In the following conversation, conducted via email over a few weeks, Douglas Goetsch contemplates the creative process of helping students access their best writing. Douglas will be teaching a Free-Writing Intensive at CILK119 on February 7th.
Sylke Jackson: Why did you start teaching the Free-Writing Intensive?
Douglas Goetsch: The Free-Writing Intensive comes out of an experience I had as an artist in residence at the University of Central Oklahoma, where I began to write the best poems of my life, poems that would land in the New Yorker and The Gettysburg Review, and secure me an NEA Fellowship. The college teaching load (minute compared to my years of teaching public school in NYC) gave me time to deepen my daily meditation practice, which I sensed had everything to do with my creative outpouring. My first drafts, in particular, covered enormous imaginative territory, and I wanted to translate the expansiveness I was experiencing into concrete teaching methods. I developed a series of free-writing protocols, each designed to run interference on the ego, allowing a deeper self to sneak onto the page. This was putting a foundation of training under Frost’s dictum, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” That surprise is always a leap: the leap from what we want to say to what the writing wants to say. The body of teachings I’d developed in Oklahoma became The Free-Writing Intensive, a course I have been giving around the country.
Jackson: I am curious about meditation affecting your creative outpouring. Do you have a sense of how this works? Is meditation related to what you teach in writing class?
Goetsch: At first I didn’t have a sense of how exactly it worked, and that’s probably a good thing, because if I were in a place of “knowing,” nothing mysterious may have unfolded. But whatever that state is that artists need to be in, to be receptive to things larger and wiser than themselves—I’ve lately called it “the big space”—meditation, by putting the ego out of business (if only temporarily), was getting me there.
But this isn’t a particularly “Eastern” thing: writers everywhere succeed by virtue of their ability to get to, and stay in, the big space, where they experience a dissolved and expansive sense of self, less personally invested, often strange, and deeply wise. Stuck writers, on the other hand, tend to force things, trying to make willpower do the work of imagination. Free-writing, which is rarely taught properly, or trained in as a discipline, is a great antidote to this. Like meditation, free-writing can invite openness—not unlike an invocation to the muse—putting us in a state of equanimity, where the imagination can slip the noose of the thinking mind.
Jackson: So, being free of the ego is one condition that allows writers to write well. Are there other ways that writers can support themselves in the writing process?
Goetsch: There’s actually a part of the ego, sometimes called the managerial ego, that’s essential for writers: we need it to organize our time and put ourselves in a protected space to write—something Virginia Woolf talks about in A Room of One’s Own. A strong ego supports our practice: balances the checkbook, sends out submissions, doesn’t freak out with rejection, and has the confidence to enroll in classes such as The Free-Writing Intensive. Once we start writing, however, all ego must go away. Getting it to obey is as difficult as it is vital.