Saturday, September 06, 2008

Writing thought for the day

Stolen shamelessly from The Blog of Henry David Thoreau:
Saturday, September 06, 2008

Thoreau's Journal: 06-Sep-1841 Some hours seem not to be occasion for anything, unless for great resolves to draw breath and repose in, so religiously do we postpone all action therein. We do not straight go about to execute our thrilling purpose, but shut our doors behind us, and saunter with prepared mind, as if the half were already done.


Sometimes, in a writing project, you realize that you're not so much procrastinating (although there's always lots of that) as gestating. There's an idea there. You can feel it, even though it isn't formed enough to come out on the page in any sensible way.

If you start by freewriting about it (pace the freewriting advocates), you can send yourself in a direction where your original idea disappears and you can't get it back. It's wrong, I think, to consider freewriting something harmless you can throw away if it doesn't work. Although this may be true for some, for others of us, freewriting etches a path that leaves a trace in the brain even if you throw away the words. You're left knowing that you had a better idea but not knowing what it is. Some would say that the idea on paper, completed, is better than the idea in the brain: a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. But wouldn't you rather give that other idea a chance, if you can?

So sometimes, especially when the weather is so perfect that staying inside takes a physical act of will, you'll find yourself refusing to execute your thrilling purpose and sauntering about with a prepared mind. And, despite advice from all the writing gurus (I'm looking at you, Germano), that's all right, too. Thanks, Henry David.


Pilgrim/Heretic said...

Oh, I like the idea of the danger of path-etching; that's very interesting, and really helped me figure out what I've been doing wrong with a current project. More gestating time is going to work better for the moment. (Funny how ideas like to gestate more when it's nice outside, though!) :)

Anonymous said...

Great quote. I'm inspired by HDT's promise that adopting the mindset that your task is already half-way done makes it half-way done. I'm going to try that trick to fool myself into thinking (or feeling, more accurately) like my book revisions are not only do-able, they're almost done! Whoop!

Anonymous said...

Ditto. Actually the only time free writing helped me, it wasn't free writing. It was when in the effort to make an insubstantial piece more respectable I unintentionally came up with something much better but *very* different. I didn't realize what I had done until I read it. But I had not been free writing, I had been trying hard to go in a straight line and finish. (Accidental free writing?)

HERE is some free writing, so free that it is not organized, but has to be in random bullets:

* For me the decision to free write is essentially a decision to write a different piece, or to just muse.

* I have the blog to muse, and oddly that is the *only* place where writing things out helps me understand them. I don't do journals because they have (for me) no implied audience, so they are TOO FREE and go nowhere. So I blog. But for academic writing I actually need to not muse but to meditate, empty my mind of words, and then to make a flow chart or something like that of the ideas to cover, and then to write like it is NOT free.

*This all indicates that having an implied reader, a narratee, knowing who my audience is, IS WHAT HELPS or even makes me write.
Flash: a colleague elsewhere once told me he jogged himself out of a writing quagmire by imagining he was explaining his project to *me.*
Me because I was in field enough to get it, but not expert enough in the precise topic not to need an explanation. I.E. the kind of reader he was supposed to be writing for.

* If I free write, I get a whole series of nice introductions and lead ins. On each one I get stymied after the interesting introduction because I'm only free writing, I don't mean it, etc. And yet the tangential path gets etched, so I forget what I was supposed to be doing originally, and the free writing is just a distraction. I am much better composing the whole thing in my head and then writing it down, and my entire writing experience is an object lesson in the danger of path-etching!

*The rest of the family believes in the writing-as-a-process thing much more than I do, officially, but I have noticed that their actual practices are much like mine. So either it's a genetic idiosyncracy, or it's very common, despite what some rhet-comp people say!

* I now really, really wonder: are the free writing fans actually rhet-comp people who teach a lot of life writing, personal essay, opinion piece, New Yorker "Letter from Katmandu," etc.? I am quite, quite sure those are the areas in which free writing works. For those sorts of texts I write really fast and willy nilly, and then edit a whole lot, draft after draft, usually cutting out a great deal of repetition and wordiness.
Yet anything academic I write completely differently, and if I try to write academic things the "free" way, including proposals and memos, I just end up with a motley pile of junk!

Anonymous said...

P.S. I don't consider myself a writer of poems or micro-stories, so I forgot about this. But when I produce these they also appear fully grown from my Zeus-like head. ;-) Edit, yes, a little, but I would not write them down if they did not appear spontaneously and almost finished.

Ergo: academic and super artistic writing have something in common and have to be sculpted from the beginning. As in actual sculpture: you keep going and you revise, but you have to know what your concept is before you start or you will mess up your material.

Other kinds of writing work differently for me. I don't have enough experience trying novels to be able to comment on which group they fall into: the genres for which free writing works, and those for which it does not.

I have to now figure out what it is about what one is / I am doing in each genre that makes the free writing phase useful or not.

But my working theory is that with academic writing, the "free writing" phase is actually when I am taking notes, checking out books, etc. During these periods I do actually write little opinion pieces to myself, put up residual blog posts, things like that. THERE is the free writing. So, when I decide it's time to write, it's because I've already gone through the free writing phase, and then meditated to get all that cacophonous noise out of me so I can *really* write. Hah! One can free write MORE freely! One does not have to follow a recipe and free write just before writing! One does not have to presuppose one should start NOW, nor that it will be difficult to start so one should warm up by "free writing"!

[Thanks for letting me use your space to free write so as to figure this out.]

Anonymous said...

I see I am vociferous here. Well: I asked my English grad student about this today. Pedagogy and rhet comp are two of his "areas." He teaches comp. He is supposed to assign free writing. He says he has given up because he never free writes, he composes in his head and then writes it down straight, and his more successful students say they do the same.

It occurred to me that free writing was for people who do not exercise, garden or do their own house cleaning. No chance to just free associate while walking or something, so they have to free write.

Then he described the permitted topics and genres in our English 1 and 2. All of them were in one way or another forms of personal essays. To me they sounded like topics for blog posts.

And then it came to me: the rhet-comp people, who don't think writing should be about literature and also think that they can have students, as one assignment, write an "ethnography" (and they think they are qualified to teach people how to do that), assign what amount to a lot of personal essays.

And free writing, as I figured out yesterday, works for personal essays, and good personal essays are hard to write, and the students, being young, don't have a lot of material, so free writing must be assigned to get them started.

Then a lot of editing is needed, and that is where the peer review process comes in. And other beginning undergrads are not all ready to be peer editing, say, reearch based papers, but all can respond to a piece of free writing about a life, find interesting parts, hazard guesses about appropriate theses, etc.

So there you get the formula: if freshman writing is taught on this model, free writing follows from that, and then starts getting recommended to everyone.

??? I wonder if that is actually how it happens. I am starting to suspect I am onto something.

But I stand my ground: since I think while gardening and things like that, and since I take notes while reading, my free writing is already DONE when I sit down to write.

undine said...

pilgrim/heretic, maybe the sun's rays are generating those ideas :-). Seriously, this might be a new form of procrastination, but I hope not.

I'm inspired by HDT's promise, too, bittersweet girl, although his promises don't always work out that way.

Profacero, I'd agree with all those points. Writing in a journal hasn't worked for me; I need an audience, and I end up with a lot of intros, too, if I freewrite. I had never thought of notes and blogposts as a type of freewriting, but it serves the same preparation function.

And what you're saying about freewriting while doing something else: yes! I "write" a lot of reference letters, book reviews, and blog posts while walking, driving, etc., even though they can't be written down then. It's surprising how many of those sentences find their way into the final product.