Does Freewriting Work?

My students say yes, it certainly does!

Most creative writing courses will have an element of rough, initial drafts done either in the classroom or as part of the process of producing work for assessment.  The course I have just finished teaching, however, put the practice of doing intense, short bursts of unplanned writing (a technique known as freewriting) at its very core.

In every class I included at least two freewriting sessions and advised my students to do a ten-minute freewrite every day if at all possible.

The students did not share these freewritten pieces of writing with each other but used them as the raw material for on-the-spot short passages to share, or as the starting point for the completed pieces of work that they read out in the final session.

Sometimes I would give prompts, and sometimes we would generate prompts by creating, and then picking out at random, folded-over slips with short phrases on them.

There was a lot of laughter and the work that resulted was fresh, original and surprising.  In fact, when I asked the participants to reflect on the experience at the end, the commonest reaction was their surprise at what they had produced.

 

Here are some of the written comments that the students made at the end of the course, quoted with their permission, on how freewriting worked for them.

The Element of Surprise

The first three students quoted all talk about the pleasure of surprising themselves:

“It’s a way to give yourself permission to write with almost no expectation of any particular result, so that there is surprising joy to be found in what results.  It’s like opening a door to a creative area of the mind and just letting words flood out.  I have surprised myself at what has come out both in terms of subject and content.  I have discovered a narrative voice and am excited to allow it future ‘ramblings’ as I find I am pleased in a writerly way with what comes out.  Who knew?”

“Freewriting has got me writing, and with regular freewriting I am developing my ‘writing muscle’.  The no-stopping rule does seem to improve my thinking and I’ve been surprised at some of the ideas that have emerged from the process.  Using freewritten pieces to work up into finished pieces was much more enjoyable and effective, I felt, than working in any other way.”

“The freewriting exercises have allowed me this freedom to just write — computers so get in the way of the process.  Freewriting really surprised me: I am a writer!  OK, so never a professional but someone who enjoys words, just as I did as a child.  I can see that there is still so much that I want to tap into and to use my unconscious and dreams to inform further art work.”

Silencing the Inner Critic

As you see from that last quote, some of my students were practicing visual artists and they noticed that freewriting was having good effects on this area of their creativity too.

One of the benefits of freewriting is to silence or circumvent the negativity that so often bedevils the inexperienced (and, indeed, experienced) writer, and several students reported that this was indeed a genuine and valuable result of freewriting:

“I found the process of freewriting a great opportunity to just let go.  It allows the mind the opportunity to gush out thoughts and importantly to ignore the ‘critical mind’ which can interfere with both writing and art work.”

“Freewriting does indeed get you going!  As someone who used to be paralysed by the blank page I could not now do without it.  Freewriting has put ‘life’ in my writing, particularly in character description.  I seriously doubt that I could have accessed this with my conscious thinking mind.”

“Freewriting has definitely been great for getting me writing.  I’ve often been crippled by not knowing where to start, or what to write about. But with freewriting there’s no choice or decision.  You just write.  And yes, it turns out that you do feel more like a writer when you’re actually writing rather than just thinking about writing.  I found that the interaction, or balance, between giving the mind freedom to roam while actually having to get those thoughts down on paper was a really useful exercise in being open to new ideas.”

“Freewriting has loosened up my mind.  I’ve gained a lot of pleasure and fulfilment from realising I could produce creative words and express a whole range of feelings and thought without the need to keep ‘stepping back’ in critical reflection, indeed self censorship, during the actual first draft.  Although I can draw on crafting after the first go, I’m now able to ‘let rip’ without the need for over-thinking which had been blocking my expression.”

Finding Your Voice

One of the key, mysterious, qualities of good writing is “voice”, and freewriting seems to be a good way to ‘find your voice’, as this student discovered:

Freewriting lets you ‘speak on paper’.  I mostly hate my carefully-constructed writing: it ends up not sounding like me, which is often disappointing because in my head I am clever and hilarious.  Freewriting is, I think, helping me sound more like the me I know I am.”

Joy

In short, enjoyment and confidence were the overall results of the course and I couldn’t have been more pleased to read these comments:

“Freewriting has been helpful in kick-starting imaginative writing.  I have enjoyed finding out where my weird imagination might take me.”

“I’ve found freewriting frees the mind and makes me feel like a writer.  It takes away the fear of the blank page, and procrastination.  It gives me confidence.”

 

Try It Yourself!

If you’d like to try freewriting with me, The Freewriter’s Companion, there are two options:

  • Sign up for my free, weekly, freewriting prompts which arrive by e-mail at 9 a.m. every Friday morning. Each one is designed to spark a ten-minute freewriting session which you can do at your leisure during the week.
  • If you live in North Wales, you might like to come along to my next course: Spontaneous Short Fiction, in which we’ll be using freewriting as the basis of generating a short story over three months. There are lots more details here.
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Hello and Welcome to Bane of Your Resistance Readers!

This month I am delighted to be the guest of the wonderful Rosanne Bane on her website Bane of Your Resistance.

Rosanne’s approach is very similar to my own in the importance she ascribes to the hidden processes of creativity.   She has been a joy to work with and I want to thank her for being so generous with her time.

I’m also excited to welcome readers of Bane of Your Resistance to my blog.  Why not have a look at How to Freewrite and my Mission Statement.  If you’d like to receive my ten-minute freewriting prompts (which are free of charge and come directly to your inbox) please add your e-mail in the box that you can see at the top right of the page and click “sign up”.

Here is the link to my guest post at Bane of Your Resistance:

Writing is not your servant by Kathy Hopewell

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Become a Writer in Ten Minutes a Week

Every Friday morning since the beginning of January I have been sending ten-minute freewriting exercises to my subscribers completely free of charge.

