I spent last week at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival taking a class in writing essay, using process pedagogy and taught by Nancy Barry.
Look at it this way: the writer explores (writes into) a topic, several iterations, to find out what they really want to write about, and the writer also uses feedback to identify key points, so the process included a few one on one sessions with a classmate. (See Peter Elbow’s Writing without Teachers.)
In my first iteration (15-minute free writes), I wasn’t sure what I wanted to write about, but it would be something about my recent move from Chicago to Sioux Falls.
By the second iteration, I thought I wanted to write about how older women age.
In the third, I was thrilled to discover a title: Starting Over at Seventy Four.
By the fourth, I explored, “What am I going to do with this chance to start over?”
In the fifth, I asked myself, “How will I spend my time?” meandering off to the findings of my master’s and doctoral research on the meaning of leisure for older persons. Now, ironically, I could be one of my research participants.
By the sixth, I started, somehow, with, “I have never been content.”
And the last, “Thanks to my dad, I’ve always been curious (or never been content).”
All of these, mind you, are “explorations” helping me answer what do I really want to want about and what is it I’m trying to say, culminating, finally, into a first draft.
I had great fun with this class. I was endlessly surprised with what came out of my pen with the next free write. I think I could write iterations forever, though, because with my curious mind, I could see that more iterations could get deeper.
And that’s what I’d told my teacher and class during the first session: I want to write deeper. Not just the “what I had for lunch today” kind of writing.
So, in seeing the process of writing deeper, I see that it also fits with my psychiatric nursing background, asking myself why I do something, then why again, then why again, until I’m perhaps back in utero and have no means of recollecting any more why’s. But then, I would, finally, have a first draft!
By the way, after these “exploratory” iterations, when I finally have that first draft, I have a set of questions to ask of it, then I can proceed to revisions one and two, and then finally to an editing stage, each of which asks another set of questions.
Thus, this genre of essay, according to Nancy, “allows the writer to explore how they may feel about it [a topic] and will not have conclusions ahead of time.” The exciting aspect is, as she added, “the essays can accumulate on each other and could become a book.”
I think I feel a book coming on. But I must unpack more boxes before I’ll have the time.
Note: We also were challenged to write a specific number of words, as if we were writing to meet a publisher’s requirements for a column or a longer literary essay. I’m proudly informing you that this blog post is exactly 500 words. And that took work!
(The formal name of the class was: Start to Finish: One Essay in One Week.)