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Writing Without Teachers
Peter Elbow
Published by Oxford University Press/UK in 1973

A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2002


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This book is dedicated to those people who actually use it — not just read it. Peter Elbow.

“Ah, this is a book dedicated to me!” — I can say this as I write my review some eighteen years after I first read this book. Imagine a book on writing written by a man whose name is "elbow" — which after the mind is the most used muscle in writing. A few weeks ago when I took this book down from my "Previously Read" shelves to look through it, Del saw it and asked me why I hadn't written a review of it. I said, "Duh — I didn't start writing reviews until after I read and used this book!" And it's true, as you will see as my review unfolds.

First I read the book. Began reading it a few days after I bought the book on April 12, 1985. I had already begun date-glyphing books to denote when I bought them and read them. I had not yet begun noting where I bought the books and for how much. The paperback price was $4.95 and listed on the back cover, but the condition of the book indicates to me that I must have bought it used. I might look in my daily journal for that day to see if I noted where I bought the book, but, as with my reviews, I did not start a daily journal until I began using this book.

What qualified me to be a writer? I wanted to write. But writing technical papers were a chore that consumed so much time and energy that for a long time I couldn't imagine that it would ever become an activity that I would spend so much time doing and enjoying. Like someone said of love, I might say of writing — "no other pleasure is so worth its pains". At the time I had been studying a huge variety of fields and I knew that any computer which inputs so much data must eventually grind to a halt unless it outputs some of it. Writing was to be the output, but there seemed to be a logjam. My computer got into an infinite loop when I attempted to put any of it on paper. A few things had flowed over the logjam during my early years, however: two articles on process computers which appeared in Datamation magazine around 1969 plus a report on a conference, some short spoof articles in the Journal for Irreproducible Results, and an article in the Jan, 1981 issue of the International Transactional Analysis Journal. But not much that was fun to write.

I was a scientist, not an English major. I had avoided any non-required Liberal Arts course as I majored in physics, except for German literature which I found that I liked and was an easy "A" for me, and in physics, any "A" was most welcome. A few years before I began writing I had begun reading literature, Jane Austen's "Emma", Samuel Butler's "Way of All Flesh", etc. in my attempt to add some Arts to my one-sided Sciences education. But none of what I read helped me to write. Until Peter Elbow sat by my elbow, took my writing hand in his and forced me to begin moving my pen on the paper without any detailed plan ahead of time. It is what he calls "free writing", but it might as well be called "forced writing" because you must force yourself to do this. It is as brave an act as diving off a high cliff into strange waters. Nothing can prepare you in advance for what will happen. It is suicidal, in fact. A part of you that has been essential to your survival will die — the editor in your head!

Now, editors are essential folks for writers, but not in advance of writing! Only after something has been written do you even allow the editor part of you into the room. Peter showed me how to chase the editor away by forcing me to write completely ignoring the editor in my head. That's what free-writing is. You sit down on a daily basis and write without stopping, without lifting your pen from the paper, without stopping your hand for ten full minutes. Wow! Soon I felt something, a heavy weight, lifting from my shoulders. Peter was suggesting that I write the opposite of the way I had been writing. Formerly I would have had the whole piece laid out, and then and only then would I have sat down with the editor on my shoulders and attempted to fill out the blueprint I had created.

I had a new freedom! I could just write and let the blueprint for something that might be useful or beautiful evolve out of what I wrote! That was really scary to me, but I followed his instructions. I learned to gain control over my writing by losing control over my writing. I let my fingers do the talking across the yellow pages upon which I did my free writing exercises. Actually I used white quadrille pads because they felt comfortable to the scientist part of me and they were readily available.

I did not start my free writing immediately. I needed more help than Peter Elbow or the book could provide — luckily Peter told me in the book how to acquire that help: start a "Writing Without Teachers" class with my friends who might be interested in becoming writers. So I did that. Here's the "Necessary Ingredients" for such a class as listed on page 195:

Necessary Ingredients

Get a commitment from at least seven people for a ten-week stretch
Make sure everyone writes something every week
Make sure everything read out loud is read twice and given a minute's silence after each reading
Give pointing and summarizing responses to every piece of writing
Make sure everyone, for the first four classes, uses two showing (p. 90) exercises
Do three ten-minute writing exercises each week
Use the last five minutes of each class for reactions to the class itself

Explanation of Terms

      Pointing Responses

Start by simply pointing to the words and phrases which most successfully penetrated your skull: perhaps they seemed loud or full of voice; or they seemed to have a lot of energy; or they somehow rang true; or they carried special conviction. Any kind of getting through. Point also to any words or phrases which strike you as particularly weak or empty. Somehow they ring false, hollow, plastic. They bounced ineffectually off your skull.

