Freewriting with a Purpose: Get Started and Keep Going
By Deborah Sosin
Write about your feet. Go. Ten minutes. Hairy toe knuckles, fallen arches, that painful bunion. Ugly, smelly, too big, too small. The pedicure gone wrong. The foot-fetishist boyfriend. Whatever comes to mind. Just keep the pen moving.
That’s freewriting in a nutshell. Writing without stopping—no censoring, editing, or judging. No need to fix spelling, punctuation, or grammar. No need for perfection. Simply putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) is a great way to bypass resistance, procrastination, and self-criticism.
Think about it. How often do you give yourself permission to write for the sake of writing, without a specific goal of publication or presentation? What would happen if you allowed yourself to approach the page with no idea of what will emerge? We’re often more focused on the product than the process and that’s where a lot of us get stuck.
Some students say, “I stopped writing because I hate being critiqued.” Or, “I’ve been a business writer for 20 years. I forget how to write creatively.” Or, “I look at a blank page and freeze. It’s too overwhelming.” So how do we unblock those blocks?
I get things rolling with prompts. Don’t worry if you veer from the “assigned” topic: “Oh no! I started with my feet and ended up writing about my kayak trip.” That’s fine. With freewriting, we can free associate, experiment, trust the flow. There is no right answer.
Freewriting in a structured group setting is a wonderful way to practice—something about knowing everyone else’s pens are moving can be extra motivating. A synergy forms around the shared purpose that fuels creativity and motivation. Without the structure of a group, it’s all too tempting to grab the Doritos, check Facebook, walk Fluffy, or otherwise opt out.
Isabel Phillips, a participant in a weekly Write It Like It Is group that I facilitate, wrote this in her first freewrite after our summer break (used with permission). It’s a nice example of going with the flow:
I have written so much other stuff for work—now I’m thirsty for freewriting again. So why can’t I choose to give this gift to myself? What is the fear? The dread of another thing to do? No. I don’t want to go there with analysis and regret, judgment and dark dread. I want to be here now. Doing just what I am doing. Freewriting to disentangle myself from whatever it is that stops me from freewriting. No goal. Just resting as the ink fills the page, crosses the lines, runs into the margins and asks nothing of me in return.
In my workshops, we usually do ten minutes of writing, followed by ten minutes of optional reading aloud, in the style of Natalie Goldberg, author of Writing Down the Bones. Sharing your writing, with no critique or comments, is another level of accessing your inner voice and letting go of fear, doubt, and shame. It’s liberating to make a mess or be incoherent—or be brilliant and insightful—without any external feedback. Through repeated practice, you’ll learn to trust yourself more.
If you’re an experienced writer, freewriting can propel your work forward. Say your protagonist leaps off the page in technicolor but a secondary character is a boring gray. Try writing without stopping for ten (or twenty or thirty) minutes about the gray character and see what happens. Or if you’re writing a memoir and find it difficult to access a tender or traumatic experience, do a freewrite that includes any memories and associations to open up that aspect of your life. Writers often find unexpected literary gems to use later.
Freewriting activates the nonlinear parts of the brain. Peter Elbow, in Writing Without Teachers, notes that freewriting “teaches you to write without thinking about writing,” and can bring energy back into “controlled” writing. Many people write three “morning pages,” a practice drawn from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. There is no prescription for how often and how long to do freewriting. Experiment with what works best for you.
Worried that you have nothing to say? In 1938, Brenda Ueland wrote, in If You Want to Write: A Book About Art, Independence and Spirit: “Everybody is talented, original, and has something important to say.” What would your writing life be if you really believed that? Would you allow yourself to write from your heart, play, explore, take risks?
Remember, writing is writing, and nothing beats writing if you want to write, right? Prewriting (thinking, planning, obsessing, taking notes, researching) has its value, but it’s not actually writing.
If you want to get started on your own, check out these 346 fun pop-up prompts at http://creativewritingprompts.com/. Or try out this site, which generates a random daily writing prompt: http://corbettharrison.com/writers_notebooks.html#topics. Set a timer for ten minutes and go! Happy writing!
Deborah Sosin’s workshop, Freewriting with a Purpose: Get Started and Keep Going, will be offered at Grub Street on Friday, October 25, from 10:30 am to 1:30 pm.
Debbie Sosin is a writer, editor, teacher, and psychotherapist. Her picture book, Charlotte and the Quiet Place (Parallax Press, 2015), was named the Gold Winner in Foreword Reviews' 2015 INDIEFAB Book of the Year Awards. The book also won the 2016 Silver Medal for Children's Picture Books (7 & Under) from the Independent Publisher Book Awards and was named a 2015 Bronze Winner by the National Parenting Publications Awards. Her first nonfiction book, Breaking Free of Addiction: 42 Therapeutic Tools to Help You Recover from Problem Drug and Alcohol Use, was published by Between Sessions Resources in Fall 2017. A craft essay, "The Self as Antihero in the Essays of Nora Ephron, David Sedaris, and Steve Almond," was the cover story in the Oct/Nov 2015 issue of The Writer's Chronicle. Other essays have appeared in the Boston Globe, Globe Magazine, Zone 3, The Manifest-Station, Writer's Digest, The Review Review, Journal News, on Salon, Cognoscenti, in the Chicken Soup for the Soul series and the Perspectives in Modern History series. Since 2009, Debbie has facilitated Write It Like It Is workshops and groups in the Boston area. She also offers personal coaching and manuscript consultation for writers at all levels. Debbie offers mindfulness services in Newton, where she has a private psychotherapy practice. She earned her MSW from Smith College School for Social Work and her MFA from Lesley University. Learn more at www.deborahsosin.com.See other articles by Deborah Sosin