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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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.

Six Uses for Freewriting

It’s my belief that anyone can benefit from freewriting.

A marketing guru once told me that claiming something would work for everyone would weaken my brand and I had much better target a specific audience.  But I really do think freewriting is potentially for everybody.

Below are six uses for freewriting showing how the technique can work for anyone, from bestselling writers to people who have never thought of themselves as writers at all.

(If you need to find out, or remind yourself, of how to do freewriting, there is a guide here.)

#1: Clearing and Calming
For: anyone at all who is stressed, confused, troubled or angry

Talking can help, depending on the listener, but I’d argue that the best way to get through a problem or regain perspective, or simply to keep going through hard times, is to write it all down.  When you write with no audience and no judge, when you can state how things are for you and not anybody else, there is a lever, a foundation to stand on, a place of power that belongs to you.  If you follow the freewriting rules and, as far as possible, write without stopping or censoring what is coming out you will find honesty, wisdom and guidance.  Anyone can do this.  You don’t even need to be able to spell or use grammar correctly because no one will ever see it.  What happens, though, is that by doing it you grow in expressive ability and the more articulate you become the better you can describe your dilemmas and frame your solutions.  Think about how written language has made it possible for the human race as a whole to increase its abilities in all kinds of directions.  This resource is available to us as individuals.

#2: Self Development
For: anyone with a goal

Freewriting can reveal what’s really important and it can help you get there.  I’ve always loved Susan Jeffers analogy of an aeroplane’s journey: apparently in a long-haul flight the plane is off course for 90% of the time but by continual correction, it reaches its exact destination.  If you are sure what you want to achieve, you can reset your course as many times as it takes by writing it down and grappling with the reasons why you are not getting closer to it.  Repeatedly affirming your intentions to yourself, even if the world and everyone you know can’t yet see that this is where you are going, is a powerful way to make something happen.

#3: Recording Your Life
For: Public memoirists, and private diarists

Writers live twice, at least.  They live their experiences and then they repeat them by writing them down (later they can live them all over again by reading back what they have written).  Life is precious and so very fleeting and to capture in words the high or low points, as well as the smallest details, is a profoundly valuable act, even if it remains in a private notebook or computer file.  Memory is such a rich resource that for writers of all kinds I would liken it to gold bars in the bank: solid capital, waiting to be used.  Writing rapidly and without pre-planned limits can turn up very deeply buried memories (a caution here, put some support in place if you suspect traumatic episodes to re-surface).  One way to harness the spontaneous aspect of freewriting is to put pivotal life-events onto folded slips and draw them at random.  That way you’ll be able to pounce on memories as they arise, rather than preparing them and hence sanitising or censoring them.

#4: Finding Material for Creative Writing
For: Beginning writers

Memories might be all you need to begin fashioning poetry or narrative from the amazing things that have happened to you (after all, growing up, falling in love or earning a living are all amazing and almost all of us have done all three).  But if you are finding it hard to start out on the road to authorship, freewriting can build confidence in the face of the daunting idea of “Being a Writer” and can slay the writers’ chief enemy: the blank page.  With writing prompts or exercises to kick-start the process and the method of freewriting to make sure the writing actually happens, there should never be a time when the excuse “I don’t know what to write about” is valid.  One of the most valuable skills a writer can have is to be able to keep writing until some good stuff emerges and while you’re writing it’s almost impossible to tell which is the good stuff, so training the hand to keep going is a real asset, and a way of…

#5: Beating Writer’s Block
For: Struggling Writers

Lowering your standards can sometimes be the only way of not giving up when crippling doubt or a dry patch settles in.  You can almost physically blast away a block by attacking it with fast, rough, bad writing.  Or, indeed, with gentle, soft writing as a soothing, forgiving activity after the mental self-flagellation of all those “I am useless” “I can’t write” thoughts.  Crazy, sideways-on techniques and triggers done as freewriting such as describing your character as a vegetable or beginning every sentence with the letter “c” can open out entirely new, and rejuvenating, angles on stuck work.  Furthermore, the rules of freewriting mean you can do these crazy things before your serious, blocked, self can realise what is happening and freeze you up.

