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Freewriting: What is it? Why should you use it?

The run-up to NaNoWriMo (more about that here) seems a good moment to think about Freewriting. You might have met its first cousin as Morning Pages, in Julia Cameron's  The Artist's Way, and in the great, original how-to-write book, Becoming a WriterDorothea Brande suggests something similar. It has many uses, but first let's think about what it actually is. In Writing Without Teachers, Peter Elbow describes it beautifully:

The idea is simply to write for ten minutes (later on, perhaps fifteen or twenty). Don't stop for anything. Go quickly without rushing. Never stop to look back, to cross something out, to wonder how to spell something, to wonder what word or thought to use, or to think about what you are doing. If you can't think of a word or a spelling, just use a squiggle or else write "I can't think what to say, I can't think what to say" as many times as you want; or repeat the last word you wrote over and over again; or anything else. The only requirement is that you never stop. ...

I'm tempted to say that you really must do this on paper; however swift and touchy a typist you are, a digital interface - i.e. your digits on a keyboard - will never be as straight and open a channel from imagination to page as a pen is. But if you must type, then cover the screen, or switch the monitor off, so you aren't confronted with what you've just written: that is more than your Inner Editor will be able to resist. I haven't tried it with voice recognition, but I should think it might work very well.

And, yes, plenty of what you write will be, in the mere goal-oriented, wordcount-minded sense, "rubbish". I've found that the students who resist freewriting - and a surprising number do, sometimes very strenuously - tend to be those who are either very organised and successful in their professional lives, or those who are honestly nervous about what Stuff might emerge. Dare I suggest that the former are simply more successful suppressors of the same Stuff? But the only way you find gold is to dig up dross; true creative work may appear to be wasteful, but the time spent is not wasted. ETA: And this is a lovely little podcast by playwright Diane Samuels, for the Royal Literary Fund: she uses freewriting and other related practices every day of her life. 

The first use of freewriting is simply to "centre down", as the meditators would call it: to shed the clatter of the world around you, to slip into imagining instead of receiving mode, and get your mind to open the doors to your word-hoard. I know lots of writers who do fifteen minutes at the beginning of every writing session, or at least when they come to the desk feeling frazzled and distracted.

But it's also very useful for first-drafting, because you're practising switching off the Inner Editor - the "left-brain" - which is essential at later stages. Your Inner Editor all about organising things, working with the conventions that we must abide by if others are going to understand and enjoy what we're saying (story-structure; spelling, grammar and syntax; shared values), and making sure that what we're writing will sell or win acclaim. As Peter Elbow says:

Next time you write [in the normal way], notice how often you stop yourself from writing down something you were going to write down. Or else cross it out after it's been written. "Naturally," you say, "it wasn't any good." But think for a moment about the occasions when you spoke well. Seldom was it because you first got the beginning right. Usually it was a matter of a halting or even a garbled beginning, but you kept going and your speech finally became coherent and even powerful. There is a lesson here for writing: trying to get the beginning just right is a formula for failure--and probably a secret tactic to make yourself give up writing. Make some words, whatever they are, and then grab hold of that line and reel in as hard as you can. Afterwards you can throw away lousy beginnings and make new ones. This is the quickest way to get into good writing.

The habit of compulsive, premature editing doesn't just make writing hard. It also makes writing dead.

Now, I'm not sure I'd totally agree with that last statement, since I know some excellent writers who do edit-as-they-go. But the key is the word "premature": even if your write-edit-write-edit cyle is the length of a paragraph, or the cycle happens mainly in your head so what hits the page is, in a sense, your third draft version, there is still a first stage when the imagination must be free to till the word-hoard, and spill out the results. If you don't allow space and time for that to happen, you will never write anything fresh; whether you're writing highly commercial women's fiction, or super-literary short stories, you will forever be stuck in the mire of off-the-peg language and standard-issue ideas (yes, lit-fic has them too).

Compared to the goal-oriented business of writing a story you've decided to write, classic freewriting is pure process, and doesn't set out to work with the stuffs of your current project. It's therefore much easier to tell the censor it doesn't have a job for a few minutes, and can go and have a tea-break. Since freewriting has no goal it is, in a way (sounds odd, I know) not a "doing" but a kind of "being". Don't be afraid to be playful, therefore, as children are playful, just because they can be. If rhymes and sayings, (mis-remebered) quotations, jokes, puns or games float up, go with them. You must, after all: you're not allowed to stop or cross out. Everyone gets stuck sometimes, and many writers find it's at about ten minutes. They hit a wall, either figuratively or, in the writerly sense, literally: for myself, after a few lines of "I don't know what to write", I often find a door or window emerging from my pen, and it's through that door that the really interesting things appear. 

Having said it's not about product, it's perfectly possible, as you get good at the process, to ask your mind to dredge in particular parts of your word-hoard. I would suggest that a good cellar to look towards is the one labelled "vivid and particular": not "tree" but "mountain ash", not "woman" but "cancer doctor", not "meal" but "roast duck". And this cellar is also where the metaphors and similes live, because by definition they are concrete things waiting to be asked to give form and substance to an abstract idea so that the human brain can experience it. That's not to say that the plain and classic are undesirable; as I said here, sometimes you do want "They met under the tree" not "They fought under the rotting willow". But most of the time, the generic and all-purpose things - which are likely to be what first spring to mind, at least for beginners - are less effective in conjuring a vivid sense of your story in your readers than the specific things are. Similarly, a cellar in your word-hoard to steer away from is the one filled with the zombie nouns and abstractions of "office-speak".  

