Monday, March 15, 2010
14. The Writing Life (5) Experimental Fiction 1 Free writing and writing in Free Fall
The OuLiPo School and Free Fall
The look like two extremes. One is the way of excess - pour it out, hold nothing back, write till your hand cramps with pain, then write some more. The other is the way of restraint - write within these strict constraints, following these unchangeable rules.
1. One more step and I'll ...
Back in the late 1990s I used to run a part time course in Professional Writing and Editing at Sunraysia TAFE. I’d spend one weekend a month in Mildura, and teach all day Saturday and Sunday. I’d catch a plane out of Melbourne on Friday evenings and fly back on Sunday night.
M. was a member of my class there. She was a feisty 60 something, who wrote bush ballads and short stories with equal ease. She was a free thinker, an atheist who could not stand god-botherers, so much so that she’d placed a sign on her gate warning hawkers, salespeople and ‘religious’ types to stay away. A couple of Mormons ignored the sign and entered her property, a suburban house block not far from Mildura’s centre. When there was no answer at the front door, they made their way down the side way, Mormon bibles in hand, only to be confronted by M. She had been out the back, gardening. She was wearing shorts, and a ti shirt with a bra underneath.
Now M. was a woman who – to use the terminology of Pete and Dud – was endowed with large amounts of ‘busty substances’. M. looked the Mormons in the eyes, pulled up the front of her ti shirt, and shouted:
‘Take one more step forward, and I’ll scream RAPE!’
Needless to say the aghast evangelicals beat a hasty retreat.
We were doing Short Story 1 that year, and I was trying to broaden the tastes of the group, who were most at home with The Loaded Dog and The Drover’s Wife and Edgar Allan Poe, and with the rollicking verse of Banjo Patterson. So I introduced them to some postmodernists: Barthelme and that lot, and asked them to write a review.
M.’s review was succinct. In just 7 words she did to Barthelme what Truman Capote famously did to Jack Kerouak. (Capote’s review of On the Road was very brief, and utterly damning: This isn’t writing, it’s typing, he wrote.)
Of Barthelme, M. wrote: ‘If I could write like this, I wouldn’t.’
2. Not everybody's cup of tea
Experimental Fiction isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. Many readers, especially those reared on the traditional short story with its six phase structure, often find experimental writing hard work. Edgar Allan Poe analysed the structure of short story – indeed of all narrative – back in the mid 1800s. (He wasn’t the first, of course; no one ever is. Aristotle had done the job a few thousand years earlier. But for our purposes, Poe will be the starting point.)
Poe wrote of narrative structure, defining the stages in the telling of the story.
First, you SET the SCENE
Once upon a time there was a little girl called Little Red Riding Hood …
In the year of 18__, in a certain town in Germany, there lived a doctor ….
The function of this section of the narrative is to create a sense of the ‘ordinary world’ – the world in which the action is to take place – and to introduce the main character(s) and the atmosphere or mood.
Next, you introduce a COMPLICATION or a PROBLEM – in film writing it is sometimes referred to as the INCITING INCIDENT. This is the thing that gets the story going.
One day, Little Red Riding Hood’s mother asked her to take a basket of cakes and fruit to grandma’s house, on the other side of the woods…
The third section Poe referred to as the RISING ACTION. This is the part of the story where most of the action takes place. Red Riding goes into the woods, meets the wolf, and has a conversation. We learn that the wolf has a dastardly plan. He runs off and dresses as Grandma, and so on … This goes on until you reach the CRISIS.
This fourth element is the point at which the major tension or problem of the story is coming to a head. Little Red Riding Hood realises that the person in he nightie is in fact a wolf, and she now faces imminent destruction.
The fifth section is the RESOLUTION. The crisis is resolved: the girl is devoured or the girl is saved.
The final section is described by the delicious French word: DENOUMENTE. In some stories the denoumente can consist of no more than: … and they lived happily ever after. In other stories, it can be longer. It refers to the tying up of loose ends. In some detective fiction - on television and in text – this often involves a summary re-telling of the story, in which the relationships among the intricate pattern of clues laid during the story is revealed.
Some experimental fiction has gone down the path of subverting the various structural elements, and exploring what happens to story if you, say, don’t have a plot, or if there’s no characters, or there’s no structural unfolding of the story.
3. Free Writing
During the 1990s, Peter Elbow – an American teacher of writing - wrote about what he called Free Writing. It has become a major strategy, indeed almost part of the ‘New Orthodoxy’, used by many writers as a means of getting the words flowing. Julia Cameron’s notion of ‘Morning Pages’ comes from the same thinking base.
Elbow said of Free Writing:
Freewriting enables the writer to get past the conventional frame of work because it allows ideas to flow from the mind to the pen. In freewriting there are no walls or boundaries to cast a grammatical shadow on the writer. Freewriting is fast. It should be written that way. It is also important that the writer keep writing even if ideas that seem completely unrelated begin to materialize on the page.
In Free writing, you just write. The ‘instructions’ for free writing are as easy – and as difficult – as the steps suggest:
1. Clear your mind. Relax. Forget all of the rules concerning grammar, correctness and so on. You can also relax about spelling and punctuation. This is the most important part of the exercise.
2. Set a time limit for yourself. If you are a beginning writer try a ten-minute limit. If you are a more experienced writer, try fifteen to twenty minute sessions. In her book, The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron recommends a daily routine she calls “Morning Writer”. She recommends that writers set the goal of writing three pages of ‘stuff’ as a start to the day.
