Writing with a Gun to My Head: Reflections on a Writers' Group, Teaching Writing, and the Creative Process
by Dawn Haines
At the end of Flannery O 'Connor's short story, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," the Misfit holds a gun to the grandmother's head. She frightens him by saying, "Why you're one of my babies. You're one of my own children!" She desperately tries to save herself by saying what she must believe the Misfit wants or needs to hear, she tries to manipulate his sympathies, to appeal to what she believes is his good character, his sensibilities, his moral fiber. Her survival depends on it. When he shoots her, Bobby Lee asks, "She was a talker, wasn't she?" The Misfit retorts, "She would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life."
I teach this story every year. My students like it. I'm always interested to hear them interpret that statement. They see the gun as a controlling device. They believe the gun keeps the grandmother in line and makes her nicer than she really is. They think the gun brings out the best in people. Some say the gun simply kills.
My writing group is a gun.
I have a hard time writing. Alone, in my house where suddenly I need to clean my desk, pay bills, return phone calls, write lesson plans, I have a hard time sitting in the moment and writing. I can go weeks without putting pen to paper, but I write in my writers' group.
Two years ago, I embraced a period of jobless, empty time and started to write. I took my share of creative writing courses, spent hours staring at the blank screen, kept note books by my bed for capturing dreams and fragments as they floated above me at night. And I joined eight other women writers/teachers who were writing creatively together and reading their stories aloud. Friday nights came, and at times when I was not writing a lot, when I felt unmotivated or frustrated, sitting among my peers was like staring at that gun before me. And I wrote. Often the group got the best out of me. Over time, I learned to decide to overcome my writing obstacles, and the gun's power turned on itself. What I was learning through the act of writing in this group opened doors to my creative process and showed me how to become a writer. The process affected, and continues to impact, all of the creative areas in my life, including my teaching.
Writing is a solitary act, and often a difficult one, and for all of us, I suspect, putting the pen down, turning away from the computer stops the pain only temporarily. But in a group of writers all writing together, it becomes a supported and collective act. For decades, we teachers have been encouraging writing circles in our classrooms where students experience the challenges, frustrations and joys of writing in a group, collectively, with support and good attention. Yet, when we write our own poetry, novels, and stories, we take to a private room and face the demons and white spaces alone. A part of writing is the process of starting. To simply get at the work and then to stick to it. Teaching writing as a shared experience is one way to invite writing process to happen. It is a way to start.
In the beginning, this group, this gun to my head, this planned time to write, got me writing and in a new way I hadn't previously tried. Once I got going, I began to under stand how to take the writing experience I was having in the group into my own writing time, how to use the arbitrary prompts as tools for finding my voice, my characters, my story. I was shaping a writing practice. As a new writer in creative writing courses, I was just beginning to take a leap from journaling to writing fiction. I found the focus in those courses to be limited to technical critique. We didn't discuss the writing process and the writing life; the emphasis was more on product than process. We didn't write together, writing creatively wasn't modeled. I pushed my stories into molds, someone else's way of writing a story based on outside opinions, and these first stories were not strong enough to hold the weight of all the technical pieces my professors told me I must incorporate. I didn't understand that in order to learn how to write, I needed to write, a lot. Just write, freely and unabashedly. I was spending too much energy in the wrong kind of process. I was evaluating my abilities and my stories before I understood what they were, what I was trying to do in them. They were only beginnings. To change them and revise them before they were finished simply moved me out of my own writing experience and into another. I needed to spend time in my writing experience in order to learn how to become a writer.
The group provides me with one avenue for experiencing my writing. It is not the only way to write, nor is it the only way I can write. It is one piece of my writing process, a powerful part, which as a gun, gets me writing every time I go, no matter what else is happening in my writing life.