Once you can at will switch off the censor and set your creative mind loose to send up whatever it creates, you can try exploring a particular character, setting or situation. Bring that character or situation into focus, flip the switch, and see what pours out of your pen. This kind of "directed freewriting" usually works best if you give yourself an "anchor phrase" that will serve as a very simple cue, and as something to go back to when the words dry up: just write it over and over again till something else floats up. It always does. 

An anchor phrase of "John is -" would work for a character, "The battle is -" for an event, or "Bear Alley is -" for a place. And once you've really beaten the office-speak demon, you could even try freewriting based on, say, the theme of the story. The experienced freewriter, starting with "Hatred is -", will find images - metaphors and similes, personifications, even scenes and scenarios pouring out of her or his pen. If what emerges instead is the trite abstractions of your average motivational speaker or Facebook post, then maybe you're not quite as experienced as that.

ETA: as Whisks points out in the comments, this kind of guided freewriting, as a way of exploring characters and situations also has the advantage that it's not part of what you hope will be actual text and story of the novel. There's no necessity for it to fit into the structure and voice of the story, and by messing around independently like this. you're not risking muddling your process or the order you normally write things in. It's the equivalent of having a spare bit of canvas on which you try out a brush, the paint, the gestures and pressures, before before you approach the actual canvas.

But don't worry if what you write seems very random and "disorganised" - that just shows you've got your censor thoroughly muzzled. If dialogue happens, let it - and don't let your Inner Editor back in to worry about speech tags, making sense, or the "proper" structure and scaffolding of a scene. That's not what you're trying to do. But it does show how it's possible to point your mind towards the right sort of stuff without censoring what it finds and writes. Indeed, the state you're then in isn't very different from the state of "flow" that we all hope for, if only occasionally experience, in writing a scene, when gestures, words, even objects, do just seem to arrive (to the extent where you forget to have lunch or do the school run.)

Another use for freewriting is to help get you un-stuck. To prod a new scene into getting itself off the starting-blocks, try an anchor phrase like "He must climb the mountain but -" or "He doesn't like Granny, but -": as I explored in Fortunately-Unfortunately"but" can't help but set things in motion. Or leapfrog the problem scene altogether: "When he's got home safely he will -" or "As soon as he can leave politely, he'll go to -". At the larger scale, to start trying to warp your ship out of the Thirty Thousand Doldrums, I'd suggest some freewrites based on the main characters, the setting you've reached that you don't know how to move on from, or even: "This novel is -", if you want to dig down into what, at heart, it seems to want to be, or why it's frustrating you. With the latter there may be quite a lot of resistance, and you may need to keep going for fifteen or twenty minutes, or have a second go.

Freewriting can help you find the character's voice. Obviously that's essential if you're writing "in first person", with a narrator who is also a character in the story. But if you're writing "in third person", with a narrator outside the story, you'll still be wanting to find characters' voices to use in dialogue, and - crucially - to colour the narrative in free indirect style. Even if Gerry isn't a narrator, try freewriting to find her/his voice by starting with an anchor phrase such as "Gerry says 'I am -'", or something else which will get you going in Gerry's first person.

Getting in even closer, freewriting is first cousin to the sort of writing you need for the very close-in psychic distances. Gardner's "Level 5" is a direct, (apparently) un-mediated download of what the viewpoint character (who may also be the narrator) is experiencing in this moment: a stream of the sense-data, bodily action, thoughts, memories, associations and so on, which pours through the reader in the same way as life. And the easiest way to lock into that stream of your character's consciousness is to put yourself into something like a guided-freewriting mode. You will later edit the hell out of it, of course, till it's doing exactly what it needs to do in that scene, and isn't just random rumination or introspection. But with luck you'll keeping that sense of stuff streaming past.

And, finally, what do you do with your freewrites?

  • One option is to stick them on the fire, and why not? If an exercise is purely about process, then why would you keep the accidental by-product?
  • Julia Cameron's programme suggests putting them all, unread, into an envelope which you don't open till later in the twelve weeks of her "course".
  • If you are freewriting specifically to develop a project, then I'd suggest reading it through with a different-coloured pen, circling any words or phrases which seems to have some resonance or interest about them, and any information which will be useful. You didn't know how all her nightmares were about the day she turned twelve and was put into corsets, did you?
  • You could use those individual words as the start of the slightly more organised kind of process which is Clustering: a mind-map of free associations (More in Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction, and there's a brief description and a picture here.) This is particularly useful for anyone trying to work on the richness and variety of their prose.

I hope I've persuaded you of the value of freewriting, and why it's worth learning to do it. And I do mean "learn", even though it might sound odd that something aimed at finding complete freedom actually takes practice. But, as any drawing-teacher or violinist will tell you - and Grayson Perry and Ian Bostridge would agree - creative work requires a flexible kind of intensity: not just concentration but also relaxation. Sometimes it's the relaxation which is hardest to achieve.

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