Philip Gross and free-search

Hello poets and readers,

When I come across a great poem that shows originality of form or content, I often wonder how it was made. The process of making a poem is often not fully articulated and in my interviews with poets I will aim to be as specific as possible about the writing process to elucidate how they work. I’m also on the lookout for existing interviews or essays which may tell us something about the writing process. I want to create a resource that other poets may use to invigorate and stimulate their writing and that readers will find illuminating.

In his Inaugural Lecture at the University of Glamorgan in 2006 (subsequently published in NAWE), Philip Gross talks about the role of research in creative writing and outlines a method that may be useful for generating original content. Gross coins the delicious term ‘free-search’ for exploring potential material through serendipity. He recommends reading “way beyond your field” with no method or purpose, and doing so avidly, in “the discipline of deliberate indiscipline.”  That writing a poem is suited to a random reading or research process which might constitute “the worst kind of academic practice” may seem radical, yet he recalls the fact that not so long ago we were hunter-gatherers and that we can hunt and gather anew for our writing.

Research is a wonderful stimulus, but, at the same time, he says: “it is in the gaps between the facts that fiction happens. Find out everything, and what’s left to do?”  His own poem ‘Archaeology’ (a piece I’ve long admired, and which is included in the essay), speaks of how the narrator appreciated the word ‘archaeology’ from an early age, and goes on to talk about the way teeth are used to identify people.

Alongside the need to explore, Gross places stress on not being fixed or sure. He narrates how, soon after trying to get students to be more “conscious and articulate about their writing process,” he asks them to be neither of these things, but instead to be quite vague. This is not about being vague in one’s wording but in one’s position as a writer. What makes Creative Writing a discipline is that we learn to consciously use not-knowing and these ‘vague’, or less systematic, methods. To this end, he offers various strategies: “the choice to use practised states of indirection, methods akin to meditation, guided fantasy, free association, automatic writing, games designed to derail goal-oriented convergent thought.” To embrace not-knowing invites serendipity in the same way that free-search does.

  2 comments for “Philip Gross and free-search

  1. April 14, 2019 at 8:59 pm

    An interesting piece! And Philip is an exciting writer, and person to engage with, even for a few hurried seconds at a train station! 🙂

    I teach a lot of people, and I agree with so much here. Read outside the genre or ‘form’ that you are doing, as it will “inform” you as much if not more than reading ‘inside’ your ‘genre’. We still need to read a lot of course, as writers are readers, almost foremost we are readers, however much we write.

    Re being ‘vague’ – “… be quite vague. This is not about being vague in one’s wording but in one’s position as a writer. What makes Creative Writing a discipline is that we learn to consciously use not-knowing and these ‘vague’, or less systematic, methods.”

    In the areas that I teach I see great voices coming out, but sometimes there can be pressure to conform. If we conform we lose that ‘edge’ or ‘originality’ for want of a better word, and risk becoming formulaic rather than using our own magic formula. In the face to face or Skype conversations (workshops in effect but far more productive) the aspects of writing, creating, going in and out of the genre are there, but so too is the ‘other-genre’ aspect, of bringing astounding material to the genre, and making it fresh. Those on the ‘creative conversations’ are ‘re-making’ and not prolonging the genre as it is. By doing this, it invigorates not only the writer but the genre itself, and creates fertile ground for both newcomers and established writers alike.

    Everything is ‘source material’ from experiences we’ve been part of, to accidentally coming across something during some research, or just bumping into something from new tech to old tech, to someone or a group doing something radical in a completely different area of life. Everything can count!

    “Philip offers offers various strategies: ‘the choice to use practised states of indirection, methods akin to meditation, guided fantasy, free association, automatic writing, games designed to derail goal-oriented convergent thought.’ To embrace not-knowing invites serendipity in the same way that free-search does.”

    As Alan the writer this time, I go into mood zones, cold sober, but using various tricks, or letting myself roam in a trance, so my logical self is more in the background. And yes, Philip is bang on with his strategies! And to find those serendipities that occur in so many ways, but create a magical line that pins the poem down, not as a stodgy anchor, but one that is used after a day of sailing around the globe! It’s a combination between anchor and astrolabe (from the Greek words ‘astron’ and ‘lambanien’: ‘the one who catches the heavenly bodies’).

    Good luck!

    Alan Summers
    Call of the Page

    Like

    • April 16, 2019 at 2:40 pm

      Thanks for your thoughts, Alan. Yes, getting the logical self out of the way, as you put it, often seems to be an issue, as if that aspect of our minds would stop the exploration.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: