Writing Offstage

Uncategorized / Monday, October 7th, 2013
Jessie Gurd
Jessie Gurd

By Jessie Gurd

Jessie Gurd is a fourth-year PhD student in Literary Studies and has been an instructor at the Writing Center since the Fall of 2012. Jessie studies early modern English drama; her work focuses on ecocriticism, geography, and spatial theory.

A run, whether on a lakeside path or a treadmill, is not an obvious time for writing. There’s the sweat, the awkwardness of carrying a computer or notebook, and the small problem of all the jostling that running entails. Even so, when I tie on my running shoes and fill my water bottle, I am often anticipating a writing session. Occasionally I go home with some actual words set down—sometimes I send myself a typo-riddled email from my phone—but more often all my writing is invisible. This invisible writing is critical to my future drafting and work on the current project.

What running allows me to do is clear my head and empty it of a grad student’s daily anxieties. Listening to music or cicadas or traffic, I can consider one thing at a time and turn it over in my mind. It’s a groove I hit after a couple of miles; I engage with the problem, question, or task I choose and roll with it until my run is over. In this physical-mental space, I sometimes feel like my own writing instructor as I tackle some stage of the writing process: brainstorming, outlining, drafting. A run can help me make sense of an inchoate mass of ideas I’m trying to organize. I can sort through the structure of an argument and find the gaps I still need to address. Less frequently, I compose prose on the move and hold on to as many phrases as I can until I make it to my computer or a notebook.

A view of Lake Mendota from the Memorial Union Terrace, one spot along a beautiful route.
A late summer view of Lake Mendota from the Memorial Union Terrace, one spot along a beautiful route.

This all sounds pretty fantastic and unlikely (even to me), but here’s the thing: at some point in my writing career, I learned to write without writing. It may have started in high school, when my mom (herself a former UW Writing Center instructor) would sit me down and make me talk through my assignments before I started typing. It may have been in college, when I’d take notes on a prompt, come up with a rudimentary argument, and then ignore the assignment for several days before sitting down to write everything in a few hours. In time, I got better at it. I can jump-start the process when I need to (like by going for a run), and I practice keeping track of ideas about structure and argumentation on mental notepaper. It’s not perfect and I have far from 100% recall, but doing this kind of writing saves me time and sanity.

Captured: my shadow as I think through a problem while perching on a gate in the Driftless Area.

In my own work as a student of early modern English drama, I take interest in offstage or otherwise distant spaces and action. Things happening offstage are invisible, but their effects are not. The befores, afters, and in-betweens of performance are critical to plot and characterization. I think of the reflective periods in my writing process the same way: the work is invisible but (almost) always appears in the final product. As such, what I do in my head is as much an act of writing as prewriting like outlining or brainstorming, even without a word processor or pen and paper.

These “offstage” writing practices are a huge part of my identity as a writer, but I realize that not everyone works this way. But how many times have you had an epiphany in the shower? Lost yourself in a gorgeous view and made a decision that has been troubling you? Or abruptly sat up in bed as you were about to fall asleep because you remembered where you left your wallet, or perhaps realized how to resolve the apparent paradox in your argument about The Alchemist? I think there are ways to encourage epiphany and make it less the touch of some gentle Muse and more an event in a headspace or state of mind over which the writer has control.

Persona Non Grata by Ruth Downie, Champagne for One by Rex Stout, and Death at the Bar by Ngaio Marsh.
Persona Non Grata by Ruth Downie, Champagne for One by Rex Stout, and Death at the Bar by Ngaio Marsh.

In psychology, there is a mental state called “flow” (from Mihály Csíkszentmihályi—thanks to Brad Hughes for his name!) in which we are completely engaged in our current activity. Invisible, offstage writing almost depends on “flow” or something like it. Writing while running takes advantage of endorphins and physical preoccupation to make it easier to enter a positive frame of mind, but something as simple as focusing on your breathing or picking up a favorite mystery novel for a while (one of my other favorite tricks) can do the same thing. The goal is, in part, to keep thinking from becoming over-thinking.

And over-thinking is the bogeyman of most writers I know. Too many ideas, questions, or doubts halt our writerly momentum and ruin whatever traction we may have had. Recovery from these stalls can feel impossible. I’ve never been wild about the term “writer’s block,” though; “writer’s block” sounds like something you contract and suffer through or carry with you as a chronic condition rather than something you can get through by doing something. We get stuck—and we can get un-stuck. Experience has taught me that sometimes getting un-stuck takes a little creativity and a willingness not only to take a detour but to change completely how you are moving, thinking, and working.

