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.
- 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 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.
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.
If a historical novel is defined as one in which events from history are presented as they actually happened, then my unpublished novel Swimming with Tigers doesn’t qualify as one. The alterations I have made to the facts about the artists who took part in the Surrealist movement would make a historian weep!
Sometimes I’m afraid I’ll forget what I have invented, and what is based on fact. For instance, I am 99% sure I invented the Surrealist object of a bathing cap covered with snail shells but I suppose it’s always possible that I read about it. This is where research notes are crucial so that, if necessary, I can trace back the process of writing. Luckily I am an obsessive note-taker and writer of journals.
All historical fiction is a mixture of the true and the invented. Some novels take important or well-known historical figures and give us their imagined interior life (for example Joyce Carol Oates’ novel about Marilyn Monroe, Blonde or Michael Cunningham’s wonderful impersonation of Virginia Woolf in The Hours). Some authors, on the other hand, opt for the creation of characters with no specific model but who could have been close enough to observe a major historical figure and they make these ‘witness’ figures the main focus of the story (as did Jeanette Winterson with Napoleon’s cook in The Passion).
In Swimming with Tigers I have used the perhaps less common method of mixing several historical people together to create a single fictional character. My novel could also be called alternate history (such as Robert Harris’s Fatherland in which Germany won the Second World War) because one of my characters is based on a woman who died in the 1940s but I explore the possibility of her living on into the 1970s.
There are plenty of lively debates about the rights and wrongs of using ‘real’ people in works of fiction and of course there are laws against defamation. Fortunately, it’s impossible to defame the dead, and I must confess I was secretly relieved when Leonora Carrington finally passed away at the age of 94 because I had based my main character Penelope on her and, while I hadn’t portrayed Penelope doing anything illegal or bad, I knew that Leonora Carrington was a very fierce woman!
At first I was uncomfortable, as an academic, to be playing fast and loose with the truth but I drew inspiration from one of my favourite writers: Angela Carter. In her last novel, Wise Children, Carter brilliantly references a huge number of real people from Lewis Carroll to Harry Enfield, often without naming them. You could (if you really wanted to) write a companion book detailing all the writers, actors, directors, TV personalities and so on that have been borrowed, combined and re-fashioned in Wise Children (as indeed you could for the artists and writers in Swimming with Tigers).
The Hollywood scenes in Wise Children are where some of the best fun is to be had. For instance Carter combines Lana Turner and Jean Harlow in her creation of Daisy Duck, and then has her follow the same TV career as Joan Crawford. The more you know of the originals, the better the entertainment but (and I noted this carefully) the success of Carter’s novel doesn’t depend on the reader knowing who the original models are, and the joke that Gorgeous George tells at the end of the pier is just as funny whether or not you know it’s based on Larry Grayson (along with a dash of Max Miller and Frankie Howerd, according to Kate Webb). With this in mind I made sure that my novel could be enjoyed by someone without any knowledge of the Surrealists.
Rather like Angela Carter’s Daisy Duck who is a mixture of different actresses, my main character Penelope is composed of several real women in the Surrealist group and she creates art-works by all of them. Penelope escapes from her wealthy background and factory-owning father in England exactly as Leonora Carrington did (although I have re-located her home from Lancashire to Oxfordshire). As did Carrington, Penelope endures the humiliation and boredom of being a debutante and runs off to Paris to join the Surrealists and has a passionate affair with one of the artists of the Surrealist group. Max Ernst was Carrington’s lover in real life, and Penelope elopes with a character called Rolf who ‘is’ Ernst but Rolf also makes Man Ray’s photographs. You see how complicated this is?
Penelope paints Leonora Carrington’s wonderful painting Inn of the Dawn Horse (I discuss this painting here) but she also makes Eileen Agar’s sculpture Angel of Anarchy (which was made in 1940, not 1938, as in my novel). Best of all, she creates one of the iconic objects of Surrealism: Meret Oppenheim’s fur-lined teacup and saucer (read more here). I actually dramatise the making of this object, down to the glue being smeared onto the gazelle fur which is then pressed onto the china cup, and I can only hope that the reader will get the same thrill from reading the scene as I did from writing it.
From Meret Oppenheim I also took Penelope’s habit of balancing on high ledges of buildings and I have a scene in which she scares the others at a Surrealist party by climbing outside onto a window ledge. The party, by the way, is a costume party, of which the Surrealists were naturally very fond, but instead of the real dress code which was to be naked from chest to knee, I changed it to naked from the waist up. I did this to dramatise the sexual inequality in the Surrealist group as, for obvious reasons, going topless has a different connotation for women compared to men.
