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.
I started sending out free weekly prompts via email in January 2019 and at the time of writing I have well over 300 subscribers. 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 my posts and to share in my admiration and love for a family member we lost in 2017 who turned out to have been a writer of no mean achievement.
In other posts I was able to acknowledge my gratitude to wonderful writing “gurus” such as Natalie Goldberg and Anne Lamott. In a slightly more playful mood I characterised Goldberg and other advocates of freewriting as great performers such as Bowie and Jimi Hendix.
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 and my post even got a mention in The Guardian.
My blog has also been the go-to place for news and backstory on the spoken word band that my partner David and I formed in 2011 called Hopewell Ink. You can read an interview with David here, conducted by me, in which I try to persuade him to describe what Hopewell Ink is all about.
2021 sees a new departure for The Freewriter’s Companion as I launch two online courses in freewriting and I hope that my five-year blog archive will serve as a resource for people curious about freewriting, surrealism and everything inbetween.
My novel Swimming with Tigers is based on a real historical person connected to surrealism in the 1920s known as Nadja.
In this post I want to share with you how I used a combination of research and freewriting to transform this shadowy figure from history into the character of Suzanne in my novel.
I hope that along the way you’ll become as fascinated as I am with her and also get some insight into how freewriting can be directly used as a novel-writing tool.
In 1926, the leader of the surrealist movement André Breton met a woman who called herself Nadja on the streets of Paris and was immediately smitten with her as a person and with her entirely original way of living and seeing things. It formed the blueprint of the surrealist principles of chance, altered consciousness and the strangeness of ordinary things. Breton wrote a book entitled Nadja about his encounter with this elusive and unstable, visionary woman in 1928.
Breton’s portrait gives tantalising glimpses of her originality and frailty; she is a free spirit but cripplingly shy and insecure, with terribly low self-esteem. Nadja is a fascinating document but is, in the end, about Breton himself, and Nadja exists primarily as his creation, although some of her drawings and sayings are reproduced in the book.
By the end of his account, she is in a mental institution and Breton decides not to visit her, giving his disenchantment with psychiatry as an excuse. Instead he abandons her to her fate.
For many years there were no photographs of her except the one in Breton’s book, where her eyes are repeated in a truly disconcerting multiple arrangement. There was even some doubt about her ever having existed at all. She was believed to have died in hospital, in 1941.
Could I Put Nadja in a Novel?
Looking around for an idea for a novel, I wondered if I could tell Nadja’s story, drawing on Breton’s account, but using my own imagination. I wanted to give her centre stage this time. What a gift to a novelist! I spent quite some time searching and expecting that such a thing had already been done, but I seem to be the first to attempt to bring Nadja to life in a new novel.
Then, when I read in the introduction to the Penguin edition of Nadja that there were rumours that she didn’t die in 1941, but was living in France and working as a typist in the 1970s, my novel started to really come to life. I wanted to create a new myth to rival Breton’s, in which she did not die incarcerated but lived on, free and independent.
How I Did It
Using Breton’s book as a starting point, I re-named Nadja Suzanne and allowed myself plenty of time to conjure her up as a physical presence and to bring out all of the associations her story had accumulated. Freewriting was perfect for this and allowed me to range widely and accept unintended elements into my creation.
Here is an extract from some freewriting I did on Suzanne:-
The bird girl, the butterfly girl, the hurt girl, the disowned. The gothic ghost, the fey child, the polluted whore, the cast-off mistress, the naive poet, the schizophrenic.
The skipping girl, the coquette, the cat-like, the acrid. The heroine, the First Cause, the one carrying it all and yet not able to steer it, or say anything to it. The traumatised one, the delicate-featured.
The resurrected, the alive-all-along, the re-found. Laughing and dancing, shouting in the corridor, blazing life then grey isolation.
The thin soles, the red coat, the bare legs, the messy make-up. The one who is starved or who starves herself. Until she is fed, and befriended. Saved.
The one with magic eyes, with mirrors, with windows. The one with wings in the mind.
Gradually, my fictional Suzanne began to feel more real to me than the historical Nadja.
Next I wrote some scenes in which Suzanne makes a friend who saves her from despair. I named this friend Penelope and mixed in details from the lives, works and appearances of several women surrealists such as Leonora Carrington, Eileen Agar, Lee Miller and Meret Oppenheim in order to create her.
Here is part of an early scene when Penelope first meets Suzanne. By this time I knew exactly how Suzanne would appear to a stranger:-
‘Mademoiselle.’ The waiter placed a glass of red wine in front of Penelope, giving her an ingratiating smile. She watched him take the other glass from his tray and put it down at Suzanne’s place without a word.
‘He doesn’t seem to like you,’ Penelope murmured, once the waiter was out of earshot.
‘He thinks I don’t belong here,’ said Suzanne, getting out another cigarette.
Penelope looked at Suzanne dispassionately for the first time. Her clothes were cheap. The felted red coat with a dropped hem had fallen open to reveal a much-washed black crepe dress and her shoes were in ruins. Her face could do with a wash and there was a feint smell of tomcat about her, vying with a cheap, sharp perfume. Did Suzanne look like a prostitute? Was that what the waiter thought she was? What would Penelope’s mother say if she knew that her precious debutante was out in public with a woman of dubious reputation?
Suzanne was shifting awkwardly in her chair. No, she didn’t look like a prostitute, not exactly; she looked displaced.
I also used freewriting to gauge and harness my personal investment in the character. Nadja said of herself (according to Breton) “I am the soul in limbo” and in the past so many gifted, creative women have remained in limbo, unknown and unacknowledged.
Much of my work as a university lecturer in literature and women’s studies has been devoted to the feminist enterprise of rescuing women writers and artists from obscurity and reassessing their place and contributions. It was this that originally drew me to Nadja.
I used freewriting throughout the composition of the novel to keep my motivation in focus and to power me through the inevitable difficulties and delays. Even now, some years later, Swimming with Tigers has yet to find the right publisher (although the manuscript was long-listed for an international prize). My commitment, however, to making the women surrealists better-known remains stronger than ever.
Who Is She?
Since I began the novel, more has emerged about Nadja including her real name which was Léona Delcourt. There is now a photograph to look at and a biography (in French). But no amount of hard fact will ever entirely banish the deeply mysterious aura around this strange and compelling woman.
In my own novel, a parallel story sets up the possibility that another character is about to meet the actual, historical, Nadja. But the Nadja of my novel is already fictionalised as Suzanne and remains, like a true surrealist ghost, both real and imaginary at the same time…
If you would like to read more on Nadja, here are some articles available on the web:-
[Some of this material appeared in an earlier post.]
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!
I began this website because, as a lecturer on Surrealism and a private addict of freewriting, I was amazed that no one seemed to connect the two.
Surrealism comes from Freud, via Breton
The Surrealist movement was kicked off by the practice of automatic writing (art came later).
Surrealist automatic writing uses essentially the same method as modern-day freewriting in which you write continuously, allowing random processes to take over and suspending all critical judgment until the end of the exercise. [If you’d like more detailed instructions, please go to How to Freewrite].
André Breton, the leader of the Surrealist movement, used automatic writing as the basis to develop a whole philosophy of creativity which led to an entirely new approach to the practice of poetry, art and sculpture.
Breton himself had not come up with the idea of recording an unedited stream of consciousness. This, of course, was Sigmund Freud. Breton had used Freud’s method of free association when he was a medical orderly during the First World War and began to wonder if the unconscious could be harnessed in a similar was for the making of art.
Breton was enchanted with Freud’s ideas during the war when all things German were anathema. America, however, had adopted Freud early.
The Clark Lectures by Freud
In 1909, Freud gave a series of public lectures at Clark University in Massachusetts which were designed to reach a wide audience beyond professional, specialised psychiatric practitioners.
The Clark lectures are a good, basic introduction to Freud’s ideas about the unconscious, repression and the therapeutic work of psychoanalysis.
In the second of the lectures at Clark University, Freud likens a troubled patient to a lecture hall in which there is an audience member who is making a noise and interrupting the lecture. To regain calm and order, the troublemaker would have to be thrown out and guards would have to be placed on the doors to make sure he didn’t get back in.
In Freud’s analogy, the inside of the lecture hall is the conscious mind while outside the hall is the unconscious. And the man in the audience that is interrupting the lecture stands for an unacceptable thought that has to be ejected.
This is an illustration of repression: the trouble-maker who is ejected and prevented from getting back in represents an unacceptable thought repressed from the conscious mind. These unacceptable thoughts are, like the troublemaker in the lecture hall, disrupting civilised, social life, and must be thrust violently away, out of sight.
But Freud’s most important point was that the repression will continue to cause disruption.
In Freud’s illustration, the ejected man bangs on the door and generally continues to make his presence felt. In the same way, repressed thoughts, desires and emotions, continue to make the civilised, orderly lecture hall of the conscious mind a place of strife and discomfort. The problem of repression has not been solved.
The solution is to find someone who, like the psychoanalyst, can calm the trouble-maker enough so that he can be readmitted without causing any more disruption to the lecture. Hence the therapeutic work, involving dreams, free association and so forth will identify, and readmit the repression so that it can be put under the control of the conscious mind and tranquil, normal, life can resume.
