Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Montaigne Method: Keeping Revision Fresh

This post is based on Thomas Newkirk's research on Montaigne in The Art of Slow Reading and his 2005 Rhetoric Review article, "Montaigne's Revisions." Staci Fleury and I co-authored an article forthcoming in the Journal of Teaching Writing in which we applied Montaigne's revision method to Staci's high school English classes. Here I'm talking about the rest of us--writers not necessarily in a classroom.

If you struggle to revise, chances are your audience-in-the-head dynamic is off. If you find revision to be more chore than exploration, you're probably (at least for this particular writing task) acting as though a purely hypothetical reader resides in the present moment with you. Scrutiny of your intrapersonal dialog or self-talk will show signs that you think this reader actually in the room. You're overlooking that fundamental vacancy of the moment of writing and operating as though revision was the same as public speaking.

To help energize revision, find a way to regain the privacy of writing, even at this seemingly late stage in the writing process. In other words, if you find yourself in this state, try to return to the initial working conditions of invention, the opening moments.

No matter how much time has passed since the start of the writing project--no matter how much time remains until the project deadline--return yourself to the mindset of the beginning.

Staci Fleury and I describe how revision is "Janus-faced," meaning that revision can mean looking back to the beginning (a generative and reflective time) or it can look ahead to editing and proofreading (a time for carefully considering the needs of audience).

A writer should be able to push his or her text closer to the beginning at any moment, right up until the very final minutes. Presumably, someone could return to invention five minutes before pushing the Send button on an email to a publisher.

Michel de Montaigne, the sixteenth-century essayist, spent a lifetime adding material in the expansive margins of his often already published texts. The versions of his essays typically seen by twenty-first century readers are distillations of additions separated by years and decades: many present moments instead of just one.

We can adopt Montaigne's practice. Obtain very large sheets of paper (or tape together four sheets of standard typing paper). Tape a page of your draft to the center of this "parchment." Allow yourself 20-30 minutes to revise just this page by only adding material. These additions could be details, phrases, sentences, whole paragraphs, ideas, internal reflection, rebuttal, definition, tangents, examples, questions--essentially, anything that is new material. Try to also add onto your additions by rereading your notations and listening for what arises from them.

The only thing that is not permitted with the Montaigne method of revising is the elimination of content: trimming is valuable but occurs at another time. For now, just add and simultaneously watch your own attitude toward adding. After a lifetime of over-consideration of audience, some people find it difficult to resist deleting their work. Backspacing has been as prevalent in their practice as forward movement. Just take stock of your internal reactions to pure addition.

After 20 or 30 minutes, repeat: tape another page of the draft to another "parchment."

By bringing revision closer to invention, you're making the revision more of a low-stakes task. You're giving yourself the time and space to invent material with all the playfulness, blundering, rich ambiguity, and insight that special phase can hold.

* Image from mediumaevumtumblr.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

I Don't "Do" Drafts (Mostly)

Teachers assign drafts; I assign drafts; students write drafts; I've a dozen of my students' drafts on my laptop screen right now; professional writers finish supposed drafts. At the same time, in my own writing practice I don't "do" drafts. Well, for the most part. 

Once again, I see a schism between how I teach writing (how most of us teach writing) and the actual way I proceed with my own writing. 

We are far better off these days, of course, for all the important practices provided by the process theorists beginning in the early 1970's and 1980's. Process theorists really helped make writing a human activity. Before process theory--with its emphasis on pre-writing, drafting, feedback, and revising--people were put in an odd bind. Since their student years, they had been told that writing was a mysterious, mostly unteachable act; at the same time, high-stakes writing was expected of them and carried consequences for their grades and success. 

What I'm discovering, though, is that the experiences I live through as a professional writer do not synchronize with the experiences students gain in a writing class. 

Instead of discrete drafts, for most of my work, the progress from inception to final version is far less delineated. Moment by moment a text underway changes without clearly naming its stage of development. 