I can’t claim to have figured out how to work this into my pedagogy yet, though I frequently recommend to students in the Writing Center and the classes for which I TA that they step away from their projects every so often (assuming they have the time to do so). The trick is and will continue to be trying to understand how these breaks go from being breaks to opportunities to continue writing in a different form and at a different pace. I’ll find a sunny spot or go for another run and think about it.

Taken at St. Michael’s in Newport, RI.

12 Replies to “Writing Offstage”

  1. I couldn’t agree more. The pressure I put on myself to perform when I sit down to properly write can frequently constrict my thinking. Tasks that occupy the body with little input from the mind can put me in a place where the wheels can turn more freely. Washing dishes and driving are two activities that give my mind freedom to roam.

    My struggle with all of this is managing to capture the ideas. I can plan something out in great detail in my mind, but if I don’t take it out of my head and put it somewhere I will see it again, chances are it will float away as easily as it drifted in.

  2. This post is great, Jessie, really provocative. I’ve been having some interesting conversations lately with an ongoing student about what “counts” as writing. Usually I defer to what Paul Silvia (author of _How to Write A Lot_) told the UW-Madison Writing Center staff when he visited last spring: that any task that doesn’t directly contribute to producing text doesn’t deserve the title of “writing.” I’ve never been sure that I’ve agreed with Silvia, mostly because I personally subscribe to your “Go For A Run About It” school of getting un-blocked. Your observation that “getting un-stuck takes a little creativity and a willingness not only to take a detour but to change completely how you are moving, thinking, and working” not only reassures me that sometimes *not* writing can be as important to the writing process as text production, but it also challenges me to think about ways in which I might try new experiments as both a writer and an instructor; I wonder how far we can stretch the concept of writing offstage and what other kinds of non-writing tasks might wind up being productive, clarifying.

    Leigh Elion
    Coordinator of Multicultural Initiatives, UW-Madison Writing Center

  3. Thanks for this post, Jessie. It’s a helpful reminder for me as I work on a ton of midsemester projects. You post reminds me of a time in college when a professor told me that while I was sleeping my brain was still working on my paper, so I should avoid all nighters!

  4. This is such a persuasive meditation on the complexities of what writing looks like, Jessie! Like Leigh and you, I’m fully persuaded that some of the most important work we do as writers happens at least ten feet from the nearest computer, but I am also curious about the interface between not-writing and writing. What is the right balance, and how does it depend on the writing task?

    Paul Silvia, who seems to be haunting the Writing Center this autumn, points to research that suggests writers experience more insights per week the more hours they actually write, but is there an argument that we can increase the yield of insights by encouraging our writers to be savvy about the time they spend not writing?

    Mike A. Shapiro
    TA Coordinator, University of Wisconsin – Madison Writing Center

  5. Leigh and Mike: Yes! I think it is only through a lot of practice that I have found strategies to make the connection between invisible writing (because I firmly believe that this work is writing) and the product we value more and can actually put to use in the world. Nonetheless, I still have battles with myself about how I use my time; if I don’t have “enough” finished prose by such-and-such a deadline, it’s very easy to feel as though I have been wasteful or lazy. I think it is important to regularly produce words on the page—if nothing else, it keeps you in practice—but devaluing time spent consciously developing arguments and prose strikes me as unfair to the MOs of different brains if nothing else.

  6. Jessie, I think your running example is splendid.

    The holistic approach to writing. I’ve found that this has been one of my most useful tools in my time of “compositional need.” One must leave oneself open to the possibility of influence and inspiration from more than just resources explicitly pertinent to the topic at hand. When I’m working through problems in a project, how to explain a technical do-hicky or whatzit–sometimes I just need to step away and work on other things, whether those things are physical activity or even other work for other courses. Sometimes, the best remedy for being stuck is to work through something else where you’re not stuck, just to get the creative and productive “juices” flowing. 🙂

  7. Jessie,

    I’d like to introduce an alternative word into this conversation that might be useful for getting us off the slippery slope Leigh and Mike have pointed to in terms of using this technique as procrastination. That word is “process,” specifically turning to think of this offstage writing not as writing in and of itself, but as part of the writing process.

    I love that you point out this part of the writing process, because it helps validate it as part of my process. As someone who, when I was in course work, tried to decide on paper topics early because I needed what I call “percolation” time, I appreciate that validation. I’ve had several people remark on how quickly I’m able to write once I sit down, and the reason I’m able to do that is because I do this off stage writing whenever I have a free moment: in the shower, on the bus, driving, walking the dog, running, etc. When I then sit down at my computer, words are already composed in my head. The off stage part of composition keeps me from writer’s block or the fear of the blank page.