Each one contains a new freewriting prompt plus some advice about how to go about using it (see some examples here).

The prompts are specifically designed to work with the basic unit of freewriting: an unplanned, spontaneous burst of continuous writing that lasts no longer than ten minutes.  (If you have never come across the technique of freewriting, have a look at my guide How to Freewrite.)

Some exercises flex important writing muscles by asking you to look, listen or remember, and describe fully.  Some give the imagination a workout: in one prompt I asked my subscribers to choose a fictitious character or an author and to meet them for a drink.

Other exercises throw a curve ball.  For instance, the prompt “What is my pen doing?” was designed to make the actual act of writing strange and, in the dissociation between writer and what is written I hoped that a creative space would be opened up.  One of my subscriber’s pens did some very strange things and here is what came out:

Only one prompt so far has been at all solemn, namely the one in which I asked people to describe a loved one.  It was tinged with sadness because I suggested they would be glad to have these recollections in the future if the loved one was no longer around.  (This was my experience and you can read about it here.)

I do think there is benefit to be gained from going psychologically deep in a freewrite.  For me, the prompt “What do you want?” provided strength and clarification recently, as I am preparing to leave an employer after 30 years.  But overall, these prompts are designed to be playful, liberating and fun.

It’s my experience that going straight after good writing or writing ideas with a serious attitude and the heavy weaponry of plans and outlines, or techniques and rules, is pretty much bound to result in dead writing (the weaponry kills it!).  These exercises are more like jolly excursions with no particular destination.  But, as you trundle along enjoying the trip, there will be bright butterflies of inspiration to be caught from out of the corner of the eye.  Then, afterwards, when you read back your freewriting you can see if any of those butterflies were rare and potentially worth further study.

The pressure is off!  You are writing for yourself and no one needs to read what you’ve written, or certainly not until it has been edited (sharing your raw freewriting is not usually a good idea, unless it’s as seredipitous as the example above).  Freewriting’s standards are by definition low, and I supply the instructions so you don’t have to think up something to write about (obedience is very relaxing sometimes!).  Also, it’s just ten minutes out of your week.

Thinking about how best to use the time we have can be such a heavy prospect: what if we make the wrong choice and end up wasting all those hours on a project that will fail?  But with freewriting the investment is so low that it’s a risk that’s easy to live with.

We have (according to my calculations) 6,720 waking minutes in a week (if we sleep for 8 hours a night).  Just 10 of these minutes out of every 6,720 could give you the skills, habit and material to start writing.  In fact, if you write for just ten minutes regularly, you ARE a writer (because , as Peter Elbow says in Everyone Can Write, a writer is a person who writes).

Even if you can’t immediately see the benefit of freewriting, I think it helps to learn to waste time, and I don’t mean the sort of time-wasting that involves TV and junk food!  The creative process is all about not knowing what, if anything, you will end up with.  In this profit-obsessed and product-driven world, creative time-wasting is a radical act (and surprisingly hard to justify).  All writers, including professionals, would be well-advised to revert sometimes to the child-like activity of making things up just to see what happens.

Learning to let go of things you have written is another benefit of the ten-minute freewriting sessions.  The instruction to keep writing no matter what, teaches your hand and heart to write fearlessly, and it is only by actually writing that writing gets done.  Unfortunately, many people freeze up when they try to write.  But if you are used to writing for a short length of time and, more often than not, throwing the whole lot away afterwards, then you won’t scare yourself into stopping.  Instead you can keep going, knowing that it’s OK to produce rubbish.  Getting though that barrier of having to be “good” frequently means you can find the inspiration on the other side of fear.

My Friday freewriting exercises are not just for writers, although I occasionally note how writers could take them forward in a specific way.  Freewriting is a powerful tool for self-development too, and I believe that the actual act of writing is, in itself, self-creating and self-medicating.  It will tell you who you are and what really matters to you.  Equally, for society as a whole, creative writing is a way to increase human dignity and to assert the worth of the individual.  And it’s fun!

Please sign up (by putting your e-mail address in the box at the top, on the right) and give it a go.  The freewriting prompts will arrive at 9 a.m. every Friday morning.

The e-mails go directly from me to your inbox and I have nothing to sell, so you can rest assured that I won’t annoy you with marketing (neither will I share your e-mail with anyone else).  The Friday e-mails will continue right through this year (barring disasters) and will remain free for now.  In the future I might think about a small fee, so grab them for nothing while you can and see if you can turn yourself into a writer in just ten minutes a week.

To get you going, here is the prompt from yesterday.  Why not try it right now?

 

Freewriting Exercise # 23

Hello Subscriber

Here’s another of those prompts that you can repeat as many times as you want to during the ten minutes until you take off, rather like a horse running up to the same fence many times and then finally clearing it.

Freewrite for ten minutes on: “I want to write about…”

If you are aiming at fiction, you might hit upon a great plot or a character for a story, novel or play, or surprise yourself by discovering a theme that you didn’t realise was compelling for you.   On the other hand, if you need to digest your own experiences, keep dipping your hand into the reservoirs of memory and you will find what needs to be written about.

Always try to be specific.  If you discover that you want to write about politics, for instance, make sure you narrow it down, and if you find you want to write about your childhood then go straight into the details: clothes, houses, food, toys.

The best way to approach this prompt is with a light-hearted attitude so if you want to write about crazy stuff, just go with it.  The material that is right for you is likely to be hidden somewhere in the playful writing that freewriting allows you to do.

Enjoy!

Kathy Hopewell, The Freewriter’s Companion.

