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Writing as Therapy?: Response to Peter Elbow’s Writing with Power

Peter Elbow’s 1973 Writing Without Teachers was one of the first composition books I ever read. I carry its insights with me every time I teach or sit down to write. During the years I spent struggling through my own stuck place–when I could not write without extreme anxiety, when I piled up incompletes, when I was certain I was incapable of continuing in grad school–I took courage from Elbow’s model. This first book emerged from his close study of his own troubled writing process. Through the quotations from his own journals, we see the power of his arguments for freewriting and expressive practice. It’s a book about his own recovery as a writer, a kind of rehab-through-writing through which he discovered practices that could help other writers help themselves. He taught me to study my own writing problems, to learn from them, and to be patient with my progress toward fluency and confidence. I’m deeply grateful for that. If I get the chance to go back to this book, I want to think more about the force autobiography or auto ethnography plays in the development of his writing theories . . . and my own.

Writing with Power, Elbow’s 1981 followup to W w/o T offers something different. It’s a book jammed with short, practical essays describing in step-by-step descriptions a range of practices writers can use to free their verbal invention abilities, discover new insights about a topic, work with other writers and audiences, and strengthen their writerly voice. Theory is kept to a minimum, and Elbow’s own autobiographical comments play only a sideline role. He speaks at once to other writing teachers (who can use these techniques directly in their classrooms) and to writers themselves (who might, without teachers, use these techniques to refine and grow their practice). I assigned my own students four or five short chapters from the book this semester in the hopes that they will be able to better incorporate freewriting and other exploratory writing techniques into their developing process. I hope that reading Elbow describe writing processes unambiguously but without jargon, they will find new abilities to see their own writing processes for both the strengths and weaknesses that might be there.

As I read Writing With Power, I find myself seeking out moments where Elbow discusses either the thinking or emotional lives of writers. Unlike many writers emerging from the cognitive turn in composition whom I will discuss in my next few posts (Mike Rose, Flower and Hayes, Sondra Perl), Elbow’s interest in cognition and affect for the most part says hidden under the surface. I spot his conception of writing, thinking, and feeling blending together in a few key moments, however.

In Chapter 8, Elbow describes “The Loop Writing Process.” In essence, Elbow provides a series of focusing prompts designed to help writers explore their thoughts on a topic through freewriting. Rather than relying on completely open writing processes to explore a topic, Elbow provides a list of prompts to guide creative exploration: write first thoughts and impressions; write prejudices you hold about the topic, or make some up pretending you hold a more extreme view than you really do; tell stories about the topic, or tell lies; pretend to speak to vastly different audiences, or in different registers as you write. All are meant to be exploratory and to help the writer discover new possibilities for future drafts on the topic.

By indulging in these focused loops, Elbow claims “you are letting goals, meanings, and end-products slip partly out of mind in order to allow for restructurings of your mind and new points of view that would be impossible if you kept your eye on the goal all the time” (75). At the end of the process, he discusses “the voyage home,” the turn wherein the writer sets aside these playful redirections and points back to the real task at hand, the essay draft or report or other audience-centered piece he’s really trying to produce. Elbow calls this process a “return . . . to full consciousness of what your goal is” (ibid).

I am struck here by the way he describes the mind here. Though he describes the loop techniques as a sort of game, he claims that employing the approach allows writers to restructure their thinking processes, to take over their cognition and make intentional decisions about how it will be employed, to do the steering, and to choose to steer ones consciousness away from the obvious goal of writing for an audience. I think about Rose or Perl who studied disruptive thought processes in the writing process, and who developed techniques to help writers NOT think about certain things (like rigid genre expectations or premature editing needs). The element of cognitive training that’s going on here makes me think of the kind of cognitive training people with LD sometimes undergo as they learn to understand their own cognitive processes and to come up with metacognitive strategies to make the best of their capacities. Even if the particular prompts Elbow includes in his list of loop writing techniques do not all appeal to writers or teachers, I think there must be substantial benefit in simply helping writers make conscious choices of some kind about how they use their writing and thinking processes. I wonder what techniques like loop writing could provide Learning Disabled (LD) people who have serious troubles with connecting their ideas to writing.

In addition to exploring the cognitive aspects of writing practice, Elbow also investigates the affective connection–what feelings have to do with writing. His sixteenth chapter, “Nausea” focuses on the experience of anxiety that writers feel when confronted with their own writing in the drafting stage: “revulsion” “disgust” “The feeling that all this stuff you have written is stupid, ugly, worthless–and cannot be fixed” (173). This discussion gets me thinking about students with testing anxiety or other psychological impairments that interfere with their ability to work efficiently in high-stakes academic settings. It also makes me think of myself, and my own habit of dismissing my writing in its early stages, the shame and anxiety I feel at having produced shitty writing, how paralyzing it is.

I’ll quote Elbow’s advice at some length:

[. . . ] I have finally learned that nausea need not ruin everything. If you are a victim you can learn to fight it in various ways. First of all, recognize it for what it is: a stupid game you play with yourself, a sneak attack by demons, a bad habit. Gradually you will learn to see the pattern in it, a trick your feelings play on your as they try to keep you from being effective.   [. . .]

Once you come to understand the pattern of this recurring nausea, you can deal with the feelings: do a freewriting in which you let go and tell how disgusted you are by everything you’ve written and how worthless it all is. When you give the feelings full rein, it’s easier to see them for what they are. Or you can scream or cry the feelings out to a friend or a mirror or a closet. And it may help to turn back to some already completed writing of yours that you know is good–to reassure yourself of your powers.

[. . .]

Finally, learn to be prident about what you do to your writing during these attacks. Acknowledge that when these feelings are upon you, you are in an intellectually and emotionally wakened condition.”  (173 -74)

I’ve been seeing therapists long enough to recognize what Elbow’s doing here. First, he identifies the source of the anxiety in the writer–it’s something you do to yourself for reasons that might not be conscious to you, perhaps relating to your fear of failure, your doubts about your abilities, or your memories of being judged negatively by others in the past. Though these aren’t consciously in your mind, the feelings of distress are getting in the way of your ability to work on your writing. So Elbow advises using writing to help expose these demons and see them for what they are–disproportionate responses to the challenge at hand–which is that you’ve produced a draft that might not be ready to turn in yet. If I knew more about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, I could probably identify what he’s doing here more accurately, but I feel a deep familiarity between his approach to what I’ve experience in therapeutic settings. (Indeed, if I do end up talking about Writing Without Teachers later, I should think more about how he models his practice after group therapy approaches, which he claims.)

So, while Elbow doesn’t focus this book on studying the mind in the same way that Perl, Flower & Hayes, or Rose do, his practical writing techniques employ a deep attention to both the cognitive and emotional lives of writers: a close knowledge of what it means to think and feel while writing. For students with LDs and psychological impairments–for whom thinking processes and emotional states might be especially disruptive–Elbow’s approach might be especially useful. I could imagine service providers teaching students with LDs and psychological disabilities to develop meta-approaches like Elbow’s to help them better understand and manage their difficulties–at the same time providing useful writing tools for use in their classes.

The main criticism of process scholarship was that it was too clinical in its focus. But it’s this aspect of clinicalitly that appeals to me most. For some students, the university and the clinic are not such different institutions. Maybe folks like Elbow can help us better understand the role writing can play in bridging the institutional and philosophical gaps between these spaces that disabled students routinely inhabit.

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