Episode 312 – Free-writing with Peter Elbow

Peter Elbow‘I think it’s kind of a miracle. How can a human mind… all by itself, come up with an idea it never had before? You know, in a dialogue, I can understand how I can get a new idea from you, but how can I get a new idea from myself? That’s amazing.’

So much of writing is about trust – trusting yourself, that you will find something worth saying; trusting that the words will come and that others will find something of value. If you can’t trust yourself to take that first step, you’ll never write anything. 

Peter Elbow knows this from experience. Having been shut down by a supercilious tutor at university he ended up dropping out of graduate school, simply unable to write the papers he was required to submit. But what he discovered in the process was to transform his own writing and that of the thousands of people he’s taught it to since then – free-writing. 

What’s more, he discovered that free-writing isn’t simply a tool for getting unstuck, it produces writing with more energy and clarity. This episode might just change your life. 



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Alison Jones: I’m here today with Peter Elbow, who is Professor of English Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, former director of the writing program there, one of the pioneers of free writing and a passionate advocate of the democratization of writing.

In 2000, he published a collection of essays, Everyone Can Write: Essays towards a hopeful theory of writing and teaching writing, which won the James Britton award from the Conference on English Education. And over the years, he’s won many such awards for his writings and his scholarship. And he’s written many books amongst them Writing Without Teachers and Writing With Power, both of which have been hugely influential for me personally.

So thank you for those and thank you for joining us today, Peter.

Peter Elbow: Lovely to be here.

Alison Jones: It’s great to see you.

I want to talk about your own experience of writing because one of the most wonderful things about your book is that you are so generous and so open about the fact that you found yourself in a bit of a hole, writing wise, and you developed all this basically as a way of climbing out of it.

So just tell us a little bit about your own experience.

Peter Elbow: Yes, so my relationship to writing grew out of the fact that I was a, from an early age I was a good boy. I wanted to get gold stars. I wanted to do everything the teachers wanted me to do. And so that’s a good formula for success in school. And I always noticed that school, one of the main things about school is obedience, learning to do what you’re supposed to do. It gives you success.

But then at a certain point, and I’ve toyed with psychoanalyzing myself, but anyway, at a certain point I couldn’t do it. And it was actually, I was studying in England at Oxford where you work with a, instead of taking classes, I was working with a tutor. Who’s actually the grand-nephew of the poet. His name was Jonathan Wordsworth, he was a young…

Alison Jones: How Oxford.

Peter Elbow: He was no older than I, although I didn’t recognize that because he was expert at intimidating students, intimidating me. So at a certain, he would, you know, at Oxford you read your paper out loud, which is actually a wonderful way to teach, but he would make fun of my writing. And then I just finally couldn’t write for him. And I changed tutors in my second year and I limped through, but then when I started graduate school coming back to The States at Harvard to get a PhD I ground to a hold. I couldn’t write my papers because the odd, interesting thing about Oxford as you would know, in so many European universities, the papers you write don’t really matter and it is the exams at the end that matter.

But in the States, in Graduate School, the papers, the grades that you get on your papers determine whether you can go onward. And I was… and I did badly, I couldn’t write. In my first semester I had a hard time, my second semester I kept limping along and I realized it wasn’t going to get any better, then I quit.

So really my career is based on this double thing, one being a diligent, obedient, successful student, but then running up against a brick wall and being unable to write. And so having been successful, I felt like I was a total failure when I couldn’t write. So I quit graduate school and fell into some low-level teaching jobs just to survive. And that’s when I discovered, I taught in a tiny college with only five faculty members and the only students who would go there were very bad students.

And so what we discovered was that these students who were very unsuccessful at school, were actually, when you gave them a good space and taught them in a nice way, were actually smart. So that really was my foundation to discover that people who look stupid or they can’t function well, are actually smart.

So that’s become a premise for mine and I can’t help taking it to a strong position, which is that I actually believe that everybody is smart but that we get shut down to different degrees. And so some of us function stupidly and some of us function well, some of us do well with pressure, some of us do badly with pressure, but I find it very helpful as a person and as a teacher to just adopt the premise that everybody is smart.