Once the trouble-maker agrees to behave properly he can be re-admitted to the lecture hall. Civilised life goes on.
Surrealism is not therapeutic
You might assume that the Surrealists adopted automatic writing as an equivalent, therapeutic activity to Freud’s free association method, but you would be wrong!
The Surrealists wanted to unleash the revolutionary power of the unconscious and change society.
Breton and his group wanted to dismantle the institutions of public life such as the church and the government in order to claim the freedom of the individual.
You couldn’t get further away from Freud’s aims of re-integrating troubled individuals into civilised society!
Freud wants order; the surrealists want mayhem!
Freud’s example of the trouble-maker made ‘safe’ for the civilised lecture theatre has an equal and opposite counterpart in one of the most extreme statements Breton ever made. In the Second Surrealist Manifesto of 1929 Breton wrote:
The simplest Surrealist act consists of dashing down the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd.
Now, neither Breton nor any members of the Surrealist group in Paris or elsewhere were terrorists or mass murderers in real life, but this quote shows how far Surrealism is from the normalising aims of Freudian psychoanalysis.
You couldn’t get further away from Freud’s aims of re-integrating troubled individuals into civilised society.
Where Freud wanted to bring calm and individual peace of mind, the Surrealists were interested in finding extremes, nightmare and provocation.
I find it fascinating that there is such a rich, hidden history to this common writing exercise which you can find recommended in almost any guide to creative writing.
Freewriting is also often recommended as a way to work on personal issues and problems and as a way to process difficult experiences. In this way, freewriting is being used as an equivalent to Freud’s free association method for therapeutic purposes and, like the treatment of Freud’s trouble-maker in the Clark lecture, the writer’s unconscious is safely corralled on the page and inner conflict defused.
But this is to completely erase the revolutionary aims of Surrealism, which is the ‘source’ of freewriting as an artistic technique.
For Breton and others of the group, the unconscious is a dark place, and artists and writers go there at their peril, even if sometimes what emerges is humour and irony. To take Surrealism to its extreme is to be profoundly at odds with every aspect of social life and inhabit a maladjusted state.
Why I Use Freewriting
My experience is that freewriting can produce work that is much stronger, stranger and more adventurous than anything I could create by slow, deliberate, rational and planned methods of writing. On a smaller scale to the Surrealism’s ambitions, freewriting has caused a revolution in my own life, causing me to literally leave the lecture halls of academia.
But at the same time, like Freud’s treatment of the noisy audience member, I find that releasing inhibitions in freewriting and then considering the results in a calm, constructive, way does seem to keep me on an even keel.
Freewriting has magical properties!
In being aware of the source of freewriting in Freud’s extraordinarily suggestive ideas or in the outrageous, liberating attitudes of the Surrealists, I believe we can find power and agency in our writing and lives through freewriting.
If you use freewriting, I’d love to know if you find that it promotes psychological well-being (a bit like DIY Freudian psychoanalysis).
I’d also love to know if you, like the Surrealists, have experienced it as a powerful and potent source of rebellion and creativity.
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.”
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.
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:
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
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.
Kathy Hopewell, The Freewriter’s Companion.
Copyright © 2019 The Freewriter’s Companion, All rights reserved.
The artist Dorothea Tanning lived to the age of 101. Her long career as a painter, sculptor and writer is being celebrated now at Tate Modern in London. And what a celebration! For as long as Dali is better known than Dora Maar and Man Ray outstrips Lee Miller in terms of fame, the mounting of retrospectives for women can look like merely political correctness: it isn’t. There was not a hint of tokenism in this latest solo exhibition of one of the women artists associated with surrealism.
Instead the Dorothea Tanning event showed an authoritative vision, and the development of style and theme through a sustained career, with work that spanned the truly disturbing all the way to the warmly good-humoured. I am not an art critic and I have no training in art. What I love about the surrealist women (and I love them so much that I wrote a novel about them) is the immediate, accessible joy I find in their work. My definition of good art is that it should be inspiring, provocative and amusing: Tanning’s work was all three, and sometimes all three at once!
Like Leonora Carrington (see my review of her Tate retrospective here) Tanning, an American born in Illinois, was enraptured by surrealism at a young age and sought out its (male) practitioners. Unfortunately she reached Paris in 1939 when most of the surrealists had fled to America or elsewhere due to the war, so it was to be in New York that she encountered Breton and the others, most significantly Max Ernst who she married and lived with until his death in 1976.
