Monday, July 29, 2013

20 Versions: One Way to Train in Impermanence

Picture of Don Murray
Legendary writing professor Don Murray once proposed that we think of 1,000 rewrites for a piece of our writing.  Instead of 1,000, come up with 20 versions of a text you’re writing, thinking of changes in style, content, and even genre. * SD indicates a revision that keeps the piece the same type of document or genre.
Here's how it looked when I tried out this exercise:
Original document:

  1. Scholarly article on history of figurative language and creative writing

Its Transformations:
1.  article for trade journal (professional writers) on same topic
  1. an interview (of contemporary creative writers) on topic for a trade journal
  2. incorporate an interview section (of creative writers) in the scholarly article SD
  3. humorous piece on how academia limits creativity of faculty
  4. poem that has the simile as its topic (figurative language)
  5. a talk at a conference for creative writers
  6. a talk at a conference for historians of rhetoric
  7. add a personal or autobiographical section  SD
  8. blog posting (for educators or for poets)
  9. statement on professional web page
  10. incorporate into a teaching philosophy statement document
  11. incorporate actual 19th century student creative writings as examples SD
  12. incorporate lectures on figuration from 19th century Harvard professors SD
  13. turn into full-length scholarly book
  14. turn into a cartoon or illustration for something
  15. turn into a PowerPoint for faculty
  16. article about poetic license as it occurs today
  17. same article as #17 for Humanities faculty only
  18. personal essay that starts with a simile and metaphor about this topic in my writing and teaching life
  19. a freewrite on same topic
This method promotes impermanence by keeping the genre of one's writing open. You don't have rigid preconceptions about genre, for one thing. In turn, by allowing the genre to even stay in-flux, you are making good use of the absence of audience during the writing moment (because genre is connected to particular audience expectations). You're taking control of the audience-in-the-head. For me, this method resulted in a poem (included at end of my second book, Lid to the Shadow, as well as a scholarly article in College Composition and Communication.)


Friday, July 26, 2013

Day Five of Institute on Overcoming Writing Blocks

Day Five of Institute

Curriculum covered today:
Revision as Invention
Giving Feedback Mindfully
Receiving Feedback Mindfully
Loving-Kindness Meditation
Keith Hjortshoj, Understanding Writing Blocks

Freewrite on Giving Feedback with Mindfulness
Freewrite on Receiving Feedback with Mindfulness
Student Praxis Presentations
Loving-Kindness Meditation for Writers (See June post)

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Day Four of Institute on Overcoming Writing Blocks

Day Four of Institute

Curriculum covered today:
Prolonging Invention
Revision and Impermanence
Mindful Listening and Feedback
Types of Feedback
Chance & Indeterminacy for Writing
Invention as Revision
Donald Murray, "Internal Revision"
                            Thomas Newkirk, "Montaigne's Revisions"
                             Thich Nhat Hanh, "Right Speech"
                             Sharon Salzberg, Loving-Kindness

Mindful Listening
Murray's 20 Versions
Videos of the Reader's Mind
Montaigne Method of Revision

* I'll be posting after each day of the 5-Day Institute on mindful writing. Stay tuned for Day Five, the last day of the Institute..

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Day Three of Institute on Overcoming Writing Blocks

Day Three of Institute

Curriculum covered today:
Low- and High-Stakes Writing Tasks
Intrapersonal Rhetoric
Embodied Rhetorics
Peter Elbow, "High and Low-Stakes in Assigning and Responding to Writing"
Don Murray, "The Essential Delay"
                             Sondra Perl, Felt Sense

Meditation on Groundlessness and Writing
Yoga for Hands (See post from September 2012)
Portrait of Intrapersonal Voice
Felt Sense

* I'll be posting after each day of the 5-Day Institute on mindful writing. Stay tuned for Day Four.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Day Two of Institute on Overcoming Writing Blocks

Day Two of Institute

Curriculum covered today:
Freewriting as Mindfulness Practice
Intrapersonal Dialog
Groundlessness and Writing
Disposable Writing
Shunryu Suzuki, "Control"
Peter Elbow, Writing With Power
Mike Rose, "Rigid Rules, Inflexible Plans"
Carl Rogers, "Communication: Its Blocking & Its Facilitation"

Today we were fortunate to be visited by three members of the House Sangha of Salem and Marblehead. They guided us through seated and walking meditation and discussed their mindfulness practices. Quite a sight: a line of barefoot people watching their breathing as they moved slowly down a long academic hallway!


