Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Writing Without Writing

This morning I woke up from a dream in which I was framing one of my papers for a class based on the writings of Jorge Luis Borges. I haven’t read Borges for about 15 years, yet for some reason his musings of labyrinths and spiraling towers of a library swept into my dream world and somehow collided with my thoughts on qualitative inquiry. This actually happens to me quite a bit but I’ve never taken the time to reflect on the importance of this part of my writing process.

One thing I have found when teaching writing is that everyone’s process is individual. But for some reason, whenever I pick up a book on writing the author outlines specific steps that are necessary for writing production. Ironically, these steps are very different depending on the book I pick up. Some advocate for topic selection, outlining, paragraph development, revising, and editing. For these writers the process is very linear. For some reason, I’ve never been able to work in this trajectory. Creating an outline before I’ve put any words on the page is like being given a mystery bag of ingredients and being told to make lasagna. There are all these bits and pieces with no idea of how they will connect or meld together.

Other authors suggest a consistent time of simply writing. Often this is referred to as “free writing” in which you keep writing for a set period of time. It doesn’t matter what subject I write about as long as I keep writing. From these “ramblings,” gems of topics emerge and begin to take shape that I can later nurture into more concrete musings or essays. I’ve enjoyed these unstructured sessions yet seem to lack the discipline to make them happen on a consistent basis. In a recent attempt to utilize this approach more consistently I joined a web site called It seemed like a great tool in that I write at least 750 words a day. These writings are logged and I can see my progress each day. I receive an email each day that I don’t meet my goal as an incentive. It doesn’t work! I wrote for 3 days and have been getting the emails each day since. I don’t know why I don’t unsubscribe...
This brings me to my current reflection on how my dream this morning, and many other mornings, fits into my personal writing process. For some reason, I tend to need a frame or metaphor to work from when writing. This is different than an outline in that it is more conceptual than concrete. It is a set of ideas and ways of thinking about a topic. Sometimes these metaphors are used in an explicit way as the framework for my writing in that I make them visible for my reader. Other times they just lurk in the background implicitly, guiding my ideas and thoughts into words on the paper.

Most importantly, my current reflection on this element of my process has enlightened me to the fact that this part of the process is almost always “off the page.” It happens in my dreams, in the car when I’m driving, when I’m walking, or even in the shower. I’m reminded of research that I have read in recent years about the importance of daydreaming. Scientists have found that the “resting brain” makes important long-distance connections that help us to make “creative connections between ideas” (Whitfield-Gabrieli & Gabrieli, 2010). Even while I’ve been engaged in writing this reflection, I’m cognizant of the fact that I’ve stopped numerous times to stare at the window, wall, or computer screen.

When I consider how this fits specifically into my academic and scholarly writing experience, I do know that I have learned to put words on a page soon after an “off-the-page” experience takes place. I have learned this the hard way when I have had these connective experiences and then lost them by not writing them down. In this way, I guess I’m learning the delicate dance between my on- and off-the-page experiences. I’m learning to find comfort in the idea that I am writing even when I’m not “writing.”


Whitfield-Gabrieli, S., & Gabrieli, J. (2010, January). Idle minds and what
they may say about intelligence. Scientific American. Retrieved from


  1. Oh my goodness!! You just described my writing process! This whole post is so true! What you said really resonated with me and I am thrilled to know someone has a similar process! I get frustrated with the other ways of writing and it just feels too forced and awkward. Well done piece, Melanie!

  2. Excellent observation Mel. It is so important to have those "off-the-page" experiences even for us "linear" writers. My logical brain loves outlines but so many times I have struggled to remember a thought or idea that came to me I was waiting at the doctor's office or driving somewhere. I have finally learned to carry a little mini-steno book and a pen so I can jot things down to review, organize and expound on later.