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Prime the Pump for Writing

26 September 2023

Barbara reread her underlined passages of Writing Without Teachers written in 1973 by her original writing guru, Peter Elbow, and reflected on how his insights inspired the classes she used to teach on how to write about what matters to you.

Tags: barbara read, freewriting, writing

I used to lead writing groups for my job, my church, and my neighborhood. The classes I led were for people at the beginning of their writing journey. They were in no way editing or critiquing classes. Rather they were for people who wanted to figure out how to get started as writers.

The participants may never have written anything other than required classroom or workplace papers, or they may have written a little but always thought it wasn’t good enough, or they thought they could write pretty well, but they always procrastinated starting any writing project. Some wanted to write better memos or speeches and others dreamed of writing a memoir or play.

I tried to help them understand why writing mattered to them and what was getting in their way. I would do this by telling them what I struggled with when it came to writing.

I always battled procrastination when it came to writing. If I’m trying to begin a new writing piece, what I call writing from scratch, I can decide it is absolutely necessary to take a toothbrush and scrub the grout in the bathroom tile. I have dusted baseboards that haven’t been touched for months to put off starting to write.

I was an English major in college and had a term paper to write for every course. I never knew why I got an A or a C. I just prayed for Bs. I wanted to understand what made something I wrote good, and I wanted to feel less afraid about trying to be a good writer. When I started graduate school, I decided I’d try to wrestle my writing demons to the ground. Dr. Sam Watson helped me do that by introducing me to Peter Elbow’s book Writing Without Teachers and by requiring that I write in a journal every day for the entire semester using Elbow’s process of freewriting.

“Write for ten minutes…Don’t stop for anything. Go quickly without rushing. Never stop to look back, to cross something out, to wonder how to spell something, to wonder what word or thought to use, or to think about what you are doing. If you can’t think of a word or a spelling, just use a squiggle or else write, “I can’t think of it.” Just put down something. The easiest thing is just to put down whatever is in your mind. If you get stuck it’s fine to write ‘I can’t think of what to say, I can’t think what to say’ as many times as you want; or repeat the last word you wrote over and over again; or anything else. The only requirement is that you never stop.”

When I started leading groups using Elbow’s process I added to his list—don’t worry about your handwriting, who will see it, anything some English teacher said you must do, or anything someone important in your life said you must never do. My mother used to occasionally say, “Don’t put anything on paper that you wouldn’t be willing to see on the front page of the newspaper the next morning.” When I remembered that, I thought—no wonder I feel paralyzed when I pick up a pen. I loved so much of her advice for how to live my life, but I had to set this belief about writing aside.

Freewriting revolutionized my writing and my life. I’ve started almost every day with ten minutes of freewriting for over 40 years. Julia Cameron calls it Morning Pages, and I love everything about how she describes the process.

In the first session of my writing groups, I explained freewriting and talked the participants into giving it a try. Then I’d ask them to look at what they’ve written and see if there was anything they were willing to read out loud. Freewriting will take you places you didn’t know you were going to go, so it is important to slow down and make a careful decision about whether you want anyone else to hear what you have written. Some people read and some didn’t. Either was perfectly fine.

Then I’d encourage them to freewrite every day until our class met again. I’d invite them to bring one page of writing on any subject to the next session and read it. Sometimes they did and sometimes they didn’t, but we would freewrite together again no matter what.

When someone did bring one page and read it out loud, everyone in the group would write the answers to these two questions on a 3 x 5 notecard “What did you hear the loudest? Where did you want to know more?” The listeners would read what they’d written on their cards and then give the cards to the writer to take home. Sometimes after you read a piece to a group, you are so nervous, you can’t really hear what is being said. In private later you can absorb compliments and add words to your piece when you have settled down. If everyone in the group wrote the same answer to the question, What did you hear the loudest? then the writer would know that section of the piece was really powerful. The answers to those two questions always helped people generate more writing.

If you want to write, it helps to be in the company of other people who also want to write. I think you can use the technique I described above to create a writing group just as so many people have created book clubs. If you’d like help figuring how how to do this, please email me. I’d be glad to share this process with you and others.


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