Saturday, November 22, 2014

Why Writing Down The Bones Works And Author Peter Elbow Is Wise

(Originally written in 2007)

What do I think of Peter Elbow's ideas about composing and writing? My quick answer is "I love them." It's as if he took some of my ideas, stole them right out of my brain and put them down on paper.
The longer answer is that some of his ideas I like better than others.But to explain my longer answer I need to first talk about the Writing Down the Bones exercises.

Writing Down the Bones is an exercise I've seen done at online communities I'm a part of. When, in recent months, I joined a new group, Newsvine, I asked if there was interest in the activity there. There was and so I started it up. We are now in our 12th week.

Yes, the student has become the teacher.

I've watched as the exercise has helped budding writers. Elbow sums up the problem nicely: "Some times, in fact, when people think too much during the early stages about what they want to end up with, that preoccupation with the final product keeps them from attaining it."

I did not actually read Natalie Goldberg's book Writing Down the Bones until after I have been doing this exercise for a few years and the way she suggests it is not identical to how I have done it. But the concept is essentially the same.

She says: "The idea is to keep your hand moving for, say, ten minutes, and don't cross anything out, because that makes space for our inner editor to come in."

I lead and participate in this writing exercise online and tell those participating there are only three rules: 1) You can only write for those 10 minutes, you can't spend that time rewriting or proofreading. 2) If you write something you need to read the submissions from others. 3) You must write some form of feedback, but it has to be positive.

As I read Peter Elbow explaining what he calls "freewriting" I felt like I was hearing an echo of the rules I have given. Elbow says those reading other's work must say "thank you" or cite a part particularly enjoyed. Similarly in our exercises I will often highlight my favorite sentence or paragraph and others will follow suit.

Whether the idea comes from Elbow, Goldberg or me the concept is the same: Focus on writing, not rewriting or revising, and steer clear of criticism. As Elbow puts it:

"If you are trying to be inventive and come up with lots of interesting new ideas, it's usually the worst thing in the world if someone comes along and starts being critical. Thus, the power of brainstorming: no one is allowed to criticize any idea or suggestion that is offered- no matter how stupid, impractical, or useless it seems…"

So you are both turning off your own inner critic while also fending off potential critics among those participating.

While both Goldberg and Elbow suggest the same time limit of ten minutes there is one key difference: The starting point. Elbow says you can start anywhere, on any topic: "You may stay on one topic, you may flip repeatedly from one to another: it doesn't matter. Sometime you will produce a good record of your stream of consciousness, but often you can't keep up."

In contrast, Writing Down the Bones starts with a prompt, which is usually a single word like "flag" or "rain" but could be a sentence. Those prompts get the writers started and with their inner editor turned off something amazing often comes out.

I, personally, have found that some of my best short fiction has come out of these exercises. Ideas I never knew I had pop out, sparked either by the prompt or the knowledge that I have permitted myself to do nothing but write for ten minutes or perhaps both. As Elbow puts it:

"I'm arguing that we can make a better plan if we plan for nonplanning; we can write better if we build in periods where we remove goals from our mind; we can meet the needs of writers better if we sometimes put readers out of mind – especially at early stages."

So do I think Elbow is right about this process being a good idea? Definitely and not just because I'm leading a similar exercise.

He does offer a good cautionary note, one that makes sense but I had never given much thought before. It concerns whether it's wise to read one's own freewriting:

If reading over your freewriting or giving it someone else gets in the way of future freewriting, as it may well do, then it's better just to throw it away or stash it somewhere unread. Reading it over may make you too self-conscious or make you feel, "YEEEcchh, what garbage is this," or, "Oh, dear, there must be something the matter with me to be so obsessed." This may start you censoring yourself as you engage in more freewriting. Don't read over your freewriting unless you can do so in a spirit of benign self-welcoming. I used to be fascinated with my freewritings and save them and read them periodically. Now I just throw them away."
Elsewhere in his book he suggests other ways of approaching writing:

1. The Direct Writing Process. - As he says, 'The process is very simple. Just divide your available time in half. The first half is for fast writing without worrying about organization, language, correctness or precision. The second half is for revising."

This is a process intended for projects where you do not have a lot of time. To me this seems pretty obvious – of course you need to factor in time for revising if it's something that needs to be turned in - but I'm sure to some this is a great insight. I'm not sure dividing it in half is a magic formula so much as a good goal, a way to say, ok, it's time to stop writing.

This process is different from freewriting in a few key ways, namely you spend some of the time revising, you pause if you need to and this is or something on a set topic, such as a memo or a report for work.