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Tanning at the Tate!

The artist Dorothea Tanning lived to the age of 101.  Her long career as a painter, sculptor and writer is being celebrated now at Tate Modern in London.  And what a celebration!  For as long as Dali is better known than Dora Maar and Man Ray outstrips Lee Miller in terms of fame, the mounting of retrospectives for women can look like merely political correctness: it isn’t.  There was not a hint of tokenism in this latest solo exhibition of one of the women artists associated with surrealism.

Instead the Dorothea Tanning event showed an authoritative vision, and the development of style and theme through a sustained career, with work that spanned the truly disturbing all the way to the warmly good-humoured.  I am not an art critic and I have no training in art.  What I love about the surrealist women (and I love them so much that I wrote a novel about them) is the immediate, accessible joy I find in their work.  My definition of good art is that it should be inspiring, provocative and amusing: Tanning’s work was all three, and sometimes all three at once!

Like Leonora Carrington (see my review of her Tate retrospective here) Tanning, an American born in Illinois, was enraptured by surrealism at a young age and sought out its (male) practitioners.  Unfortunately she reached Paris in 1939 when most of the surrealists had fled to America or elsewhere due to the war, so it was to be in New York that she encountered Breton and the others, most significantly Max Ernst who she married and lived with until his death in 1976.

The story goes that he selected a painting of hers for exhibition and named it Birthday to signify the day of her birth as a surrealist.  This sort of older male legitimisation of young and sexy girl wannabe is repeated again and again in the lives of the surrealist women.  Tanning might well have needed the “in” to the surrealist group but her talent was already formed as is clear from this astonishing picture.

Birthday is the one of a series of artworks featuring doors in Tanning’s work that stretch from this (in 1947) to Door 84 (1984) and doors occur in the best known of her paintings Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (1943).  The little girls in this work are caught in a tornado of adult sexuality.  These are indeed the femmes-enfant I discussed in a previous post but they are not sexualised for the pleasure of the viewer.  Similar little girls appear in Children’s Games (on a canvas much smaller than I had imagined) and they are tearing down the wallpaper but finding only the bodies of adult women behind the walls.  All these are children wrestling with the onset and demands of adult sexuality: their De Sade knee boots or heeled shoes are combined with undeveloped bodies and fear.  For what indeed is behind the doors of the plush hallway in Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and what threat is posed by the predatory sunflower snaking up the stairs?

 

Tanning creates interiors that are really terrifying, or terrifying and funny all at once like Family Portrait (1953-4) in which the patriarchal power of the father is literally depicted as larger than the other members of the family, with the maid and the dog roughly equivalent in size and importance.  Hilarious, and deadly.

 

The Tate exhibition managed to show both the progression and the repeated themes of Tanning’s work.  Her pictures in the 1940s and early 1950s are often done in Daliesque “realism”, meaning that she depicts impossible things in a realistic way (as the true surrealist that she was).  For example The Guest Room (1950- 52) which features an adolescent girl standing awkwardly naked in a room which contains hooded figures, broken eggs and another child in bed with a life-sized doll.  The Mirror (1950) depicts a sunflower looking at itself in a mirror, with pin-sharp realism.  But then in the later 1950s she moved into a new style of abstract but recognisable “smoky” pictures in which figures and space merge into each other.  These pictures were not my favourites, but some were just as disturbing and involving as the starker and more figurative works.  For instance Insomnias from 1957 gives a nightmare version of mental unease.

As well as the doors, there were legs!  The out-flung limbs in her later “smudgier” pictures (by the way, to any experts reading: apologies for these amateurish terms!), seemed to me to be connected to her work in soft sculpture, which began in around the mid-1960s.  She uses flesh-pink cotton, carefully tailored to shape, and/or furry brown material to create soft entwined bodies that suggest sex, struggle or maybe just rolling about on the floor playing.

 

And there is Emma, too (1970).  Named after Emma Bovary in Flaubert’s novel the soft sculpture of a belly was placed next to a series of watercolours of mothers and babies from the 1960s along with the well-known picture from 1946-7 called Maternity.  In this painting are doors again, preventing or trapping women or perhaps holding out the possibility of escape.  The simultaneously scary and amusing element in this picture is the dog with a child’s face (there were Tibetan dogs all over the place in the exhibition: she owned them and included them obsessively in her work in different guises, sometimes scaled up to human size).

 

The door, the soft sculpture of entangled legs and the deadly interior all came together in the most exciting piece: an installation called Poppy Hotel, Room 202 (1970 – 73).  In this real-space room, bodies are bursting through the walls and morphing from the chairs.  Something rather unpleasantly grey and amorphous is emerging from the fireplace.  But the really menacing aspect is that the door is arranged to conceal whatever is beyond (or indeed whatever or whoever may be coming in).  Here you can see me furiously recording my impressions of this most eerie and compelling artwork.

The joy of surrealism is always in the humour.  At the Tate we were treated to Don Juan’s Breakfast: a soft sculpture of a tankard with bursting buttons and overflowing foam reminiscent of both female cleavage and male libertine plumpness.  Even in this joke, the vulnerability of women is somewhere in the background.  In Tweedy, however, we had just the joke: a fantasy tweed-covered animal with a little matching turd.

I came away buzzing with inspiration and my faithful companions were enthusiastic too.  My son Bryn said he had got part-way round the exhibition when he read Tanning’s statement that she hoped each piece would give something different on each successive viewing.  “So I went back to the start,” he told me, “and there was”.  My partner David also picked up on the bold adoption of new styles throughout a long career but echoed my impression in saying that it was “all of a piece”.

