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.
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.
I’m excited to say that my post
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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!
Let me explain the actual writing prompts now. These are all normally stored in the tin and drawn at random. In the centre are random phrases taken from the short story collections by Michele Roberts, Helen Simpson and Alice Munro. 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.
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.
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.