How to Improve Your Writing Practice with Composting

Written by A Guest Author

By John Dorroh

Natalie Goldberg, author of Writing Down the Bones, a book that all writers need to own and use, convincingly suggests to develop the habit of using timed writing practice on a daily basis. These warm-up sessions can last anywhere from a few minutes to an hour, whatever works.

Along with timed writing sessions, writers learn the art of “composting.” The two of these – timed writing practice and composting — can make your writing go much deeper than you ever imagined.

During a timed writing, the writer capitalizes on “first thoughts,” which have energy. What happens, says Goldberg, is that “…the internal censor usually squelches them, so we live in the realm of second and third thoughts, thoughts on thought, twice and three times removed from the direct connection of the first flash…”. We have to train ourselves as writers to live in the land of first thoughts, and timed writing practices help to make this happen.

Some days are easier than others. We run out of time or lack the motivation. Our bodies wear down or we are ill, so we procrastinate and eventually quit writing all together. If a writer makes a commitment to write something every day, then the quality begins to improve. We see that baby steps have turned us into long-distance runners. We begin to trust ourselves and to ignore the voice of that internal editor who tried to convince us to quit.

Goldberg also suggests that when we sit down to “practice-write,” we allow ourselves to write “the worst junk in America.” This is not the time for lofty goals. Don’t say, “Okay, I will now write a poem.” That line of thinking may freeze up the process. It’s similar to setting ourselves up for failure with New Year’s resolutions. Instead, give yourself some space to write, play, and explore without a definite destination. Write for the exhilaration of discovery.

My creative writing professor in college instructed us to rely upon our past experiences for fodder. I remember the sheets of white butcher paper that he had taped to the walls early in the semester. Each of us filled up an entire sheet with words and phrases that represented our past. Our unique community in Carpenter Hall didn’t understand that it was Dr. Caldwell’s attempt at helping us pre-write, preparing us to do a little digging.

His patience and trust in the process led to some deeper writing than when we first entered his classroom. We surprised ourselves with the rich details, the clarity, and the voices of our finished pieces.

Often it takes a while for our acknowledged experiences to sift through our consciousness. Have you tried to write about the eminent death of a loved one or friend while the person is ill? It becomes easier to write about the experience months later after we’ve had some time to mull it over, reflect, and filter out what might be useful to describe it in words.

What about composting…how does it fit in?

Goldberg says, “Our senses by themselves are dumb. They take experience, but they need the richness of sifting for a while through our consciousness and through our whole bodies. I call this ‘composting.’ Our bodies are garbage heaps: we collect experience, and from the decomposition of the thrown-out eggshells, spinach leaves, coffee grinds, and old steak bones of our minds come nitrogen, heat, and very fertile soil. Out of this fertile soil bloom our poems and stories…Continue to turn over and over the organic details of your life until some of them fall through the garbage of discursive thoughts to the solid ground of black soil…”.

I had tried for months to write about my mother’s illness while she was confined to a hospital bed for seven weeks. When she first arrived at the ER, she was placed in the ICU, which had regulations for who could visit her, for how long, and when. Mom didn’t like being semi-isolated from her family.

In the midst of the emotional roller coaster that had become a very real part of my life, I tried to write about what we were experiencing. Not to say that I didn’t accumulate a couple of notebooks full of thoughts, concerns, prayers and poems, but the words were not coming out in a narrative form. There was no story….yet.

Almost a year after she passed away, my writing became more coherent. The story unfolded in the course of a Saturday morning.  It was as if I had found my zone. I thought back to why this story had been so difficult to write before and why it had suddenly flowed out of my fingers like turning on the water in the kitchen sink.

All of those journal entries – the reflective pieces, prayers, poems, and even the sketches — had been my raw compost. They needed time to turn over and over in my head and heart, and in the course of a morning, I wrote a poignant history of what our family had experienced in the last year. Composting takes time, and there’s not much you can do to accelerate the process. It’s a lesson in patience.

My years of writing practice paid off.  Trusting in the process gave me the assurance that one day something noteworthy would flow out of my fingers onto the computer screen. I was determined to hang out in the compost until fruit was produced, no matter how long it took.

I think my mother was proud of me for having learned these lessons.

Bio: John Dorroh taught high school science for 30 years, using writing strategies to help his students understand principles and concepts. He writes poetry, short fiction, and essays. His work has appeared in Dime Show Review, Sick Lit, Eunoia Review, Suisun Valley Review, and others. He had a book of flash-fiction and a sequel (pending) published as well as a book of off-the-wall stories about colorful characters, many without a full set of teeth.  He has led workshops to facilitate the use of writing techniques all over the country, and in the Netherlands.