April 10, 2015
Open Secrets: Douglas Goetsch on the Practice of Free-Writing
The following interview with Douglas Goetsch, who will be teaching the Free-Writing Intensive this June at Madeline Island School of the Arts, was conducted via email by MISA director of programs Jenna Erickson. Author of seven volumes of poetry, Goetsch has won awards in multiple genres, is a renowned teacher of writing, and founding editor of Jane Street Press.
Jenna Erickson: What makes Madeline Island a special place for writers?
Douglas Goetsch: In one sense, writers ought to be able to write anywhere, and often have to. Dostoyevsky wrote in prison. A young Raymond Carver wrote in a notebook pressed to the steering wheel of his car parked in the rain outside a laundromat while his unsupervised kids ran around inside. But there are points in every writer’s development that require a kind of protected space, where daily concerns and habits are at bay. The alpine cabin where Rilke wrote Duino Elegies, the shack on cinder blocks in Black Point, Connecticut where William Zinsser wrote On Writing Well in a single summer: these are protected spaces, where writers “meet with a success unexpected in common hours,” to use a phrase of Thoreau’s (and would we have known about him if not for a small cabin on Walden Pond?).
Madeline Island, coming to your question, is a fabulously protected space for writers. You have to drive a long way to get there, or get on a plane. Then you take a ferry to an “Apostle” island at the edge of a cold, vast lake—the largest in the world. Since you enrolled, your room and meals are taken care of, and the daily schedule is set. By the time participants step into my workshop, they are ready to assimilate and grow at an unprecedented rate. They are prepared—more then they suspect—to make transformative journeys as writers. It’s a fantastic opportunity, and it all starts with the place.
JE: Your previous students at MISA have praised your superb teaching style, and some of your students are also teachers themselves! What makes your approach to the process of writing so unique?
DG: Praise like this makes me want to shrink with modestly, and just thank those people for saying such nice things about me. But I am aware that my approach is unique. For one thing, I don’t see the skill of free-writing being talked about anywhere with much precision or sophistication. At the very beginning of the creative process, when we first put pen to paper, we can either engage the unconscious, which is deeply wise, or we can shut it down with what we take to be our “style” or “voice,” reverting to our habitual patterns. Anyone who frequents open mics has seen that most people write in the exact same way every time they fill a page, no matter the subject. No matter how fresh the initial spark of inspiration, we throw the stinky wet blanket of our ego over it, quickly killing it. By the time most writing gets to the workshop table, it’s been dead for several drafts.
About seven years ago, I became tired of telling students their dead writing was dead—it was no fun for any of us—and so I introduced the Free-Writing Intensive, giving us all a front row seat at a critical juncture we tend to blow past. Now I can point out the gateways we ordinarily miss, beautiful opportunities sitting there like open secrets, in the middle of our own sentences.
Simply put, free-writing is the act of surprising yourself on the page. The uniqueness in my teaching comes from the techniques I employ, a menu of protocols, each designed to counter our habitual patterns, giving us a shot at surprising ourselves. The protocols are clear and easy to follow (I taught public school for a long time), often fun, sometimes ticklish. Students typically have no idea how they managed to surprise themselves, maybe for the first time in a long time, or why the entirety of their being was engaged by a subject they had zero investment in, such as a description of a toaster. But the feeling is visceral, unmistakable. It’s very mysterious and exciting. In class, I don’t normally comment on the philosophy behind my methods—we just engage the practices—though I’ll admit here they derive in part from Eastern meditative traditions.
JE: Without giving too much away, can you give us an example of a helpful prompt for generating fresh ideas?
DG: Well, this isn’t really about prompts. There are books full of great writing ideas (I published a particularly good one, Peter Murphy’s Challenges for the Delusional), but no one is ever transformed by these manuals. Conversely, a completely flat subject, such as insurance deductibles, has every bit as much potential as a flashy one. William Matthews showed this brilliantly in his essay “Dull Subjects.”
The important thing is how we approach a subject, something we explore in The Free-Writing Intensive. I don’t come in with prompts. I rather come up with them on the spot, in front of the group. That way, when students take a leap on the page, they can be confident it was them, and not some nifty prompt, and it can happen anytime.
But you’ve asked me to give you something, so how about this: there are three possible reactions to a prompt: attraction, resistance, and indifference. (In Buddhist psychology the three emotions are called: passion, aggression, and ignorance.) Easily 90% of the writing people do is driven by passion. Even rants, which would seem to be about what we’re resistant toward, are really about attraction—i.e., what we love to hate. Yet in their potential, all three emotions are equal, and if we learn how to work with our resistance and ignorance, it will radically broaden our range of available subjects, transforming our writing. Time and again, I’ve seen students startled by they’re own power and authenticity, when they leave the familiar confines of their attractions, and go into the wilderness of the neglected subjects. We can train in this.
JE: Can you tell us about the moment you made the journey from being a writer, to a writing instructor?
DG: Nobody’s ever asked me this. At 23, I was teaching at Stuyvesant High School in New York City, a very academic place where the English department required us to assign all these literary essays, which are basically bullshit. I complied, but I also adopted a practice of making students write in whatever genre we were reading—fiction, drama, memoir, whatever. So when we did a unit in poetry, I had them write poems, and I did the assignments with them. That’s actually when I first started writing poetry (up until then, I’d only written fiction). Gary Shteyngart, who went on to become a famous novelist, was in that class—though I’m not saying I had much to do with that.
JE: What inspires you to teach?
DG: The wonderful thing about teaching is that as soon as you start talking about someone’s writing you’re talking about their life. Even if they’re a beginner, or their subject is invented: you’re looking at how their mind works, and helping them say something only they can say. It’s very intimate, and when done properly, also very dignified. It’s just a marvelous way to be with people.
Then of course some of your students go on to do terrific things, and you see yourself in the acknowledgments pages of their books, and that’s inspiring. Many of my students, as you noted earlier, are teachers, and through them my teaching can impact people I never even meet. I remember my teacher Stephen Dunn telling me how impressed he was with a student of mine who took a workshop with him. I said to Stephen, “You have been teaching her through me for five years.” So there’s a sense of lineage, of stewardship, of something larger than yourself coming through when you teach.
JE: How has teaching impacted your own writing?
DG: That’s hard to say, because I’ve always taught. It might have made my style particularly clean and direct. When you teach kids in New York City, which I did for 21 years, you had better be clear, relevant and interesting in a hurry. If not, they will tune you out. They’re great, merciless editors. One girl I taught in juvenile lockdown used to announce, Mister, nobody cares!, whenever there was a lull in the room. Her timing was perfect. Thank you Maria.
To read more details or to register for Doug's June 8-12, 2015 MISA retreat, click here.