it a unique medium for the process of giving meaning to our experience.

Essential differences between writing and speech are found in the act of production, and the resulting product. There is greater effort involved in producing writing as compared to speech, and the final product in writing is space-bound whereas in speech it is time-bound. These differences have significant consequences. It is not that one form of language is better than the other; one cannot substitute for the other. As elucidated by Walter Ong (1982, p 8) in Orality and Literacy, writing is inextricably tied to oral language and “written texts all have to be related somehow, directly or indirectly, to the world of sound.” Rather, here we are contrasting spoken and written language in order to reveal underlying features that may make writing an effective means for creating meaning out of our life experiences.

In terms of production, writing is a slow process through which our thoughts are given order. Writing involves delay and effort; writing requires us to formulate a thought and then transcribe it to paper (Elbow 1985, p 284). Speech, on the other hand, has a more spontaneous production (Crystal 2005, p 149). On account of the effort involved in writing, the act of writing requires more care than speech. Janet Emig (1997, p 10), an authority in composition theory, explains that this is because when writing, one engages the three main ways that we represent and deal with actuality: enactive, iconic, and representational. Writing involves motor control: by the use of the hand, writing is enactive. The hand must also be coordinated with the eye; the eyes are engaged by seeing something depicted and in this way writing is iconic. Writing is also representational. It requires psychological processing of the symbolic representations of words and letters. The mind must orchestrate each of these activities, making writing a slower, more effortful process than speech.

As the production of each language medium is unique, it follows that the results have distinguishing characteristics as well. Comparing the products of writing and speech, we find as just mentioned that writing is space-bound whereas speech is time-bound (Crystal 2005, p 149). The temporality of speech gives it a “spontaneity and rapidity… [that] minimizes the chance of complex preplanning” while the spatiality of writing promotes careful organization and intricate structure (Crystal 2005, p 149). The process of writing literally gives the contents of our minds more order. Immediately, thoughts are given a kind of order they did not have initially when in the mind: they are confined in terms of grammar as well as in terms of a necessary cohesion and coherence of content. When writing a text, versus scribbling a note or writing random word associations, it is incumbent that the “sentences display some kind of mutual dependence” (Crystal 2005, p 262). The concepts within each sentence must have a relevance to each other such that taken together a reader can “make plausible inferences about underlying meaning” (Crystal 2005, p 262). In this way, writing requires us to clarify our thoughts and give them order.

The structure and organization given to writing by means of its spatiality are a consequence of the visual dimension of writing. This extra dimension in writing is essentially what allows for thoughts to be clarified and given more order (Elbow 1985, p 288). In speaking there is usually a present audience, even just one person, who is listening to what is being said. In the case of writing there is only immediate feedback insofar as the writer engages the role of reader as well. What is written on the page is a reflection of the writer’s mind. This reflection allows the writer to analyze visually her thoughts and be her own editor. The opportunity of editing afforded to the writer on account of the spatiality of writing is essential to how the process of writing becomes a process of making meaning.

So how do we write? We find that writing cannot be reduced to a simple linear scheme. In other words, the process of writing does not have “a strict plan-write-revise sequence” (Perl 1980, p 364). According to Sondra Perl (1980, p 364), a professor of English specializing in composition theory and rhetoric, writing is a recursive process in which

    writers return to substrands of the overall process, or subroutines (short successions of steps that yield results on which the writer draws in taking the next set of steps); writers use these to keep the process moving forward…[i]n other words, recursiveness in writing implies that there is a forward-moving action that exists by virtue of a backward-moving action.

In a way, it could be said that the composition process consists of three steps forward and two steps back. It is made up of repeating cycles of thinking of what one wants to write, writing a little, pausing, rereading, and changing what one has written to more fully capture what one intends, which feeds into another round of the cycle. The alternating phases of the composing process boil down to three major aspects: prewriting, writing, and editing (Perl 1997, p 31).