Freewrite: Your Writing is Already Buddha, Already Perfect
Disposable Writing

* I'll be posting after each day of the 5-Day Institute on mindful writing. Stay tuned for Day Three.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Day One of Institute on Overcoming Writing Blockis

Day One of Institute
Curriculum covered today:

Audience as proximity
Awareness of impact of audience on our writing
The fundamental privacy of writing
Materials and Audience Relation
Peter Elbow, Writing With Power
Keith Hjortshoj, Understanding Writing Blocks


Caricature of a Tricky Audience
Seated Meditation
Freewrite about the Sensory Experience of Writing
Mindful Eating and Description
Images of Writing Blocks
Writing Mantra

* I'll be posting after each day of the 5-Day Institute on mindful writing. Stay tuned for Day Two.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Conceptual Metaphors and Images (For Writing Blocks) Contributed by Other Writers

Here are some conceptual metaphors & images for writing blocks I've received from other writers. Send yours along by commenting to this post. Indicate whether you want your name displayed or whether you prefer to stay anonymous.

My metaphor for writer's block is using a GPS where it keeps searching for the satellites, but it can't figure out where you are. It just keeps searching and searching, and eventually you either give up on it, or you find your way, but while it is searching, it is a feeling of hopelessness and frustration just like writer's block for me. My metaphor for writing when it "works" is trotting on a horse. I lose track of time and feel totally focused on the up and down and the sounds and smells and totally absorbed in the moment. Writing when it flows is totally like that for me. --Shirley P. 
Writer's block feels like I'm clawing my eyes out with jagged fingernails. --J.L. Powers (

Being at the bottom of a monolith with endless stairs.
                                --Audrey, graduate student in Overcoming Writing Blocks course

I was sixteen. It was snowing heavily, over a foot on the ground. I had left the admissions office of Amherst College, where I’d had a bland interview. I was to meet my father at the town library. He had told me directions, but I took a wrong turn and, as Springsteen says, “I just kept going.”

The snow kept falling, off and on, and the wind blew through the gaps in my overcoat and my buttoned wool suit. Finally, I knew I had gone wrong, so I turned, and turned again, and I found myself on a long stretch with few houses. Ahead of me was the University of Massachusetts football stadium. A flicker of memory: a warm autumn day, the bright colors of the field and the uniforms, the concrete bleachers like giant steps, each row coming above my waist. Before a childhood in Illinois and adolescence in Western Connecticut, I had spent my first five years of my life in this college town as my father finished graduate school.

It got colder. My thin socks were soaked with melted snow that found its way into my dress shoes. I turned again, some side street lined with small houses and bare trees. Off to my left I could see where I thought I wanted to go; something told me it was the way back downtown, where the library had to be, where at least there would be stores at which I could ask directions.

It had been over an hour. The library was only five minutes from the Admissions Office. Where was I?

Ahead of me, I couldn’t see a way to turn left, so I left the street and set off down a driveway, then walked through a snowy backyard and leapt over a half-frozen brook.

As truly as I remember, the moment I stepped over the brook it hit me—my own past. I was in a small lawn in the back of a student housing complex—Lincoln Apartments—where I had lived those first years of my life. I had flashes of playing ball on this lawn when there was grass, not snow. I followed a map in my mind around one building and there it was: my earliest home! That back wall, where I’d bounced a ball and learned to catch; the second floor railing from which my father dropped a coconut. It split at the foot of our apartment’s porch, white chunks in the sun. And there, from the porch, I saw the parking lot where I had learned to ride a bike.

I didn’t knock at my old door. I had come far enough.

It took another 45 minutes to find the library and my worried father. I told him my story, where I’d been, what I’d found. I couldn’t explain the mystery of it--why I’d chosen that backyard at that time—and I couldn’t make clear the wonder of it, the way that step across the brook brought a lost world back to me. It couldn’t mean to him what it meant to me: wandering in the snow, dressed in, of all things, a suit, lost, uncomfortable, and then, leaving the road and cutting through someone’s backyard and stepping into something at the core of me.  --J.D. Scrimgeour

I think of writing as a thoughtful expression of various ideas, questions and themes joined together in one carefully engineered structure, in which all the parts do not necessarily compliment one another, but all assist in the work 'becoming' through a combination of their supportive, compressive and passive properties. Supportive parts represent reason, which gives the structure strength and integrity. Compressive parts are the questions I am asking or trying to answer; they are what I deeply examine or wrestle with. Passive parts are grammatical and syntactical elements that provide clarity.

For me this process is like constructing a skyscraper. I am the uncertain and self-conscious engineer, guided by a loose blue print of creative compulsion. Using ideas as the materials and emotion as the fuel, I build, and many times disassemble, until I’ve reached a summit, where, in full view, I feel accepting, if not satisfied, with the overall structure.
--Carolyn Strain, graduate student at Salem State University

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Swimmer in a Bath Tub: The Image I Had for My Own Writing Block

For several years after I finished my first graduate creative writing degree--right into my early thirties--I struggled through a prolonged writing block. It would occasionally dissipate for a few months but then return. I spent many lonely and joyless hours at the desk trying to finish pieces to no avail.

