Peter Miller – On Private Writing

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In Chapter 10 of The Common Sense of Teaching Reading and Writing, Dr. Gattegno draws attention to the “first awareness we want to force within our students…that almost all students have something to say.” He continues: “If we can make our students aware of the source of the flow of words in them we shall be able to concern ourselves with the main obstacles in them, which is that alone in front of a blank sheet of paper they so often find nothing in them to put down….It seems much more reasonable and handier, to lead everyone to recognize that in our spoken speech words pour out spontaneously, well-organized, and generally acceptable to us as the equivalent of what we think, want or feel.” (241).

In the paragraph preceding this one, Dr. Gattegno has forged a bond between the spoken and the written word: “We all take for granted that there is a place for speech and that using it every day for so many varied functions, is natural and therefore of no special significance for us even in other circumstances. Still, who can deny that before we would put anything down on paper we must have had it available in the spoken medium? The fleeting properties of the spoken language and the properties of language which make many expressions equivalent, distract us from the relationship between the stable permanent written paragraphs and the evanescence of speech.” (240-1)

These remarks flow from the central point that the “first awareness of ourselves as people having something to say and saying it on many occasions, is the most primitive one. It is also the most important one when we want to generate in a group of students the basis for involvement in a writing course.” (240)

It is no exaggeration that most people completely overlook their capacities as long-time, spontaneous producers of speech as the soundest and most obvious source for writing. It also seems to have been routinely ignored for years by virtually all writing teachers. But this fact comes as no surprise to me, since I often overlook it in my own composing. After a protracted silence, it is usually only by talking to someone else or saying to myself, “Look, Peter, just say out loud what you want to write,” that I can force a crack in the glacial ice that keeps the words frozen within me.

Regardless of a person’s writing level, the simple request to draw on this resource by keeping one’s pen moving for 10 minutes without looking back to correct oneself or read over one’s work–a practice known as “free writing”–is generally met with curiosity and suspicion. Right away, students want to know: “Do I have to read my writing to anyone else?” (No) and “Can I write about anything I want?” (Yes).

The real desire for privacy and freedom of expression implicit in these questions form the basis of what has come to be called “private writing,” that is, writing for one’s eyes only. Every writing class I teach begins with 10 minutes of “free writing.” Every student keeps a journal outside class to write in for 10 minutes, five days a week. Although in some respects these requests are for writing on demand, and constitute an argument against the spontaneous creation of words on the page, it is far more true, I think, that most students welcome the chance to be with themselves as writers, and put down on paper what is on their minds and in their hearts.

The practice of “free writing” and journal keeping naturally cultivate one’s private, inner voices–one’s speaking voices–as the central resource for writing. Such writing activities evoke Dr. Gattegno’s “awareness we want to force within our students” that their private or inner voice(s) are the “first” and “most primitive” sources of something to say. They are asked to draw on their knowledge, their memories and past experiences, their strong feelings and intuition, their imagination and story-telling abilities, their sense of doubt, wonder, curiosity and questioning, their powers of observation and capacity to create pictures, their conscience, their convictions, and so on. For most, these are the first occasions in their careers as students that anyone has asked them to talk to themselves and for themselves alone.

Students are also asked to reflect on these activities and describe anonymously what they have learned about themselves as writers. What follows are excerpts of my students’ remarks about private writing drawn from the various writing classes I taught during the past academic year, along with remarks of my own in italics, to acknowledge some of the important ramifications of Dr. Gattegno’s remark that, “the awareness that any writing has its source in a sequence of statements verbalizing what one experiences is affectively liberating” (242) and “permit[s] their movement towards emotional freedom” (243).

“Private writing is something you keep to yourself. A good example is our journals that we did five times a week. Our journals are private because we write down many personal feelings and thoughts which are not meant to be read by the public.”

“Private writing is from within. Anything is possible. I can ramble on about nothing, but it is alright because no one else is reading it. I like private writing best because I can dig down deep into myself and say how I feel. In class and at home I experience and work on private writing. I keep a journal of all my thoughts, memories, problems and strong feelings.

This journal is done daily and it gives me a chance to talk to myself. In private writing, I use all of my emotions in detail because I am the only one who is going to read it.”

These first three comments, reiterated frequently by other students, express the essential freedom and sanctity of private writing, free from the prying eyes of the public. There is, as well, an appreciation of the range and depth of feeling that one can reach when these conditions are permitted and an awareness of developing some inner criteria of meaning. A glimpse of this range and depth is found in the following two responses.

“I learned that my private writing helps me to clear my head. I’m a much more sensitive, caring and empathetic person than I thought I was. I also learned to become more connected with my true self. For example, one day I just cleared my head and wrote what I felt on the paper. I was shocked. I asked my fiance to marry me. I couldn’t believe that that came out of me.”

“I enjoy private writing. I write down all my thoughts and feelings at the end of the day, happy and sad stuff. One idea goes into another. A friend died. He was very young. It was hard to go to the wake. He committed suicide by asphyxiation in his car. It’s so sad. I wrote about that because it affected me deeply. He was married for ten years to his highschool sweetheart. She suddenly decided she wanted to be single and twenty-one again. What a handsome, nice person. He was only 32 years old.”