In a study of “The Composing Processes of Unskilled College Writers” Perl (1997, p 32) observed that when not given any specific prewriting instructions, students would begin writing even though they indicated that they had no idea what to write; they acknowledged that “they would ‘figure it out’ as they went along.” Perl (1980, p 32) concludes that “seeing ideas on paper enables students to reflect upon, change, and develop those ideas further.” Editing occurs in the midst of writing when we reflect upon what has been written and then develop our ideas further. To connect this back to the present study’s original query of whether writing serves as a medium for making meaning, it is not just that writing can be an activity that helps us to make meaning: writing is the process of constructing meaning. By writing we become directly involved in the process of coming into being; we “know more fully what [we] mean only after having written it” (Perl, 1997, p. 35).

So far we have established that the process of writing is a process of constructing meaning, but this does not fully answer the question of why language acquires greater life by being written. To take it a step further, to include the realm of the spiritual, it appears that we construct meaning through writing by giving spiritual concepts natural representation. When we write, we give internal ideas external existence. Thane Glenn (2004, p 55), an English professor with specializations in rhetoric and composition, explains that “language itself is a kind of threshold between natural and spiritual realms” and that “we can pass from the world of the page to the world of thought and being.” Threading together what is internal with what is external, writing is an activity through which we engage our often otherwise unfelt connection with the spiritual world and open ourselves to guidance from the Lord: it is through the greater presence of the spiritual that language acquires greater life by being written.

The Lord is continually in the process of regenerating us, though our regeneration requires our cooperation (Swedenborg 1988, § 577). A crucial aspect of our regeneration is self-examination (Swedenborg 1988, § 530). Writing fosters self-examination—it demands interaction with our subconscious—and in this way it enables us to cooperate with the Lord for our regeneration.

Interaction with our subconscious during the writing process is acknowledged by multiple scholars in composition theory. It is what Sondra Perl (1980) calls the “felt sense.” A recurring part of the writing process, according to Perl (1980), is this physical sense experience, the “felt sense.” As described by Eugene Gendlin, who coined the term, the “felt sense” is “body and mind before they are split apart” (in Perl 1980, p. 365). Perl (1980, p 366) explains how in the process of writing “the ability to recognize what one needs to do, or where one needs to go is informed by calling on felt sense.” She asserts that the “felt sense” is what writers call their inner voice, or feeling of inspiration (Perl 1980). The “felt sense” is composed of “feelings or nonverbalized perceptions that surround the words” (Perl 1980, p 366). There are moments in the writing process when we pause and reread what we’ve written. When we reread the words, we feel whether what we’ve written harmonizes with our “felt sense.”

A similar sentiment is espoused by Janet Emig (1964) in her article, “The Uses of the Unconscious in Composing.” She writes that “whenever and wherever we consult the professional writer on writing…we find it is the rare writer who admits to writing a wholly conscious and contrived piece” and further that “writers…convey implicitly or explicitly not only awareness that there is an unconscious actively performing in all their writing, but the belief–more, awe–in its importance, efficacy, and power” (p 8). To put this in Swedenborgian terms, engaging the “felt sense” or unconscious power during the writing process is going within oneself and connecting to guidance available from the spiritual world.

Interaction with the subconscious is forged through the process of writing because we give a visual dimension to our thoughts, which we can then analyze. The hand, the physically active component, plays a key role in this. We are told in Apocalypse Explained that “writing is the ultimate act of thought and of speech” (Swedenborg 1977, § 898). Swedenborg notes that for angels “writing flows spontaneously from thought” and that this is “done with such ease that it is as though the thought projected itself” (Swedenborg 2000, § 262). In the same passage, we are told that “there are also things written in the heavens without the use of hands, simply in response to thoughts, but these do not last” (emphasis mine). In order for writing to have the quality of permanence, the work of the hands is required. It is the hands that bring the thoughts and feelings, which are spiritual and nonphysical, into the physical world, as we learn from Arcana Coelestia, “‘the work of the hands’ means that which is…a product of a person’s own understanding and a product of his own will” (Swedenborg 1987, § 10406:11). Love and wisdom are figments of our imagination unless they come into action (Swedenborg 2003a, § 216). As the hands symbolize our self or what is a product of our self, when we write about our thoughts and our feelings by use of our hands we are fully engaging our experience. Things happen to our bodies—we experience physical reality through them—and we feel things in our spirit as a result. The loop is completed when our bodies write what we have experienced. Instead of letting life mindlessly flow by, we respond to our experience by writing about it.