Lastly:
#6: Renewal after a long project
For: Writers of long projects (such as novels or non-fiction books)

I’m currently using freewriting for this reason.  After completing two novels I was feeling that writing was “heavy” and I had become, in a sense, over-disciplined.  I was treating writing as work when, of course, it is play.  Even if you do it for a living, unless creative work is at some level playful, it will not connect with an audience.  So I have temporarily switched from word-count targets and plot structure puzzles to the equivalent of messing about in a sandpit (I have a biscuit tin of prompts, games and exercises and can be found in cafes drinking coffee or something stronger, and freewriting like a demon).  It’s a way of reminding my muse that we are in this for fun, first and foremost, and that new ideas, styles, topics, forms and scenarios will be positively welcomed and need not fit into a specific novel at the moment.  I’m hoping that my childish playtime will take me to something exciting and unexpected for my next big project and even if it doesn’t, my relationship with writing will be healthy and happy.  All thanks to freewriting!

Finding Your Voice

Some artists have an utterly distinctive voice.  Within a second of hearing one twisted, mournful note, I can recognise the great Johnny Marr of The Smiths.  In the same way, the weirdly uncomfortable but perfect half-beat-off of Emily Dickinson’s poetry springs out at me before I have had time to check the quotation is hers.  Like Marr’s whining, piercing sound, Dickinson’s skewed verbal rhythm is as recognisable as her photograph.

How do you “find your voice”?  It stands to reason that each one of us is a unique physical incarnation of humanity with an unrepeatable set of experiences and reactions leading to a collection of beliefs, knowledge and memories which, taken together, are unlike anyone else’s. To find an individual style (in words, music, visual art and so on) is surely a case of using that medium to externalise or embody our uniqueness.  Sounds easy?  I’d say it’s the hardest thing a creative person has to do.

My championing of freewriting is bound up with my own attempt to do this: I believe that if I think about how to be uniquely myself while writing then it’s likely to be strained, self-conscious and, paradoxically, imitative.  But if I can forget myself (and the speed of freewriting is what helps here) the “real” me can come out, a bit like when I’m with people I know and love versus in a formal, highly judgemental situation: the chances of saying something original and genuine are much greater on a walk with my son than at a job interview where I’m trying to make a good impression.

Natalie Goldberg  has a great story about voice in her book Thunder and Lightning: Cracking Open the Writer’s Craft (p.137-40).  It’s about a friend and student of hers called Barbara Schmitz who began by writing obscure, avant-garde, oblique poems which were seemingly at odds with her character and background.  Natalie was less than impressed with the work and advised her instead to “write what you know” but Barbara, to her credit, kept ploughing her own, odd, furrow.  Some years later, Natalie received a poem from her and was astounded at its brilliance.  It was off-centre, original but also unmistakably rooted in her friend’s life and personality.  “You finally matched yourself on paper,” Natalie told her friend on the phone (I love that part!).

It seems that the student had to inhabit a very alien style and register in order to finally ‘express’ herself.  But these terms I’m using are beginning to make me feel uncomfortable.  I have taught and studied in university literature departments for over thirty years now and even when I started out as a wide-eyed idealist, the tide of ‘theory’ was creeping up to drown such naive ideas as an essential self which pre-exists language and waits to be expressed in art.  Poststructuralist theories (thrillingly French, wreathed in cigarette smoke) made us question what creative writing teachers, then and now, impress on their apprentice writers: find your voice, express your authentic self.

For instance, when it was explained to me that it was impossible to write a novel or a sonnet, or anything else that counts as literature, without having first read one (not just unwise; actually impossible) I accepted that language did indeed “speak me” and not the other way around.  And yet.  And yet.  Still I yearn for it to be true that something written by me could be evidence of my complete originality; as seemingly expressive of a unique self as the nudes of Pablo Picasso or the novels of Virginia Woolf.

It might be best to concede the poststructuralists their victory and admit that what we create will be a version of what we have seen other artists produce and that in the end we all have the same palette of colours, scales and meanings.  But the combination: yes! and the skill in mixing and selecting and searching out the right fit, all of that can be done by will and determination.  In the end, maybe a unique voice can be constructed rather than found, pre-existing within, by sheer hard work.