Tanning also produced written work: a novel, two memoirs and a volume of poetry.  These are all waiting for me to discover and I really hope that this exhibition (and this blog post too) will send many, many people to seek out and enjoy Tanning’s work for inspiration, provocation and amusement.

 

All the images included here are from the exhibition, where photography (without flash) was permitted.  They are reproduced for educational purposes only.

To see and search through nearly all of Tanning’s work, see photographs of the artist and read summaries of her life and work, go to the excellent Dorothea Tanning Foundation website here.

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Hello and Welcome to Write to Done Readers!

I’m excited to say that my post

How to Use Freewriting to Supercharge Your Work

is up at WRITE TO DONE, a great website that really does have  “unmissable articles about writing”!

I’d like to thank Laura, the editor, for having me as a guest blogger, and to welcome Write to Done readers to my website.

While you’re here do have a look at my mission statement, and a couple of my best posts such as Publish or Perish and Six Uses for Freewriting.

And don’t forget to sign up to receive a free prompt every Friday to begin your freewriting journey.  The box is on every page, at the top right hand side.  I’ll send you a short prompt direct to your inbox every week to kick-start a ten-minute freewriting session.

Enjoy!

 

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Freewriting: Back to Basics

Every Saturday morning, in a side-room of the wonderful Kyffin Café Deli in Bangor, North Wales, I now have the pleasure of introducing people to the practice of freewriting.

This is because I am running a course there, based on freewriting, called Spontaneous Creative Writing and eighteen people have signed up for it.

Going back to basics (as long as they are not Victorian values!) is very good for me and, I hope, for my keen students, so I am going to share some of those basic principles here as well.

 What is Freewriting?

  • Freewriting is continuous writing usually done by hand. (“Continuous” means not stopping, even for a moment, so if you have to resort to “I don’t know what to write” then that’s fine: just don’t stop writing!)
  • Freewriting is exempt from value judgements and grammatical rules and does not even need to make perfect sense.
  • Freewriting is timed. Ten minutes is a typical time period.

Why Do It?

Freewriting is a pre-writing technique, i.e. it is designed to generate material that can later be edited to create finished writing such as fiction, poetry, memoir or travelogue.

Alternatively it can simply be used as a practice to enhance creativity.

It works for beginners who can use it to dive into creative writing for the first time, and it also suits more experienced writers who want to revivify their practice or refresh themselves creatively after a long project.

You Don’t Share Freewriting

Importantly, freewriting is usually private writing.  This is because we are inclined to be inhibited by the fear of criticism or the need to conform if we write with the expectation of sharing it.  The fact that freewriting is not normally shown to others and does not need to be “good” is crucial.

It’s About “Voice”

Good style in writing comes from (at least) two things: first it comes from harnessing an individual ‘voice’ and secondly from doing hard work on rewriting, editing and polishing.

Harnessing that individual voice is one of the things freewriting can be used for, because the temporary suspension of every requirement of quality, logic, neatness and coherence means that freewriting is an opportunity to speak to yourself on paper.

If in freewriting you can replicate the personality, accent, vocabulary, tone, level of informality, sentence structure, force and intonation that characterise your speaking voice, it’s then possible to “carry that verbal energy over into a carefully structured and revised piece” (as Peter Elbow says in Writing with Power).

Why write continuously? 

Trying to edit and improve writing at the same time as doing it is very difficult.  As Peter Elbow explains in Writing with Power:

Writing calls on two skills that are so different that they usually conflict with each other: creating and criticizing…Most of the time it helps to separate the creating and criticizing processes so that they don’t interfere with each other: first write freely and uncritically so that you can generate as many words and ideas as possible without worrying whether they are good: and then turn around and adopt a critical frame of mind and thoroughly revise what you have written — taking what’s good and discarding what isn’t and shaping what’s left to make it strong.

In other words the best method is to first access the material, and then to work on the material.

Pen or Keyboard?

Writing continuously, even for a few minutes, is a skill that takes practice to acquire and, by and large, my students are doing well with it.

The debate about whether to write by hand or use a computer keyboard was definitively settled in favour of handwriting in both of my groups.  We also talked about handwriting as a visual art-form, and how the personality of the writer comes through in a way that’s impossible with typewritten words.

Natalie Goldberg is very much in agreement with handwriting as the ideal method for freewriting (which she calls “writing practice”).  She argues that, since handwriting is the way we all first learn to write, it has a deeper connection with the emotions:  “hand connected to arm, to shoulder, to heart” she writes, in The True Secret of Writing.

Don’t Judge!

But perhaps even more challenging than writing continuously is the aim of letting go of value judgements on what you are writing.  To help with this, it’s best not to read back even the last sentence or line that you have written while you are doing freewriting.

Then, after finishing the freewrite, leave it for a few days or even weeks before reading it back; that way you will have more detachment.

If you read it back immediately it’s hard to get a clear view because sometimes a freewrite will please you (it will be exciting and full of proof, it seems, of your excellence and genius) and sometimes it will be truly awful.

In fact the brilliance often turns out to have been a mirage if you read it back some days or weeks afterwards.  Conversely, freewriting that you were disgusted by when you had just finished it can turn out, after some time later, to have had some real jewels in it.

No Such Thing As Bad Freewriting (unless you stop)

As I’m always telling my students, there is no such thing as good or bad freewriting: if you wrote continuously for the time set without stopping to think, edit or judge, then you freewrote correctly.

It is good training in humility and in ‘getting out of the way’ of your own writing.

It also means you need never again suffer from writer’s block.

Freewriting for Pleasure

Over the coming weeks my students will be playing writing games, doing timed freewrites from different prompts, and experimenting with using parts of their freewriting to construct pieces of work that can then be edited, polished and, finally, performed.