If I had this group pointed at my head every day, I'd write more and for longer periods of time. It is still hard to face the demons. That is not to say I'm like O'Connor's grand mother, who under the gun becomes desperate, ingratiating, and false. Nor do I mean to imply that without that gun at my temple, I would never see the difference between who I am and who I could be. In fact, my "gun" creates the opposite effect for me; under it, I am my most honest writing self. I don't hear, "Write or you'll die! !" My life doesn't depend on it. The result is about freedom and joy and a process I know is guiding me, teaching me how to experience this freedom and self-knowledge every time I write. Under that gun any thing can happen and usually does.
First, the freewriting in this group is just that--free writing, freely writing, writing free of criticism, unedited writing. It is accepted wholly for what it is in those 45 minutes, by the group, by me. Whatever I do is perfect for that time. Knowing this, I'm letting go of my critical self, the tape recorder inside which wonders if the writing's good enough, if it sounds stupid, if it's believable. The one that wonders why I'm even doing this. As I continue to have valuable experiences in this group, I welcome whatever endlessly waits in me to be expressed. I feel safe to try anything when I write; I write for writing's sake. I am not judged during this time. I do not judge myself.
Second, I love the process of creating. Recently, I heard Grace Paley answer the following question at a reading: Do you like to write, or do you like having written? I love to write when it's the beginning stages, the beginnings where anything can happen. I love writing quickly--the thoughts and ideas forming just under my surface of consciousness, the words streaming out as if I'm not guiding them at all. I love reading that last sentence, the one I just wrote down, the one that is a little gift because I don't know where it came from, but really I do, only I didn't know it was right there ready to make so much sense and power on the page. I like not thinking about form while writing. I like trusting that the ideas and words come out the way I need them to, and then the form follows. I like being surprised. To me, these moments are the most honest in my writing. I'm not trying to pull at a story section, to make it fall in line. I'm not trying to mold, I'm not trying to impress.
And, I like having written. I know this because we read to one another after we freewrite. I am always nervous, but I love hearing my writing out loud. When I hit one of those honest moments, I want to share it, and the group listens willingly. At this point, I don't need verbal responses, although we do tell what we like and why. Their responses are not about suggestion or advice. I need them to listen well. As I read aloud, I can tell from their body language and facial expressions what of my writing is immediately powerful and what is not. I can tell from the sound of my own voice. By being heard in the same moment that I create, I am learning to trust what it feels like when I write and read. With an audience, I am learning to hear myself.
Usually after we have all read, we segue into a dialogue about what happened for us in the writing. We talk about resistance and fear. We exchange ideas for reading. We talk about our own "next step." About the revision process. About publishing. We are a community. A quiet encouragement enters our meetings. It's the result of eight women writing furiously on the same topic during the same 45 minutes. Our collective energy supports us in the writing and the reading aloud, and we keep coming back for more. We are each on our own path, but we are all growing. In my private writing time, when I remember what it feels like to write freely, daringly, and urgently in this community, I remember to write for writing's sake, to write for the discovery of who I am, what I want to say, and how I can say it. And I trust the writing to take me where I need and want to go. I trust the process to thrive without that gun, that outside motivation. In deed, I find the desire to write within, already there, poised, daring me to be a writer.
The Grandmother's lesson was too brief; she was re warded no time to put to use all she'd learned while staring at that gun and her oppressor behind it. I am much luckier! The lesson is, pay attention. Listen to what the act of writing teaches. Write in order to learn how to write. Recognize my process in this group and trust what is happening right now in my writing life. Use this understanding in my teaching. I think this must be true for everyone.
One afternoon not too long ago, when I was finishing my last semester teaching English at a private high school, I was reminded of this again. Eric rarely participated in class. He wouldn't read aloud, write in response to the reading, or do homework, but he loved to freewrite; he is a writer. ( He is also a reader, he borrowed a book of contemporary poets and came back the next day saying, "I really like that Rosemarie Waldrop!") Eric would write all period, one free poem after another full of imagery, powerful metaphors, and uncompromising descriptions about how he saw life. I underlined lines I particularly liked and gave his work back to him daily.