 

Credits:Dickinson, and Where’s Wally? world record attempt images: Creative Commons, Thunder and Lightning cover: fair use

Publish or Perish?

When I began writing ten years ago I thought that there was some natural process by which writing became published: you did it and then it would appear in print, rather like going through with a pregnancy and ending up with a baby.  Now I know that there are as many ways of being a writer as there are writers, and the spectrum of publication stretches across vast areas of difference from having just a few readers to being a commercial bestseller.  In between are writers’ groups, small presses, self and/or e-publication, blogs, subscription arrangements and now crowd-funding

Two particular writers on opposite ends of the spectrum of publication have been occupying my thoughts recently.

The first is my father-in-law Robert Hopewell who died at 91 years old just a couple of weeks ago.  I knew that he wrote poems as part of his lifelong practice of Zen meditation, mindfulness, yoga and tai chi, and that they were connected to his work as a visual artist and wood carver.  As far as I know he never attempted to publish or even share his writings very widely.  He had occasionally showed a few poems to me but I couldn’t really receive them, being blinkered by the more literary, canonical poetry I taught in university classes.  But after his death I had the chance to see all the writings together, copied into large sketch books, often decorated with abstract designs, and the sum of the poems in combination with his long life and steadfast practice of Buddhist detachment has become clear.

His poems are direct, unsophisticated, and unencumbered by the need to impress.  He writes broadly in the tradition of Japanese haiku in short poems that are acts of observing and exercises in clarity of mind.  The poems are as concerned with releasing experience as with capturing it.

For instance, here is a piece called “Practice Death Poem”:

Waking to the familiar

What a strange and wonderful thing

Dying to the familiar

What an adventure

One of the most significant aspects of the poems is the way in which the writer is completely unconcerned with the impression he makes: self-judgement has been more or less completely jettisoned and there is absolutely nothing to prove.  And the real power of these poems is that there is no audience imagined, expected or addressed.  The complete absence of the idea of publication has created the perfect conditions for significant statement: the value of this work is a result of its utter privacy.

But what a paradox!  To never seek publication might guarantee the worth of a body of work but if it is never read, then what is the purpose of all that effort?  Language is communication.  You might argue that the point of private writing is self-expression but without another to hear or read the work, is the self really expressed at all?

This question takes me back to one of my great heroes, Emily Dickinson.  Her poetry is now regarded as some of the best ever written but her work was not published in her lifetime and she made only a few abortive attempts to submit her work to the conventional women’s magazines of her day in mid-nineteenth century New England.   Instead she included her poems in correspondence to friends and arranged her own method of production by sewing together collections of her poetry and storing them in a desk.  Her poems were so advanced, complex, compressed and unconventional that it’s possible she preferred to keep them semi-private rather than to compromise and instead publish the sort of sentimental, regularly-rhymed verse that many women of her genteel social background did.  Again, there is this intensification, and the authenticity that comes from turning away from the marketplace (I am aware of the theoretical naivety of these statements but I cannot always be a postmodernist!).

One of Dickinson’s most famous poems compares the publishing industry to slavery, stating that “publication is the auction of the mind of man”, but her work did eventually emerge into the light.  The extent of her achievement was discovered after her death, fought over, published (sometimes in bowdlerized editions) and every generation since has found meaning in her work.  Feminist poets and scholars in particular have read her with increasing understanding and admiration and she has inspired many poets to take up the challenge of her forensic, daring poetics.  Without widespread publication and the dissemination of her extraordinary work this would not have been possible, but for Dickinson herself, wasn’t it better to remain unpublished in her lifetime, in the same way that my father-in-law’s poems gained their force from silence and unselfconsciousness?  This goes against the grain of our success-oriented society and the gospel of celebrity.

The other writer I have been thinking about is most assuredly a success and has sold over a million books worldwide: this is Jessie Burton, whose novel The Miniaturist became a runaway bestseller in 2013.  By chance I came across her tremendously interesting blog http://www.jessieburton.co.uk/blog/archives/02-2016 and was shocked to read about the breakdown she suffered after the enormous success of her book.  I’m very happy to say that she has now recovered and her second novel, The Muse, is doing well.  It’s plain that the trauma following the strain of sudden celebrity shook her to the core and she was severely afraid of never being able to write again.