“First, private writing. This type of writing is totally up to you because it is private. In private writing, there are no rules. For example, when you are writing privately, there should never be any dead spots, because there is so much you can write about. Write about things such as past experiences, memories, dreams, problems, strong feelings. The great thing about writing is that you have the power to do anything.”

“There is a specific kind of writing called private writing. This is a type of writing that you write to yourself. You can write quickly and not really worry about punctuation. It is private. You can also look over it afterwards and make corrections. You can write whatever you want and then some. Nobody has to read it unless you want them to.”

“I think willingness is the most important attribute in private writing. For example, I never knew what private writing was until I learned that it is just writing to yourself where no-one else reads it but you. In the beginning, I didn’t think I was able to do private writing. I felt that I wasn’t a good writer. I know now that all you need is a piece of paper, you, and a pen in order to be a writer.”

In these comments, students express other freedoms derived from private writing: that there are no rules, that it brings “power” to express whatever comes to mind and “control” over one’s own work, and with that, an appreciation of one’s own abundance. Moreover, matters of correctness are seen to interfere with the rapid and spontaneous flow of words and can be put aside (temporarily) so that the words can get onto the page. Finally, a sense of self-discovery and new-found freedom surrounds the last selection, along with an awareness that putting oneself wholly into the activity is more fundamental than anything else.

“I never expected to call myself writer. I always believed a writer was someone who published a book or worked for a newspaper or magazine. Since I’ve been in this course, I’ve learned that I am a writer. No matter what I put down on paper, I am a writer. As a writer, I enjoy writing publicly and found out that writing privately can be therapeutic. I learned writing is a freedom. Free to write our own ideas and thoughts. Free to let our thoughts flow through ink and placed on paper. As a private writer, I learned I can write so much just by listening to my inner thoughts and not worry about who is going to read it or criticize my work. In past English classes we were graded on writing, so it did not give me so much freedom to write down inner feelings because I was so worried about the structure on my work.”

“This class has taught me something that maybe I always knew but never had to confidence to say out loud. Now I can say it. I am a good writer, if I choose to let myself be me. All through high school my English writing was graded and criticized by people who wanted me to write what they wanted to hear. So I began to lose confidence in my ability as an essay writer. In this class, I’ve learned that I can write and achieve satisfaction through my writing, once I’m given the freedom to do so. “Freedom”–I think that is my favorite word to come out of this class. I love being given abstract topics and the freedom to write about them as I choose. The one thing I am glad of is that I am writing again and enjoying it the way I used to when I was in primary school. The “still-life” made me want to write a novel one day, maybe–I don’t know. When I was writing it, I knew I could have gone on for days and made new characters, even a whole new town–I wanted it to come to life.”

“I’ve learned that I am a writer. Writing used to be just a thing that I did for English class. Now it has become a part of me. As a private writer, I can get my thoughts down on paper and as a public writer I can inform others of my thoughts and experiences and feelings. Life can be so much more interesting when I write down the things that go on in my life or things that go through my head. Writing used to be a section on my notebook for English class. There was no differentiation between private and public writing. Now that I think about it, I had to treat all of my writing as public. Even my journal was to be read by someone or I would be required to read it aloud. Discovering that my mind is always full, actually I would consider it overflowing, I feel that I can always write. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then life must be worth infinity. Writing is putting life down on paper. It is a flow. My mind has become a waterfall leading to my pen and the information just flows onto the paper.”

The theme of “abundant flow” emerging from the sanctity and freedom of private writing is a strong and pervasive one. As well, some students recall an earlier time in their lives when they were aware of this pleasure, only to have seen it disappear later in their education. Also, the acknowledgement of oneself as a “writer,” in its most fundamental meaning simply as one who writes, is seen as a tremendously powerful and nurturing awareness. It seems that kindness and generosity toward oneself and one’s inherent gifts of self-expression, a kind of bountiful and benign laissez faire, inaugurate the birth of this awareness. There is plenty of time for analysis, rewriting, criticism, self-reproach, the hunt for le mot juste: all those activities of the writing process that follow composing. Here are several graduate students responding similarly with the theme of abundant flow and the recovery of a long-lost friend.

“The ability to call forth the inner voice in writing is probably a matter of habit. Having forced myself for years to write in an audibly formal style, it is a pleasure to regain some of the spontaneity that I used to feel about writing as a teenager–when I still thought it was fun; before I found out it had to be good; had to say something. It surprises me to think that free writing is useful as a way to find the inner voice. I think I have resisted that idea for way too long.”

“My inner voice is charged; ready and waiting to be tapped. Tonight each prompt enabled me to connect with my inner voice. The interesting outgrowth of tonight’s exercises was that my voice responded differently to each particular focus. It was tapped, as it were, for specific information, which it readily yielded. It also comforted me to engage it–to listen to it–to be in tune with it. It is like an old friend.”

Finally, I would like to turn to the comments of those students in my composition class for whom English is a second language, a population now comprising over 40% of the students in the City University of New York. I have identified the country of each writer in parentheses.

