There are any number of ways to teach writing or purport to teach writing, just as there are many ways to write. And there’s something to be said for perfecting the craft, learning what makes a meaningful narrative arc or what constitutes a gripping opening or a powerful closing.
But there’s also something to be said–perhaps everything–for writing without hesitation, without fear, and without filter. In the doing we can often be better; and in the doing without inhibition, we can always be the most honest.
I had the great privilege this weekend of hearing disparate voices expressed through the written word, unfiltered, thanks to a workshop that is focused on self-expression. This sort of workshop (and my experience is limited to two: this and a well-known alternative in New York with an approach that emphasizes critique and craft and imitation of established writing voices) is all about writing without thinking. It’s like being thrown into the deep end of the pool and instructed to swim, with this important caveat: someone is there to hold you, guide you, encourage you, and, if necessary, pull you over to the side and out onto dry land.
In this workshop, there is no lecturing, only guidelines: no criticism, no personalization (we refer to the work and “the writer”), no self-reference (“what I always do…”), no criticism; no suggestions for doing something differently. We learn to listen carefully with an ear to experiencing the writing; and then urged to discuss what stays with us about each other’s work.
Writing in this environment is relatively filter-free. We are given prompts–loose suggestions derived from looking at pictures or answering a simple question or listening to a poem. We have a limited amount of time–five to twenty-five minutes–to write whatever comes to mind. Editing ones’ own thoughts is impossible, which for me turns out to be a godsend. Get it on paper, Nikki: never mind what anyone thinks. The only way to get better at writing, after all, is to write.
Writing within an allotted time frame is at once disciplining and liberating, as is listening and commenting within the established guidelines. I find myself immersed into the participants’ stories; hearing their words as perhaps they intended to have them heard, although, given that they are under the same time constraints, they must be writing without intentions.
Writing without intention or expectation: that’s the truly liberating part. What occurs to me? What do I want to say? What would happen if I simply tried to say it, if I wrote it down, all jumbled, a mix of inelegant phrasing and unwittingly artful phrases, infused with the colors, the memories, the experiences that shape me, whether I use the first person or the third person, as does Colleen, one of the most fully formed, uniquely realized voices I’ve ever read (think Flannery O’Connor or Eudora Welty or Annie Proulx or Willa Cather or, I don’t know: she’s her own person). I can do that, I think: I can drop the of-the-moment yet safely removed observer of the contemporary contretemps that pass for communication in American society and write about what’s going on.
In one exercise, we pick up photographs; many are of fathers and sons or fathers and daughters and I am depleted by my recent Father’s Day post and pull away. But then, flipping over a photo, I see what is obviously a piece of another photo on the reverse side which might have been yet another picture of father and daughter but the only thing showing is the arm–a single arm which somehow triggers something in me and I grab my laptop and glance at the clock and I write. And what I come up with is a metaphor for everything I am trying to accomplish as a writer and as a being and everything against which I struggle and yet in the act of writing in the twenty-five allotted minutes, I both come up against and also perhaps surmount the obstacle that stands in the way of the flow and the connection and the interaction and the happiness I want in my writing and, damn it, in my life. And in overcoming, although not yet eliminating the obstacle, I experience a pang of pure joy so fierce I wonder if I can withstand it.
pen image: university writing center
starlings in flight: James Potorti (my late husband)