For almost thirty years, I’ve started every class the same way: whether I’m teaching composition to eighteen-year-olds or the novel to retirees, I give my students a prompt—something like the house I grew up in smelled like —and tell them to “free-write” whatever comes into their minds for fifteen minutes. They must write without stopping, without worrying about spelling, grammar, punctuation, or even making sense. They don’t have to write about the way their houses smelled; they can write about how their feet are itching. They can make a shopping list, or a list of baby names, or a list of favorite profanities. They can write their names over and over, or they can write about what a stupid exercise I’ve given them. All that matters is that their pens or pencils don’t stop moving, and that they don’t cross anything out.
In part, I start off with this exercise simply to give my students an alternative to staring at a blank page. I spent so much time hunched over blank pages when I was young that the thought of it still chills me. I’d rather scribble what should I writet write werite I don’t know today I knew yesterday but not today than worry about crafting the perfect opening line. Once there are words on the page—even nonsensical words—I start to relax. I remember that a preliminary draft need not be a completely serious undertaking. Revision and editing require careful attention and discernment, but producing a first draft is something else altogether. Let’s say, for example, that I want to write a story about a young, healthy woman named Mary who works in a morgue. I could try to come up with an image to suggest the conflict between Mary’s vitality and the death all around her, or I could play: What should I write Mary oh mary who works at the morgue who washes the bodies in the cool room with the bins and shelves of bodies so orderly and clean not like her house which is a disaster of egg-caked plates in the dish drain…There will be serious work down the road, but just getting words on the page—giving myself something to work with—can be as fun and loose as a game.
What’s more, once I have those words on the page, the work of revising and editing is not nearly as hard as it seems when I’m staring at nothing. After my students have “free-written” for fifteen minutes, I ask volunteers to read their pages aloud. People are often pleasantly surprised to discover that, mixed in with the “nonsense,” are some wonderful ideas and images and even mini-scenes they can use in their “real” writing. Sometimes, people find that, with minimal punctuation, they’ll be able to use their free-writing verbatim; sometimes, it’s pure nonsense, and that’s fine, too—they only spent fifteen minutes on it.
The truth is, free-writing doesn’t just help with writer’s block; it helps us generate our best work. It’s a form of improvisation that allows us to bypass the rational mind and draw on the rich material of unconscious. Ironically, free-writing works best when we follow very strict rules: our hand must never stop moving, there must be no crossing out, we must begin and end at a set time. (The reasons for the set time are a topic for another day.) The only optional part is what to do about the prompt. After all, it isn’t free writing if you have to write about the smell of your childhood home. But you may find yourself writing about the smell of baby names, or the profanities that were beloved in your childhood home. And then—and here’s the wonderful thing—the smell of baby names may lead you to think of a particular baby’s smell, and the strange circumstances of his birth, and suddenly, when you least expect it, you have a story.
Come join Abigail and our happy band of serious writers for free writing and more at the Table Rock Writers Workshop, September 17-21, 2012 in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Abigail will be teaching long form fiction writing. See details at: tablerockwriters.com