      Summarizing Responses

a) First tell very quickly what you found to be the main points, main feelings, or centers of gravity. Just sort of say what comes to mind for fifteen seconds, for example, "Let's see, very sad; the death seemed to be the main event; um . . . but the joke she told was very prominent; lots of clothes."
b) Then summarize it into a single sentence
c)Then choose one word from the writing which summarizes it.
d) Then choose a word that isn't in the writing to summarize it.
Do this informally. Don't plan or think too much about it. ... It's a test to see if the words got you right. Also try this a week later: tell someone what you remember of last week's piece.

If you plan to do a Writing Without Teachers class, please do yourself a favor and get the book and read it first. I can only give you a flavor of the book and a strong taste of the effect it had on me. Here's a few examples of my own first free-writing exercises I excavated from a old file cabinet the other day:

Free-writing Exercise of January 27, 1986

"If you stop to think, write while you're thinking," I said at the beginning of the first free-writing exercise of the "Writing Without Teachers" class. "Don't know what to write next" was my next thought but I kept plugging — somehow hoping to defuse — to incapacitate the judge in my head who wants to edit as I go along.

Time for a new paragraph, but what's the idea to fill out, to flesh out with words as I write? Don't know but I keep skipping merrily along, trying no to look at the watch and maybe something will come along.

It's like walking briskly along a path, no time to stop to examine every little bit of scenery, but yet you examine your path on all sides as you stride along.

Looked at clock and it's 5 minutes left to go and so my walk is half-finished. This writing is like the filler in meat loaf — crushed bread to fill up the pan so that the loaf looks bigger than it is. Doesn't the bread stuffing add to the taste or does it only make it look good? Isn't that the point: with good writing, it must taste good if the writing is any good, not just look good? After all who reads something just because it's a lot of words. Obviously the bigger the better is not a good slogan for an inspiring writer.

So write like you cook seems to be Peter Elbow's message. Select the best ingredients, fold them in at the right (write) time, and heat properly until done. Set the timer, throw the ingredients together, taste the results as you cook (taste — don't eat) and set out the results for all to sample. If it's good, all will enjoy an excellent meal. As the timer I can set the ending right now.

Pointing: Strong points: first sentence a beaut, likewise "the filler in the meatloaf" and "write like you cook." "The write time." Weak points: "inspiring writer" rings false. (1) "Doesn't, does" not parallel.

Summarizing: a) b) you're saying think of writing as cooking, select, mix, and heat until done. c) cooking d) tempo

Free-writing Exercise of January 28, 1986

Free-writing exercises start today as an attempt to free the flow of writing into my friends, my fingers and out from the spell of my enemy, the Judge. Here comes the Judge! And there goes the writing, the thoughts undercover.

A neat idea — my fingers as friends. They are certainly old friends — I've known them all my life since I first noticed them flashing back and forth across my field of vision and discovered that I had some degree of control over them And now I can rediscover that control in a new way by writing with my fingers instead of my brain.

So I keep writing, keeping up a tempo that seems to cramp my hand but makes it possible for me to write without editing, without judging. If I relax, it's like stopping in the middle of my walk down the street wondering where to turn next. I encounter that paradox that Gette expressed in her free-writing last night — "if I stop to think, I can't think of anything to write."

Well I'm halfway through — is this going to exercise my hand as well as my mind in a new way? Well it seems to be doing so. How often I begin sentences with "well". Well, I wonder what's that about?

How many book titles have I created in the past eight years nestled in the leaves of the several thousand books I have read? And why can't I remember any of these right now? Perhaps I need that computer system and word processor to compile all my notes in order to have a list of book titles and book ideas ready at hand while writing? When will that Happen? Also what if the channeling — when will that start or will it be a surprise how quickly and in what way it first occurs & develops?

Pointing: Strong points: Here comes the Judge! There goes the writing, the thought undercover. Fingers as friends. Quote, "if I stop to think, I can't think of anything to write." Repeated usage of "well" Weak points: channeling

Summarizing: a) keep the Judge out the room while you write; let your fingers go walking for ten minutes b) write until done. c) walking d) Non-stop

Free-writing Exercise of January 29, 1986

Here I begin free-writing exercise no. 3 at a more normal rate. I will single space even though double space seems to appeal to me more. With single space each 10 minute exercise will fit on a single page.

I note that as soon as I project into the future a possible use in a compiled form of these free-writing exercises that a surge of adrenalin hits my heart. Why is that? Is the secret of automatic writing to do it without thought of the future? To do it automatically without thought of possible utility? Is this writing exercise a way of doing over & over until the adrenalin surges damp out — chill out — and the writing takes on a life of its own? Its future would then be determined not by the thought of the future uses while writing, but by the resultant output of the writing.

