Free writing is a time-honored writing exercise useful for writers and artists of all kinds: fiction, non-fiction, poetry, visual artists, designers, dancers, directors, actors…It’s a good way to jumpstart creativity and loosen up if you’re feeling creatively constipated. The names I’ve heard in connection with this technique are English professor Peter Elbow and authors Julia Cameron and Natalie Goldberg, but in my research I discovered writer/editor Dorothea Brande and learned that Jack Kerouac and William Butler Yeats are well-known for using free writing techniques.
Author and online writing instructor Holly Lisle published a good essay on free writing (excellent “how-to”) that includes a list of topics you can use as springboards:
I decided to do the exercise from the point-of-view of one of my fictional characters. I chose Dr. Doug Ellison, the main character in “Tooth and Nail” (part of a soon-to-be released story collection called Startling Figures.)
Here’s what I came up with:
timed freewriting – topic — the past
POV: Dr. Doug Ellison (my fictional character)
(myself/historical figure/other real person/my fictional character/other fictional character)
When I think about the past, I mostly get confused, because I don’t have a great memory for things. My brother Dave remembers our childhood a lot better than I do. And as for my own kids’ childhoods — they’re a blur. The other day Lyndsey got out some old photos because she wanted to put them into albums, and there were pictures where we were like, “Which kid is that?” Blonde, blue-eyed. They all look the same as babies. The clothing helps determine boy versus girl, but other than that they all look the same. It was really funny trying to figure it out. Eventually we figured it out based on the carpet, because we worked out that we had the old carpet — the real-estate beige — with Pete and Keith, and then changed it to the dark blue sometime before Gussie was born. I think. Might have been before Roxanne. How are you supposed to keep the past clear in your mind when you spend so much of your life doing the same thing over and over again? It’s really hard here in California because the weather doesn’t change enough to mark the seasons clearly. When I was growing up in Indiana we had four distinct seasons, and you could remember things by remembering that there was snow outside when that happened, or the leaves hadn’t been raked yet and I have a clear picture in my mind of what our front yard looked like when such and such a thing happened.
Recent past is something I wouldn’t mind forgetting. That thing with Jack Emery’s dog Tex was terrible. I swear I had a mild case of post-traumatic stress disorder after that. I scared Lyndsey half to death a couple times at night, sitting bolt upright in bed with a shout.
Like all free writing, it’s pretty raw (i.e. bad) but free writing’s purpose is not to deftly craft brilliant prose. The point is to free up the mind, unstopper it, unblock it, stretch it out, limber it up. I’ve been busy lately (binge reading every genre of popular fiction for a class I’m teaching) and I’ve been out of the writing habit, so writing the above piece reminded me of sitting cross-legged on the floor for an hour and then getting up and trying to walk normally. (Youngsters, go ahead and laugh: when you’re 48 years old you’ll understand!)
Still, in 10 minutes I came up with 305 words. Not too bad: 250 words is one typed, double-spaced page.
For more info on this topic
- the piece by Holly Lisle (linked above but here it is again: “Timed Writing Workshop — Freeing Up the Subconscious Mind”)
- Natalie Goldberg’s classic book on writing: Writing Down the Bones
- Julia Cameron’s book on creativity: The Artist’s Way
- the Wikipedia entry on free writing has some other links and references you could follow (on Jack Kerouac, Peter Elbow, William Butler Yeats, etc).