What connects one writing session to the next and gives a text its presence is not the official announcement of a draft but instead an ongoing discussion with myself about process. In my creative writing and scholarly notebooks, I consistently include discussions of how I am feeling about the text, how I physically feel, details about my surroundings, questions, observations on how the text might connect to other projects, goals and wishes.

Self-discussions about your writing need to be nurtured as much as any other part of your writing.

It's important to keep that intrapersonal dialog running. It is respectful of your ongoing experience of writing, not denying or burying aspects. Secondly, it returns your attention to the present moment of writing, providing healthful isolation from audience and giving access to your intrapersonal dialog for content. 

I value those process entries as much as I value jottings about content or passages which are actually typed up. If I find myself only making process observations, I don't judge the session as any less productive as one in which I actually complete a poem or article. My notebooks are full of content that doesn't directly pertain to a task at hand and that doesn't directly yield publication. 

Which brings me to another classroom technique, one I regularly use: the process note. 

Process notes are discrete accounts of the steps involved in completing a task, including discussion of invention, drafting, and feedback. They're fabulous for fostering novices' meta-cognition; they make conscious certain choices that were made along the way of completing a text. Process notes can be assigned at any point in the completion of a document, and they can be graded or ungraded. Paradoxically, this use of process notes makes process more product- than process-oriented. Next semester (or maybe even next week--I am eager to try this out), I will ask students to keep a private process journal along the way rather than turning in unified process paragraph at the end. 

Drafts are really a performance for others. They represent that moment in which you are ready to share your work with a writing friend, colleague, teacher. A draft means that you've tidied up your intrapersonal dialog for the purposes of inviting them in, giving them the chair of at least a modicum of organization and sense to sit down in and be comfortable. 

So a draft could be redefined as the moment when your self-conversation has shifted to a conversation with others. In their turn toward the external and interpersonal communication, drafts are invaluable, but the idea of a draft should never be allowed to paint its boundary lines around the expansiveness of internal production.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Simplest Definition of Invention Ever

Is it possible that invention can be defined almost entirely as about finding the right relationship to audience? That it comes down to locating our most beneficial proximity to audience? And this includes the self as audience: tuning into the frequency of our intrapersonal dialog? 

Can invention for writing be that streamlined?
I'm starting to think so.

Invention, one of the five canons of classical Greco-Roman rhetoric, is widely known as the starting point to a writing task. It's the set of moments when we come up with ideas, material, approaches. For me, it's when I prop a mental plank up the side of my desk and start climbing.

Most people agree that starting a piece of writing can be one of the most challenging moments in a writing process.

In fact, writing experts may feel a little squeamish to actually teach moments of invention. It seems too nebulous, and perhaps its notion that a teacher can enter a student's thought process seems too intrusive and personal. 

In her chapter in Perspectives on Rhetorical Invention, Janet Lauder has described that reluctance in Writing Studies to address invention: "a number of earlier emphases in scholarship on invention have either disappeared or been marginalized: the relationship between invention and the writing process, the heuristic function of invention as a kind of thinking that stimulates knew knowledge, invention as an art or strategic practice, [and] the importance of classroom attention to invention."

For many writers, invention resembles hibernation. Little seems to be happening. Maybe the writer is staring off into the woods, going on long walks, vacuuming. 

Don Murray, in "The Essential Delay," described five reasons writers undergo a waiting period during invention. Murray thought the writers wait until they have sufficient information, insight, voice, and need. If a writer accepts what's occurring during this period of latency, the anxiety of not-starting is manageable. Students, of course, usually don't benefit from this extended period of non-verbal reflection and operate under multiple simultaneous deadlines. 

I'm thinking that what's happening during those moments of hibernation (or strain) falls entirely under the act of adjusting one's dynamic with audience-in-the-head. 

This means noticing the types of fictional Audience Characters one has installed in one's thinking. This means noticing the conversations we're carrying on in our minds with that Audience Character. Or Characters--they're frequently composites. [See the post from January 2014, "Make a Caricature of a Tricky Audience."] This means being aware of our own embodied or physical situations while we write--watching our breathing, posture, energy levels. [See the post, "Yoga for Hands," or Sondra Perl's book Felt Sense.] And that means noticing the present moment of writing: the fundamental vacancy of your actual writing circumstance in which no reader from the future (editor, teacher, critic, reader) is actually seeing your work. [See How-To Tip #1: Kicking Out the Reader-in-the-Head from August 2012.]