Maybe that's the secret: to write and keep writing so that writing becomes an end in itself rather like jogging — you do it because you enjoy doing and stop when it's no longer enjoyable — I could probably switch to double-spacing my writing and at this rate cover a front and back of a single page easily.

What I've learned today is to write every day — and to keep writing — fill up two double-spaced pages — get my thoughts down on paper and discover the utility of the writing in the future — in the writing — not discover the future in my head in advance of the writing.

Pointing: Strong points: surge of adrenalin hits my heart; damp out — chill out — writing takes on a life of its own Weak points: automatic writing

Summarizing: a) write without thought of the future utility, write like jogging — every day so many miles, where you is not as important as what you do along the way b) whatever happens, keep writing c) jogging d) equanimity

That was difficult for me, even 18 years later — reading my early writing exercises — but these early pages represented a quantum leap for me. I was letting my fingers do the talking, and, within a week or two, the Editor and the Judge had left the room in disgust! And I never looked back. I stopped paying attention to grammar — heck, I hardly pay attention to it after the fact. What's important to me as a writer today is that my words flow and communicate as they flow. I feel like I'm still free-writing as my ten short friends trip lightly across the keys — Hallelujah! I'm free! Just keep writing and the thoughts will arrange themselves on the page with the dextrous help of my flying fingers. The flying finger effect! Great phrase for beginning writers who suffer writer's block. When you face a blank page every day and begin writing immediately for two pages and find the content of what you're going to say as you say it, then you will inevitably become a writer. My father, Buster, asked me one day if it was hard being a writer. I told him, "No, Dad, writing is easy — it's having things worth saying that is the hard part." If you have things to say, the only advice you need is this: "Keep writing" — your thoughts will get down on paper and the Editor, the Judge, and all the other parts of you that you've had to lock out of the room while your fingers were whisking merrily away can be allowed back into the room when you find roaming around in your pages some wild animal that you are ready to tame a bit before unleashing it out into the world.

One day I was getting ready to do my free-writing and I realized that the night before I had just finished reading a book. AHA! I thought. Content! And I wrote about the book I had just finished reading. Thereafter, the day after I finished reading a book, I would write a review of it. About two dozen of these impromptu free-writing reviews occurred before I made it official and did the review shortly after reading the book as I do now — apart from my regular journal writing, which is what my free-writing exercises have evolved into. Another way my free-writing background shows up is in my "movie blurbs" — those short movie summations which vary from several paragraphs down to a single word. These are written off-the-cuff, no preparation other than viewing the movie. Once, after a set of these blurbs were published in a South American e-zine, a woman wrote to complain about the lack of grammar. That gave me a big hoot — I really found it hilarious — the idea of having to rein in the wild animals who have escaped from my free-writing exercises to placate the Evil Empress of Grammar.

One last step for my progression as a writer was to invite another person, a real person, into the room to read my material. I call her my copy editor, and her name is Del. She sees things that I don't and I recall the advice that Peter Elbow gave about getting another's reactions (gender changed):

[page 134] If someone has a hang-up about X and sees it in 50 per cent of what she reads (which is actually typical when you start learning someone's real reactions), then you better take her seriously when she sees X in what you wrote. She's an expert on X and can detect it in very small quantities. Very small quantities are important because they affect other readers who can't see X.

One gem that those of you who skip Prefaces, Introductions, Appendices, etc, will likely miss is his Appendix Essay on page 147 about the Doubting and Believing Game. This essential tool for understanding the world was innovated by Peter Elbow. After reading about it in this book in 1986, I next encountered it about 14 years later while in graduate school. My professor in my College Teaching course, Dr. Michael Paulsen, used it and recommended it to us. It is a tool of teaching that he used effectively in class with us. My comments about the Doubting and Believing Game can be found in my review of Peter Elbow's fine book, "Embracing Contraries — Explorations in Learning and Teaching".

One motto I've had for over 25 years is "Thus a Teacher, So Also a Learner". You can interpret it many ways, but one important way is that one must become a learner in any situation if one is to operate effectively as an teacher. If school systems were to give every so-called Teacher the new title of Learner, one can only imagine the waves of improvement that would flow through our school systems and most importantly through our youngsters who have so much to teach us.

---------------------------- Footnotes -----------------------------------------

Footnote 1. should be aspiring — you must begin as an aspiring writer before you can ever become an inspiring writer.

Return to text directly before Footnote 1.


Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne


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