Alison Jones: And the contrast there between the intellectual snobbery that shuts you down as a writer and the intellectual democratization, the sort of the humility that allowed you to open up people who presumably hadn’t thought of themselves as writers, is really striking.

It’s, you think of writing as a skill, but it just shows how much mindset is in there and how much self-belief is in there.

Peter Elbow: Yes, self-belief, trust that you, that you can’t do anything without trusting. There’s a philosopher named Polanyi and he talks about the fiduciary element, the element of trust that’s in everything. And he points out that all these pieces of paper, dollar bills and hundred dollar bills, they’re not worth anything, but they’re based on trust. So everything runs on trust.

Alison Jones: That’s the premise behind Sapiens as well, isn’t it? We just create myths and those myths allow us to collaborate and to do things greater than the family unit, basically. Yes, really interesting.

So you do need to give us more information about the black box, though. So you couldn’t write and now you write, what happened?

Peter Elbow: Well so I quit graduate school and I felt like a complete failure, but then I found, I fell into a job, this tiny college with these students who were defined as failures. When I say that it makes me think of a story that always comes to mind, in my second year at Oxford, I lived in a family instead of in college.

And there was an 11-year-old boy who lived there and he came home from school one day and said ‘Mummy, I’m not going to take music anymore’. She said, ‘Well, why not? I thought you liked music’. He said, ‘I liked it, but they told me I’m not musical.’

Alison Jones: Oh…

Peter Elbow: And it just, you know, I’m kind of a nonviolent person, I’m a Quaker, but I could shoot teachers who say things like that to students. So I always think of…

Alison Jones: …crushing isn’t it?

Peter Elbow: Crushing… Jeremy, ‘and they told me I wasn’t musical’, and so, I just feel that that’s a foundation that all our teaching and our functioning rests on, the trust and ultimately the believing game. We have to trust that we can do things, that we’re smart.

I’m an amateur violist, I like to play chamber music, string quartets. And when you do that for fun, instead of trying to make a performance, but you just get together with friends and you play quartets, that’s the most wonderful thing to do, but you have to sight read. You just have to go along and stay with the beat and if you miss a note, you have to not fall behind. You can’t say, wait a minute I want to go back. You just have to keep going and find your way in. So it’s that trust that you can keep up with the music and stay on the beat and don’t fall back, because nobody will play with you if you say, wait, wait, let’s stop. Let’s start again from B.

Alison Jones: Oh, I missed a note, we have to stop, yes.

And I love that the word you used there about the performance, because I think for many of us and certainly for you at that time, writing was very performative, wasn’t it? That it was seen as you were going to be judged on it and that freezes you up. So I guess free writing is the opposite of performative. I’m not quite sure what the opposite of performative is, but free writing is exactly that.

Peter Elbow: Absolutely. And one of my favourite words actually is garbage. I like to say, we have to learn to write garbage, just write, you know, free writing says don’t stop. But people who are successful in school find that very threatening. And I find it helpful instead of worrying about how bad it is, just try and write how, write badly and write the same word over and over again, or just write shit, shit, shit, shit.

And just to welcome garbage, because once you do that something happens and then putting it a little more technically, if you force yourself to write without stopping, which is what free writing is an exercise in doing, if you have to just keep putting words down without stopping, you don’t have time to think.

And when you don’t have time to think, you just open your mouth and let the words come, the words, you can’t choose the words, the words choose themselves, just like when we’re talking. And, what’s interesting is that I thought of that originally as simply a survival technique. Well, just write garbage. Don’t worry, you’ll find something or other.