When I say above "most beneficial relationship to audience," I'm not necessarily talking about easy street. Sometimes a challenging audience-in-the-head is precisely what our writing needs in the moment. So this audience dynamic inside Invention is context-specific and will change depending on the genre, writing task, audience, and physical circumstances of your life.

 * Image from

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Repost of Flux

Pink Sherbert Photography
Our real environment—one of of constant change—works for us as writers, not against us.

One of the main tasks of mindful writing involves accepting changes in your writing experience along the way.

Nothing stays the same. Mindful writing is built upon the premise of groundlessness. Everything is in flux; everything is impermanent: even writing ability, even writing blocks.
Your feelings about your writing are constantly changing in subtle or not so subtle ways.
Instead of becoming locked into a death grip with one type of feeling about your writing—whether it’s a pessimistic or optimistic view—let that feeling happen without judgment and fear and just watch how the feeling fluctuates.
If we hold on to a particular view of our writing, we eventually suffer. Suffering in the Buddhist sense is caused by not admitting impermanence. For writers, that suffering takes the form of what we call a "writer's block." (I define "writer's block" as an inattention to the Present moment and specifically a lack of acceptance of the impermanence of the Present moment.)
I find that my perception of my own writing varies tremendously.
On some days, I am filled with bouyancy and confidence that what I am writing is worthwhile. Just the next day, I may find myself thinking, “What right do I have to be writing about this topic? What do I know?” I may really like a piece I've just finished and a week later have doubts. Or I may be excited at the prospect of a long weekend to do more writing but then only find myself distracted by plans with my family once I'm actually sitting at my desk.
Trying to replicate a positive writing experience will only last so long as well. Writers are notorious for their superstitions and repetitive working habits: these are strategies to gain some (false) semblance of control over impermanence.
Throughout my writing career, I have found that any gimic I cling to eventually leaves me high & dry upon a beach of blank thought.
In contrast, if I train myself to return to the Present in those times and watch it with acceptance, I invariably find myself in a better day of writing. It may take a few days or even a week, but the next change (one I welcome or would select) does happen.
Many scholars on writing (Peter Elbow, Linda Flower and John Hayes, Keith Hjortshoj, Don Murray, Sondra Perl, Mike Rose just to name a few) have emphasized the recursivity of the writing experience. That is, they have usefully drawn our attention to the time line of writing, pointing out how people engaged in composing a text regularly "loop" around through the different parts of writing--inventing, drafting, rewriting, editing, etc. Broadly speaking, scholars have argued against a linear view of the writing process.
What I am suggesting is a finer grained notion of the time involved in the act of writing. Micro-beats instead of macro-beats. We should pay attention to changes not just in large phases of the writing process (for instance, how a writer might return to drafting after a stretch of editing) but also look at the moment by moment changes. Our real environment—one of of constant change—works for us as writers, not against us.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Repost of The Stone Backpack of Perfectionism

Many of us carry around a stone backpack when we write: we unwittingly lug around a heavy load of our own preconceptions about our writing ability. This backpack isn't filled with stones per se but is actually made entirely of mind-generated rock: zippers, pockets, and straps.

That is, we approach a new writing moment with pre-formed ideas as to how the writing will turn out and what the experience will be like because we--and not some external critic, editor, or teacher--have already graded our performance. We assume we know our own writing capabilities--that we can predict what will happen in the next moment.

We are loading down the moment.

Even if what we're doing is presumably private writing or even disposable writing, chances are good that our intrapersonal talk involves a constant pressure to improve, a restlessness with our writing. A deep-rooted dissatisfaction.

(Not all this predetermined thought, of course, is necessarily "negative": we might be carrying around what seem like highly positive, generous views of our ability. But I'll save for this a later post since the brunt of our predetermined thought, I'm wagering, tends toward the critical for most of us.)