To be writing, as Burton is now, for an established readership with specific expectations and a lot of money riding on it is the complete opposite of the other writers I’ve been describing and it poses the question of what writing is really for.  I believe that each writer must decide what their definition of success really is.  I think for Robert it was the direct expression of the truth as he saw it without the false distortions of the ego getting in the way, and for Dickinson it was about accurately witnessing the glory and terror of existence.  Jessie Burton speaks, in a veiled way, about her next book being braver in content and it seems as though she has taken ownership of her position as a public writer and is intent upon using it well.  For me, then, as I prepare to submit my novel to agents and publishers once again, I am aware that some sorts of commercial success are not always a wholly good thing, and that literary quality and meaningfulness is not solely measurable by reader numbers.

I’ll let Robert have the last word (about words!):

Training to Write

Imagine what it’s like to be an Olympic athlete about to compete.  Your name is called.  You raise your arm, or fit the pedal straps to your feet, or stand at the edge of the diving board, or crouch in readiness on the track.  Then it begins.  Everything is a blur of no-time time and swift unconscious judgements and calculations.  There is the familiarity of having performed these movements countless times before, but also the awareness that you are doing it for the first time under these exact conditions, here and now.  And then it’s over.  Your lungs are heaving and when the results appear, tears start spilling out of your eyes.  The thought of being on the podium is unreal and bizarre.  Then a microphone is jabbed at you and the interviewer asks: how did you do it?

Training.  I trained really hard for this, you say.  Then the interviewer moves on because the media isn’t really interested in the hours and hours of repetitions and diet charts and weigh-ins.  But you know that without the days and weeks and months of practice, you wouldn’t be here in the echoing velodrome, the sweat-wet badminton court or on the royal blue Astroturf in Rio, 2016.

800px-Women's_Heptathlon_Victory_CeremonyAn athlete’s training is all for one moment of opportunity: an Olympic competition.  And although I know that writing isn’t competitive in the same way, it does strike me that writers need to be on top form when the opportunity of a good idea, and the time to explore it, occurs.  So while watching the games, I’ve been thinking about the similarities between sportspeople training to compete, and writers using freewriting to practice their art.  I think that freewriting is a sort of training and very roughly equivalent to those hours in the gym, in the pool and on the track, that the top athletes put in.

And this is why: in freewriting you are training your mind to translate ideas as directly as possible onto the page or screen.  “First thoughts” are what Natalie Goldberg calls original, unique-to-you, strong creative ideas.  The aim is to seize these ideas without hesitating or watering them down or letting an internal editor tell you they’re rubbish, and who are you anyway to think you can write?  Freewriting trains you to grasp and record all of your mind’s output (good and bad) and put it down on paper so you can work with it later.  It’s like strengthening a mental muscle by using it repeatedly.   You train yourself to write in a fluent way and at the same time, to follow the guidelines of being as specific and concrete as possible and diving into potentially dark or controversial material if it comes up.  With this training, you can step up when and if the opportunity comes to write the big scene, or the definitive poem.  The idea can get onto the page complete.  Without thinking, you can do the equivalent of a triple salto and still be ready for the big finish.

Girl_playing_white_grand_piano_-_EXPO_2015_Milan_(2015-07-13_10.44.44_by_Luca_Nebuloni)And why shouldn’t writers practice?  Artists of all kinds do exercises to improve skill.  The musician practices scales; the painter has a sketchbook.  So if a writer says to me that they are worried that freewriting will make their work sloppy or that it’s a waste of time, I’m going to point out that it was the hours of training that made it possible for Max Whitlock to win two gold medals in one day.

Whatever public recognition may or may not later come our way, the writer is her own first judge and medal-awarding committee: it’s at the desk or the screen where we know if our wonderful idea has made it out of our head and onto the page.  If we are freewriters I think the chances of producing a winning performance are that much higher.  And in your press interview, when they ask how you did it, you can say it was all down to those hours of training!

611px-Max_Whitlock