Re-launch coming soon!

It was January 2015 when, inspired by a weekend of baking bread with Mick Hartley The Partisan Baker, I composed my first post for The Freewriter’s Companion.

I had two aims.  One was to popularize freewriting, a liberating and fertile method of smashing writing blocks and of generating material that can form the basis of stories, poems or novels.  The second aim was to promote Surrealist women artists and writers from the past such as Dorothea Tanning, Meret Oppenheim and Leonora Carrington who have been overshadowed by their male counterparts (Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte, Andre Breton, and so on).

The combination of freewriting and Surrealism was important to me for other reasons too.  I had been researching a novel about Surrealism and at the same time experimenting with Natalie Goldberg’s methods of writing practice.  It occurred to me that this approach to creative writing was really a Surrealist one and resembled the automatic writing that all the Surrealists practised in the 20s and 30s.  I wondered why no one (apart from literary critics such as Kevin Brophy and a few others) had brought these two things together.  So I did.

I taught freewriting courses at Bangor University’s Lifelong Learning department until its tragic closure in 2017 and then launched some very successful independent courses of my own in a local cafe.  Students found freewriting hugely useful, easy and rewarding and produced excellent, original work from it, often accessing their own “voice” for the first time.

My weekly prompts which started last January have had a positive response too.  In all this, I was careful to include the Surrealist origins of freewriting (as I see it) and to emphasise the role of the unconsious, the random and the political.

Along the way, some of my blog posts were particularly successful such as the directly useful Become a Writer in 10 Minutes and Six Uses for Freewriting.

People were kind enough to respond to posts about Leonora Carrington’s Liverpool Tate exhibition and to acknowledge my admiration and love for a family member we lost in 2017 who turned out to have been a writer of no mean achievement.

I enjoyed the chance to explore the feminist aspects of the critical neglect of women Surrealists in a post about the Surrealist muse and was gratified that people were keen to read about the way I fictionalised the 1938 International Exhibition of Surrealism in Paris in my own novel.

Also, people across the world seemed to enjoy the Surrealist Christmas games I described.

I hope this selection of highlights will send you on a tour of the website which has been going for five years now.  At the beginning of 2020 I shall be working on a re-launch of The Freewriter’s Companion, so please come back in the new year and see what’s new here.

Happy Holidays!

Kathy Hopewell,
The Freewriter’s Companion

Freewriting in Peformance

This month I have four short videos of writers reading their own work for you to enjoy.

All were filmed at a free poetry and music festival in Bangor, North Wales, earlier this year.  This annual festival is called “Curiad Bangor” or, in English, “Bangor Pulse” which is a great, inclusive, name covering anything with a beat, whether in words or music.

As part of this year’s festival, I organised a night of poetry and prose performances and it happened to feature some writers who subscribe to the weekly freewriting prompts I send out for free to anyone who signs up on this website.

Three of the performers read work that had been sparked originally by one of my freewriting prompts and although of course the work is theirs and theirs alone, it was such an honour to be credited with inspiring them to write it.

I hope their pieces will show how freewriting from a prompt can form the basis of finished work, after judicious editing.  Perhaps they will inspire you to sign up and have a go too.

First up is a lovely, sinuous piece of writing about jazz by Nigel Stone.

In classes on the short story or novel, an old standby of mine is to invite students to write about the strangest person they’ve ever met.  Elaine Hughes produced this absolutely hilarious and yet very affectionate piece about a real eccentric with the title “The most peculiar person I ever met”.  It brought the house down!

Last but not least, here’s Anna Powell.  She reads two poems.  I’m not sure which prompt formed the start of the first poem (“Spiders”) but the second poem, about her hearing problems, was from a prompt that she had to adapt to her own use and I like to think that it was the practice of freewriting that gave her the freedom and courage to do it.  Not only has this produced an excellent poem, it also gives us much more of Anna herself and I felt priviledged to be invited into her inner world.

To round off the show, here is myself and partner David performing a Hopewell Ink piece.  So far, all of Hopewell Ink’s words have arrived in a freewrite of mine.  It often takes a while for the finished version to emerge but I hope that the freshness of freewriting (those “first thoughts”) remains.  This is a seasonal piece that celebrates autumn but in a less-than-conventional way.

To sign up for a free weekly writing prompt, please put your e-mail address in the box at the top left of the page.  More details here.  Thanks!

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.

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

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!

 

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.

 

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.

The Great Spring

Natalie Goldberg, one of the greatest writers on freewriting, began as a student of Zen Buddhism.  It involved long hours of sitting meditation, disciplined timekeeping and mundane tasks, all in the spartan environment of the zendo (meditation centre). At the same time, she was beginning to write poetry, inspired by the idea that her own life in all its particularity and ordinariness could be material for poems.