What follows is an activity I use with my undergraduate and graduate students to call a temporary halt to that need to "improve" as a writer.

Get yourself a blank screen or sheet of paper.

What would it be like—what would happen in your thoughts right now—if what you are as a writer is already wonderful, already Buddha?  If your writing was “perfect as it is” now? 

Jot down anything which arises in your mind in response to this notion of already-perfect. (Keep returning to the questions and keep seeing what arises in terms of:

* What sorts of images pass over your mind? Breathe into these images.  Follow them.  What do you notice?

* What sorts of emotion are you feeling?

* What color is one of those emotions?

* Breathe into this emotion.  Follow it. What do you notice?

See if you can gain a sense--even for a few seconds--of what it would feel like to stop wanting to change who you are as a writer. See if you feel the load lighten. See what it might be like to have a more expansive sense of the Present moment of writing. And when you return to the need-to-be-better thinking, notice yourself slipping back on the straps of the stone backpack.

Friday, August 29, 2014

As Simple as Changing Pens

It can be as simple as changing pens.

You want to be mindful as you write and reduce your obstacles? Change pens.

A moment ago, this idea came crystal-clear. I've known for awhile to trust the childlike use of different writing implements in the act of composing.

I've been telling my students (especially in theory courses on writing blocks) that drafts written with several implements automatically insert distance between writer and eventual audience. It's a quick & easy way to gain a little mindfulness on our readers.

Typically, we don't turn in final drafts written with two or more pens, so changing the material aspects of our writing (i.e.: the ink that's physically used to physically construct the pieces) gains us time & space from critics. (Especially the case if we use "inappropriate" utensils like crayons or magic markers or pastel inks.) So I've said this for awhile--known this for awhile.

What I just realized, though, is that changing pens mid-stream, moving from a Mont Blanc to a Bic ballpoint to a pen found on a sidewalk, from black to blue to brown ink, reflects changes in time. Changing pens says that it's a new writing moment, that the phrase or idea in the different ink is on a distinct floe in that passing intrapersonal word river. It means then that you are attuned to the moment, and in that moment, all is possible with words.

Changing pens also implies an attempt to not be unified, not hold things together, not be coherent. To hold yourself together, to hold your writing together, at early stages of invention indicates you are taking undue precautions for a future audience (and that means you have departed from the actual moment). Recall that on most occasions our eventual reader does not inhabit the same space & time that we do as we write & that we should take full advantage of that absence.

However, in a passage like the one you've just read, I did not change my original pen in my blog notebook (where I draft blog posts). A state of flow, usually described as inspiration, glues together such writing with more continuation of internal voice. Thus it's a sense of a non-stop moment, a Tempo, of "getting it all down before it slips from your mind." What I've noticed, though, about that state of flow is that I will change pens to highlight ideas I deem to be strong, to remind myself to pursue them later. So at that moment, I am letting in evaluation (i.e.: sorting some of my sentences on quality).

In that way, I am purposefully situating that bit of writing in another moment of time: one in which I revise. I am prodding that particular phrase into a future time. So in the end I have naturally gravitated toward recognizing the different moments which produce text--continuing to use something as basic as a change of pen to suggest a change in time.

So in my draft of this blog post, the above was written with my Mont Blanc in black ink and then this passage was written with a Pilot B&P blue ballpoint: It's about how changing materials parallels changes in moments--and recognition / acceptance of that change (called "groundlessness" in Buddhism) reduces the suffering of writers.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Call for Guest Bloggers for Post on Yoga for Hands

The post from September 2012, "Yoga For Hands," is an oft-visited one from this blog. So I'm curious to hear about your experience using the method.

If interested, send an account of up to 500 words in English (cut & paste into the body of the email) by September 10 to Please indicate whether you wish to have your name included on the post if it's selected. (Anonymous passages are fine.)

I'm curious to hear about the following areas:

How did the method work for you in that particular moment? Why did you turn to it? What sorts of writing arose from "Yoga for Hands"? (Feel free to provide brief excerpts.) Have you used "Yoga for Hands" more than once?