In the last couple of writing courses I've taught, I've found occasion to use a giant online, countdown stopwatch. In an Informal/Personal Essay course I taught in the spring, I spent some time reconsidering the invention activities I've used in the past. I wanted a way to put the emphasis on generating, rather than evaluating or deciding. Deciding, I had decided, was a poison to college writers. Deciding always seemed to set in too quickly.
The students were trying to come up with topics for their take on a "This I Believe" essay. After listening to, reading, and discussing how these essays seemed to work, the students had to decide among their many beliefs or creeds which to feature and animate in this essay. A tough task! So I began by having them write the beginnings of five sentences on a blank sheet of paper: "I believe that..."; "My life's philosophy is..."; "My grandmother always told me..."
Enter the stopwatch.
I gave them 60 seconds to complete each sentence with the goal of just getting things down, just reading the sentence beginning and articulating their first impulse. Just finish all the sentences. Then we immediately wrote the start of five more sentences and this time they only had 45 seconds to complete them. No breaks in between, no time to go back and reread. No evaluation yet. No deciding.
This, I think, this use of time pressure is a bit naughty in the context of writing instruction. Process, amidst all its insights, taught us right away that stretches of time are needed for good writing to emerge. Why are we asking students for a theme a week?, Emig asks repeatedly through Composing Processes. In Berkenkotter's study of Murray, we see a productive, prolific writer fully crippled and dismantled by a timed-writing session. And with all we've come to know about writing anxiety, mood, and blocks, using time to exert intentional pressure on the writer seems at first, well, cruel.
But. Here's why I'm a fan of timed invention activities. Time pushes evaluation out of the way. Time really strangles the evaluation impulse. The mind can think interesting and surprising things if you don't get in its way. I know this because I tried my activity myself before I sold it to my writing students. I filled in those belief sentences and I was surprised to see what I wrote. I thought most of it garbage. But moreso, I found it fascinating to see what came out of me. Ask a ponderous, weighty question to yourself like, "WHAT DO YOU BELIEVE" and you will bring your process to a full stop. So instead: ask it sideways, trick your mind into responding quickly and see what comes out, then see if you really DO believe what you wrote.
I've also been thinking about the virtues of time in my own writing process. I currently have a lot of pressing writing tasks running at the same time--dissertation intro revisions (this is maybe the 4th or so round); a revise and resubmit that's been buried in my inbox for far too long; the drafting of a chapter for an edited collection. I now have the time to do this writing. But I know that I'll wiggle away from this work, no matter how many exclamation points I use in my daily planner, or how emphatically I underline the task. So instead of setting task goals (e.g. read/note final sources, make an outline, DRAFT!!!!!!!!), I started writing time goals. 2 hours in the chair doing ANYTHING toward the projects. So far it's working. No pressure, just sit there and do it, do anything. Famous, gifted writers talk about just putting the time in, everyday. Even 10 minutes. I'm starting to see myself the virtues of thinking in terms of time.
Now to decide if my clock should be running as I'm writing this post...
Dr. Hannah J. Rule