The Writers Circle

creative writing community, craft and inspiration

Don’t Think. Write.

I am sitting at my desk right now preparing to venture to my 10-year-old son’s classroom where I will spend about an hour discussing my brief time studying with Madeleine L’Engle, the famed author of the children’s classic, A Wrinkle in Time. The kids have been reading it at school, and I hear from his teacher that it’s been most challenging. Perhaps that is why it was one of the formative novels of my own childhood.
Madeleine L'Engle
I’ve always liked a challenge, and writing is one of the greatest, to be sure. As I’m perusing Madeleine’s many wisdoms, recorded in a compilation called Madeleine L’Engle Herself: Reflections on a Writing Life, I begin to recognize approaches and concepts that have been so deeply embedded in my psyche for so long that I had forgotten where they’d come from.

Here’s Madeleine on concentration:

“The concentration of a small child at play is analogous to the concentration of the artist of any discipline. In real play, which is real concentration, the child is not only outside time, he is outside himself. He has thrown himself into whatever it is that he is doing… His self-consciousness is gone; his consciousness is wholly focused outside himself.”

Somewhere along the way, I decided this was not only true, but an inherent part of the way to teach creativity. Perhaps it was watching my 7-year-old boy who, for as long as I can remember, has been able to keep himself endlessly entertained with only his fingers and perhaps a couple of odd bits of toys. They don’t even have to be “action figures” as he imagines them smashing together and, making loud explosion noises with his lips, lets them tumble to the ground. My little one is a master of sound effects and can go on for hours playing out scenarios that only he fully understands. Amidst the action, the dialogue he mutters to himself and the bits of plastic occasionally flying, I recognize the very soul of creative thinking that is so essential to writing stories.

For the last few years, I’ve tapped into that root to help creativity grow, especially in my youngest students. They are closer to that source, and hopefully I’ve caught them before it’s been drummed out of them by the rigors of school. As Madeleine states in “Herself”:

“I’m not going to define the creative impulse. I don’t think it’s definable. There are educationalists who think it can be taught like the new math and who write learned treatises on methods of teaching it. The creative impulse can be killed, but it cannot be taught.”

So I’ve tossed out the rigid confines of paragraph and sentence construction, grammar and spelling — all those very vital things children must eventually learn, but please, not from me! Instead, I’ve concentrated on helping the children become aware of how they imagine when they play and then harness that intuitive fullness and fluidity to create stories.

In our kids’ writing classes lately, we’ve had super-heroes with transformational powers chasing villains who do cartwheels to escape with their stolen loot. We’ve met a mad scientist mole who has invented a wildly successful shoe-tying device and we’ve wandered with an Argentinean boy-werewolf. We have made our own mythologies. We’ve even had fruit-and-vegetable battles. And we’ve written it all down, for better or worse, whether any of it makes sense or not.

Truly, the words on the page aren’t always stellar, but the experience of creative engagement has resulted in writing that is unique. And the children have learned to trust their imaginations. They’ve discovered that they can create wildly funny and unusual characters, serious conflicts, lots of action, and vibrant emotions that portray their own rich experiences both inside and out of The Writers Circle.

When they’re older, I hope that their understanding of how to harness creative play will help them write better and more.

Meanwhile I turn to Madeleine again to recall the exercises we adults often do in the Circle and out when we pick a word, an image or a thought and just write without thinking or editing for ten or fifteen minutes.

As Madeleine relates:

“When I write, I realized, I do not think. I write. If I think when I am writing, it doesn’t work. I can think before I write; I can think after I write; but when I am actually writing, what I do is write. This is always the instruction I give at writers’ workshops: ‘Don’t think. Write.’ And I put a time limit to assignments. ‘You may not work on this for more than an hour. If you’re not finished at the end of an hour, that’s all right. Stop.'”

I heard her say that very thing in class and I remember thinking that she was crazy. But it works. Trust me. And I’ve passed it on. The thinking and planning happens before you pick up the pen or tap at the keyboard, or after. But not during. Not even now as I’m writing this. There’s a free flow of words coming from my brain to my fingers and I’m not stopping it. In a minute I’ll edit and probably once more before I post. But for now, I’m just writing.

Wise words. Thank you, Madeleine.

About Judith

Judith Lindbergh's latest novel, Pasture of Heaven, is about a nomad woman warrior on the Central Asian steppes in the 5th century BCE. (And there really were!) Her first novel, The Thrall's Tale, is a literary historical novel about three women in the first Viking Age settlement in 10th century Greenland. The Thrall's Tale was a Booksense Pick and a Borders Original Voices selection. Judith is also the founder and director of The Writers Circle, a creative writing program offering workshops for children and adults.

4 comments on “Don’t Think. Write.

  1. Bill
    May 4, 2011

    Madeline’s comments about childhood concentration remind me of something, in the movie To Kill a Mockingbird. No, not the story itself, beautiful though it is, but the opening credits.

    The movie opens to the sounds of a child humming. The camera captures what a small child is doing, at the very closeup range which children use. (Ever notice that when a small child wants to show you something they bring it right up within inches of your eyes? Their range is close up in a way that we aging adults cannot achieve.)

    The child is drawing, and the camera moves in closeup across the drawing to a cigar box filled with the child’s treasures-crayons, jacks, and a pocket watch which can be heard ticking as the camera moves past it…This is the world of a child. I always thought that whoever did these opening credits should have gotten an Oscar

  2. Judith
    May 4, 2011

    So absolutely true. I’d forgotten about it, but it is an extraordinary piece of observation into a child’s worldview.

    And I have an ironic, if tangential, personal connection to that film. Years ago, when I was still quite literally a child, I did a solo dance performance to the theme from To Kill a Mockingbird. Perhaps there’s another connection weaving itself in and out of a child’s play. Thanks for the memory.

  3. KG Waite
    May 11, 2011

    I’ve got A Wrinkle in Time on my bookshelf and a ten year old next to me. I think we’ll start that book together tonight. Thanks for the post.

    • Judith
      May 11, 2011

      Ah, you’re most welcome. It’s a glorious book by a glorious writer. And those minutes shared reading together are precious. I still read to my guys, though I sense the time is waning fast!

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