The story goes that he selected a painting of hers for exhibition and named it Birthday to signify the day of her birth as a surrealist. This sort of older male legitimisation of young and sexy girl wannabe is repeated again and again in the lives of the surrealist women. Tanning might well have needed the “in” to the surrealist group but her talent was already formed as is clear from this astonishing picture.
Birthday is the one of a series of artworks featuring doors in Tanning’s work that stretch from this (in 1947) to Door 84 (1984) and doors occur in the best known of her paintings Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (1943). The little girls in this work are caught in a tornado of adult sexuality. These are indeed the femmes-enfant I discussed in a previous post but they are not sexualised for the pleasure of the viewer. Similar little girls appear in Children’s Games (on a canvas much smaller than I had imagined) and they are tearing down the wallpaper but finding only the bodies of adult women behind the walls. All these are children wrestling with the onset and demands of adult sexuality: their De Sade knee boots or heeled shoes are combined with undeveloped bodies and fear. For what indeed is behind the doors of the plush hallway in Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and what threat is posed by the predatory sunflower snaking up the stairs?
Tanning creates interiors that are really terrifying, or terrifying and funny all at once like Family Portrait (1953-4) in which the patriarchal power of the father is literally depicted as larger than the other members of the family, with the maid and the dog roughly equivalent in size and importance. Hilarious, and deadly.
The Tate exhibition managed to show both the progression and the repeated themes of Tanning’s work. Her pictures in the 1940s and early 1950s are often done in Daliesque “realism”, meaning that she depicts impossible things in a realistic way (as the true surrealist that she was). For example The Guest Room (1950- 52) which features an adolescent girl standing awkwardly naked in a room which contains hooded figures, broken eggs and another child in bed with a life-sized doll. The Mirror (1950) depicts a sunflower looking at itself in a mirror, with pin-sharp realism. But then in the later 1950s she moved into a new style of abstract but recognisable “smoky” pictures in which figures and space merge into each other. These pictures were not my favourites, but some were just as disturbing and involving as the starker and more figurative works. For instance Insomnias from 1957 gives a nightmare version of mental unease.
As well as the doors, there were legs! The out-flung limbs in her later “smudgier” pictures (by the way, to any experts reading: apologies for these amateurish terms!), seemed to me to be connected to her work in soft sculpture, which began in around the mid-1960s. She uses flesh-pink cotton, carefully tailored to shape, and/or furry brown material to create soft entwined bodies that suggest sex, struggle or maybe just rolling about on the floor playing.
And there is Emma, too (1970). Named after Emma Bovary in Flaubert’s novel the soft sculpture of a belly was placed next to a series of watercolours of mothers and babies from the 1960s along with the well-known picture from 1946-7 called Maternity. In this painting are doors again, preventing or trapping women or perhaps holding out the possibility of escape. The simultaneously scary and amusing element in this picture is the dog with a child’s face (there were Tibetan dogs all over the place in the exhibition: she owned them and included them obsessively in her work in different guises, sometimes scaled up to human size).
The door, the soft sculpture of entangled legs and the deadly interior all came together in the most exciting piece: an installation called Poppy Hotel, Room 202 (1970 – 73). In this real-space room, bodies are bursting through the walls and morphing from the chairs. Something rather unpleasantly grey and amorphous is emerging from the fireplace. But the really menacing aspect is that the door is arranged to conceal whatever is beyond (or indeed whatever or whoever may be coming in). Here you can see me furiously recording my impressions of this most eerie and compelling artwork.
The joy of surrealism is always in the humour. At the Tate we were treated to Don Juan’s Breakfast: a soft sculpture of a tankard with bursting buttons and overflowing foam reminiscent of both female cleavage and male libertine plumpness. Even in this joke, the vulnerability of women is somewhere in the background. In Tweedy, however, we had just the joke: a fantasy tweed-covered animal with a little matching turd.
I came away buzzing with inspiration and my faithful companions were enthusiastic too. My son Bryn said he had got part-way round the exhibition when he read Tanning’s statement that she hoped each piece would give something different on each successive viewing. “So I went back to the start,” he told me, “and there was”. My partner David also picked up on the bold adoption of new styles throughout a long career but echoed my impression in saying that it was “all of a piece”.
Tanning also produced written work: a novel, two memoirs and a volume of poetry. These are all waiting for me to discover and I really hope that this exhibition (and this blog post too) will send many, many people to seek out and enjoy Tanning’s work for inspiration, provocation and amusement.
All the images included here are from the exhibition, where photography (without flash) was permitted. They are reproduced for educational purposes only.
To see and search through nearly all of Tanning’s work, see photographs of the artist and read summaries of her life and work, go to the excellent Dorothea Tanning Foundation website here.