But as I investigated it more, what’s extremely interesting to me is that if you write without stopping, and especially if you stop agonizing and feeling terrible about it and just write without stopping, it’s not just a way to get by, there are actually virtues in the language. When you choose words, they are often not as good as the words that are not chosen. When I’m reading a novel or an essay or something that’s published, sometimes I can tell when the writer has worked too hard at choosing the words and it’s very self-conscious and it’s skilled, you know, there is a lot of skill there but it doesn’t have the flow. It doesn’t have the energy of when a writer gets rolling and the words just come, there’s something magical about the language and the thinking that happens.

So learning to trust to allow the words to come and one of the concepts or phrases that’s important to me is not choosing, learning to not choose the words. Let the words come.

I use a metaphor. Take your hands off the steering wheel and just let the words come.

Alison Jones: It’s a lovely image of sort of free riding isn’t it, with the hands off the wheel on the bike, terribly dangerous. This is jeopardy writing.

But it’s not of course, because it’s just for you and that’s the wonderful thing. But I know what you mean about the energy. Sometimes the phrase that you come up with that just arrives on the page. And you think, where did that come from? And it’s so much stronger than what you would’ve crafted soberly and thoughtfully that would’ve been dead, dead on the page.

Peter Elbow: And that’s a good word, crafting, and crafting is wonderful. And you especially do need crafting when you revise.

Alison Jones: Yes.

Peter Elbow: If you follow this line of thinking and you put words down and you invite garbage, it’ll need revising, and that takes craft, but there’s a kind of energy and life in the words that you only get if you take your hands off the steering wheel…

Alison Jones: and live a little through your writing….

Peter Elbow: and live a little. Yes.

Alison Jones: You did, you mentioned the believing game, which is such an interesting principle, I know has kind of run throughout your thought and your scholarship as well.

So just tell us what that is and how it contrasts with the way that we generally think about, certainly academia.

Peter Elbow: Well, I think the best way to get at it is through its negative, that in our culture we celebrate what I’ve come to call the doubting game, which is people think of it as skepticism. Ever since Socrates in a way, was the first person who said no, and he’s not going to accept what the culture says, but Descartes really worked on it.

That learning to, learning to doubt everything. Don’t take any, I love the phrase ‘don’t take any wooden nickels’. You have to be careful.

Somebody’s going to, you know, the phrase is it sounds like a good idea, but if you look at it carefully, it’s wrong. Sounds like a good sentence, but if you examine it carefully, you’ll see that there’s problems there. And I have no argument against this. This is wonderful. This is how we learn to be careful thinkers, to doubt everything.

But though I have, you know, though I want to say that’s absolutely fine. What’s not fine is when we live, as our culture tends to do, with a monopoly on the doubting game. The doubting game is fine. Look at, examine every nickel, put it between your teeth and see if it’ll be a wooden nickel. But in addition, when you find an odd idea, especially if someone else really likes it, there might be something true there.

And if somebody thinks it’s important try imagining that they’re not crazy. Maybe there’s something true there that you can’t see, that they can see something valuable there and you can’t, and you know, that may be crazy, what they want to celebrate may be wrong or dangerous, but you’ll never know until you try it. And so that’s an interesting game, an interesting angle on the believing game, which is the believing game as a test.

You’ll never find out whether it’s wrong until you try believing it because it might be right. But if it goes against your habits of thinking, you’ll never see. You’ll never understand that it’s right. Or especially if it goes against our whole cultures, our society’s sense of what’s right. And if it just looks crazy there might be something good there, but we’ll never know whether there’s something good there, unless we try to believe it.

There was a medieval philosopher, I think Tertullian, who said Credo ut intelligam, I believe in order to understand. He was thinking about God, that he can’t get his hands on a sense of God without first believing. But I want to take that out of the realm of theology, and just say in general, if an if an idea seems odd or crazy, it might be crazy, but it might be right, but we’ll never know if it’s right, unless we take the risk of trying it out, taking a ride on it, taking a test drive and seeing where it takes us.

It might take us somewhere interesting that we never would’ve been able to get to.

