A chance to stop and think

By Ian Eyres, Senior Lecturer, The Open University

Loyal readers of this blog will remember Debra’s recent entry on the value of just writing. Just writing, the spontaneous commitment of words to the page while they are fresh in the writer’s mind, is something that almost all the Teachers as Writers teachers have committed themselves to including in their class’s regular timetable. Not only does just writing capture spontaneous ideas before they escape, it also helps writers overcome the fear of the blank page by suspending all the rules that can inhibit flow: not just the rules of spelling and grammar, but also the rule that it all has to be consistent or even make sense. All that stuff can be dealt with later.

You may also recall that in the week following Debra’s post, Anthony posted an argument for not writing, implying that a fallow period would improve the quality of his writing, or at least make the process easier, when he returned to it. But what about shorter stops? Do writers, even when just writing have to be constantly moving their pen, tapping their keyboard? As soon as they rest between sentences or pause of the choice between two words, have they stopped writing? Here’s one of the Teachers as Writers teachers talking about a group of writers in her class who feel a pressure not to stop, ever:

So I can’t have a messy draft, I can’t rework things I can’t revise things because what I’ve written must be perfect from the start and then they get so blocked up and locked up with that that they’re just incapable of doing anything because…it’s that pressure that they’ve got on themselves because they’re so used to being on it all the time. Yeah so I try and spend a lot of time with those guys trying to break that down and having that thinking time, as I was saying, and being stuck and getting past it, they need that.

These able young writers are struggling to combine the freedom of just writing with a drive (maybe internal, maybe external) to get everything right first time. Something, as the saying goes, has got to give.

And what about the chance to stop and think before writing? I’ve met writers who play down the need for that. Get writing, the ideas will come, they say. But many, keeping packed and sometimes elaborate notebooks, for example, give the pre-writing period a significant place. In his post, Anthony describes Ken Smith’s habit of doing pretty much anything but writing as ‘work[ing] on poems when he had no poem to write’. Some of the activities he lists can be called gathering experience (‘encountering strangers; recording strange events’), but others (‘finding silence; entering places where English is not spoken’) seem to be a wilful refusal to engage with the English language at all. Many of the project teachers talked about their desire, as a precursor to writing, to expose their students to a wide range of experiences and to help them see the detail of those experiences and understand them more deeply. And a few, as above, talk about the importance of just stopping and thinking.

Ian Eyres
Senior Lecturer
The Open University

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