Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Attention, all those in the waiting area!

Sorry, folks. There's going to be a three hour delay. At least.

Aaaaargh! The world is supposed to keep pace. Our planes shouldn't be late; our reserved tables must be ready; our overnight packages have to arrive as promised. And don't get me started on traffic jams.

But in order to write, I have to purposely delay. Not delay writing---that's easy---you just start picking fuzzballs off the couch cushions and see how many will fit in an old root beer bottle. I mean delay judgment.

This thought didn't come to me while tidying up the couch. I got it from the pages of Eric Booth's book, The Everyday Work of Art. He says that all artists master the skill of holding an idea, an object, or a thought in their gaze of attention for as long as possible without forming a judgment about it. Booth uses some fancy words, "mastering the gestalt default," but what he means is that artists are aware of their own natural instinct to categorize and label new things instantly, and through practice, get better and better at resisting that instinct.

This is contrary to how we operate in the real world. In class, it's important that you come up with the correct answer before the teacher gives the "A" to someone else. While driving, it's crucial you label the guy in the red car an "idiot" before he kills you. And if you stand at a Starbucks counter too long, not forming a judgment about the high cheekbones of your barista, he will just add another shot of espresso to your order and tell you he's not allowed to talk to women over forty.

I think this delaying is precisely what I enjoy about freewriting. I can jump into the stream and float along without wondering where it's going. It's truly an odd feeling, if you're not used to it. At first, I felt that extended freewriting was like pushing a wall of water uphill. How could I keep filling the pages of my notebook with nonsense? Later, I would find a poem, scattered like bits of polished rock, on the river bed of that nonsense, and be glad.

I still find freewriting difficult when I'm using it to come up with new material for a book. I keep trying to dam up my thinking, force it to flow down the course I've set for it: Chapter Five. But it doesn't work that way. I have to float, not row.

How long can you look at an apple without calling it an apple? How long can you freewrite about bees without using the word "buzz"? How long can you hear musical notes without framing them as a song? Truly, we don't need to set aside time to make judgments about what we encounter each day; we do that naturally. But delaying? That takes real skill.


  1. DANG, Sara. You're my official writing blog post to which I'm pointing my writing group today. Floating is HARD WORK. You sound like you're really whipping it good, though.

    (Join me in the chant: Go, Xena-writer, it's your birthday! Go Xena, Go Xena!)

    (though I have never figured out why it has to be your birthday for you to "go," just -- roll with it, 'kay?)

  2. Freewriting/floating is akin is becoming receptive, and letting words and ideas flow through you. A writer is a receptacle. Too often we think we have the power to judge and dictate. Great post!

  3. Between you and Liz Scanlon today, I'm set for my thought-provoking thoughts on the art and craft of being a writer.

    (By the way, Rosemary Wells said this weekend at the Southern Festival of Books, and I quote: "process doesn't exist. Any good writer will tell you that." I'm dying to hear what other writers think of that, and since, hey, she's not a blog reader at all -- I asked! -- maybe I can do a post and let authors have at it!).

  4. I just love this way of putting it. I think it might have soemthing to do with that "keep your editor out of the writing process" concept, but this is much lovelier. I'll be sharing this with my students tonight (who probably think I judge far too quickly :))

  5. I like the fuzzball-in-a-root-beer- bottle idea and will try that one the next time I have some procrastinating to do. Which will be very soon.

    When it comes to delaying, I hate to brag, but I think I'd be pretty tough for anyone to beat. I'd love to challenge someone to a contest, but there's plenty of time for this...

  6. Sara, I love your take on this. I'm an analyzer, categorizer, action-taker person. It's hard for me to float, receive, accept. I've actually been working on it lately, but I'm printing out and pinning up your post to help me remember why it's important. Thanks!

  7. Hey guys, I'm back after a long day of driving, and I thought you'd like to know that as a direct result of this post, I locked my car keys in my house and had a two hour DELAY before I could leave. Did I find that ironic? Oh, yes. Fun? No.

    jules: I'm thinking on that quote. If you post it, I'll reply.

  8. Okay, will do. Some time soon. Don't let me forget.

  9. This is a great post. Floating--I like that.


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