Textless Writing and Pedagogies of Trance

On Friday, I presented some of my current research at the CUNY GC’s English Student Association annual conference. I’m developing a writing process activity called textless writing, which is writing about a text without initially referring to that text. I see it as a way to have people tune more in with memory and with their own affective (and maybe somatic) responses by setting aside the text’s authority and trying to establish their own authority.

Here’s two passages of my textless writing defining textless writing: “Briefly (and textlessly), textless writing is another side of Peter Elbow’s notion of writing without teachers. In his book by that name, he lays out the ways in which students can open out their own writing processes. Part of that work is helping them find tricks and tips that he lays out beautifully, but I think the implicit notion of motivation that’s behind it is in even more important. Part of what is revolutionary about Writing Without Teachers is its real glimpse into the mind of a writer who, though very erudite and productive, isn’t always satisfied with his own processes. My hope is that productive lostness comes in as a way to show my students that they can sometimes reshape that dissatisfaction into a new kind of thought.”

Here are the instructions (a work in progress):

“Think of a text you know well or that you recently read. Write down its title and its author, creator, or star. Write down everything about it that you are drawn to write. Keep going. Pick one of the points you have that interests you, and try to go further. When you’re done, pick up the text you wrote about and fill in any gaps. See if you can be impressed by what you did.”

Here is what I wrote about my students’ most recent response to it:

“My students listened to the instructions (the same ones, more or less, I just read to you) and started writing right away. They didn’t look at me; they just wrote. They dove in, even though I hadn’t told them diving in helps. They wrote so much that I spur of the moment tweaked the instructions, and invited them to just keep writing if they were writing, and only to pick that one thing to focus on if they were stuck and needed a shift. Then we talked, and they blew me away.

Usually students talk about their affective experience of the exercise. Some of them hate it, and some of them love it, and I always stress to them, like Sondra does with her Guidelines, that either feeling is fine. This group wanted to talk about ideas: they told me what texts they chose (all texts we’d read and discussed together) and why, and they told me the ideas that came out of writing without those texts. Some of them chose texts that were personal: J chose the one whose author, Amy Tan, writes her mother’s speech like J’s own mother’s; A, for whom Gloria Anzaldua’s use of Spanish struck a really powerful chord, came up to be excitedly after class and asked if she could also use undefined Spanish in her essay that’s due next week. Some students spoke about only being able to recall overarching themes, and thus getting a broader view of the text; others said they remembered details, and found new meaning there. Some students chose texts they were already writing about, for the paper that’s soon due. One of those students was able in her short time of writing to draw a connection between two authors we’d read, one that she thinks will give her paper the direction it hadn’t had the night before. (She was beaming, and I about fell out of my chair with glee.) Another student was so taken with the passage he wrote about Alison Bechdel that he told us he was scrapping his existing paper draft (on Frederick Douglass) and going further with Bechdel, instead. It was so exciting and invigorating that we didn’t get to the next part of textless writing – bringing the texts in – but I knew they would do that when they got home.”

I’d love for folks to try it out and see how it works in their classrooms and let me know all feedback!