Alison Jones: And because you frame it as a game, it’s got that playfulness, that lightness of touch that allows you to try it because again, you’re taking the pressure off. And what I love about the believing game is that it works at an, well, actually I didn’t realize it worked at a theological level as well, there you go. But it also works at a societal level because everybody is very, very quick to leap to polarized views and to argue with people and to shout them down.

It also works for yourself because as you come up with ideas, your instinct might be to say well that’s rubbish. But actually what if it wasn’t rubbish?

What if you just went along with that? Where might it take you? And I think that is a fabulously, creative and expansive frame of mind.

Peter Elbow: Yes and the game or the ‘what if’, and Descartes said that, he said, well, let’s… he doesn’t say we have to doubt everything. He says let’s try doubting everything. He said, let’s get rid of all the ideas that we have and start from scratch. And just, you know, back with cogito, ergo sum,

Alison Jones: Yes.

Peter Elbow: Our sense of self, but let’s doubt everything and then see what we can learn.

Alison Jones: Yes, and that reduction is in that sense, okay, I know I’m thinking because I’m thinking, so what can we, what else can we sort of build on that.

Peter Elbow: But it’s only a game. You don’t have to throw it away permanently. You don’t have to commit yourself to rejecting it. You make a conditional rejection and see where that leaves you.

Alison Jones: And I think it’s a lovely loop back into writing, isn’t it? Because as soon as you take that pressure off, as soon as you see these as thought experiments, as just ways of seeing the world as possibilities, you’re never going to run out of things to write about.

Peter Elbow: Exactly. Yes, the mind is infinitely creative. So often if you’re teaching a class of students who are naive or they’re not skilled, or they don’t trust themselves and you say, well, free write and they’ll say, ‘well, I have nothing on my mind’.

It’s interesting. It’s interesting to say that because people, we do feel ourselves sometimes as though we have nothing on our mind, but it’s false. There’s always so much on your mind.

And when someone says that I like to think of dreaming every night, these fabulous, weird, creative stories and thoughts and ideas come in to our head without any effort. So our mind is every night we discover, if we notice our dreams, every night we discover that the mind is infinitely creative.

Alison Jones: It was a real revelation to me to discover that you didn’t have to know what it was you wanted to say before you started writing. And in fact that starting writing was the best, maybe the only way, to actually find out what the hell it was you wanted to say. And it’s such a counterintuitive recognition so I think, you know, still people haven’t recognized that, that they sort of sit and stare into space, waiting to decide what it is they’re going to write. Just start writing, start anywhere, and then you’ll find out what it is you want to say.

Peter Elbow: And what’s especially pleasurable and useful, is that you come up with ideas you never had before. So whenever I’m teaching a class and I get everybody to free write, after a while we’ve done it, you know, 10 minutes or 20 minutes. I’ll just say how many people found themselves writing a thought that they’d never had before.

And very many, usually a majority of people have had that experience. A thought they’ve never had before.

So this, I think it’s kind of a miracle. How can a human mind that’s enclosed in one piece of skull, how can a mind, all by itself, come up with an idea it never had before? You know, in a dialogue, I can understand how I can get a new idea from you, but how can I get a new idea from myself? That’s amazing.

I mean, I have some thoughts about that too, because I think that comes from metaphors when we make metaphors, but I can get into that later if we want to. But anyway, the mind…

Alison Jones: Tell me, yes. Let’s get into metaphors. I love metaphors and I think, yes, they are our language of creation, aren’t they? They’re our way of embodying new ideas. Tell me about metaphors.

Peter Elbow: Well, yes, metaphors are so interesting once we just say, you know, we’re having this conversation and it’s going along somewhere and I don’t know where it’s going. And I feel like I’m skating on thin ice. So where does, how do I get that metaphor? Because it feels a little dangerous. I’m not sure I want to talk about what I’m talking about or, I mean, that’s not true right now, but anyway, I’m skating on thin ice.

That’s just, a metaphor like that just pops into your mind. And once you make a metaphor or what’s interesting to me about metaphor is that, A I’m having a conversation with you. B it makes me think of skating on thin ice. And what’s the relationship between what we’re talking about and skating on thin ice.

