How to Start Freewriting

How to start freewriting and liberate your stories. Photo by Tanya Clarke 2019

How to start freewriting and liberate your stories. Photo by Tanya Clarke 2019

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How to Start Freewriting and Liberate your Stories

My daughter came home from school the other day and told me that everyone has at least sixty thousand thoughts per day. Sixty thousand! Amongst all the to-do lists, worries and things to remember there must be a story or two in all those thoughts. So how do we find them? 

Write without knowing

Maybe Canadian author Sarah Selecky from her writing programme The Story Course has some helpful thoughts.

I want you to write with openness. Write without knowing what it is you are going to write first. Write without protecting, covering, or criticising your sentences and ideas and words. Write without crossing anything out. Write without saving anything for later. Write the stuff that doesn’t make any sense. I’m serious about this part: especially write the stuff that doesn’t make any sense.
— SARAH SELECKY Lesson One of The Story Course

Wait a minute? Aren’t you supposed to have an idea first? How can you write something without knowing what it is you want to say?  What do you mean ‘write the stuff that doesn’t make sense’?

Uncover the fossil

Okay, so maybe, American author Stephen King has something to say from his wonderful book, On Writing. If you haven’t read it, run like the wind to your local library right now to get it. He discusses the uncovering of stories using the metaphor of archaeology. 

Stories aren’t souvenir tee-shirts or Gameboys. Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-exisitng world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible. Sometimes the fossil you uncover is small; a seashell. Sometimes it’s enormous, a Tyrannosaurus Rex with all those gigantic ribs and grinning teeth. Either way, short story or thousand page whopper of a novel, the techniques of excavation remain basically the same.
— Stephen King, On Writing, p.188-9

King goes on to say that you could, of course, use something bigger, more mechanical if you get impatient and want to get your fossil out quickly. He suggests a jackhammer. But then, he says, you risk breaking your fossil. Ideally you want to discover it whole. Intact, as he says. So how do we extract our stories without breaking them?

Remembering and forgetting

How many times have you tried to remember something, a name, a number, a date and you just can’t bring it to mind. It’s there right there but like reaching for something at the back of the cupboard you just…can’t…quite…reach…it. And then when you’re thinking about something completely different, for example, Where did I put the dog’s poo bags? Bam. There it is. You remember quite suddenly where Auntie So-and-So bought her trampoline.

The American cartoonist Lynda Barry, in her musings on drawing and writing, often ruminates on this strange way the brain functions around remembering and forgetting. You remember forgetting and forget remembering. In her workshops Barry helps her students (often non-drawing people) through drawing and writing exercises to relax their brains and access their own thoughts, memories and stories.

There seems to me a common theme here. In different ways, three creative people understand and teach people how to find their own stories not as a list of tasks to complete but as beautiful treasures to uncover. Freewriting allows us to relax our brain and gently brush away the dust to find all those fossils, all those treasures, all those stories that are hidden within us in plain sight.

The Rules of Freewriting

I learned how to freewrite through The Story Course, a self-directed writing course from the Sarah Selecky Writing School. In lesson one there are a helpful list of rules. Nothing too complex just some points to bear in mind. 

  • Keep your hand moving - Don’t pause to reread the line you have just written. That’s stalling and trying to get control of what you’re saying.

  • Don’t cross out - That is editing as you write. Even if you write something you didn’t mean to write, leave it.

  • Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, grammar. Don’t even care about staying within the margins and lines on the page.

  • Lose control.

  • Don’t think. Don’t get logical.

I’d like to add a couple more things that I’ve found helpful.

  • To hold your pen lightly. I’ve started using a fountain pen (a Christmas present from my daughters). Although it’s taken a bit of getting used to, all those memories of a scratchy pen to write with at school, I find I can write with a lighter, freer hand. Writing with a ball-point tends to make me press down more heavily to get the ink flowing. I’m also learning that it’s okay to allow my hand-writing be messy. If I spend time writing too carefully I am generally thinking too much about what I’m writing. Another form of editing.

  • Use a lined notebook. I like to have paper that is marked already rather than a large blank space. Lynda Barry draws a big X across her page in her 9 minute writing exercise. I don’t necessarily stick to the lines. If there’s a margin I’ll ignore it and write into it. Graph paper would be good too. A bit of background. Like visual white noise.

How to Freewrite

  1. Take one pen or pencil. Writing by hand is important. At least, I think so and so do others. Do not worry at all about beautiful handwriting. No one will see it. Unless you want them to.

  2. Take a piece of paper or open up that lovely new notebook you bought because you liked the cover.

  3. Set a timer. I use the one on my Fitbit. You could use the one on your phone. Or the oven timer. Or you could go really old-school and use a sand timer, you know the ones that tip one way or the other. Set timer for however long you like. I like to set it for ten minutes. I figure I can write for at the very least ten minutes every day.

  4. Do you need a prompt? There are lots of visual ones here at A Picture, A Story or you could use word prompts. Try opening up a dictionary or any book you please, close your eyes, point at the page, open your eyes and see what words your finger points at. Start from there.

  5. And write. Keep moving your hand, moving that pen. Try not to lift it off the paper. If your mind goes blank, try not to ‘think up’ something, just write the alphabet or repeat a sentence over and over eg: I don’t know what to write now. Allow the words to come to you.

Showing versus Telling

There’s just one more thing worth mentioning. Write with intention. Try not to filter or summarise. Get right in there to the juicy parts.

Writing with intention is very important, and it doesn’t feel the same as writing with censure. Here’s how you can focus: when you freewrite, remind yourself to focus on the small and exact. Focus on sensory detail. That means anything that comes from one of the five senses: things that can be touched, smelled, tasted, heard, or seen. This is how you show through scene.
...
For example, instead of writing “I felt frightened,” (abstract word: frightened) try to reembody your memory or imagination of what the fear is like, and notice the way your body feels. Write down those sensory responses instead of analyzing what they might mean. “Fear” is an analysis of a variety of signals: fast pulse, sweaty palms, dizziness, etc. When you write, you want to write down those signals so your reader can feel them with you. If you simply write “frightened,” you take away the reader’s pleasure of feeling the fear first hand.
— Sarah Selecky, Lesson One on Freewriting

So there you have it. A skip through how to freewrite and improve your relationship to the blank page. Hope it was useful. If you need further help with filter words and how to avoid them there is a metric ton of google results you can wade through. I found this post on Write it Sideways particularly helpful. Have fun!

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