“To start a sentence I would take like five to seven minutes, wrecking [sic] my brain as to how to start and so on. But now I feel a strange way, I feel I could start straight away because of this experience of free writing, being open all the time and to think the cup is always full. I have only got to put my pen on the paper, it magically gets going and I don’t stop even to scratch or adjust myself. When I think of what I am going to write, soon things come to my mind and remain lively, some ring, still ring in my ears, words told and repeated many times. I always postponed and delayed because writing took a long time to get started and complete. But it has taken a new and unbelievable turn. The first thing I want to do when I go home is to complete all my writing assignments because I enjoy it now.” (Sri Lanka)

“Before, I used to write and check every word and see if I spell it wrong or right, does it fit in the sentence or even make sense. I used to check and check. I wasted so much time checking. Also, I am used to be given a topic and even guidelines how to write it. Now I learned that writing is a flow of thoughts and writing is an expression of my own feelings and it does not matter if others agree or disagree with my feelings. The freedom of choosing our own topic is a new experience for me. Once I chose the topic, I find myself on a roll. It gives me courage to write more and that my ideas should not have to be approved by anybody.” (Egypt)

“When I write something as a private writing, I can can write anything I want. I can see my own world there. Whatever I write is my experience, my feeling, my document. I learned that to keep writing is the most important thing about writing. I don’t have to look back at the previous sentence. I used to be afraid of showing my writing to others, because I thought I could not write something in English well, and I would have many wrong grammar, incorrect expression, misspelling, etc. But I know these don’t matter. I just keep going. I can always correct my wrong sentences later.” (Japan)

“Private writing is good and excellent feeling, because my pen is going down line by line or even page by page without having too much concentration. Also, I have enjoyed counting my lines, ‘one, two, three… fifty.’ What a success at my job I have never gotten since 1990 when I came to America.” (Korea)

“I never practiced the free 10-minute writing before. So on the first day I wrote 11 lines. Too less? I thought I did my best. Nonetheless, next day I write about 30 lines. Therefore, when two days later, you told us about the cup which is always full and the stream which is always flowing, for me it was an English expression of what I already learned myself. I really enjoy doing it. Since I’ve never practiced private writing in Russia, I need more freedom to open myself to the topic. So I make myself write in the journal as often and as long as I can. I don’t want to stop until I have at least two pages.” (Russia)

“I’ve learned that my writing, once directed with the freedom of this course, can be a spontaneous and natural extension of my thoughts. This is a first time experience for me. Before I used to write about whatever the teacher wanted me to write about, and so my writing was done with the attitude of getting it done as fast as possible. To my mind, freedom, which is so evident in this course, is the key to genuine writing as a reflection about a person and his feeling. In my case this kind of approach to writing enables me to release myself of all kinds of mental inhibitions. Writing for me is no longer this boring and agonizing activity which I must force myself to do. It is fun, unlimited and curing.” (Israel)

A concluding image: 35 students sit at their desks in a large circle. The classroom is packed, a full house. It is early June, and we are in the third day of a “heat wave.” It is about 85 F at 9:00 in the morning, going up to about 100 F by the time the class ends at 12 noon Students are in the middle of writing privately for ten minutes. As they write, I watch and listen. The only sound in the room comes from two air conditioners turned to “most cold/high fan”. The silence grows heavy. A felt tip pen flies off a desk; a pencil drops and remains on the floor. No one notices. Pens move continuously across the page. No one looks around; no one looks up from their writing. No one squirms in the seat. A student sneezes; no one says, “God bless you.” Pages turn quickly to keep the flow of writing going. A student continues to look at her writing, as she shakes the stiffness from her hand. The non-writing hands of students remain motionless and at rest, almost non-existent. I am struck by the awareness that these students obviously feel they have something to say, and through the agency of private writing, certainly appear to be “affectively liberating” themselves and “moving towards emotional freedom.”

© Peter Miller
College of Staten Island
City University of New York

The Science of Education in Questions, Une Education Pour Demain, France – N° 12 – February, 1995


For over 40 years, Peter Miller has been a teacher of writing and literature on the graduate and undergraduate level at the City University of New York’s College of Staten Island. For 25 years, he worked with Rose Ortiz in her Freshman Workshop Program, helping many non-traditional, first generation college students bring their reading and writing skills up to college level.

In the 1980’s, he was co-editor with Bill Bernhardt of the national academic Journal of Basic Writing. Also, with Bill Bernhardt, he has presented at conferences and led writing workshops inspired by Caleb Gattegno in France, Japan and Brazil. With Bill Bernhardt and Peter Ross he was co-editor, for one issue a year, of the Une Education Pour Demain journal : The Science of Education in Questions /La Science de l’Education en Questions from 1993 to 1997.

For the past 10 years, he has been most active in the Writing Across the Curriculum movement, an attempt to infuse and integrate writing into all college courses at all levels, and with online instruction. With his wife, Gail, he lives in New York City and has 3 grown children and 4 step-children. Between them, they have eleven grandchildren. His entire professional career has been inspired by the pedagogic ideas of Caleb Gattegno.

Email: pmiller510 at

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