Finally, I gave in to the pedagogue in me, that part that likes control and order, and I wrote on one poem, "Wonderful piece, but can you work to develop a larger meaning for the whole, work to pull all of the fragments together?" I handed him the page the next day and he immediately looked up and said, "What do you mean a larger meaning?" He wanted an answer. Something clicked in me. All at once, I thought of my group, what the writing there had taught me. I understood that what I was learning from writing in this group right now in my life could also be true for him he had al ready begun; he was writing, and maybe he wasn't ready to "pull all of the fragments together." Like me, if he continued to write, just write freely and a lot, perhaps the writing would take him where he next needs to go. I immediately answered him, "You know what, don't worry about that comment, in fact, don't pay any attention to it. You just keep doing what you're doing; it's great."
And I meant it. It came to me so clearly in that moment. If he keeps on writing, writing all those unique ideas and images in his way, he will eventually learn the stuff I thought I could teach him. If he keeps writing, he'll figure it out anyway. His writing will lead him to ask the questions when he's ready to hear the answers. The writing will teach him what he'll need to do next. Writing needs to breathe; writers need to know when to take a breath. Writing needs time to figure itself out. It's my job as teacher to set up the conditions for this kind of active learning and self-evaluation to take place alongside theory and elements of craft. A writer, especially a beginning writer, must have the freedom and encouragement inside or out, to write whatever he wants and needs to write.
I recently saw a DeKooning show, a retrospective of his art. Sitting in the museum, staring up at one of his earlier paintings (which I liked very much) I was suddenly struck by one bright, thick gob of red in the corner. There was no other like it on the canvas. And I thought, how did he know what to do and how to do it? The painting seemed so arbitrary. I accepted that I was studying a master of 20th century art, but how did he know to put that streak right there? How did he know it was right?
I suppose I was having an epiphany of sorts. Maybe he did just know, but I think what really happens is process. There are art and creative energy and inspiration, and hours and days and years of doing it again and again and again. There are knowledge, instinct, and trust. The work taught him what to do.
I moved from room to room, through one period of his art to the next, and I marveled at how the work changed and illustrated a new period of his artistic vision, each period rep resenting what the previous work taught. The artist moves in and through the work as it shows him what to do next. The artist is in motion.
I was struck in that moment, realizing again, that for much of my creative life as a musician and then a teacher, I have been governed by the need to know I am doing the thing right.
My experiences thus far as a writer of fiction are contradicting this pattern. While writing in my writers' group I dare myself to write whatever I want. I take chances and face fear and intimidation and because I do this, I leave the group with new ideas, new inspiration, new confidence, and a de sire to write again. I want to write again.
I wanted to know DeKooning's secret for putting red paint on that canvas. I wanted to know who told him to paint like that, who was holding the gun to keep him at it. There is no secret; the process is more organic than that. It's about listening and trusting self.
You have to write in order to learn how to write. Countless writers and teachers tell us this. They describe why they write, how they write, what it feels like when they don't want to write. And they tell us if we want to be writers, we simply have to face down the irrepressible demons and do it. Just do it. I have begun by writing in a group. A group of equally inspired, devoted, busy, professional women who are often, still, my gun when I am discouraged, when I am not writing. But I am not the grandmother of O'Connor's story. I also hold the gun. Writing empowers the writer. I write and pay attention to what happens there in the moment, and then I know exactly what to do next.
DAWN HAINES is pursuing a Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Composition, and the Teaching of English at the University of Arizona. She has taught writing, literature, music, and drama at the high school level and currently teaches writing and communication skills for the Homeless and Workplace Education Projects, and Project EDGE of Pima County Adult Education. She presents workshops on writing groups at the Extended University Writing Works Center.
Copyright 1995, The Women in Literature and Life Assembly of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #1065-9080). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale.
Reference Citation: Haines, Dawn. (1995). Writing with a gun to my head: Reflections on a writer's group, teaching writing, and the creative process. WILLA, Volume IV, 18-20.