Writing Free with Chip Scanlan

May 19, 2003
Category: Archive

By Heidi Linnell

Just returned from the NWW in Hartford, Conn. This was my second year attending the workshop and thought it was just great! First of all, I’m thankful that a program such as this exists wherein colleagues have an opportunity to meet, exchange ideas, and learn. It’s as if a treasure is being unearthed during each ‘talk.’ Couldn’t wait to share with you some of the information shared with us during the weekend.

One of my favorite speakers was Chip Scanlan. I must admit it’s the first time that I’ve heard of him, but now look forward to reading his articles, online column, as well as his books. He was engaging, informative, passionate — an excellent speaker. It became readily apparent that he takes the craft of writing seriously. His willingness to share his experience and knowledge makes him a qualified and dedicated teacher.

Writing doesn’t seem as fearful an endeavor as before. There’s now a feeling of hope within me that perhaps I may achieve this meaningful form of writing one day. Not to say that nonfiction writing is easy. I don’t believe it for a moment. Rather, a realization of ‘it can be done.’ It became readily apparent that he takes the craft of writing seriously. If one works hard, reads a lot of varied material, and is dedicated to the craft of writing, it can happen. Thanks to Chip!

He’s been a journalist for 22 years and has taught for the last nine. He got his start at The Milford Citizen in Connecticut, at The Providence Journal, St. Petersburg Times and Knight Ridder Newspapers. He explained that he came to journalism with no formal training save for a passion to read and write. His stories have earned 16 regional and national awards, including a Robert F. Kennedy award for international journalism.

As Chip explained writing involves creative work but also that of critic and judge. Those two opposing voices often present a problem known to many as ‘writer’s block.’ According to Chip, the keys to help alleviate the writer’s universal malady are two things: lower your standards, and free writing. He believes that if writers practice this form of writing, we’ll never suffer from writer’s block again.

“You cheat yourself of the wonder of process” when you judge while creating, he said. Writing is the free flow of thought, he added, saying that you can’t create and criticize at the same time.

Soon after, an exercise was introduced to help demonstrate the ease with which to overcome the block. (Aside from some note taking, he said that he’d always found it ironic that writing rarely takes place at a writers’ workshop.)

The topic of the essay was titled ‘My Favorite Dessert.’ Someone in the room asked, what’s your favorite dessert? To that Scanlan answered, “You’re going to write about your favorite dessert, not mine.” Laughter erupted in the grand ballroom.

We wrote continuously for three minutes without lifting pen from pad as suggested. He then asked each of us to pair up with someone. We took turns reading to each other what we had written. We then were asked to describe the essay’s subject matter. My partner, Cindy, realized immediately that mine was about comfort. I, in turn, discovered that Cindy’s theme was pleasure.

It was enlightening and yes, a freeing exercise to simply write without the constraints of thinking how the piece will sound. It’s helpful as a way of beginning to get material onto paper. But, also surprising to find that the writing brought me back to a much earlier stage in life, completely unaware at the time. You too may surprise yourself if you try your hand at free writing. As he suggested, concentrating solely on the creative work allows one to discover during writing.

Often times, people look to writers to help decipher the meaning of things that occur in the world, he said. As writers, he explained, we must ask ourselves ‘what happened?’ and ‘why does it matter?’ This was put to use during the exercise as each participant was asked to describe the theme in one word. Yes, it was about a favorite dessert, but underneath loomed a larger meaning.

Four questions to ask yourself when writing a story:

1. Why does it matter?
2. What’s the point?
3. Why is story being told?
4. What does it say about life? About the world?

Some background as described in the brochure: Chip Scanlan directs the National Writers’ Workshops at The Poynter Institute. He is author of “Reporting & Writing: Basics for the 21st Century,” co-editor of “Best Newspaper Writing,” and produces “Chip on Your Shoulder,” a writing advice column for Poynter Online.

One last helpful tidbit before I sign off, is a formula he offered:

Good writing = creative work + creative thinking + courage