How Free Writing Can Help You Find Your Subject

In this post, GrubStreet Instructor Ben Berman models the process of how journaling and free writing can help you figure out the subject beneath your subject.



It’s two in the morning when your five-year-old wakes you up and tells you that her belly is too full to sleep.


Try lying on your left side, you say. But she insists that she is going to be sick.


So you walk her to the bathroom where the two of you just kind of hang out for a couple of minutes waiting for something to happen. I think you’re okay, you say. But then she starts making this strange guttural noise in the back of her throat.


You rub her back as she bends over the toilet and then, for some reason that you may never understand, just as her gurgles begin to morph into a heave, she pivots right and throws up all over your feet, a big old chunky stew of rice and carrots.


I feel better now, she says, then walks back to her room, climbs into her bed and promptly falls back to sleep.


You clean up what you can then go back to your own bed, but your mind is already spiraling up and down your to-do-list. So you get up and make coffee and head to your desk to watch highlights from last night’s game before opening your journal.


Against better judgment, you begin describing the slimy bits of carrots still wedged between your toes. It’s the kind of itch you can’t quite wash away, you write. And then: the kind of itch that approaches your sole.


You regret this right away. Poetry is no place for dad puns.


And yet you sense something metaphysical going on and wonder if there is an etymological link between sole and soul.


You consider researching this but don’t, because you’ve never really trusted people who use the word soul in poems.


Still, your mind is itching now and you start thinking about the other meaning of sole—no, not the flatfish—but sole as in lone, as in the root of solitude.


You get up to refill your coffee cup and when you come back you see the phrase root of solitude and imagine a single tree in a barren landscape, its long-reaching roots humming underground.

You realize that sole and soil are probably somehow related and it suddenly strikes you as strange that the loneliest word in the English language could be connected to so many other words.


This feels like it has philosophical implications and you wonder if being alone is the foundation of a rich spiritual life and what it would be like to live a more solitary existence—to have all that time to read and write and think.


Your mind is leaping now, not with connections, per se, but associations, and you suddenly have this memory of playing solitaire with your grandfather when you were a kid—how he’d set out a deck for you and a deck for him and the two of you would just sit there playing next to one another, alone and together at the same time.


You’ve only been writing for what feels like a few minutes, now, but somehow the sun is starting to rise.


You write sun = sol in your journal but that’s more of a pothole than a portal at this point because you’ve already found your subject—the tension between wanting to be alone and the desire to feel deeply connected.


Though it’s not solely the ideas that interest you now as much as the thrill of seeing all those meanings buzz beneath a single word.



Ben Berman’s new book of stories, Then Again, explores the tensions within and between words. Join him at the Brookline Booksmith on December 6th for a reading as he launches his new book.

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About the Author

Ben Berman’s first book, Strange Borderlands, won the 2014 Peace Corps Award for Best Book of Poetry and was a finalist for the Massachusetts Book Awards. His second collection, Figuring in the Figure, was recently selected as a Must-Read by the Mass Center for the Book. And his new book, Then Again, came out last November. He has received awards from the New England Poetry Club and fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and Somerville Arts Council. He teaches at Brookline High School and lives in the Boston area with his wife and two daughters.

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by Ben Berman

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