My hope is that they will find pleasure and reward in the writing process itself.  And so far, it seems to be working.  When I taught at Bangor University’s School of Lifelong Learning another lecturer once said that she could tell which class was mine by the gales of laughter coming from the classroom and Jo Pott, owner of Kyffin Café, recently remarked on the same thing happening during the writing sessions in the café.

In the current climate of anxiety and constraint in universities and, to be honest, in the country as a whole, I am enormously proud to have created a space where enjoyment and creativity can flourish.

And I predict that there’ll be some great new writing coming out of it too.

I’d like to thank Jo and the staff at Kyffin Cafe for making us feel so welcome.

And don’t forget that, even if you can’t make it to one of my courses in Bangor, you can still write along with us by subscribing to the weekly freewriting prompts (see the box at the top of the page, on the right).

To learn more about how to do freewriting have a look at “How to Freewrite” here.

 

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Rock Stars of Freewriting

As I wander around in cyberspace, dropping in on websites and blogs about creative writing, I often see freewriting recommended as a sort of emergency treatment for writers who are stuck, stale or blocked.  I absolutely agree that freewriting is very effective for blasting through apathy, doubt and pedestrian thinking, but my approach, like the two superstars I want to talk about here, puts freewriting at the very centre of the writing life.  For Peter Elbow and Natalie Goldberg, freewriting is not a sticking plaster or a last-resort stiff whisky, it’s the place where creativity lives or the food and drink that keeps it alive.

Peter Elbow and Natalie Goldberg, however, have very different personalities.

Peter Elbow is the David Bowie of freewriting: always ploughing his own furrow, and continually willing to embark on a new path to achieve a creative breakthrough.  He is erudite and likeably modest in character.  Being an academic more than a creative writer, he has a cerebral, carefully constructed style that is all his own.  His long and contradictory, self-authored, route to being one of the best-known teachers of writing is like the series of invented personas that Bowie has inhabited from Ziggy Stardust to the Thin White Duke.

Natalie Goldberg, on the other hand, is the Jimi Hendrix of creative writing.  She bases her teaching on hours of practice but her style is bold and free, and she encourages her students to travel with her on psychedelic journeys to the eye of the storm.  Her roots are similar to Hendrix’s alternative 1960s scene, but her drugs are meditation and the teachings of Zen Buddhism.  Both Goldberg and Hendrix are rule-breakers, and Goldberg’s book about inappropriate sexual relationships within certain Zen communities resembles Hendrix’s transgressive and unforgettable gesture of setting fire to his guitar at the Monterey festival in 1967.

Along with these different personalities come different philosophies and uses for freewriting.

Peter Elbow advises regular freewriting as a way to get fluency, unselfconsciousness and, most importantly, to get words on paper, which is the first job of the writer but sometimes the hardest one of all.  In Writing Without Teachers he says that “freewriting makes writing easier by helping you with the root psychological or existential difficulty in writing: finding words in your head and putting them down on a blank piece of paper”.  He also calls it “push-ups in withholding judgement” meaning that by freewriting we can learn to suspend the critical, revising, faculty while giving free rein to creativity.

But in the end, and despite his extensive studying and thinking about the subject, Elbow has to admit that the process by which freewriting leads to powerful writing is mysterious.  Freewriting exercises don’t produce powerful writing every time, he explains, but doing freewriting regularly awakens the ability to write powerfully.  In other words, “freewriting gradually puts a deeper resonance or voice into your writing”.

For Natalie Goldberg, writing is a spiritual practice and publishable novels, poetry or memoir are not as important as the core message of waking up to your life and as she puts it “writing down the bones” meaning (I think) to witness and record the specific, transient details of your individual experiences but in such as way that you put the ego aside and contact higher energy or truth.  Nabokov’s command to writers to “caress the divine details” fits perfectly with Goldberg’s philosophy.  She also brings the disciplined approach of meditation to writing and to write with no self-criticism and with complete focus on the moment is for her a spiritual practice.  Hence she calls freewriting “writing practice” (versus the sitting practice of Zen).

Unlike Elbow, who is chiefly concerned with using freewriting to produce good, publishable writing, Goldberg sees the bigger picture and her aim is nothing less than enlightenment.  At the same time, however, she values literature very highly, recommends learning from the best writers and is keen to see her students succeed as authors.  Writing practice, which is done by keeping the hand moving, not worrying about spelling, punctuation or grammar, losing control and avoiding getting logical is, she says, a way to “burn through to first thoughts, to the place where energy is unobstructed by social politeness or the internal censor, to the place where you are writing what your mind actually sees and feels, not what it thinks it should see and feel” (Writing Down the Bones).  And these “first thoughts” are the source for strong, original writing.

There are more similarities than differences between these two rock stars of freewriting.  Both emphasise the need to keep reducing expectation until the writer finds a level where it is possible to proceed with unselfconsciousness and freedom from negative thoughts.  Both recommend discipline and structured practice which is timed and often themed.  And neither can entirely explain why the simple, apparently pointless activity of writing down a stream of nonsense on a page for ten minutes every day or so can help all kinds of people improve the quality of their writing and lives.

If you are a fan of consummate professionalism and a highly visible persona, then Peter Elbow (and maybe David Bowie) is the one for you.  If you are on a spiritual quest and you are willing to risk a complete personal transformation, then head towards Natalie Goldberg, and maybe give Voodoo Child a try too!