3. After you've set a time limit, WRITE. Don't stop. If you spell words wrong, don't go back to edit. If the idea fades KEEP WRITING. This is crucial to the exercise. Even if you have nothing on your mind, write ‘I HAVE NOTHING ON MY MIND, I HAVE NOTHING ON MY MIND, I HAVE NOTHING ON MY MIND.’ You can keep writing this over and over because it is okay. What you are doing is freeing your mind, and eventually something will surface even if you have to do multiple sessions of free writing.
If you follow these instructions, you can produce pages of ‘stuff’. The ‘act of faith’ is that this ‘stuff’ will actually be of some value. This approach emerged in the 1980s and 1990s as a reaction to more traditional approaches to writing that emphasised detailed pre-planning and careful attention to the details of grammar, punctuation and spelling during the writing phase.
Instead of weighing each phrase, each word, each sentence as you go, to ensure that the second sentence builds on the first, and the structure is right, you simply throw yourself into the current of your stream of consciousness, and allow the undercurrents to pick you up and carry you to … who knows where.
This account is reminiscent of Annie Dillard’s metaphor of the writing process in her essay, The Writing Life. She likens writing to the behaviour of the inch worm.
Few sights are so absurd as that of an inchworm leading its dimwit life… It waers out its days in constant panic… the wretched inchworm hangs from … a grassblade and throws its head around from side to side, seeming to wail, What! No further? … it searches everywhere in the wide world for the rest of the grass, which is right under its nose. But dumb luck it touches the grass. Its front legs hang on; it lifts and buckles, … its body makes a loop, a bight …the blind and frantic numbskull makes it off one grassblade and onto another one, which it will climb in virtual hysteria for several hours. Every step brings it to the universe’s rim…
In just the same way, the writer writes. Elbow puts it thus:
Writing always begins with the first word. Once the first word is laid onto the page the work has the potential to become a poem, a fiction, a letter, a memo, a report on renaissance artists, or even a dissertation on the biological workings of insect digestive tracts. It all starts with the first word.
Freewriting and Morning Pages and similar approaches are built on the premise our unconscious is like a spring, always capable of flowing. And certainly the experience of many writers is that free writing works. To use a gold mining metaphor: with luck, you hit a ‘mother lode’, a rich source of gold ore. Or to use Csikszentmihalyi’s evocative term, you get into flow.
In her excellent book, Writing in Flow, Susan Perry describes flow as follows:
Flow is a relatively new term for an essential and universal human experience. You know you’ve been in flow when time seems to have disappeared. when you’re in flow you become so deeply immersed in your writing , or whatever activity you are doing, that you forget your surroundings… Writing in flow , you’re often certain you’re tapping into some creative part of yourself – or of the universe – that you don’t have easy access to when you’re not in this altered state. Sports figures call this desired condition being ‘in the zone’.
These days I seem to be able to get into flow fairly regularly. I recall one of the first times it happened. It was 1982, my years of living ‘the writer’s life’ full time. I’d received a Commonweealth Literary Grant – enough to support me for a year writing full time. My writing day began at 8 or so, once the kids had gone off to school. I’d write for 3 or 4 hours, take a break for lunch, then write for another 3 – 4 hours. And if things were going really well, I’d continue after tea. Sometimes.
I always had 4 or 5 major projects ‘on the go’, There was my ‘Great Australian Novel’, my semi autobiographical first novel. Then there was ‘No Love For Anna’, a romance novel that I hoped would bring in some dollars to help support my habit. Thirdly, there was ‘Piers Dragonslayer’, an children’s novel. In addition there were several short stories I was working on.
I got up one day, and started a ‘limbering up’ exercise. I’d thought: I’ll just do this to get the words flowing. ‘This’ was to be a page or three about the house I grew up in; it started with the title: My Mother’s House. I’d work on it for an hour, I thought. Three days and sixteen thousand words later, I finished the draft. I’d hit what the American gold diggers called pay dirt.
4. Free Fall or Automatic writing or Mitchell’s Messy Method
There’s no such thing as a new idea. Every idea has its antecedents. Turns out that free writing had been around for half a century. A Canadian named W.O.Mitchell had developed a method of freewriting when teaching creative writing at the Banff School of Fine Arts in the Rocky Mountains. He called it Mitchell's Messy Method, or sometimes free-fall. A commentator described the approach:
It is also known as automatic writing.
Students were expected to stay in their rooms all day and night, except for meals, writing non stop, whatever came to mind, without any preconceived purpose. They listened to themselves, or to the walls, ignoring the herds of magnificent and, during the rutting season, dangerous elk grazing outside their windows, and they WROTE. At the end of several weeks they were supposed to have uncovered the topics and scenes and memories and obsessions that could tell them what they ought to be writing about, and possibly how. They may also, along the way, have developed or found a voice.
Some in universities sneered at this approach. I was tempted to become a sneerer myself for a while, when one of Mitchell's students came to my workshop with a wooden apple crate filled with 75 folders, each containing a different day's crop of free-fall.
Mitchell's messy method helped me find my material, he said.
Now you're going to help me turn them all into stories I can publish!
It seems that Free fall is to writing what a Vipassana retreat is to meditation. The same thing, but much, much more intensive.
How to do free fall writing
Set aside a SUBSTANTIAL amount of time. It should be a minimum of two hours, but it could be a whole day - or more than one day.
EXPERIMENT with FREE FALL writing.
Write whatever comes into your head. Do not censor, just write...
REMEMBER : This is private writing. You will not be asked to show this to anybody.
If you want to find out more, here are some web links about the Free Fall method
A final word on free fall. If there are a few people who like to give it a try, we could organise a weekend – or even a week long Free Fall writing experience.