The same can be said for our regeneration. We enter into a union with the Lord when we actively remove evils from ourselves and this is accomplished by repentance (Swedenborg 1988, § 522). Swedenborg teaches that self-examination is the beginning of repentance and that repentance is impossible without self-examination (Swedenborg 1988, § 530). Further we are told that “true repentance means not only examining what one does in one’s life but also what one intends in one’s will to do” (Swedenborg 1988, § 532). Of crucial importance for our study is that we can examine what in our will we intend by examining our thoughts (Swedenborg 1988, § 532). When we examine our thoughts we engage our connection to the spiritual world. It is the same during the writing process. A person as regards her mind is in the spiritual world surrounded by spirits and in communication with them: “it is this communication which allows a person to perceive things and to think about them analytically” (Swedenborg 1988, § 475). Furthermore when we examine our thoughts “consequently they are present to the Lord, because they are present to [us]” (Swedenborg 1988, § 539). Writing is a concrete way of partnering with the Lord whether we realize that this is what is happening or not.

It should be noted that writing is not a substitute for repentance. Self-examination is only the beginning of repentance. It does not necessarily lead to full repentance. Our point is that self-examination is incumbent to writing. Owing to this, when we write we are essentially exercising the same parts of ourselves that initiate repentance.

When we examine our intentions through examination of our thoughts, the Lord is looking with us. Through this cooperation we open ourselves to possible guidance from the Lord, and this is through our interaction with our subconscious. This is the greater life housed within writing. Our words represent higher things: essentially our thoughts and feelings which are of our spirit. When our thoughts are written “into a kind of narrative thread” we clear a passage from the spiritual to the earthly realms, and in this way writing brings what is living and spiritual down into the physical world, where it can give us and others greater life.


1. Swedenborg refers to the religion symbolized by Adam and Eve – a pure state untainted by intentional evil – as the "earliest church" or "Most Ancient Church." See New Jerusalem and Its Heavenly Doctrine §247, Arcana Coelestia §10248:7, and True Christian Religion §786. | (Continue reading...)

2. In my discussion of spoken versus written language I rely heavily on the work How Language Works by David Crystal (2005). David Crystal is considered the current leader in language studies though similar ideas have previously been put forward by Walter Ong. | (Continue reading...)


Auerbach E. 1953. Mimesis: The representation of reality in western literature. Trask WR, translator. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Crystal D. 2005. How language works. New York, NY: The Overlook Press.

Elbow P. 1985. The shifting relationships between speech and writing. College Composition and Communication 36(3):283-303.

Emig J. 1997. Writing as a mode of learning. In: Villanuava V, editor. Cross-talk in Comp Theory - A reader. Urbana, Il: The National Council of Teachers of English. p 7-15.

Emig JA. 1964. The uses of the unconscious in composing. College Composition and Communication 15(1):6-11.

Glenn T. 2004. Every Word: A spiritual basis for written composition. In: Synnestvedt D, editor. Faith and Learning at Bryn Athyn College of the New Church. Bryn Athyn, PA: The Academy of the New Church. p 51-73.

Ong WJ. 1982. Orality and Literacy: The technologizing of the word. New York, NY: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group.

Perl S. 1980. Understanding Composing. College Composition and Communication 31(4):363-369.

Perl S. 1997. The Composing Process of Unskilled College Writers. In: Villanuava V, editor. Cross-talk in Comp Theory - A reader. Urbana, Il: The National Council of Teachers of English. p 17-42.

Swedenborg E. 1977. Apocalypse Explained. Whitehead J, translator. West Chester, PA: The Swedenborg Foundation.

Swedenborg E. 1987. Arcana Coelestia. Elliot J, translator. London: The Swedenborg Society.

Swedenborg E. 1988. The True Christian Religion. Chadwick J, translator. London: The Swedenborg Society.

Swedenborg E. 2000. Heaven and hell. Dole GF, translator. West Chester, PA: The Swedenborg Foundation.

Swedenborg E. 2003a. Divine love and wisdom. Dole GF, translator. West Chester, PA: The Swedenborg Foundation.

Swedenborg E. 2003b. Divine providence. Dole GF, translator. West Chester, PA: The Swedenborg Foundation.