I’m not any kind of rock star (although someone was kind enough to say I had ‘presence’ when Hopewell Ink performed at the launch of our new CD last week), but I have a firm belief in the benefits of freewriting and several reasons to commit to carrying on with it.  As I’ve mentioned, freewriting is my laboratory and has produced the experimental compounds that have formed the basis of novels, poems and essays, as well as everything from life-changing decisions to choosing which outfits to wear in the evening.  Freewriting gives me writing topics, characters for fiction, images and metaphors, as well as confidence and stability as a person.

In preparation for writing this post, I looked through one of my freewriting notebooks and tried to find examples of how freewriting had been directly useful to me.  Instead of something that could form the basis of a philosophy like that of Elbow’s or Goldberg’s, I found some details that I had recorded about my mother, who died thirty years ago.  These memories, which I might well have lost had I not scrawled them down a few years ago in the middle of a piece about something else, found their way onto the page because I was freewriting.  To my joy, my mother came alive again for a moment, in my mind’s eye.  And I can’t imagine any better reason to practice freewriting than that.

 

Picture credits (creative commons via Wikipedia, with no alterations made): Bowie as Ziggy = Rik Walton; Bowie as the Thin White Duke = AVRO; Hendrix on Dutch TV = A. Vente; Hendrix in 1968 = Steve Banks.

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Happy Endings and the other kind

This post is about stories in films and books, and in life.

The stories we consume are very often structured in an artificial way, but we’ve become so used to the shape of stories in Hollywood films such as rom-coms and the superhero franchises that sometimes it’s possible to forget that life just isn’t like that at all.  And then, if we are writers, we run the risk of creating stories that lazily and slavishly follow the conventions rather than attempting to describe life as we experience it.

A formulaic, predictable story might be fine, of course, if that’s what we want to enjoy or create.  Recently, being laid up in bed with a leg injury followed by flu (it wasn’t the best Christmas break I can remember), I craved narratives that were simple, familiar and most importantly had happy endings.  As someone with a doctorate in literature, I am not ashamed to confess that I reached for some comfort reading in the form of Katie Fforde’s romantic novels which are light as air (but very well-written).  The predictability of the stories was precisely why I chose them.

There are countless textbooks and articles about the classic plot, whether as three- or five-act, or as Freytag’s pyramid.  Mainstream Hollywood has adopted Joseph Campbell’s work on mythological structure in stories (“The Hero with a Thousand Faces”) via Christopher Vogler’s screenwriting guide “The Writer’s Journey”.  Here you can find a blueprint for a story from “the call to adventure” right through to “return with the elixir”.  Along the way is the meeting with a mentor, the gaining of allies and enemies, and the ordeal.  If you watch an action movie with Vogler’s list to hand, you can virtually tick off the twelve stages of the hero’s journey one by one.

I am by no means belittling this approach to storytelling.  The shape is deeply engrained from childhood fairy tales onwards and we are conditioned to enjoy it.  I used it to help structure my first novel and there are plenty of times (without the excuse of being ill) when I crave that safe, familiar narrative with its upbeat, emphatic ending.

I recently saw the 80s film “Working Girl” again in which Melanie Griffiths as Tess McGill gets, not just Harrison Ford, but also the job of her dreams (and I tried not to be distracted by the way in which this “feminist” film appears to blame the character played by Sigourney Weaver for most of Tess’s problems in the workplace).  “Working Girl”, like another guilty pleasure of mine, “While You Were Sleeping” with Sandra Bullock, is pure narrative reward from start to finish and I would not be without either of them.  It made me feel a little better when I heard that Mark Kermode, the respected movie critic, confess to having seen “Splash” more than 100 times, for pleasure!

These popular films (and books) are sugary treats and harmless in moderation, they have value as entertainment and can occasionally make a good point or even bring about progressive social change.  But Virginia Woolf’s question hovers in the air: “is life like this?”  Most days and lifetimes are ordinary and shapeless.  And when dramatic events do occur we rarely experience them as in the action movies with their defined beginning, middle, and end (otherwise known as the “linear” plot).  Woolf made her name by searching for a more realistic style of writing than the “realism” of her day and in re-inventing fiction, gave us insights into human thought, perception and feeling that were not possible before.  I would not necessarily read Woolf when in bed with the flu (although she wrote a wonderful essay about being ill) but I do read her for pleasure: the pleasure of a different kind of narrative reward.

By pure chance, I recently encountered a film which, like Woolf’s stories and novels, throws away the hero’s journey and the linear plot.  And I enjoyed it!  It’s a French film called (in English) “Céline and Julie Go Boating”, from 1974.  Unlike the Hollywood formula, this film has no familiar structure but works on repetition and improvisation, and it feels like a dream with surrealistic doubles and unclear chronology.  But it’s funny, and enjoyable, and it really did draw me in so that I wanted to know what would happen in the end while accepting that I might not be given a resolution or a happy ending (in fact there IS a happy ending: a little girl is saved from being murdered, albeit in a parallel reality).

I am no fan of avant-garde, pretentious films which deliberately frustrate the viewer and if a filmmaker forces me to stare at one shot for too long, repeatedly, I get uncomfortable and itchy (or I fall asleep, which is why I’ve never seen all of “2001 A Space Odyssey”).  “Céline and Julie Go Boating” is not like this at all.  In common with the best surrealist art and writing, there is an irrepressible liveliness to it and an engagement with the absurdities of life, plus a readiness to embrace emotion or even sentimentality.  Events in the film were placed side by side in dream logic and without full explanation but watching it was absolutely gripping.  One long sequence, set in a sort of magical other place, was replayed piece by piece in different ways.  The repetition was far from boring, however, and became as addictive as the magic sweets that the characters themselves had to eat to get to this other reality!