    As with all parts of the writing process, I think we as writers have to use our judgment. How far away are you from your deadline? How often this week have you gotten words onto paper? Would another process step (e.g. freewriting, outlining, mapping, etc.) be more helpful in this case? To get into routine, we must do this AND put words on paper. We can call it part of the writing process, but writing always communicates, and offstage writing does not.

    As a side note, Nick, when I do this kind of offstage composing in the car, I use the voice record function on my phone. I’ve recommended this technique to students who come into the Center in order to talk through their ideas, since that indicates they think through talking.

  8. For me, this is one of the few benefits of always having a cell phone with me–I feel like it’s sort of the twenty-first century version of a little notebook. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve texted myself paper ideas mid- or post-workout, and there’s the added benefit of not having to worry about your writing getting smudged. Deciphering one’s shorthand, of course, is another issue…

  9. Jessie, I found this post remarkably useful on two fronts. First, for myself, I often forget how much “work” I can get done when I stop berating myself for not working. So often, I spend down time being anxious about when I will, once again, be working, so I lose out on all of that time spent just thinking and soaking in my topic. I can remember a dozen times when I’ve figured something out while at the gym, or walking, or just doing anything other that sitting at my computer.

    At the time time, I often forget how important this “offstage” writing can be for my students in the writing center. I usually don’t think to ask how they come up with ideas, but that could be a great pedagogical move, especially with students who are feeling stressed out by the document sitting on their desktop. Like talking or drawing out ideas, walking it out could be a great way of encouraging students to let what they already know just come together.

  10. Jessie, I, like the others, find your post entirely apt, valuable, and beautifully written. And taking your idea from the place of physical exercise as a space of cogitation (or what I call “marinating”) to the idea of intellectual exercise is a natural shift; I’ve often spoken with students, friends, family, and other writers about writing (and reading) as forms of mental exercise that take practice, dedication, endurance, and commitment. The more we engage in such activities, the stronger we become, the more likely we are to know the “moves” that we might make, and the greater our tolerance becomes for the difficulties encountered along the way. Too, most of us have probably heard the old saw about developing a writer’s “muscle.” Writing, like exercise, can be a messy, sweaty, uncomfortable process, and that’s fine. Both exercise and writing have benefits to the person engaging in those activities, so any discomfort is part of a healthy process of growth and development.

    Furthermore, your understanding about how much writing occurs “offstage” is something I appreciate deeply. So many times I’ve woken up in the morning, knowing that I need spend time writing and working on a project during my dedicated morning writing time but having no idea how to proceed. By that I mean, I’m absolutely stuck to the point of ranting frustration about how I don’t know what to say, about how my idea seems like it might not be worth pursuing, or about how I might be fooling myself that I’m even a writer. Equally often, though, I’ll step into the shower and emerge with a thesis, direction, or problem worked out. Apparently, I just need that space of time and silence (perhaps the white noise of the water? perhaps the ideas literally being washed out of my hair?). My car is another “offstage” space in which I write. I’ve become so accustomed to writing while I commute the half hour to campus each day that my husband bought me a handheld recorder so I can record my rambling, messy, drafty language, capturing it for a time when I can sit down and commit it to paper. Then, to bring my response back to exercise, I find myself composing during shavasana in yoga (though I know that I’m supposed to focus on my breath) and on the days where I walk for miles over the hills of our neighborhood. Knowing that writing takes place in these “offstage” moments for other writers makes me a feel a great sense of community and also curiosity. What wonderful projects are folks who jog or bike by us each day working on? Might there be a novel in process for the student walking briskly along the Lake Shore path wearing her headphones? Quite possibly. And isn’t that exciting?

  11. Thanks for posting this, Jessie! I find that a lot of my most productive writing occurs right AFTER a run. I may not jot down ideas or even consciously think about my work while I’m out, but the hour or so after I return to my computer is usually highly productive.

    The other connection between running (or any form of exercise) and writing is the need for a routine and perseverance. I think exercise metaphors work pretty well for talking about writing habits with students in the Writing Center.

  12. Thanks for this post, Jessie! Your notion of “offstage writing” reminds me of what Donald Murray calls “the essential delay” in his essay “When Writer’s Block Isn’t.” Like you, and like many of the other people who have commented here, I value the time when my brain can work on problems without me anxiously worrying a hole in them…usually when I’m playing sports, practicing yoga, or walking…but I also struggle to use this time productively without getting too far away from my work and losing momentum. I often ask my Writing Center students to create a short to-do list before leaving so that they return to the writing process with a concrete place to start, and your post makes me think that it may be equally important to invite them to think about the role of their “offstage” writing times in this process.

    Mattie Burkert
    Outreach Coordinator, UW-Madison Writing Center

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