Developing a Healthy Writing Practice

La Monica Everett-Haynes
March 6, 2013

Annie Guthrie, a writer and the marketing director for the UA Poetry Center, says her oracular writing workshop is inquiry-based and reading-driven, and it strives to "keep the mind in a fresh state of alert observance."

How is this done? Through designed "thinking missions" and questioning exercises.

In advance of her upcoming "Oracular Writing: Mapping" workshop at the Poetry Center, Guthrie answered some of our questions about oracular writing and ways individuals can improve a writing practice.

Q: Let's start with the basics what is oracular writing?

Guthrie: Oracular is meant to emphasize the role of constructed inquiry and collaboration/receptivity that I feel is integral to a healthy writing practice. The word "oracle" has been used for centuries to describe a person whose utterances reflect wisdom or prophecy as she "receives" it, and of course an oracle can refer to objects or books that can be consulted for direction and prompts for self-reflection. Rather than building images around and with an appointed muse, the oracular thinker is a receiver, collector and sifter of realities and perceptions, and a builder and feeder of the subconscious. 

Q: How is oracular writing tied to outward expression and experiences?

Guthrie: Another way to say this: Creativity is always in partnership with something at least partially intellectually unknowable. A mind freed of calcified beliefs and responses becomes more alert and observant to what is being offered and to what is available to us as artists; this kind of mind might have encounters more frequently, or might walk into and back out of experiences with more room and more storage capacity. For instance, do you think you know what you need to do with that second stanza? You might just need to get up on the roof.

Q: How do you engage students in writing?

Guthrie: I try to draw attention to the thinking that students are doing in real time – what if we could watch ideas develop, watch the sloshing back and forth of experiential and relational influence doing its work, what if we could allow the figuring to come slowly to the surface, before our very eyes? How and what would we learn, differently? I am less interested in the writing as it occurs finally. These missions are important to an oracular writing workshop because they tend to loosen rusty, cranky thought constructs. And students understand they are being given permission to make the writing act a longer, more durational, life-action and to slow down our perception of what writing is – to watch that action in slow-motion is to see it extend and permeate into every second of our life as observers and feelers and beings.

Q: What else do you do in class?

Guthrie: We will spend time together in class thinking about the thinking that we do as readers and as participants in our encounters, in order to invigorate our understanding of what writing really is. We will not analyze writings/results as separate pieces but will gather to create generative questions, questions designed to open up the piece or the thinking that each participant presents. With our eyes on the process rather than the product, we will generate a lot of new work in various forms, such as photos, drawings, clippings and field notes,  considering how our image-making skills offer other valid forms of "writing."

Q: What are these "thinking missions" you focus on in your workshops?

Missions are designed to put students in some kind of intellectual, poetic and even perhaps ontological difficulty that they must work out. Students always come up with something completely unique to their own abilities and concerns, and in this way, they are co-designers of the exercises. Missions are different each semester. In the past, I have asked students to spy, hide and make ritual objects, for instance. This time, we will be working under the arc of mapping as our controlling metaphor. We will be paying close attention to what we select for, to existing patterns, to hidden trails, to emotional rather than navigational waypoints – we will be reading books for structure, the plan the writer leaves behind in the scaffolding, which is something we can follow…we will discover indices that are not in books, develop our own coding and uncover obscured systems.

Q: I get the sense that the process is very important to this type of work. How can individuals engage in oracular writing on their own time, using writings, photographs, drawings and other works?

Guthrie: For me, the process is the work. It isn't extricable. Once the false categorization of work is dissolved, individuals immediately begin to understand the real value photos, drawings and other works (in short, what they are looking and listening to) have in writing. Taking that photograph after dark or drawing that close-up of a fingernail is also writing, as I see it. Use whatever is available and of interest and consider it equally valuable.

Photo credit: Patrick McArdle/UANews
Annie Guthrie is the author of a forthcoming book of poetry, "the good dark," her first. Guthrie teaches her "Oracular Writing" course each year at the UA Poetry Center and in Truchas, New Mexico. She also maintains a private practice working with students throughout the country. Guthrie's workshop will be held March 28 through May 2 at the UA Poetry Center. The class meets six Thursdays, noon to 1:15 p.m. Registration is open and available online. Using various texts as divining rods, students will construct dreamscape geographies and other poetic architectures, generating new work following the lead of writers such as Gaston Bachelard, W.S. Sebald, Alice Notley, Lisa Robertson, Bhanu Kapil, Nathalie Stephens, Rebecca Solnit, Mark Nowak, Jesse Ball and more.



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