When surrealist techniques of illogical juxtaposition, humour and affectionate nonsense all come together, the rewards of the conventional plot are mostly lost but something more rare and profound takes their place.  A new way of seeing life is created that can expand our understanding and awareness of our own lives.

This is why I favour the unplanned, associative method of beginning a writing project with freewriting rather than using a planned, pre-defined structure.  The mind understands the structure of a beginning, middle and end, but it doesn’t work like that on its own as you’ll have discovered if you’ve ever tried to meditate.  Instead, thoughts and ideas come cascading haphazardly with no obvious connections.  In the same way, our lives are not stories with heroic or happy endings, following quests with defined stages.  Instead we live a series of repetitions (sleep, wake, dress, eat…).

Nothing in life is as predictable as a Hollywood movie and, while they can entertain and console, I think it is better to welcome in the chaos of reality, at least to some extent, as we sit down to watch, read or write the stories of our lives.

 

Don’t forget to check out my free weekly e-mails in which I send a ten-minute freewriting exercise direct to your inbox every Friday.  The first few are gathered here (under “Weekly Freewriting Exercises”) so have a look if you would like to see some examples.  You can sign up by putting your e-mail address in the box at the top of the page.

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Writers! Resolve to be BAD in 2019!

This New Year, instead of making all the usual resolutions to eat less and exercise more, why not resolve to be bad and have fun writing instead?  Writing need not be serious, and the things we do for pleasure are ones we do the most (box sets, anyone?)

There’s no need to treat writing as work or as something you have to give up fun things in order to do.  Writing can be playful, easy, colourful, absorbing and amusing if you set up a space for freewriting.

Here is mine: a battered desk at home with all my freewriting prompts and tools laid out for you to see.

In my very first post I talked about how I love the actual materials of writing and I hope by sharing my own freewriting equipment that you too will fall in love with this most enchanting and rewarding game.  (I’m also hoping that, like me, you love snooping into writer’s homes, desks and notebooks.)

The Place

First of all you’ll see that my freewriting playground is full of things to awaken the senses.  I can smell the dried rose petals from the garden (far right) and the recently-drunk cup of real coffee with full-fat cream.  For those times when I need to mop up extraneous thought by having something to half-listen to, there are speakers to play Beethoven, Elbow or Belle and Sebastian according to mood.  Finally, you can’t see this but in the tin on the left, which is where I keep all the prompts currently laid out on show, there are some gritty crystals of brown sugar left over from visits to our local cafe where (confession time!) I filch extra cubes of sugar when I go there to drink coffee and write.  I’ve run out of sugar lumps at the moment, so it must be time to do a session “out” and replenish my stock (yes, I know I could buy them but that’s not the point!)

All in all, this writing station expresses the opposite of writerly privation and monastic devotion.  I love Eva Deverell’s pristine white desk and perfect stationery but it just isn’t me.  My desk has been through some tough handling in the past and the leather top is actually ripped open.  This occurred when it was moved, wrapped inadequately in a blanket and some string, from my childhood home in Surrey.  At first the damage pained me but I’ve come to love the way that this scruffy old warhorse puts me in exactly the right state of mind to make plenty of mistakes and never be precious about my writing.  The lamp is also from childhood and the way in which my younger self has coloured in the design on the base with biro is also very freeing to look at!  So there’s no need to spend a load of money on a perfect new writing station: old or “ruined” objects can be just as good if not better to induce a productive state of writerly mind!

Prompts

Let me explain the actual writing prompts now.  These are all normally stored in the tin and drawn at random.  In the centre are my yellow “Morley Strips” taken from the short story collections by Michele Roberts, Helen Simpson and Alice Munro that I’ve been reading recently (see here on how to make and use Morley Strips).  At 12 o’clock are my short story cards.  Each set is for a story that I’m working on and they are all part of a sequence based very roughly on aspects of my own life so the cards are memories I need to write about in the fullest and free-est way possible.  Next to the Reporter’s Notebook, which contains freewriting from 2005 with suggestive phrases underlined, is a set of 20 slips.  On each is a specific turning point in my life and I created them according to Julia Cameron’s instructions in The Artist’s Way where she calls them “Cups” because it’s as though you have dipped a cup into the river of your life and kept a small, important moment at intervals along the way.  I don’t often use these prompts but when I do I return to them with a different perspective (and different memories) each time.

The red envelope is for ideas for novels.  I’m between novels at the moment and occasionally I’ll see if any of the two or three idea-seeds are beginning to sprout.  I believe most of the work of creative preparation goes on below the conscious mind so I just need to do a page of freewriting now and again to make sure that the process is continuing.  When the time is right, I’ll re-read these freewrites (coded “N” for easy retrieval) and decide which one to follow up.

The index cards in different colours are “germs”: ideas at a very early stage of development for Hopewell Ink (spoken word) pieces, stories and even blog posts, and I draw these at random too, using the colour-coding as a guide.

In the tin are some quotes taken from a book on quarry blasting dating from 1961 that I found at a booksale in Powis Castle this year.  It was a great find!

The quote you can see is “Cartridges must be inserted into the holes carefully.  Gentle pressure on the rammer may be used but on no account use violence”.  Taking these quotes abstractly or tangentially I find them very suggestive emotionally and narratively and I think they might even work as sub-headings for a short story eventually.  Why not try a 10-minute freewrite on that quote and see where it takes you?  Or better still, find a practical manual of some kind (I have an excellent 1970s one on woodworking) and make some slips of your own to draw at random and freewrite from.

