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 which starts at the end of February 2020. There are lots more details here.

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, to 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!

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!):