Thursday, November 22, 2007

Writing Without Teachers, What a Concept!

The basic philosophy of the book is that there is no ‘bad writing’ and that we have to give ourselves permission to write everything that is in our thoughts in order to get to the writing that has more focus and energy to it.

The first three sections of this book are set up to help anyone interested in writing to do just that. Section one is an explanation of how the freewriting exercises work. It's a simple method for generating writing by simply timing yourself for ten or twenty minutes, then writing as fast as you can without stopping. The key is to not think about what you're writing but to simply write. There are no rules to worry about. Grammar, spelling, syntax, logic are put on the back burner. You simply write what ever is on your mind as fast as you can until the time is up.

The reasoning behind this, according to Elbow, is that when we worry about whether we are doing it right we're in the process of editing and we don’t just edit out grammatical errors but also thoughts and feelings that could potentially enrich our writing. The writing time should be exclusively set aside for the the process of producing, an editing as a discrete function should only come later. Elbow suggests keeping a freewriting journal that consists of daily ten minute entries that he calls ‘mind samples. These ‘mind samples’ can then be combed over for ideas of what to further write about.

Here's more from Elbow himself:

"...look to see what words or passages seemed important -attracted energy or strength. Here is your cue what to write. Or think of a person, place, feeling, object, incident, or transaction that is important to you. Do one or two freewriting exercises while trying to hold it in mind. This procedure will suggest a subject and a direction."

In Chapter Two, Elbow describes the method he refers to as ‘Growing’. Using this model, I'd do a freewriting exercise on everything I know about a particular piece I'm working on for forty five minutes, writing everything that is in my head, without stopping. At the end of the forty five minutes I would then, for fifteen minutes re-read and extract the core of the writing: words, phrases, feelings, moods anything that ‘stuck its head out’ at me.

Then I'd jot down a summary of what all these essential things were telling me. Then, I'd do another forty five minute freewriting on this assertion, exploring whether I believed what came up or or not, but with the main focus being the same as in the first exercise, to write as fast as I could, and not edit myself.

When I was done, I would again sum up what I had just written and once again make an assertion about its main idea. For a third, and final forty five minutes, I would freewrite around this last assertion to explore any thing that might still be lurking in my mind. In the final hour I would again extract the essential elements and then do the task of editing what I had into a more coherent piece.

This has freed me up at some level from part of the anxiety I feel in initiating writing. Beginnings are always the hardest part, and like a lot of people, the panic at having to come up with words has left many a page and screen blank and left me feeling frustrated. The process of distilling and summarizing the underlying assumptions behind the writing has also strengthened my ownership of my own approach, my own aesthetic, and has helped me build a deeper gut-level confidence.

I’ve done a lot of freewriting in the past, but never explored it so deeply before. Most of my ‘finished’ writing has come from ‘internal cooking’, letting ideas percolate inside until some burst of inspiration caused me to sit and write them down and, many times, it’s a process of fits and starts. Elbow advocates the balance between external and internal 'cooking,' letting ideas and words intermingle to find new, richer ideas.


msedano said...

thanks for giving a useful summary. i like the write and cull method. happy thanksgiving day.


Anonymous said...

I use a modified version of freewriting with 1st/2nd graders in Spanish; it's a child's natural tendency. I let them go for months in that fashion until little by little I show them minimal tools to help them improve and focus. It's produced a few award-winners. Maybe that's part of the benefit for adults: tapping into the child remaining in us.

Manuel Ramos said...

"editing as a discrete function should only come later." I think that is very valuable advice. I buy wholeheartedly into the concept of writing everything that is in our thoughts and then, later, revising and editing. I also don't like to talk about or have anyone read what I am working on until very late in the process, after I have gone through several versions, at least.Talking about a work in progress dissipates that energy and focus you mention, at least for me. Thanks for the informative post.