Lastly, the postcards are from Tate Liverpool or Manchester Art Gallery and the ones you can see are all of people (I have another collection of landscapes in a second paper bag underneath).  These are great as prompts for in class and for my own freewriting but do need changing regularly so visits to art galleries are necessary (a great excuse, if one is needed).  If you can’t get to a gallery to buy postcards, a random search on Google images might work just as well, but do beware the web: sometimes I think it’s called that because you can get caught in it and only escape hours later having done none of the things you intended.  The joy of a tin of prompts is that you can exclude the rest of the world for a time: think of it as another realm or plane that you dive into, like Mary Poppins and the chalk drawings on the pavement.

Tools

The notebook you see is a gorgeous, extra-large, soft-cover, Moleskine and lying on it is my favourite fountain pen, a Cleo Skribent (this pen never leaves my desk, it is so precious).  For freewriting, you can sometimes do well with scraps and bits of paper and a cracked old Bic but I love notebooks and ink pens and part of the pleasure of writing for me is to use the most luxurious I can get hold of.

The other vital bit of kit is a timer.  When you are doing a timed freewrite, it’s no good at all to be continually checking the time so something like this egg timer is perfect (and nice to handle).  Alternatively you could use a phone, as long as you make sure the sound and alerts are off, or an alarm clock.  The other option is to just decide on a pre-set number of pages and stop when you have filled them.

Try It!

I hope I’ve inspired you to make some writing prompts of your own and set up a genuinely comfortable writing station with tools you’ll want to use.  But all you really need, of course, is a flat surface, something to write on and write with, and a way of setting a limit on the time.  I’ve heard that it’s possible to freewrite on a computer but don’t advise it: for me, the screen is for typing up drafts and doing the editing (then doing more editing) and for the times when I am in contact with the rest of the world.

Your freewriting station with all the toys I’ve described is where you can be free of all judgement and ambition, all measurement and stress.  Just like a kid in the sandpit you can make things and knock them down again just as the fancy takes you.  And every time you make a mistake you’ll learn more.  The absorbed, relaxed, and joyful state of a child at play is what I seek and very often find here at my desk.  I really hope you will create something similar, in your own style and for your own purposes, that gives you the same happiness and opportunity to be creative in this coming year.

If you would like to explore freewriting with me, and live in the North Wales area of the UK, please see the details about my new course “Spontaneous Creative Writing” here.  I hope to develop some online courses as well later in 2019.

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Hopewell Ink – an exclusive preview

I am a huge fan of Austin Kleon. His advice to artists is to “show your work” or, in other words, to share the creative process in order to invite input, garner interest and de-mystify the labour involved.

In this spirit I thought I would share some writing with you which is still in development.  It’s destined as a new piece for my spoken word band Hopewell Ink and although I’m fairly happy with the words as I’ve written them, collaboration with my musical partner could lead to changes.  For instance, it’s not unknown for me to redraft after, or even during, the sessions in which he devises the sounds or music to go with the words: it’s a two-way street where his sounds make me re-think my words at the same time as my words are suggesting sounds to him.  We rarely disagree…

The new piece is called “Gentle Men”.  Rather amazingly, it originated in an idea I had over 13 years ago and is listed in a notebook as a “genre-indeterminate idea” meaning I didn’t know if it might turn into a poem, story or even, I suppose, a novel.  Hopewell Ink was a long way in the future then.

The direct source was a song by John Martyn called “Don’t You Go”  a hauntingly beautiful lament about the perennial sacrifice of young men by warmongers, and the words are an appeal to resist the call to arms.  (You can read the lyrics here.)  Loving John Martyn’s music as I did (and do), I was moved by the song and made these (freeewritten) notes:

This languished in my notebook until 2013 when I exhorted myself to have “another go”:

In the second note, I’m focusing on the young male singers themselves, after seeing this video on Youtube of Tim Buckely singing “Song to the Siren”.  Again, however, the “germ” didn’t grow into anything.

But the last few years of the #MeToo movement have put ideas about masculinity into new contexts.

Feminists such as myself have spent years analysing and protesting against the ways that society sets out what should be rewarded in women (e.g. attractiveness, docility, selflessness).  There has never been a shortage of descriptions of the ideal woman by men (in art, advertising, or government policy, for instance), but women rarely spell out what they want men to be like.  Culturally, the image of the superhero is maybe the closest to a shared male ideal, but that isn’t much practical help to anyone.

Some men, such as Robert Webb (see a clip from an interview here), have been trying to de- and re-construct the idea of masculinity and I think women should join in the debate.   Female views should in theory be welcomed because some men nowadays seem to be genuinely confused over issues of consent, and basic good manners.

It’s all made me want to identify and explain clearly what I think is admirable in men, so I went back to my notebook entries and finally wrote something based on those old fragments.  Nervous about sharing my views on masculinity in public, I tried it out first on the men in my life…and they liked it!

Here it is, then:  “Gentle Men” which will be coming to a Hopewell Ink gig or CD soon, in some form or other!  Let me know if you like it, or have some suggestions for improvement.

I’d also be interested to hear your views on masculinity today, whatever your gender: what, for you, is a gentle man? Or do you have a different ideal of masculinity altogether?  Do you agree with Robert Webb that masculinity has no meaning or relevance in modern society?

Finally, why not make these questions the basis of a freewrite using the prompt “what is a gentle man?” or “which men have I admired and why?” Choose one and write without stopping for 10 minutes, putting down exactly what you find in your head without editing or censorship.  Alternatively you could try freewriting on the more direct question “what is a good man?” in order to blast through your defences and give you a truthful result.  Who knows, it might even lead on to a story or a poem.  Good luck!

 

 

UPDATE: we released the album LURID on January 13th 2019 and “Gentle Men” is the last track.

You can listen for free, or pay to download it, here.

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