Peter Elbow’s writing theories thrill—even if you ignore them.
“Frankly, I thought I knew how to write, but it turned out I didn’t, and I don’t. I don’t. I get to learn it over and over and over. It isn’t supposed to be easy. It is supposed to be hard and the process of making art and the product is worth all the energy that you put into it. It is what matters. It is a noble goal. Even if you never attain it, which is true for most of us, it’s life-enhancing to try.“—Jo Ann Beard, in an interview with Michael Gardner in Mary
On my recent European trip I dipped again into Writing with Power, finding it dense but savoring Peter Elbow’s hard-earned insights. He’d been such a poor writer that he had to drop out of graduate school, only returning years later. If he’d been a natural, he probably would not have noticed how he actually wrote successfully, when he did. Pre-outlining didn’t work for him, either.
Elbow advocates timed free-writing—ten-minute nonstop bursts to empty our heads of junk, to find nuggets, to warm up, to tap creativity, or to explore topics we’re writing about, like Aunt Mary’s screened porch in summer. He comes closer than anyone does to convincing me to freewrite. For instance, I’m a sucker when he gets all mystical and credits freewriting both with reducing writers’ legendary resistance to writing and also with preventing them from conquering their resistance. Here’s a sample of his thinking on this from Chapter Two of Writing with Power:
To write is to overcome a certain resistance: you are trying to wrestle a steer to the ground, to wrestle a snake into a bottle, to overcome a demon that sits in your head. To succeed in writing or making sense is to overpower that steer, that snake, that demon. But not kill it.
This myth explains why some people who write fluently and perhaps even clearly—they say just what they mean in adequate, errorless words—are really hopelessly boring to read. There is no resistance in their words; you cannot feel any force being overcome, any orneriness. No surprises. The language is too abjectly obedient. When writing is really good, on the other hand, the words themselves lend some of their energy to the writer. The writer is controlling words he can’t turn his back on without danger of being scratched or bitten.
You’ve got to love a guy who comes up with stuff like that. In one of his chapters on the pros and cons of various writing processes, I discovered that I use the “dangerous method,” which means trying to make perfect words, sentences, and scenes as you go. The problem with this, he says, is that writing’s two major components, the creative and the critical, are at odds. They are too different. He thinks the editing mind being employed too early blocks writers or turns their prose wooden.
It would be hard to change my ways, however, and for now at least I’m not even going to try. For one thing the dangerous method is kind of working. Granted, I’ve ended up cutting hundreds of pages from my memoir that I’d been polishing for years. But lots of famous writers seem to use the dangerous method, or some variation. Recently I read that someone, Joan Didion I think, used to retype the entire essay she was working on every day. And based on Scribbly Jane’s recent post on John McPhee’s interview with Paris Review, it appears he stews and procrastinates all day, then sits down at the eleventh hour and taps out one perfect page. John McPhee! In its obituary for William Styron, The New York Times reported on his method:
My personal excuse for trying to make everything right as I go is that that’s how I achieve Elbow’s holy grails of discovery and of experiencing what I am writing about. He’d probably say I’m just polishing and could spend that time creating, and he’d probably be right.
[I]t was an unconventional routine he stuck to: sleep until noon; read and think in bed for another hour or so; lunch with Rose around 1:30; run errands, deal with the mail, listen to music, daydream and generally ease into work until 4. Then up to the workroom to write for four hours, perfecting each paragraph until 200 or 300 words are completed; have cocktails and dinner with the family and friends at 8 or 9; and stay up until 2 or 3 in the morning, drinking and reading and smoking and listening to music.
Elbow’s discussion of such intangibles reveals that his concern isn’t with nuts-and-bolts craft but with process—and, really, ultimately, with the writer’s psyche. Writing does seem to me to be a profound struggle with the self—or at least it is for me. Facing the blank page with the Self and all that. Who am I? Who was I? Why did I do that, say that, fail to do that?
This returns me to the quote at the start of my last post; but if writing is not, at base, a set of skills, what is it? Some time ago, when I knew more about writing, I tried to answer this in my post “Between self and story.”This time, I’ll return to Clear and Simple as the Truth, whose authors, Francis- Noel Thomas and Mark Turner, say that writers’ “verbal artifacts” mask something deeper, more fundamental and conceptual going on than the mere arrangement of words. They say:
Great painters are often less skillful than mediocre painters; it is their concept of painting, not their skills, that defines their activity. Similarly a foreigner may be less skillful than a native speaker at manipulating tenses or using subjunctives, but nonetheless be an incomparably better writer. Intellectual activities generate skills, but skills do not generate intellectual activities.
Words on the page come from the self, and, for most writers, getting them there regularly seems to require a struggle with the self, of overcoming resistances arising from fear and confusion. I think a writer has got to like making sentences. This work is about seeing what comes out of you and, at the sentence level, trying to make it sturdy and sometimes beautiful.
Then revising, forever. And dealing with resistance and the exciting-depressing realization that any new project worth doing is going to make its own unique and otherwise perplexing demands. But I believe, and fervently hope, that writing, like other complex activities, rewires our brains. I think we do get better with practice, even if writing doesn’t seem to get much easier.
[See also my post on Elbow “Keys to conveying experience.”]