Swedenborg E. 2007. Secrets of Heaven...Chapter 1. Cooper LH, translator. West Chester, PA: The Swedenborg Foundation.

Chelsea Rose Odhner

Chelsea Rose Odhner, B.A. in Biology and English from Bryn Athyn College, lives in Huntingdon Valley, PA with her husband, Johanan, and their eight-month old daughter, Erelah. She is currently enrolled part-time in a Master of Religious Studies program at the Academy of the New Church Theological School.

If you want to read the rest of her thesis please let us know at

Reader Comments (5)

Thanks for this thought-provoking piece, Chelsea. It is fascinating to think deeply about such an everyday activity as writing. I appreciate the way you've woven quotes from scholars in this field together with quotes from the Heavenly Doctrines into a narrative thread. It makes me want to read all the stuff you've referenced. :)

A couple of thoughts occurred to me as I read your piece. You wrote about writing being a way of giving order to our thoughts. It made me think of how Swedenborg explains that God created by finiting His infinite (True Christian Religion 29). And, in the written narrative account of how God created the world, it says, "And God spoke all these words saying..." Another example of two worlds being brought together through words being ordered in a specific way.

Your discussion of the difference between written and spoken communication made me think of this interesting passage from the unpublished manuscript De Verbo.

People suppose they would be more enlightened and wiser if they had a direct revelation through speech with spirits and angels, but the opposite is the case. Enlightenment by means of the Word comes by an inner path, while enlightenment by direct revelation comes by a path from without. The inner path is through the will into the intellect. The outer path is through the hearing into the intellect. (13)

January 22, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMalcolm Smith

Thanks, Malcolm! Those are great thoughts. I love that passage from TCR. That idea in itself could be a whole other article.

That is a very interesting passage from De Verbo. It reminds me that when I was writing this paper I came across the idea (that is mentioned numerous times in the Heavenly Doctrines, although I don't have any one specific passage in mind) that writing exists primarily for the sake of the Word. During my research, I kept being brought back to the point of how important it is that we have the written Word: this in itself quite strongly suggests that there is great power housed in writing. My research, though, was focused on the power of the composing process rather than the written word in itself. Again, that could be a very interesting article on its own!

One more thought on the De Verbo passage: we have more obvious control over our sense of sight than we do over our sense of hearing; we can close our eyes, but it is much more difficult to "close" our ears. More control means greater freedom of choice. Because of this, there is more willpower involved in choosing to read something than there may be in choosing to hear something, hence why enlightenment through reading the Word comes through the will. Just a thought. I do think there is great power in focusing one's attention on truly listening, so I don't mean to say that there isn't willpower involved in hearing, its just not as obvious.

January 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChelsea Odhner


I have not finished reading (I'm actually in the middle of writing a take-home exam), but so far I am thrilled by this. I've been wrestling with the concept of communication (in the context of philosophy and epistemology) and it's connection to rationality. Thanks for providing a very useful reference tool for me (I will almost definitely be following some of your HD references and am interested in your academic references as well).

I especially appreciated your use of economic terminology (ideas like "surplus" and "production" and medium of exchange). I've always thought there was an important similarity between economics (the exchange of goods and services through the medium of money) and linguistic communication (the exchange of knowledge and affection through the medium of language). Just as economics was revolutionized by a written accounting, written and printed language revolutionized the exchange of ideas.

Thanks again for a great essay; I look forward to reading the rest very soon and making use of some of your doctrinal research.


January 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChad O.

Wow! Chelsea, awesome.

I'm half way through, too, like Chad, and it started niggling me that Malcolm had commented, and I miss Malcolm, so I leapt down to his comment; then I started reading your response to Malcolm - then saw Chad down below (Cool Chad - we got STUFF) - and when I got to the part in your response about the freedom to close the eyes vs. the ears, I thought WAY COOL, THAT'S IT, and I couldn't hold myself back any longer from writing this somewhat speech-like blurb. (Maybe that's why blurbs are called blurbs?) Can't wait to finish. You are ministering to my forthcoming piece on heavenly government! Thank you!!


February 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterIsaac

So cute! I already like you on FB and also get your posts on Google Reader. :) bmomzr bmomzr - supra vaiders.

October 13, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterkpltjh kpltjh
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