“The greatest thing a human being ever does in this world is to see something and to tell what it saw in a plain way”: John Ruskin: The Significance and Practice of Writing

What internal editor / or demon sits on your shoulder when trying to write? Zoe Bennett revealed today at the DThM summer school her journey into being a writer, moving away from a desperation to get it right, get a good mark and keep up with her colleagues. Others in the group spoke of ‘curse’ words spoken over their lives: ‘You’ll only get a 2:1 as that’s what ‘girls’ do’ (spoken by a female supervisor), ‘you’re too old to do this’, ‘you can only write when you are inspired.’

As an antidote to this Zoe introduced Jilly Bolton’s 6 minute writing exercise. We had 6 mins to write on what I have learnt from this summer school

The rules: 

  • do not stop writing or typing for 6 minutes
  • no-one else sees the writing
  • you can write garbage but must keep writing…


I’ve put my 6 minutes writing at the end of this blog to show how it works… the group found it amazingly liberating, with several achieving around 250 words in 6 minutes (which would be 5000 words in 2 hours if you could keep that pace of thinking up).

Part of the reason for the liberation was the assurance that the work would not be read up anyone else. Zoe had stumbled across this after one evening taking her laptop to her lounge and writing for 3 hours something she intended to throw away at the end. The liberated results (no referencing, pausing to cross-reference ideas with scholarly books, no fear of who might read it) were so dramatically different that she submitted it for publication largely unaltered. She describes retelling that Sunday evening experience as a ‘like a testimony’ – a kairos moment, a place of transformation, releasing her to express on paper what she might have very naturally expressed orally to a class.

So does it work? Here’s my attempt so you can decide for yourself… if you like it try it out sometime! Maybe 6 minutes is all you need to write…

What I have learnt from this summer school in 6 minutes.

The summer school has introduced me to the wonderful world of John Ruskin, a luminary who could see things clearer than people are ordinarily enabled to do. A misfit in many ways, he imbibed 2 chapters of the Scriptures a day on his mother’s knees from infancy, and indeed was made to recite them to he. She was a dominating force in his life, taking up lodgings by his Oxford college and having her son to tea daily at 4pm.

Yet he moved away from his Christian faith to a degree, despite his thoughts and insights being infused with the language and terminology of the Scriptures throughout his life. Ultimately he ended up in a 10 year mental breakdown, and yet remains revered and respected enough for his art critique and social commentary that a modern day University has been named after him.

Ruskin teaches us to have heart-sight – only one in a hundred think and only one in a thousand of those who think can truly see… the ability to see made him deeply appreciate Turner for painting what was really there under his nose even though at a glance it looks like a distorted representation of reality.

Bennett argues that all reality is distorted like a reflection in the Chicago Bean sculpture that enables you to look back at yourself and surroundings, a little lie St Paul’s through a glass dimly. Using insights from Ruskin and feminist theologies she suggests that the amount of reflexivity we need to adequately describe reality might verge towards the narcissistic but we need to step back from there.