In collaboration with her Zen master, Katagiri Roshi, she developed a way of using writing as her Zen practice.  As with meditation it was timed, she did it in a disciplined way and it honoured her actual life.  Her “writing practice” involved the attempt to capture thought as it occurred in the mind by writing it down for a set period of time without stopping or censoring and then repeating this activity daily.  The practice could have been anything, but because Natalie was a writer this is what she chose.  It was a way of observing the mind with detachment, and it also helped her develop as a writer.

The result of her practice was Writing Down the Bones (1986) a writing guide that has influenced thousands, maybe millions of people in America and across the world to take up writing practice and work with a form of freewriting as a spiritual activity and/or as a way to train as a writer.  Natalie Goldberg’s latest book is a wonderful collection of essays about her writing life and continued practice of Zen called The Great Spring: writing, Zen and this zigzag life.

No matter what you think of Zen, or indeed freewriting, Natalie is a compelling essayist.  Far more concerned with the truth than with selling her ideas, she talks more about failure than success.  The discipline of her practice and the humility and openness fostered by meditation has produced an inimitable style of precision and honesty.

She begins The Great Spring with a succinct expression of her core beliefs and her intentions for the current book: “I have searched through these stories,” she says, “to find answers — if answers are ever possible — about who I am and who I have become […] driven by the practice of Zen and writing”.  This attempt at total clarity was provoked, it seems, from being diagnosed with breast cancer (happily, I believe she is out of danger now) and in true Zen style, the book is made sharper and rawer by an awareness of mortality: “we are here,” she writes, “but not forever”.

From the Zen monastic tradition, Natalie has derived three important principles that have kept her going through a “long writing life”:

  1. Continue under all circumstances.  No excuses.
  2. Don’t be tossed away. If your kid falls and needs stitches, write in the waiting room. […]
  3. Make positive effort for the good. […] Positive effort doesn’t mean hauling a mountain to Iowa. Sometimes it just means getting out of bed and brushing your teeth.

The last of these principles was enormously helpful to me when we were going through a recent family illness and death.  In fact it seems to help in any situation.

And from Jack Kerouac she cites four principles for writers:

  • Accept loss forever
  • Be submissive to everything, open, listening.
  • No fear or shame in the dignity of your experience, language or knowledge.
  • Be in love with your life.

It might seem from this these lists that Natalie is in the business of neat self-help advice based on her own triumphs over adversity but The Great Spring is quite the opposite.  Each chapter wrestles with questions thrown up by broken friendship, the awareness of mortality, conflicts with family, or the problems of being well- (or not so well-) known.  A stand-out essay for me was “On the Shores of Lake Biwa,” which describes a trip to Japan in which all of Natalie’s illusions about the Zen tradition are shattered: no one “likes” Zen or has much time for it and the monasteries are mostly known for harbouring homosexuality.

Some of the best moments in the book are when Natalie struggles without success to solve the Zen riddles called “koans” that are designed to explode the rational mind (the most famous being ‘what is the sound of one hand clapping?’).  In “Blossom” she is at a Zen retreat and can’t even grasp what koan is being asked.  In the traditional one-to-one with the Zen master, when the student is supposed to try to answer the koan, her master (also a friend) assaults her in a possibly sexual manner.  On the way home when her car breaks down she is recognised by the car mechanics and actually asks them “who am I?”.

The experiences don’t add up but are placed in relation, and tension, with the story of Joseph (a Zen student in the 1970s) who realised that the answer to the supposedly easy koan “How do you manifest your true nature when chanting?” was to simply chant.  But when it came to it, Joseph was overcome by the memory of a teacher from schooldays telling him he was tone deaf and he could only manage to croak a few lines.  His teacher says “pretty good,” because, after all, the aim of the koan is to dismantle the individual’s habitual reliance on the illusion of certainty.  Natalie presents these scenes (her own and the story of Joseph) with brightly-lit pitch-perfect description and searing honesty and offers them to the reader without a resolution.

Instead of an exalted, mountain-top wisdom, the study of Zen and writing practice leads Natalie to experience and re-access in arresting detail her moments of complete disintegration as a person, such as the time when, going through her divorce, she has no option but to allow her parents to see the extent of her despair.  She describes the huarache sandals she wore on a visit to see them and the way her father’s put-down (“what are those, horse hooves?”) was the final straw.  She has a tantrum and leaves immediately.  But when her parents catch up with her on the road, she writes: “I uttered three words: ‘I am lost.’  I had no energy for a cover-up.  Those words came from my core”.  And despite the fact that this was clearly a significant moment for her, there’s no Hollywood ending: her parents are embarrassed and the whole incident ends with banality (“Now can we go eat?” says her father, “I’m starving”).

