Writing where the energy is



The conventional advice offered to people who have some trouble writing is to engage in “free writing”. Write, usually in timed sessions, whatever comes into your head about a particular topic. Write without stopping. Write perhaps to prompts about a particular aspect of your work. Write without stopping to think, because it is the thinking that gets you into trouble. Shut off your inner editor and just write.

There are many versions of, and modifications to, free writing. One that I like is what is called “Writing without a parachute”. Parachute-free writing, or what Barbara Turner-Vessalago calls free fall writing, is a process designed for creative writers. It has five basic tenets, three of which are easily applicable to academic writing:

1. write what comes up for you – this suggests that you don’t have a plan or prompts, you just write what comes into your mind
2. don’t change anything –this suggests you don’t read back what you are writing until you’re actually done. This doesn’t mean you have to write continually, you can stop to consider what is the most interesting, accurate or persuasive way to write something, but you don’t switch gears and go back to ‘fix’ the text. You keep going.
3. go where the energy is. This suggests that you write about something that grabs you, that you want to write about at that moment.

Number 3, go where the energy is, can be a pretty worrying idea for academic writers. Why, when there is so much that must be written about, and so many deadlines to meet, would you just write about the thing that seems most interesting? What’s most interesting probably isn’t the thing that is most pressing, most important, or most relevant.

Parachute free writing suggests that

…following the energy is the very best way to learn how to become absorbed in your writing. What could make more sense, really, than to write about the things that have a charge for you when they come up, as they come up, regardless of what the thinking, reflecting mind has to say about it. … instead of dismissing a subject that has energy when it emerges, you turn toward it.

The point here is that it’s important to experience what it means to become totally immersed in writing, to dive into the process of writing and look up only when you are done – perhaps to discover you have been writing for a long time without knowing it. You’ve been on automatic writing pilot. The process of total absorption is what the psychologist Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow” – the optimal experience of being completely immersed in an activity. A primary school child once gave me, and my research partner Chris, a wonderful description of flow – he said that painting was like being midway between the diving board and the pool. Everything stops and you’re just there, hanging, poised, in the middle.

Writing without a parachute advice- go with the energy – proposes that sometimes the best starting point is to write what you can and what you want to write. This is likely to produce something of use, unlike sitting down to reluctantly write when you may well balk, and block writing what you must, or what you secretly want most of all in the world to, write.

Academic writers can certainly benefit from writing something that they have a bit of energy for. I often ask doctoral researchers, as soon as they have finished their field work, to write down all of the things that are buzzing around in their head – these are the things that they have most energy for at that moment. One of the things that often happens is that an idea that has been lurking half-formed takes shape. Insights that they didn’t know they had appear on the page. Once the text is written it can be put away while the analysis goes on and the initial impressions can be tested out. But very often, they find, the first big ideas that are formed through this energy-focused writing turn out to be sustained and important.

And I too find that its good to sometimes write where the energy is. So much academic writing is writing that is required of us – a research report, papers about research that report results to a wider audience, chapters for edited collections about a topic that someone else has designed. Every now and then I just get an idea out of left field that I want to pursue. I don’t always do this, but when I do these idiosyncratic papers often turn out to be quickly written, well formed and they are often better pieces of writing than those that I have more dutifully produced.

Writing with the energy is of course often what bloggers do. But the practice does have wider possibilities.

Writing with the energy is an interesting proposition and one that academic writers might like to play about with. It’s a good addition to your repertoire of strategies to get confident and happy about writing and to maintain and sustain the writing habit.

PS: If you don’t know about flow and Csikszentmihalyi you might be interested in watching him speak about how he became interested in the topic, his life-long research on flow, and the connections between “training’, challenge and flow. It interesting to watch this and make the connections between his theory and the process of learning to be an academic writer.