Experiencing “Nuggets”; Fiction Writers Perceiving Ready Made Wholes

I’m in the final year of my PhD on ‘discovery writing‘. I’ve been interviewing a broad range of people, asking them questions about their writing, such as ‘how much of a plan do you have before writing?’.  I read pieces of their writing, like essays or stories, and then target my questions to suit their texts.  If a text seems to wander aimlessly, or has an ending that seems to tie things together, for example, I’ll ask about the writing processes that generated those ‘things’.  I’ll ask ‘how did that happen?’

Many of the fiction writers I’ve interviewed have been saying that many ‘things’ come to them kind of as wholes. Like they’ll hear a voice that turns into a character, or they’ll be lying in the bath and a scene will come to them. Or ideas will have emotional feelings (might annoy you!), even feel like a colour (synaesthesia!). Writing can then be a matter of working with these chunks of things, these pre-packaged lumps, and making the best of them, working them in together. Much existing writing theory (in US composition theory, and cognitive theory), tends to see texts beginning from ideas, and sees these ideas as small abstract kinds of things, like prompts or facts – little things, small bits of content, as it were. But the writers I’ve talked to are talking about larger ‘things’, like overhearing people talking (a conversation or snippet that suggests a larger story), hearing a story in the news (seeing its story potential), or having an experience (a feeling) that they’d like to convey or channel somehow.

A previous writing theorist, Charlotte Doyle, has theorised such ‘things’ as ‘seeds’ and the experience as a ‘seed incident’. She sees that such experiences can fascinate a writer, provoking and instigating a writing process whereby they are thought through via writing.  Interestingly, my fiction writers are often describing their writing process in this kind of a way.

For my writers, the writing process then has its own role to play in shaping, in giving rise to connections and new ideas, because it is often a progressive, emergent and narrative movement. The text grows, bit by bit, word by word, and obliges its writer into making ongoing connections, developing bits, keeping it coherent. It becomes a tool in their hand.

As far as I’m aware, writing theory (e.g. US composition theory, and cogntive theory) has not paid much attention to how we perceive wholes.  Gestalt theory has though, obviously, and shown that we perceive patterns more readily than we perceive little elements. We predominantly think and experience in a top-down kind of manner, maybe. I know I do. I see beauty in a face before I make measurements of the width of a smile or the diameter of an eye.  The same probably goes for ideas. We might build up ideas into larger conflagarations, such as texts or arguments, but we likely start out with bits or snippets, experiences or impressions. Small lumps get built into bigger lumps! Or are those small lumps already big lumps?!

One thing has been gnawing at me since I started my Phd. And that’s that cognitive models of writing feel a bit awkward to me.  The models of Hayes and Flower, and Bereiter and Scardamalia, for example, are heavily predicated on a binary between form and content.  The idea is that, as a writer, you have a sense of what you want to write (content), and then you juggle that with how you want to say it (form). The how can then feed back (recursivity!) into the what, as you write, so such models allow that the writing process not only helps to communicate ideas, but can also reshape them, or help you rethink them, find out if there are problems etc.

(Bereiter and Scardamalia’s Knowledge Transforming model, p12 of The Psychology of Written Composition, 1987)

So these famous models can be quite flexible, in that they allow recursivity. These theorists tend to then think it terms of ‘translation’.  That is, writers have to work out (translate) how to get their ideas (content) into a suitable form (e.g. an essay, story, or whatever).  I think there’s a degree of truth to that, in that that’s a part of what we do. But I think that when we perceive wholes, those wholes – such as a voice, a scene, an experience etc – tend, (if we accept the terms of form and content), to come packaged with ‘form’ AND ‘content’. What I’m saying here is that we certainly don’t perceive such ‘ideas’ as having form and content. Rather, they seem as coherent things – wholes.

Recursivity seems to me to be a fudge for these models. It’s a feedback arrow that pumps outputs back into inputs, thereby providing a quick fix to a model that previously worked as a simple one-way translation model, i.e. ideas (content) get translated into text (form).  OK, writing can get pumped back into ideas again. But I don’t think that’s quite good enough!  I think the serious issue is perhaps more awkward and tautological.  And it’s that ideas come with their own content and form, as it were, and so does text. If you want to understand more deeply how that works, you need to first understand the pecularities of what ideas and texts are. That then gets specific, because whereas cognitive models simply use the term ‘writing’ to cover all writing, my instinct, coming from a literary background, is to ask ‘what kind of writing?’ (e.g. genre) or ‘whose writing?’ or ‘which ideas’?  Because, I think, different forms of writing are different by nature, and will thus implicate different kinds of writing processes. If you create a story with a strong ending, you might, for example, work back from that ending, or write in light of such an ending. So I’m focussing on particular texts, particular writers – try to understand what writers are trying to achieve, what genre they’re working in, what their writing looks like.  Interstingly, my fiction writers are frequently describing their ‘ideas’ much as large chunks, wholes, or ‘seeds’ -to use Charlottle Doyle’s term.

