The Mystery of Freewriting

“Just write.  Write whatever comes out on the page.  Don’t worry about content, grammar, anything.  Just write.”

We’ve all been told this at some point in our lives.  It is not advice given exclusively to writers.  If anyone has ever been in charge of our education, we’ve been told to just get some words on paper.

Before I began writing myself – you know, for real 🙂 – I thought this a noble exercise, and one which would certainly pay high dividends.  Just do it.  You.  Do it.  Not me.  I don’t write.

Despite myself, somewhere along the road I tried it, probably looking to become a more complete person, and experienced an apocryphal shift in my viewpoint.  With nothing in my head, just writing seemed beyond lifeless.  And stupid.  And dumb.  And… stupid.  Nothing in the head equates to equal measures of nothing on paper.  Why would anyone do this?  But, methinks, I was approaching it all wrong.

I was looking for that freewriting experience to produce something worthwhile, and when it gushed nothing but garbage, I would declare it a flop.  It is well and good to say that it is the practice that will bring the perfect, but in reality I identified much more closely with the sagely friend that repenned that morsel of wisdom into ‘practice makes permanent.’  Why would I practice producing more and more junk, and then expect to see improvement in my ability to communicate?  I wrote off the freewrite.

And then, many miles of rubble and tar under the tires, I found myself stumbling down the writing path, searching for ways to improve myself enough to even call writing my craft without my nose thrusting itself out eight inches, and the blasted freewrite began cropping up in the periphery once again.  It was summarily dismissed of course.  Once, twice, and again would I skip over any advice that smacked of the dreaded freewrite.

And then I happened upon Natalie Goldberg’s idea of ‘composting’:

It takes a while for our experience to sift through our consciousness.  For instance, it is hard to write about being in love in the midst of a mad love affair.  We have no perspective… Our senses by themselves are dumb.  They take in experience, but they need the richness of sifting for a while through our consciousness and through or whole bodies.  I call this “composting.”  Our bodies are garbage heaps: we collect experience, and from the decomposition of the thrown-out eggshells, spinach leaves, coffee grounds, and old steak bones of our minds come nitrogen, heat, and very fertile soil.  Out of this fertile soil bloom our poems and stories.  But this does not come all at once.  It takes time.  Continue to turn over and over the organic details of your life until some of them fall through the garbage of discursive thoughts to the solid ground of black soil.

Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones

Hmm…  Interesting…

Begrudgingly, I gave it another shot.  With a mind more open to the possibilities and more committed to the exercise.  I could give this thing five minutes a day for at least a few weeks.  I set a timer and wrote.

The first five minutes were spent explaining to myself how this was certainly pointless, but I would press on nonetheless, if for no other reason than to prove my point.  The timer beeped and I set it again, because I wasn’t done with my argument.

The next time I hit the reset button I was finding out that my dreams and aspirations were a lot stronger than I thought.  Twenty minutes later I was finding things deep inside that I had no idea existed, learning about myself from words that were pouring out of my fingers without me.  The timer was tossed off the bed after four horribly intrusive screeches, and I was hooked.

So these days my repertoire of stretching those writing muscles consists not only in the effort to increase the page count, not only in taking the existing writing to a higher level, but also in some daily composting, some uninterrupted time to turn it all over and see what filters out the other side.

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