EVERY WEEK, I send out a writing tip and three soul-inviting prompts as inspiration for you to freewrite, either alone with your timer or in a gathering of writer friends. The resulting deep play opens up whole new landscapes of creative possibility for our writing and our lives. If you are new to this kind of writing practice, have a look at the freewriting principles. And to take your writing to the next level, check out the mentoring sessions I offer, which are helpful whether you are working on a book or just beginning to find your voice. more >
Focussing on trying to write something “good” or even coherent can be a big stumbling block when we are trying to access what is hidden under our discursive minds. In fact, any objective to create something artful can backfire, and make it harder to source what is original in us. Georgia O’Keefe knew this well. As an artist, she ignored fashion and followed the callings of her own intuition, however quirky its attractions. In doing so, this obscure art teacher became one of the most loved painters of the 20th century. In a letter to Sherwood Anderson, it’s no surprise she gave him this advice, which will serve most anyone engaged in creative work: “Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant — there is no such thing. Making your unknown known is the important thing.”
In my work with writers, the thing that most distinguishes those who are experienced from those who are new is understanding the need to write drafts. New writers often expect a piece of writing to come out whole and complete — ready to publish on the first try. When freewriting, this is actually true: We write together and share the immediacy of our thought process by reading aloud. The preciousness and the beauty of that exchange is a great pleasure. And yet, I wouldn’t publish a book of freewrites. Why? Because they don’t often translate to work that makes sense out of the context of the writing process itself. They may be filled with seed thoughts, beautiful passages — even whole drafts — but they are not “finished.” Any first attempt at expression needs reflection and subsequent shaping to be ready for the random reader. “The first draft of anything is shit,” said Ernest Hemingway. And while that might sound harsh, it can also be freeing. Why not take Hemingway’s word for it and go in with the goal of writing garbage, thereby freeing yourself of the desire to have something come out whole in one swoop? Why not embrace this freedom, knowing there is no need to worry about perfection because drafts can come from it, and what is missing can be filled in, what is unfinished can be made whole?
Often when we write, we leap directly from busy life to keyboard without pause, and start with things we already think we know — about ourselves, about others, about the world. These familiar articulations have their place, but when we write to discover and reveal what it is obscured in us and in the world, we have to see and feel something fresh. So how do we do this? According to poet Mark Strand, the secret to saying something new and meaningful is to keep your eyes and ears open, and your mouth shut — for as long as possible. If we follow this advice at various points throughout the day — especially before we write — we make ourselves available to life as it is now, in all its variety, texture and specificity, with no hardened ideas to block new insights. Cultivating this pure receptivity is how to access meaning and live a fresh, creative life.
“Only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die having left undone,” advised Pablo Picasso. It would be interesting to see what would happen if we used this as a criteria for deciding what to do on a given day. Too often, we put off what is most nourishing to our soul in favor of quick comforts, unexamined habits, or secondary tasks. If you only have time to do one, would you rather die having an unmade bed and a sink full of dishes, or an unexplored story? Do you want to make sure you’re up to date with your facebook feed, or with your own wild mind and heart?
We often write to make sense of our lives, but sticking too close to our own linear story puts a serious limit on our understanding. “Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living,” said Dr. Seuss. “It’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope.” Looking at what is familiar through the lens of imagination opens up insights that chronology and logic keep hidden. In fact, according to GK Chesterton, not engaging the upside down telescope — and trusting too much our logical mind — can have serious repercussions. “Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom,” says Chesterton. “I am not attacking logic: I only say that this danger does lie in logic, not in imagination.”
In our perfection-obsessed culture, it’s easy to be embarrassed or even ashamed of our mistakes, but in truth, we ought to be proud of them. Mistakes indicate that you are trying something new, doing something you’ve never done before. We can’t do something well until we’ve mastered it; we can’t master something until we’ve learned to do it — and as writers, everything we write is brand new, and therefore, subject to learning and to mistakes. Mistakes are not sins or failures — they can always be corrected. As Mary Pickford put it, “…you may have a fresh start any moment you choose, for this thing we call ‘failure’ is not the falling down, but the staying down.”
Writers often mistakenly believe that craft and virtuosity with language is most important for compelling writing. Insecurity around this can create a big block, and this is unnecessary. Author Kurt Vonnegut has a better idea of what truly makes for compelling writing: “Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style. I am not urging you to write a novel, by the way — although I would not be sorry if you wrote one, provided you genuinely cared about something. A petition to the mayor about a pothole in front of your house or a love letter to the girl next door will do.”
“You must not fear, hold back, count or be a miser with your thoughts and feelings,” says Anais Nin. “It is also true that creation comes from an overflow, so you have to learn to intake, to imbibe, to nourish yourself and not be afraid of fullness. The fullness is like a tidal wave which then carries you, sweeps you into experience and into writing. Permit yourself to flow and overflow, allow for the rise in temperature, all the expansions and intensifications. Something is always born of excess: great art was born of great terrors, great loneliness, great inhibitions, instabilities, and it always balances them.”
Virginia Woolf’s vision of the kind of diary she would like to keep could apply just as well to a freewrite practice: “Something loose knit and yet not slovenly, so elastic that it will embrace anything, solemn, slight or beautiful that comes into my mind. I should like it to resemble some deep old desk, or capacious hold-all, in which one flings a mass of odds and ends without looking them through. I should like to come back, after a year or two, and find that the collection had sorted itself and refined itself and coalesced, as such deposits so mysteriously do, into a mould, transparent enough to reflect the light of our life, and yet steady, tranquil compounds with the aloofness of a work of art. The main requisite, I think on re-reading my old volumes, is not to play the part of censor, but to write as the mood comes or of anything whatever; since I was curious to find how I went for things put in haphazard, and found the significance to lie where I never saw it at the time.”
“The very reason I write is so that I might not sleepwalk through my entire life,” says Zadie Smith. For some of us, articulation is essential to being fully awake and alive. The act of writing helps us discover what we most care about, formulate and clarify what we think, and articulate what we most value. Our disparate parts meet, converse and integrate. If this is sounds like you, then writing is not optional — it’s essential.
While researching the topic of storytelling, scientists discovered that some words and phrases have lost all storytelling power. “Some scientists have contended that figures of speech like ‘a rough day’ are so familiar that they are treated simply as words and no more,“ writes Leo Wildrich in The Science of Storytelling. According to Wildrich, the trouble with such cliches is that they don’t activate the frontal cortex, which is the area of the brain that lights up when we experience emotion. So if you want to convey emotion, make a point to eliminate cliches in favor of fresh, specific language.