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.