2. Quick revising – He sums it up this way:

"The point of quick revising is to turn out a clean, clear professional final draft without taking as much time as you would need for major rethinking and reorganizing. It is a clean-and-polish operation, not a growing-and-transforming one. You specifically refrain from meddling with any deeper problems of organization or reconceputalization."

He says "quick revising" is for when the "results don't matter too much."

This one raises some red flags for me because I don't want anyone to think it's more important for something to appear done than to actually be done. He raises some examples where it might be fine, such as a draft of a paper to share with others, or you plan to work on a more finished product later.
Still he says the time it will be used most often is when people have procrastinated and are short on time.

While I am not crazy about the implication that this kind of work is acceptable he proceeds to describe two key steps that should be taken, ones I've adopted long ago.

The first suggeston is the importantce of reading your work aloud. Trust me when I say you will hear mistakes you did not see before as you read it. He calls it switching from your "writer-consciousness and into the audience-consciousness." That to me sounds like a fancy way of saying this: You will hear mistakes that you did not previously know existed.

His second suggestion is the important act of cutting. As a newspaper journalist for more than 10 years I think I spent more time cutting than I did writing! That may be an exaggeration but it sure felt that way sometimes. In that case I was cutting due to size. But whether cutting for size or cutting because you are doing quick revising some of the goals are the same: You are getting rid of the weakest of the ideas.

Elbow writes: "Learn to leave out everything that isn't already good or easily made good. Learn the pleasures of the knife. Learn to retreat, to cut your losses, to be chicken."

As you can see, I have mixed feelings about this process. If it must be done then his way is as a good a way as any, but better to avoid procrastination in the first place.

3. The Dangerous Method: Trying To Write It Right the First Time. It fits its name. The idea is simple: You write so well you don't need to spend a lot of time, if any, on revising.
"But," he warns, "it is a dangerous method because it puts more pressure on you and depends for its success on everything running smoothly."
The trick to doing this, if you are one of the few who can pull this off, is to "get your meaning clear in your head before you start writing. (In effect you are stuck with two steps again: figure out your meaning, then write.)"
Overall, I think this is a recipe for disaster and think he would have been better off not suggesting or including this idea. I know that sounds like sticking ones head in the sand but there it is.

4. The Open-Ended Writing Process - He explains the intent of this process this way: "The open-ended writing process is ideal for the situation where you sense you have something to write but you don't know quite what."

He suggests writing about any topic at all and continuing for "at least ten or twenty or thirty minutes, depending on how much material and energy you come up with. You have to write long enough to get tired and get past what's on the top of your mind. But not so long that you start pausing in the midst of your writing."

The writer should then re-read what they wrote and summarize it in a sentence. Then, he said, "Use that focusing sentence for a new burst of nonstop writing. Again, let the writing go wherever it wants to go. Invite yourself gradually or suddenly to lose sight of whatever you start with."

After the process is repeated, eventually something will emerge, which you will then begin to revise or rework.

This one sounds a bit too new agey and spiritual for me. I'm a bit skeptical. I've not tried this one so maybe it's unfair to question something I've not tried but I just can't endorse this one.

5. Lastly, the Loop Writing Process - This process is sort of a compromise, a middle ground of sorts, in which the writer tries to get the best of both worlds – creativity and control.
This process takes longer than the direct writing method but not nearly as long as the open-ending writing process. He calls it the loop

"because it takes you on an elliptical orbiting voyage. For the first half, the voyage out, you do pieces of almost-freewriting during which you allow yourself to curve out into space – allow yourself, that is, to ignore or even forget exactly where your topic is. For the second half, the voyage home, you bend your efforts back into the gravitational field of your original topic as you select, organize, and revise parts of what you produced during the voyage out.

This process has 13 procedures but I'm not going to explain them all here. They are all things you may want to consider during the writing process, from writing down your first thoughts and considering your prejudices to varying the time you are writing about or varying the audience.

During the writing you should try to lose sight, temporarily, of your topic. One of the best times to use this approach is when you are writing about a topic that bores you silly. After you follow one of the procedures, you need to do the hard part, namely: Remember the original assignment and start revising what you ended up with to make it fit. He puts it this way:

"For in the voyage home, obviously enough, you are engaged in the process of revising. You have used your creative mentality to generate lots of examples and ideas and the makings of ideas, and now you need to use your critical mentality to shape a coherent draft out of this raw writing."
This process, he admits, can leave the writer with quite a mess and much of it will have to be destroyed. Will it always work? No. Is it worth a try? Definitely.

I have never tried this approach, at least not under this name, but I bet he is right that it would work at least some of the time. Next time I get stuck, I am going to give it a try.
I'd encourage you to try most of these processes. Elbow is indeed wise in imparting these excellent suggestions. This book contains some of the best writing advice I have read in years.