Back then, the image I had of not being able to write was of a swimmer in a bath tub. Specifically, I visualized myself turning a corner in a large and empty apartment with wood floors. (I once had a chic poetry teacher, equally visiting-assistant-professor-transient, who rented an enormous apartment--rents were cheap--but kept only one item, a typewriter on a table, in most rooms.)

I'd turn the corner to see the bathroom, its door half-open, to find a swimmer in a claw-foot bathtub. His (it was a male) muscular arm was frozen in the air above the tub in the position of a forward crawl, his head tilted outside the bathwater as though to breathe.

For some reason, I was holding an enormous piece of paisley like a feather duster because my intention apparently was to clean the bathroom. I could tell he was a serious swimmer, a real athlete, but somehow stuck in the bathtub.

Sometimes the water itself was frozen and set in stacks, each labeled with a tiny "h" or "c" for Hot and Cold, or rimmed in red or blue.

(Less frequently, I was the one sitting in a claw-foot bathtub, a giant taking a bath in the middle of the day. In the bath water were tug boats and parts of the city I was living near at the time--so, New Orleans at one point. A kimono with an attacking bird of prey on back was always hung on the bathroom door. I'd watch ducks and boats paddle around me.)

What I came to understand is that water is associated with the unconscious and that I was unable to function as a writer because I was afraid of what I would find in myself. In real life, I don't know how to swim very well--a fear of holding my breath and being under "water." I am afraid of being "submerged."

I had been trained--was a serious athlete--through my education but was unable to move because I was in the wrong context: a bathtub, not a swimming pool, poetry, not the openness of any-writing-that-arises. (Maybe I felt a bit like I could be like the Olympian mentioned below.)

He couldn't swim not only because he was confined to a bathtub (where the substance, water, does resemble what he would have found in his normal context of a pool, just too small an amount) but because the water itself was frozen, stacked, organized by "temperature." The passions were separated into two binaries, overly simplistic and neat.

The bathtub was claw-foot--not contemporary--not because I had a penchant for renting apartments in Victorians but because it's aggressive, slightly personified, capable of moving and taking my swimmer with it.

What did I eventually take away from this image of my writing block? The need to give myself more of the unconscious to move around in (so let myself write prose as well as poetry). The recognition that all sorts of feelings will be mixed up in that water. Patience with the fact that I was afraid and a resolve to proceed. The basic "physical" action of just moving, without judging the result. Treat all writing as freewriting, private writing, low-stakes writing until I feel joy in the work. Then decide whether I want to up the anty, show to others, send out for feedback or publication.

Just as words carry around conceptual metaphors (see June 2013 post), each of us carries around certain associations with writing difficulty.

When you contemplate the writing blocks or writing-related anxiety you have experienced, what image comes to mind? Freewrite. Describe it in detail; use your senses; provide a setting, if possible. Then unpack it: look at what you've written. Watching your breathing, see what arises. What could this image mean for you? See if you can write a piece--poetry, prose, just a paragraph--from your image. (Here's the poem--below--I wrote from my own image of block.)

From Control Bird Alt Delete (2013 Iowa Poetry Prize, forthcoming from the University of Iowa Press, 2014):

A Lake in the Hand

Swimming through the indents,
and across the herringbone lake
the plane of handwriting and flourishes,
the lines of the palm, a flock of tabs
in the houndstooth sky above the lake,
I bump into a fancy signature
swimming in his lace collar and tweed coat
through the joys and concerns,
around the Rose and Thorn,
the jumps in time, gaps in knowledge
in the channels of the palm, before the school of tabs
hits the pilings, the concrete side of the dam
that is thinking about daytime television drama.
Let me say he is in a belletristic font
that he is making tremendous splashes while doing a forward crawl
and that some of the splashes look like words,
so that along with blue-rimmed pieces of water,
and red-rimmed pieces of water, a Pardon
me scoots forward, each wave a different color
in its wake
and I see that he is toweling off on the other shore.
A quill-like figure on a landscape of graphic design elements,
a city-state where the primary crop is cyclones
and pyramids.  Whereas two score years ago,  I saw
a swimmer in a claw-foot bath tub
as I was cleaning the house with my paisley.
His arm was raised like a branch
fallen on a river, the water stacked in the tub,
little “h”s on some pieces, blue rims on others,
holes to hook fingers in and transport others.
I knew he was an Olympian
swimming at the Y, a great M in a sentence
of blue and yellow tiles

and in this document of a new freedom
a Greek key pattern fills the lake,
w/ houses that are monuments along the shore,
a flock of typed X’s clatters in,
this last line with me on it like a ball
this last line zigzags
and fills the barn,
houndstooth spills into
the barn, where a small red duck paddles
innocently, in circles.