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!
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.
- Have a look at my online courses which are a series of videos to watch on demand and are yours for a year. In each lesson you’ll be freewriting with me, in real time. 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 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 post is about stories in films and books, and in life.
The stories we consume are very often structured in an artificial way, but we’ve become so used to the shape of stories in Hollywood films such as rom-coms and the superhero franchises that sometimes it’s possible to forget that life just isn’t like that at all. And then, if we are writers, we run the risk of creating stories that lazily and slavishly follow the conventions rather than attempting to describe life as we experience it.
A formulaic, predictable story might be fine, of course, if that’s what we want to enjoy or create. Recently, being laid up in bed with a leg injury followed by flu (it wasn’t the best Christmas break I can remember), I craved narratives that were simple, familiar and most importantly had happy endings. As someone with a doctorate in literature, I am not ashamed to confess that I reached for some comfort reading in the form of Katie Fforde’s romantic novels which are light as air (but very well-written). The predictability of the stories was precisely why I chose them.
There are countless textbooks and articles about the classic plot, whether as three- or five-act, or as Freytag’s pyramid. Mainstream Hollywood has adopted Joseph Campbell’s work on mythological structure in stories (“The Hero with a Thousand Faces”) via Christopher Vogler’s screenwriting guide “The Writer’s Journey”. Here you can find a blueprint for a story from “the call to adventure” right through to “return with the elixir”. Along the way is the meeting with a mentor, the gaining of allies and enemies, and the ordeal. If you watch an action movie with Vogler’s list to hand, you can virtually tick off the twelve stages of the hero’s journey one by one.
I am by no means belittling this approach to storytelling. The shape is deeply engrained from childhood fairy tales onwards and we are conditioned to enjoy it. I used it to help structure my first novel and there are plenty of times (without the excuse of being ill) when I crave that safe, familiar narrative with its upbeat, emphatic ending.
I recently saw the 80s film “Working Girl” again in which Melanie Griffiths as Tess McGill gets, not just Harrison Ford, but also the job of her dreams (and I tried not to be distracted by the way in which this “feminist” film appears to blame the character played by Sigourney Weaver for most of Tess’s problems in the workplace). “Working Girl”, like another guilty pleasure of mine, “While You Were Sleeping” with Sandra Bullock, is pure narrative reward from start to finish and I would not be without either of them. It made me feel a little better when I heard that Mark Kermode, the respected movie critic, confess to having seen “Splash” more than 100 times, for pleasure!
These popular films (and books) are sugary treats and harmless in moderation, they have value as entertainment and can occasionally make a good point or even bring about progressive social change. But Virginia Woolf’s question hovers in the air: “is life like this?” Most days and lifetimes are ordinary and shapeless. And when dramatic events do occur we rarely experience them as in the action movies with their defined beginning, middle, and end (otherwise known as the “linear” plot). Woolf made her name by searching for a more realistic style of writing than the “realism” of her day and in re-inventing fiction, gave us insights into human thought, perception and feeling that were not possible before. I would not necessarily read Woolf when in bed with the flu (although she wrote a wonderful essay about being ill) but I do read her for pleasure: the pleasure of a different kind of narrative reward.
By pure chance, I recently encountered a film which, like Woolf’s stories and novels, throws away the hero’s journey and the linear plot. And I enjoyed it! It’s a French film called (in English) “Céline and Julie Go Boating”, from 1974. Unlike the Hollywood formula, this film has no familiar structure but works on repetition and improvisation, and it feels like a dream with surrealistic doubles and unclear chronology. But it’s funny, and enjoyable, and it really did draw me in so that I wanted to know what would happen in the end while accepting that I might not be given a resolution or a happy ending (in fact there IS a happy ending: a little girl is saved from being murdered, albeit in a parallel reality).
I am no fan of avant-garde, pretentious films which deliberately frustrate the viewer and if a filmmaker forces me to stare at one shot for too long, repeatedly, I get uncomfortable and itchy (or I fall asleep, which is why I’ve never seen all of “2001 A Space Odyssey”). “Céline and Julie Go Boating” is not like this at all. In common with the best surrealist art and writing, there is an irrepressible liveliness to it and an engagement with the absurdities of life, plus a readiness to embrace emotion or even sentimentality. Events in the film were placed side by side in dream logic and without full explanation but watching it was absolutely gripping. One long sequence, set in a sort of magical other place, was replayed piece by piece in different ways. The repetition was far from boring, however, and became as addictive as the magic sweets that the characters themselves had to eat to get to this other reality!
When surrealist techniques of illogical juxtaposition, humour and affectionate nonsense all come together, the rewards of the conventional plot are mostly lost but something more rare and profound takes their place. A new way of seeing life is created that can expand our understanding and awareness of our own lives.
This is why I favour the unplanned, associative method of beginning a writing project with freewriting rather than using a planned, pre-defined structure. The mind understands the structure of a beginning, middle and end, but it doesn’t work like that on its own as you’ll have discovered if you’ve ever tried to meditate. Instead, thoughts and ideas come cascading haphazardly with no obvious connections. In the same way, our lives are not stories with heroic or happy endings, following quests with defined stages. Instead we live a series of repetitions (sleep, wake, dress, eat…).
Nothing in life is as predictable as a Hollywood movie and, while they can entertain and console, I think it is better to welcome in the chaos of reality, at least to some extent, as we sit down to watch, read or write the stories of our lives.
Don’t forget to check out my free weekly e-mails in which I send a ten-minute freewriting exercise direct to your inbox every Friday. The first few are gathered here (under “Weekly Freewriting Exercises”) so have a look if you would like to see some examples. You can sign up by putting your e-mail address in the box at the top of the page.