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.
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.
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”:
- Continue under all circumstances. No excuses.
- Don’t be tossed away. If your kid falls and needs stitches, write in the waiting room. […]
- 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”.
- Who am I?
- Who have I become through writing/gardening/skiing (fill in whatever you do to seek something beyond yourself).
- Is my writing/gardening/skiing a spiritual practice and if not, could it be?
- From whom or what have I derived the most important principles for writing and/or life?
- 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
Dieting for the Unconscious
New Year is the time for dieting but what is the best way to feed the creative mind? A diet of high-energy, fast entertainment and hectic socialising is all very well for a short time and a change is as good as a feast, but very soon it will be time to return to a more sensible routine. If, by chance, you have the desire and the opportunity to engage in creative work at the beginning of this new year then having a quiet, disciplined approach and withdrawing from the din of people and the distractions of (social) media will probably help to accomplish what you set out to do.
This is all very well, but many would argue that the source of creative ideas and solutions is not the willed, conscious, disciplined mind but somewhere else entirely: the unconscious. The rational, intellectual and analytic part of the brain is not the origin of real sparks of inspiration. Instead, there seems to be another “place” or level which contains the really good stuff. Ideas emerge unbidden. They come as a surprise and often at inconvenient times, such as when you are working on another project entirely. Then, as in Stephen King’s wonderful analogy of the story idea as a fossil that must be dug out of the ground without damaging it, the trick is to interfere as little as possible with the image, character or entire plot that has been apparently gifted out of nowhere. You don’t have to be a writer or an artist to recognise this: it’s the stroke of genius that comes out of the blue, the solution to the problem you’ve been chewing away at for days.
Dorothea Brande, in Becoming a Writer, is most insistent that deliberate intention is wanted only in the planning and editing stages of writing. “The conscious mind,” she writes, “is meddlesome, opinionated and arrogant”. Brande argues that the intellect will supply hackneyed material such as stereotypes or over-literary characters if allowed sway during the writing process. So her ideal model of composition is one in which the unconscious and conscious take turns to be in the ascendant: the unconscious writes, then the conscious edits. “Hitch your unconscious mind to your writing arm,” she advises.
This, however, is a step too far for many people, writers included. Heather Leach, in The Road to Somewhere, is wary and sceptical of writers claiming to be in touch with the semi-mystical realms of dream and the unconscious and she finds the idea of the creative process as not fully conscious as “nerve-racking”. “If something is not in your control,” she says, “how do you develop or improve it?”
I am persuaded, by experience rather than the arguments of Sigmund Freud and others like him, that there is a higher, more organised wisdom beyond my selfish, distracted and limited ego and there have been moments when some other intelligence has taken over from me during composition. There’s also the very mysterious phenomenon of going back to freewriting and not recognising it as your own work, even though you know you did indeed write it. But I have no idea, apart from spending time in silence and solitude, of how to induce or invite this other, better source of art to provide me with material.
As Leach continues to puzzle over the apparent unwieldiness of the unconscious, she comes up with yet more questions: “how does the unconscious learn and develop?” she asks, and then: “what does it eat and how can we feed it?”
Well, even if I am unsure about the truth or otherwise of the unconscious as a player in creative work, I can recognise a good writing prompt when I see it! My students and I had a great session writing on the topic of “What does the unconscious eat and how can we feed it?”
Why not try it yourself? Sit down for ten minutes and banish all logic and sense. Resolve to waste time and paper and freewrite on what your unconscious really needs and wants to be fed. Also, attempting such a nonsensical task might push that meddlesome intellect out of the way for a while.
At this time of year especially, it’s possible that you’ve been eating all the wrong things, and I’m not just talking about all those chocolates and cakes that have been bad for your waistline. If you can figure out the right regime, why not put yourself on a diet for your unconscious this new year and see how much more creative you can be.