Writing seems perhaps more conducive to a notion of packaged wholes than many other forms of art or practice. Because words are packaged things, units in themselves. Little nuggety things, little islands in an archipelago of meaning! We use words, but they use us too.  They come with their own histories and assocations that in many ways belong to them.  And language too tends to come with certain packaged shapes, which we know as ‘discourses’. For example, when a statistician uses the word ‘significant’, I know that this word now does not just mean ‘important’ in a layman’s sense. Words generally come with a frame of reference that gives you a context for how they’re supposed to be taken. To use the ‘form’ vs ‘content’ binary, words tend to come prepackaged with both, or neither, as the case may be. The more I think about form and content, the more I wonder whether it’s a useful binary at all.

Thinking in terms of ‘packages’ or ‘nuggets’ has some pretty big implications for writing theory.  I think it’s actually staring me in the face that it’s a theory that could provide its own little visual diagram.

(A rough writing process model, representing how some of my fiction writers started from ‘seed experiences’.  This model is based on one particular writer – writer T).

So, from left to right, we have writing process progression and text progression, from start to finish. My main point is that the writers tended to begin with big chunks of ideas, like an experience they’d had themselves (a ‘seed incident’), be it a sense of a scene, a character, a conversation etc. Some writers then created an outline, which acted mostly as a place to think out the story a little before writing. But some writers just pretty much went straight into writing. But all writers tended, if not to have an outline, to at least have thought things through a little before writing, hence the ‘in my head’ box.  And from then on, I think it’s fair to say that writers either had a grasp of a story in their head, or they at least had something (e.g. a scene or a character) to work from. Hence my first writing process box is named a ‘chunk’, because it’s a unit or ‘thing’ that the writer can begin with. It’s a thing that either then develops itself by growing (out of words, feelings etc) to generate relationships that tentacle out to become new chunks, or finds links to chunks (e.g. other character, scenes, scenarios etc) that either already exist in the writer’s mind, or that the writer has a slight sense of.

For all my writers, the text progresses in roughly the same order that writing process progresses. That might seem obvious and not worth commenting upon, but I’d also interviewed people on their essay and academic writing, and when writing essays, writers were more prepared to move sections around or even work backwards from a concluding argument etc.

I’ll leave it there for now. My model is pretty rough. I like the first bit, from seed experiences, to outline, to ‘in my head’, and then to the first chunk. But after that I’m struggling, fudging, and blagging. An overriding sense I was trying to convey is that the writing process seems to help generate new chunks from existing chunks. The essence of ‘discovery writing’ theory is that writing can be a generative act – a way of developing ‘ideas’.  I have some some philosophical problems with this concept, mostly because I can’t settle on a definition of ‘ideas’ that I’m happy with. Hence, perhaps, my sense that ‘chunks’ are self contained lumps that are bigger than ‘ideas’ – are more like scenes or characters – and are the things that writers actually tend to talk about.

And, as one of my writers has said, “writing is thinking”. It’s a tautological business like that, is trying to theorise writing. Because we tend to want to break things down to theorise them. And we come up against what Chandler, from Bruner, terms ‘cloak’ and ‘mould’ theories:

Mould theories represent language as ‘a mould in terms of which thought categories are cast’ (Bruner et al. 1956, p. 11). Cloak theories represent the view that ‘language is a cloak conforming to the customary categories of thought of its speakers’ (ibid.).

From that, I’ll leave you with some words from one of the writers in my study. She was trying to explain that the writing process is not just translating ideas into writing:

Writing is thinking….  And in each sentence, the complex decisions you’re making, about syntax, vocabulary, tone, are incredibly important questions about what you’re saying.  They aren’t decorative, or afterwards.  They’re not afterthoughts….  You think ‘I wanted to get that character on the page, but it’s false, something’s wrong there, and it’s wrong in that the sentence makes her sound moany or the sentence makes her sound smug, so let me alter the words – maybe it’s a vocabulary issue, maybe sometimes it’s a rhythm issue, or….  Yeah, it’s down among the nitty gritty of the language, that the complexity or the truth of the thought comes about.


About rjheeks

From 2008 to 2013 I completed a PhD on Discovery Writing. I also love photography. I'm best known for photographing soap bubbles. I also like rock art (ancient art/markings on rocks). I live near Ilkley (Yorkshire, UK) where there are quite a few pieces of rock art.
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