Writing about oneself

The danger of daily blogging is the great, seductive trap of the meta — the inevitability that your compulsory daily writing challenge will eventually turn to itself for a subject, and you will begin writing about your writing … about your writing, an imploding centrifugal hamster wheel from which little of beauty or relevance ever emerges. Greater minds than mine have foundered on these shoals.

It was pretty high on my list of just-don’ts when I started this new job, but, without a declared, external point of focus — music, Washington D.C., knitting, scripture, whatever — the time will come when you hop on the meta-cycle and write about what you’re writing about, pedaling yourself into a little nucleus of rubber bands, frayed yarn, and reflective foil with little connection to anything but itself.

My editor tells me he hopes that will happen to some of you.

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And here we are, not even two weeks into my tenure as a Village Voices contributor. The circumstances extenuate hard. Covid quarantine significantly increases the chances of a meta-writing event. Furthermore, I’m locked down in the same small town in which I grew up, all but a guarantee that one’s own navel lint starts to appear as if it holds all the secret codes of the universe, not to mention enough complex enzymes and proteins to meet all one’s daily nutritional needs.

The confined self, searching for something to throw +/- 400 words at, and under the pressure of an early evening deadline, will eventually notice the confined self, just sitting there and searching for something to throw +/- 400 words at. As a subject, at least it enjoys the advantages of being close at hand, directly observable, and something about which one’s authority is exclusive and absolute.

It seldom makes good reading, though. Right?

When I was a young graduate student getting into the teaching of writing, I was profoundly influenced by a composition theorist named Peter Elbow. He was perhaps the leading and most philosophically coherent voice of the division of composition theory referred to — often dismissively — as the Expressive or Romantic school, as opposed to the cognitive school, which treated the study of writing scientifically and empirically; and the social school, which viewed all discourse as the negotiations of authority, social identity and context. The social school, in case you needed to ask, won.

But Elbow was, and still is, my guy. Grounded in humanistic psychology and generative linguistics, Elbow’s Romantic theory of composition treated writing as experimental and developmental — not how you express what you have to say but how you discover it in the first place.

Elbow’s model, formulated in his seminal first book Writing Without Teachers and never really  surpassed, described a community of writers liberated from traditional product-based and prescriptive wisdom regarding what is and isn’t good writing, liberated from outlining (which he described as like trying to fit one and a quarter thoughts into three categories), liberated, finally, from the belief that you should know your point when your start.

What is writing, ultimately, if not the power to change your own mind? Once you embrace it as a process of discovery, you learn to want and expect that alchemical magic of transformation every time, whether you are writing a grad=school paper or a poem or a shopping list.

If you are not changed on the other side, writing did not happen.

There were other influential figures in the Expressive school of composition theory, but they were mostly charismatic blowhards who defiantly told their students it was fine to write from experience and in their own voices rather than in an inherited academic style. Fine as far as it goes, but Elbow’s lucid theory suffers by association with them. He was on to something much bigger than grandstanding rebellion.

Elbow’s method implied and was limited to no particular subject matter or mode of writing. Contrary to a very common misinterpretation, Elbow in no way favored personal narrative  or other “creative” writing, over say, critical analysis. It was modally agnostic and applicable wherever the page was blank. The misreading of Elbow’s methodology as “soft” or “feely groovy” was inevitable. In fact, he foresaw it, he called in, in Writing Without Teachers.

If you’ve heard the name Peter Elbow before, it is most likely because somewhere in your education at some level, you were introduced to a brainstorming technique known as “freewriting,” a timed and ritualized technique of warming up in which all you have to do is not stop or pause at all, not once. It was kind of the take-away prescription of Elbow’s theories for the pedagogues downstream, his brand, and to my mind one of the very least interesting things he had to say.

Look, I am a hardcore Peter Elbow adherent, in the classroom and in my life. If I hadn’t been exposed to his theories at exactly the time I was (thank you Jan, Schmidt), I wonder whether I’d have the resources and self-understanding and tolerance of uncertainty and failure to undertake any creative work at all. But I have never been able to freewrite as Elbow describes it. Why? Because the damn thing always becomes about itself.

Read more installments of Village Voices by John Burdick.