A metaphor always involves three elements because we think of two, the conversation and thin ice. But in what respect is our conversation like thin ice? And that’s where there’s always unspoken concepts, fragility or danger or brokenness. I wasn’t thinking about the concept of fragility, brokenness. I was just thinking about thin ice, but if I take my metaphor seriously, if I stop and say, okay, why did I think about thin ice? Then that will lead me to a third term. The relationship between thin ice and the conversation. And the third term are these concepts that are new: thin ice, danger, excitement or even memories of when I learnt to skate.

So I love how we come up with metaphors easily but they always carry it with them an implicit unstated third term. You know, it’s not so clear when we take a conventional metaphor. My love was like a red, red rose, but talking about writing and skating on thin ice, that’s a new thought.

And what’s the concept they have in common, danger, excitement. Those are new thoughts. So a metaphor, what interests me, a metaphor is a way of having a new idea all by yourself. If I think of some, if I think of, you know, I’m thinking about X, but then that makes me think of metaphor with thin ice.

And if I stop and examine, why is doing it like thin ice, the third concept there of danger or excitement. So making metaphors is a way all by yourself that you can have new ideas.

Alison Jones: And that phrase was key, isn’t it? If you stop and examine it, because so much of the time we don’t, we think in metaphors, but we almost don’t see them because we’re so used to them. They’re so ubiquitous, they’re so… it’s almost, we can’t speak and think any other way, you know, they’re just there all the time, even the clichés, sometimes.

And we don’t pick up on that third element. We don’t take the time to analyze it and therefore we don’t understand why that’s there, what the emotional content of it is, what it can show us that’s new about the situation.

So, yes, that’s really interesting. I’m such a huge metaphor fan. I really do think they are the secret to creativity.

Now, Peter, I always ask my guests for their best tip. So if we have, so the interesting thing about people who write business books is that they tend not to be professional writers. And very often they consider themselves not a writer. So if you’ve got somebody who has that slightly anxious, slightly closed down by those kind of teachers in the past that we talked about at the beginning, what would your best advice to them be about writing?

Peter Elbow: Well it’s always going to be freewriting. My wife makes fun of me. She says whatever the question is, the answer is freewriting.

Alison Jones: I’m with your wife.

Peter Elbow: But anyway…

Alison Jones: I’m with you in your wife’s terms, yes.

Peter Elbow: …but that if we, somebody who doesn’t feel that they’re skilled at writing, if they’ll just take it as a discipline and set the clock 10 minutes and you have to keep writing without stopping, and in order to do that, you often have to just write shit, shit, shit, shit, you know, because not stopping is the secret.

And then if, but then after a while you get tired of writing that one single word and then your mind takes off, so that, especially people who don’t think of themselves as writers. One of the things I’ve noticed in my teaching is that skilled writers, fluent writers, who get good grades in school, they can always think of things.

That’s good, you know, they’re skilled. I say to myself, I hate grading, but I say to myself, these are the people who get B pluses. But the people who get As, people who have a really good idea, they’re the ones who can come up with something new and it’s the unskilled writers, the people who are scared of writing, they more often than the skilled ones, the skilled ones never get stuck, they always find words. The unskilled ones are the fearful ones, who they’re writing along and they don’t know what to, and they feel stuck, and then you have, you know have to say, come on, you have to keep writing, keep writing.

And they just pop into something odd or unusual or surprising. That’s where the creativity comes from, it’s the surprise. It’s the thinking of a thought you never had before. And that is more available, the surprise of a new idea is more available to unskilled writers than skilled writers.

Because getting stuck is the key, running into a brick wall and then keeping going leads you to more creative, more creativity than the skilled writer. The skilled writer never gets stuck and they come up with nice ideas and they’re skilled, blah, blah, blah. But really interesting ideas correlates with getting stuck and then nevertheless carrying on.

Alison Jones: It’s wonderful. Make your stuckness your superpower.