Natalie explains that, in Zen, “the great spring” is a way of describing enlightenment and that this is a shattering thing involving the hard and painful “acceptance of transiency”.  Paradoxically, writing practice, which is all about observing and recording experience, is her route to letting go and breaking through.  She says that her book is an “invitation to notice […] moments that move us forwards”.

I recommend reading this and all of Natalie’s books; she will inspire and provoke new approaches to both writing and life.  Here are some questions that I believe are thrown up by The Great Spring.  You might try to answer them using writing practice (set a timer, write continuously without reading back, go for the jugular, and be specific).  This is not a woolly, mystical quest.  It’s urgent and stark, because: “we are here, but not forever”.

Questions:

  1. Who am I?
  2. Who have I become through writing/gardening/skiing (fill in whatever you do to seek something beyond yourself).
  3. Is my writing/gardening/skiing a spiritual practice and if not, could it be?
  4. From whom or what have I derived the most important principles for writing and/or life?
  5. What have been the most important turning points in my life and how, precisely, did they feel? What was I wearing/eating/thinking at those moments?

 

Picture credits, public domain:

Kodo Sawaki sitting in zazen meditation

Zendo

 

Hopewell Ink on Radio 3

Instead of a post this month, here’s the link to the Radio 3 programme Exposure featuring my band Hopewell Ink at Neuadd Ogwen in Bethesda, North Wales, broadcast last Thursday.

We are on first, and there’s also a short interview in which I explain how these spoken word and music pieces started off as freewriting exercises.  Hope you enjoy it!

Exposure 29th March

 

 

 

 

If you would like to buy our CD, which is called The Cure for Silence, please go to the Hopewell Ink page here

 

 

Going to the moon

I’ve been writing for nine years and produced a handful of short stories, some performance pieces, a completed novel and about a third of a second novel. I’ve also filled at least a dozen notebooks with freewriting.

notebooksAs I plan a new course on using freewriting to generate finished, edited prose and poetry, I have to confess that quite a lot about the connection between my own freewriting and my finished work is mysterious to me. Ideas about scenarios, sensuous, recollected details or first-hand observations in situ have all made their way into my stories and novels but a direct, cause-and-effect process would be impossible to find or prove. All I know for sure is that without all that messy writing about my past, my environment, biographies of fictional characters, descriptions of local rivers or the view from my window or foreign streets and coffee shops, I would never have completed — would never even have started — any of those stories, prose poems or novels.

I first began to do a form of freewriting in the year 2000, under the powerful influence of Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way. The writing she advocates is “morning pages”, a variety of self-development work that divides opinion: either you are disdainful of this sort of activity or you are an evangelist. I began as the first and ended up as the second because, despite a drawer full of childhood stories and plays and embarrassing teenage poetry, I had strenuously denied the desire to write though decades of passionate engagement with literature. Then, like St Peter, I heard the cock crow and realised I had been lying all that time.

The year 2000 was an inconvenient time in my life to become unable to suppress the desire to write. I was half-way through a PhD and finally on track for a full-time academic job, so it took a few years for the universe to fall into line as well as for me to have the courage to jump. But jump I did and it was freewriting that made it possible.

Melies moon
Through my years as a critic and teacher of literature I had an exaggerated, worshipful attitude to the writers I taught and discussed and the fact that my emphasis was on women writers who have had the hardest time to break through their own resistance and society’s barriers to be published only made them all the more remote. It seemed to me that it would be a personal insult to Charlotte Brontë, Virginia Woolf or Angela Carter for me to try to write a novel and any thought of entering into the same field as Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath or Adrienne Rich was an impossibility. It would be like going to the moon: I couldn’t do it. They, on the other hand, had built their own spaceships and owned spacesuits from birth.

Freewriting was the solution for me. When I finally accepted that I had the right to try and that to create bad writing was not going to be fatal, I began. It was a ticket to the moon, and even if I ended up staying in earth’s orbit, it got me off the ground. Only the permission to fail could induce me to try and that’s still the case every time I sit down to write. My love of literature and admiration for the best writers has, if anything, deepened because of course every writer has had to endure the uncertainty of buckling on the bubble helmet and not knowing if they’ll reach the place they’re aiming at, or if they’ll get back safe.

garden
I’ve been doing freewriting for so long now I expect I’m more used to it than I realise, and it will be fascinating to see my students encounter it perhaps for the first time in my class. Nowadays I use freewriting as a sort of dowsing tool. At the moment I tend to write about the characters in my current novel: their pasts, their bodies, their fears and hopes, until they become almost real. The other day I had the weirdest experience sitting outside in the sunshine in a circle of empty garden chairs. For a few seconds I actually thought that my characters were there sitting with me. I couldn’t quite see them but I felt that they were there. It was alarming and my first thought was that I needed to get out more but I also took it as a positive sign that, through all the freewriting I’d done, I’d conjured them into a sort of existence.