How to overcome a writer’s block: Writing Without Teachers


By Gert-Jan Meyntjens

Writing without teachers is one of the few handbooks for writing and composition that is frequently used in American creative writing classes. The outcome of the notes that Peter Elbow, professor emeritus of English literature and creative writing at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, took during the long years during which he was experiencing a writer’s block, contains exercises that mainly aim at getting and keeping the writing going. Quintessential for these purposes are the 10 minute free-writing exercises. These teach the aspiring writer the importance of letting go of control and of trusting his own intuition. Only when the writer learns to briefly stop worrying about writing nonsense (“to invite garbage”), will he be able to write and maybe even to write well.

Free-writing, however, is only Elbow’s starting point. In order to compose a clear and coherent text, the writer will have to learn how to “cook” and “grow”. “Growing” implies a change of perspective on the writing process. Instead of considering writing as a two-step transaction that consists of forming ideas in the mind and then putting them on paper, Elbow points out the importance of the writing act itself for the creative process. One cannot compose and create only in the mind. Putting words on paper is essential in helping ideas and texts to grow and evolve. On a more practical level, Elbow advices to divide the writing process into four different stages, namely “start to write”, “chaos and disorientation”, “centres of gravity” and finally “editing”. Crucial here is of course that editing only takes place in the later stages. In this way, words and ideas really do get a chance to grow.

While “growing” has to do with the overarching process of writing, “cooking” deals with specific ways in which the writer can make his text grow. These rely mainly on putting contrasting elements together and letting them clash. The writer should not only accept, but also look for contradictions and paradoxes in his writing and thinking. He should analyse the images and metaphors he uses and be open for free association. Most importantly, he has to switch regularly between writing the text and analysing the text. These interactions are paramount if he wants his material to start cooking.

In addition to advice for the individual writer, Elbow makes suggestions to those who want to start what he calls a “teacherless writing class”. If such an endeavour is to succeed, one should for example make sure that all members have the discipline to show up for about ten weeks in a row and to hand in a piece of writing each time, that they are open to the views of others and willing to share their own views, and that a healthy degree of dissensus is present during the class.

Writing Without Teachers is a practical book, one that is made to be used. It does not lay down rules for specific literary genres, but tries to help the struggling writer through giving him an insight in the mechanisms at work during the creative process, as well as through giving specific exercises.

August Sander. Masterpieces and Discoveries

By Jan Baetens


Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur – August Sander Archiv, Cologne; SABAM, Bruxelles, 2015

Curated at FOMU (Fotomuseum Antwerpen, 23 Oct. 2015-14 Feb. 2016) by Cultural Studies alumna Rein Deslé, August Sander. Masterpieces and Discoveries is a must-see exhibition that completely reshapes our idea of the author of People of the 20th Century, the famous portrait album that aimed at giving an overview of the human diversity of contemporary life in the Weimar Republic (it was this diversity, as well as the sharply marked social stratification of the portrayed people, that made this work politically suspect for national-socialist eyes).

Although best known for his work as a portrait photographer and mainly considered a representative of the New Objectivity tendencies of the era, the work by Sander (1876-1974) is of a dizzying multiplicity: industrial publicity, landscape photography, botanical studies, among others. “Pure art” seems to be missing, but to label this as an absence would imply an anachronistic view of photography. The divide of “applied” and “pure” photography, which certainly existed since the 19th Century (not always to the benefit of art, by the way, as demonstrated by the historical error of pictorialist photography), was not always present to the mind of many photographers, who did not experience their commissioned work as something they had to do to make a living and, if possible, to enable them to focus in their spare time on more interesting forms of photography. The dichotomy was not between art and commerce, but between well-made, relevant, attractive and thus meaningful photography and the rest.

Sander is a superlative example of such a practice and such an authorship (and it is necessary to read this term in the strong sense of “auteur”, i.e. of a conscious and ambitious individual trying to express a worldview through the specific use of a given medium), whose pictures are a perpetual source of inspiration for both his peers and his audience. In that sense, he is an example for today’s artists, who have to cope with a new cultural and economic situation in which the gap between art and commerce, so typical of the second half of the 20th Century, has come under strong pressure. As the Sander example demonstrates, the future of art should not be looked for in “more art and less commerce” but in the supersession of this divide.


Exhibition page:

Photo gallery at the GETTY Musem: