By Priscilla Long
My first principle is to do no harm. Therefore, I do not tell a writer that he or she should find a different occupation. I believe with the art-weaver Anni Albers that “You can go anywhere from anywhere.” I find that you can’t predict how well a writer will be doing five years from now.
Otherwise, my philosophy of teaching writing is based on four practices.
The first is “free writing” or “writing practice” which the Surrealists originated (I think) as “automatic writing,” but which I learned from Peter Elbow and Natalie Goldberg. This is the practice of doing timed writings (five minutes, ten minutes, half an hour) without stopping. Writing practice gives writers (and scholars for that matter) a reliable means to keep generating new work. It is traditionally thought of as a way to bring up material from the unconscious, but writers also use it to conceptualize, to organize, to observe. Daily writing practice forever eliminates the sporadic work habit and the slow development that results from low productivity.
The second practice I teach is the scrutiny of models (essays, stories, poems, sentences, paragraphs), i.e., close textual analysis. No one expects a surgeon to begin cutting before she has seen a body at closer than casual range: writing a superb story or poem is not easier. (My specific models are constantly changing. I stick to contemporary writing and beyond that, the only author I don’t use is myself.) In the template practice we scrutinize a masterly published piece, abstract its structure, and then create a new work based on the given structure.
I give exercises to aid close reading. These include copying out and imitating sentences and paragraphs, extracting lexicon, counting concrete nouns (able to be perceived by one of the five senses) and putting the same number of concrete nouns into a paragraph of one’s own, and so on. I might mention that such exercises are often recommended for beginners but that as an experienced writer I continue to do them and they help me to continue to develop. My clients use these exercises to work on their own particular writing projects, not as make-work.
My third practice is to teach craft systematically and directly by giving craft exercises, many of which I make up. My developing writers practice making sentences which include lists (the list sentence), sentences using multiple verbs, sentences using adverbial clauses of manner. We do exercises to force the repetition of hot words, to generate metaphors, to develop a vocabulary of body language and gesture. We examine and practice forms of the Very Long sentence, the Very Short sentence, the fragment. In these exercises, writers formulate their own sentences about their own subject matters and thus continue to find their own voices.
My fourth practice is traditional workshopping: Reactions to one’s work can be revealing whether or not the suggestions seem appropriate.
I do not advocate certain forms or subject matters over others. I do not advocate language poems over sonnets, or maximalism over minimalism. I do not denounce confessional poetry or Beat poetry or the Haiku. I disbelieve in subject-matter constraints and in this way encourage writers to write about whatever they are here to write about.
I find that writers at all levels benefit from these practices. I have been researching factors that constitute a facilitating environment for an artist, and work to help build such an environment for myself and my peer writers as well as for my clients.