As well as making art which was actually created by Leonora Carrington, Meret Oppenheim and Eileen Agar, Penelope discovers the photographic technique of solarisation in the way that Lee Miller did (by accidentally turning on the light in a dark room when negatives were developing). It is generally Man Ray who is given credit for this innovation while Lee Miller is predominantly known (or has been, until recently) as the model in his solarised portraits. To have Penelope state that she deserves acknowledgement as the creator of the technique is my way of setting the record straight but doing it, ironically, by making things up!
To counter-balance this pick-and-mix approach to history, my presentation of place in Swimming with Tigers is absolutely accurate. This strategy follows some advice Louise Doughty gave in A Novel in a Year to someone who was writing a novel about dragons. Doughty suggested he should go and find an actual tree that his dragon might like to sit on: ‘even if you’re writing fantasy it still has to be real’ she says. So while I imagined what it was like to play Surrealist games with André Breton, I made sure that Penelope went to the café where he held court along the right street in Paris, and in the right direction.
This meant that researching the novel provided the perfect excuse for several wonderful holidays to Lisbon, Amsterdam, Cadaqués, Lille and Paris, all of which are settings for the story and I also spent some time pacing out the distances in Kingston-on-Thames where the modern, parallel, narrative is set. I felt it was important to go to every location, taking photographs and writing notes as I went. In the novel, as it was when I visited, the floor in the Café de Flore has brown and white tiles in the shape of fans, and the upper floor is reached via a spiral staircase. I don’t know for sure that the floor tiles or the black iron staircase were there in Café de Flore in 1938 but it’s possible that they were. Concrete details give the story a firm foundation for building characters on, such as Penelope who embodies the many brave, creative, spirited women of Surrealism while at the same time, I hope, standing as a believable figure in her own right.
Here are some ‘real’ history books if you would like to find out more about the Surrealists:
Since 2006 I have been collecting quotes about writing in a pink suede notebook. Here are some of my favourites, in no particular order.
I hope they inspire, entertain or delight you.
“Description is the poet’s act of love.” W. P. Ker
“Haste is the enemy of art. Art in its making and its enjoying demands long tracts of time.” Jeanette Winterson
“From the things that have happened and from all the things you know and those you cannot know, you make something through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive, and if you make it well enough, you give it immortality. That is why you write and for no other reason.” Ernest Hemingway (pictured)
“Writing is a form of personal freedom. It frees us from the mass identity we see in the making all around us.” Don deLillo
“The first draft of everything is shit.” Ernest Hemingway
“The reassurance that human nature is not fundamentally evil, that love can conquer death, that women and men are not enemies, that the wicked will ultimately fail and the good triumph after adversity, is what the reader seeks in a story.” Celia Brayfield
“The objective in writing is to reveal. It is not to teach, not to advertise, not to see, not even to communicate […] but to reveal.” William Carlos Williams
“The argument that what the writer really needs is experience in the world, not training in literature—both reading and writing—has been so endlessly repeated that for many it has come to sound like gospel. […But] wide experience, from Zanzibar to the Yukon, is more likely to lead to cluttered texture than to deep and moving fiction, [and] the first-hand knowledge of a dozen trades is likely to be of less value to the writer than twenty good informants, the kind one gets talking to on buses, at parties, or on sagging park benches.” John Gardner
“Fundamental accuracy of statement is the one morality of writing.” Ezra Pound
“[To writers:] Do not feel, any more, guilty about your idleness and solitude. If your idleness is a complete slump, fretting, worry or due to over-feeding and physical mugginess, that is bad,[…] But if it is the dreamy idleness that children have, an idleness when you walk alone for a long, long time, or take a long, dreamy time at dressing, or lie in bed at night and thoughts come and go, or dig in a garden, or drive a car for many hours alone, or play the piano, or sew, or paint ALONE or an idleness where you sit […] quietly [writing] down what you happen to be thinking, that is creative idleness. With all my heart I tell you and reassure you: at such times you are being slowly filled and re-charged with warm imagination, with wonderful, living thoughts. […] For what we write today slipped into our souls some other day when we were alone and doing nothing.” Brenda Ueland
“Prose is like hair —it shines with combing.” Gustave Flaubert
“First of all you need to be obsessed. There’s no good reason to do it, nobody wants you to do it, or gives you the time or the space. You have to do that yourself. […] Being a poet is like having an invisible partner. It isn’t easy. But you can’t live without it either. Talent is only 10%. The rest is obsession.” Selima Hill
“And yet the only exciting life is the imaginary one.” Virginia Woolf (pictured)
“We writers […] not only travel to other worlds but create them out of space and time. When we write, we truly travel to these worlds in our imagination. Anyone who has tried to write seriously knows this is why we need solitude and concentration. We are actually travelling to another place and time.” Chris Vogler
“Write hard and clear about what hurts.” Ernest Hemingway