Writing Offstage

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.

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