Friday, December 4, 2009

The Voyage Home

In his book Writing with Power, Peter Elbow shares a little technique he developed called Loop Writing. The loop writing process enables writers to harness both sides of their writing minds--the creative and the critical--and to access those ideas that lurk in the recesses and otherwise might not be discovered.

Sounds pretty good, doesn't it! Here's how it works:

The loop writing process is helpful for both fiction and non-fiction writing. There are two phases to loop writing: the voyage out and the voyage home.

The Voyage Out

In the voyage out, seek to lose yourself in the ideas and in the act of writing. Your goal is to almost forget the specific focus of your writing piece and to follow the ideas wherever they go. Elbow suggests 13 free-writing exercises for the voyage out, though a few are usually enough to get the creative juices flowing. For each exercise you choose, seek to write at least 15 minutes without stopping.

1. First Thoughts: Write all the thoughts and feelings you have about the topic.

2. Prejudices: Write about your prejudices as related to your topic. Not sure what they are? Review your first thoughts and identify the point-of-view and take your conclusions to the extreme. Be wild.

3. Instant Version: Write the 15 minutes version of your piece--a sketch of the end product.

4. Dialogues: Write a dialogue between two parties with opposing viewpoints related to your topic.

5. Narrative Thinking: Write the story of your thinking. This is particularly helpful when you're having difficulty focusing your thoughts or keeping a consistent point-of-view.

6. Stories: Think of your entire piece as a series of episodes. Write each episode.

7. Scenes: Think of your writing piece as a series of snapshots. Stop the clock and focus on the moments. What places, sounds, smells, moods, etc are associated with each moment?

8. Portraits: Think of your topic in terms of people--who comes to mind? Jot down phrases to describe them: physical traits, character traits, posture, movement, things they said or did.

9. Vary the Audience: Write about your topic for a new audience--one very different from the real audience of your paper.

10. Vary the Writer: Write with a different voice.

11. Vary the Time: Change the era and write about your topic.

12. Errors: Write things about your topic that are not true, but are almost true.

13. Lies: Write all the bizarre things you can about your topic.

The Voyage Home

The voyage out is the creative part of the loop writing process; the voyage home is the critical part--the part where you think consciously about your writing piece and the ideas discovered and generated in the voyage out. Think about your purpose, your audience, your goal. Scrutinize your writing from your voyage out and look for useful bits. You may have to throw quite a bit away, but you will also probably find some gems too. Hopefully, you'll walk away from the process with fresh direction for your writing.

And that, in brief, is the loop writing process. (For a detailed explanation of this and other helpful techniques check out Peter Elbow's book Writing with Power.)

I have used the process with my first-year composition students to help them reclaim the topics with which they have been working all semester and to prepare them for the writing of their final paper. It's great. However, it wasn't until I shared the technique with Frankie that I realized I had been using it in my own creative process for a several weeks and it had enabled me to view my WIP with fresh eyes.

I have been working on a manuscript for a picture book entitled Ojiisan's Gift for quite a while now. You can read a snippet of it in my Sneak Peek Week post. Back in September, after wrestling with the word count for many months, I had the idea to write the story into a chapter book/middle grade novel.

I brainstormed, roughly outlined, wrote a few scenes, and began to work on the many details. Some great ideas began to emerge, but as I worked with them, I realized that I was telling a different story altogether--not the story of my Jitsuko in Ojiisan's Gift. When I reached the point of shedding tears over the loss of Jitsuko's story, I realized that I needed to see it through.

When I returned my attention my picture book manuscript, I looked at it with fresh eyes. So many superfluous words with which I previously had been unable to part! I cut my 3,424 words down to 2,063, and I'm still going at it. I eliminated an entire scene that, however beautiful, is not essential to the story. Finally, I re-wrote a few scenes, putting more of the action in Jitsuko's hands. These revisions were vitally necessary, but I just couldn't see the need until now.

I'm now in what I hope to be the final revisions of my manuscript. I'll probably be submitting it in the next month or two. I'll be sure to keep you posted.

Until then...what's your process? Have you ever been stuck? How did you get un-stuck?

Elbow, Peter. Writing with Power. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.


  1. Yay Janine! This is such great information! And I'm so glad you finally figured out how to best tell the story you needed to tell. I can't wait until your submitting to agents. We'll be in the query wars together!

  2. This is a great process! I might try it. Good luck with the revision process and submitting! My fingers crossed for you!

  3. I can't wait to see Jitsuko's final version! And I've always counted on you ladies to help me get unstuck. :)


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