Writing for the Drawer:
is private writing a waste of time?
My notebooks of handwritten freewriting used to embarrass me. I hid them away and pretended that my current one was the only one.
Now, though, I celebrate the luxury and pleasure of unlimited freewriting and I have all of my full notebooks arranged on a shelf by my writing desk.
Why I changed my mind about private writing
It has taken me a while to change my opinions. When I began writing I was teaching literature at a university, and the reputation of writers was everything. If there were still unpublished manuscripts by the writers I taught, there would be a scramble to edit and publish them and this in turn would elevate the reputation of the scholar responsible. In other words, publication and recognition were all that mattered.
Then I came across Julia Cameron’s The Artists Way and, like millions of others, I began the journey to claim writing as my own. An important part of committing to that journey involves accepting that a piece of writing begins with no prospect of being read by others and that the writing life as a whole contains the possibility of never being read widely, or never being published.
Unlike the belief I held up until then which is encapsulated in the famous quote by Sylvia Plath: “nothing stinks like a pile of unpublished writing”, Julia Cameron’s emphasis is on the value of doing the writing rather than being seen and read as a writer.
It blew my mind, and I was able to start. My novels have yet to be read widely, but my words have been heard. I have performed locally and on national radio as part of Hopewell Ink, a spoken word band.
Every day as I sit down at my desk I ask myself if I would be content if I never had recognition as a novelist and every day I wince, but deeper down I know that I shall never regret spending the last decades of my life wrestling with and enjoying the wonderful imaginative and organisational challenges of the novel form. And, on days when I don’t have a scene ready to write, I freewrite, and my notebooks increase, threatening to run to a second shelf.
I now regard the unread status of my freewriting as untroubling and in fact reassuring. Here are three of the reasons for my change of heart:
Reason # 1 All artists need to practice
Surely only a really delusional concert pianist would expect her daily scales and exercises to be recorded and released on a CD. And what ballet dancer arranges to do his stretches and learn his steps in front of a packed audience in a theatre?
So why do writers expect to publish without hours and thousands of words of practice? I don’t even think you learn to write and that’s it: practice is always necessary and I can tell when I am rusty after a break from writing.
Looked at in this way, my private freewriting notebooks are evidence of my seriousness as a writer, not my failure. They are the proof of my hard work and willingness to practice.
Reason # 2 You don’t speak every thought out loud
A study in 2020 found that we have 6,200 thoughts in a day, and that’s a lot of thoughts! To verbalise every conscious thought and expect a response is completely unreasonable. Even if it was possible to write down every thought, why would everything I commit to paper be worth reading?
Freewriting is a way of being your own highly patient listener—you can rattle on without annoying anybody. You might occasionally annoy yourself but generally to download your brain is a great relief, and I am always reassured to know that my view of life is safely down on paper.
So it is common courtesy to be selective about what we blurt out, but the more we write down the greater the chances are of hitting on something worth sharing.
Reason #3 Reading back freewriting can be inspiring
Freewriting that has been left unread for years is the writer’s buried treasure.
Recently I was struggling with planning a novel. I could not find a way to connect what I wanted to write about with an actual story idea. Then I came across a passage of freewriting describing a performance at a festival and all at once I had a visual, animated image: a symbol and a story all in one exciting package.
This freewriting was from over a decade ago and I’m so glad I kept it! I wasn’t even writing novels at that time, and I could not have known how useful it would be.
Go ahead and write for the drawer!
So I say yes, write for the drawer, and trust that the universe will recognise your commitment and intention by this action.
Also, the very act of writing is taking action for the good. It produces thoughtful, self-aware and sane individuals, so it is worthwhile in itself.
Be proud of your writing: none of it is wasted.