Peter Elbow: And of course you know, this takes us back to the beginning of our conversation. It was my getting stuck that led me to writing.

Alison Jones: Yes, I always ask as well, for a business book, well, I say a business book – it can be any book recommendation. I’d rather you didn’t pick from your own stable you know, it’s considered impolite, but is there a book that you would recommend people listening to read?

Peter Elbow: Well there’s a sort of unusual book, Ira Progoff is the author. He’s a psychologist, but he did writing workshops. He has a book called At a Journal Workshop. He ran things that he called journal workshops and he had suggestions for how to keep a journal. Actually I’ll mention one of them.

He said make a list of stepping stones in your life. Just today, while we’re doing half hours worth of writing, start off by listing three or four or five moments in your life where you had a big choice or where something interesting happened. Just for today, list those things and then start writing them. And that was a way he often got people writing in a journal, an exploratory journal.

 So just making a random choice, look back at your life just for today, tomorrow, you’ll have a different list, but today, what are the four important turning points in your life and write about those. So his name is Ira Progoff he sort of looks like and talks like a butcher from Brooklyn, New York, but he was a very wise person.

Also Polanyi but he wrote stuff that’s not rewarding to read, he didn’t write very well, but had good ideas, but he talks about felt sense. And I, in one of my essays, I talk about that, but a woman, who I’m forgetting her name for a second, who wrote about felt sense.

But felt sense is when you’re writing along and you have an idea and you can’t quite find the words for it, he says, stop and look to your body. Where do you feel that idea? For me, it’s often in the stomach. It’s not a complicated insight but different people feel different things in their bodies, but where do you feel it?

And then he says, go to that part of your body and dwell in that part of your body, where you feel the idea and your writing will become more powerful.

So felt sense, where do you, so we think of ideas and words as intellectual and the physical body as different, but he wants to insist on the link between words and thoughts and the physical body and noticing when you have a thought. And even if it’s not, and you have only the inkling of a thought, you have a hunch, consult the body, go to the body. Where do you feel that hunch? And if you take some time trying to go to that part of the body you can make more mileage, you can get the benefit of that hunch.

You can make that hunch go somewhere for yourself.

Alison Jones: We’re at the edges here, aren’t we, of neurology, that sort of somatic sense of linguistics, of philosophy, really chewy intersectional stuff here.

Peter Elbow: And I’ll just, the body that, you know, that we think of the mind and where is this different from the body, but our primary, I wanted to make sure and say this, I forgot, our primary relationship to language, is through the body because we learn to speak, we learn language by speaking.

And in my teaching of writing and thinking about writing, I always find it useful to take it back to the body. Our primary relationship to language is through the body and through speech and I love the fact that speech takes place through time, that writing looks as spread out in space.

You can look at a whole page full of writing, it’s got a lot of words, but spoken language, you can only hear one word at a time.

So we might think what correlates to writing is like a painting or a photograph where you can see the whole thing, but really what correlates most to writing is music.

You only hear one note at a time and trying to find the rhythm and the energy and the focus in events in time or music, is a better way to think about writing. Writing is events in time rather as opposed to objects in space, even though on a page, it looks like objects in space, but writing is really events in time and music and rhythm.

Alison Jones: Four-dimensional writing.

Peter Elbow: Yes.

Alison Jones: Temporal dimension, brilliant.

Peter, I feel like I could talk to you literally all day. I can’t because podcast, but if people want to find out more about you, more about your works, where’s the best place for them to go?

Peter Elbow: Well, I have a little website with all my stuff there. It’s just peterelbow.com.

Alison Jones: Easy. Brilliant. Well, I will put that link up on the show notes just in case people can’t remember that, don’t know why they wouldn’t, at extraordinarybusinessbooks.com and along with the transcript of this conversation, and thank you so much for your time. It’s been absolute joy talking to you.

Peter Elbow: Well, it’s been such a pleasure talking to you. You’ve helped me articulate my thoughts in a way that is very generous.

Alison Jones: I can die happy. Thank you.

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