Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Freewriting and Writing Prompts

When I was asked to help teach my son’s fifth grade creative writing class, I was surprised the teacher had not heard of freewriting. As I explained the concept, she gave me a quizzical look. I can understand her skepticism, because as a teacher, she has to teach her students the rules of grammar and spelling, and freewriting throws those concepts out the window. Though resistant, she agreed to try it.

I remember reading of Natalie Goldberg’s (Writing Down the Bones) experience when she told her students to describe their favorite meal. She told her students not to write, “It’s good” or “tastes yummy.” She urged them to use concrete words and specific sensory details. Goldberg said the writing was energetic. I borrowed her idea, and my experience was the same. Many students grinned as they wrote as fast as they could. Some tilted their heads back as if smelling their favorite meal. The experience was as inspiring to me as it was to them. Many clamored to read their pieces aloud.

There were a few students resistant to the process. Some stared into space, afraid to make any marks on their papers. With a little prodding, they began to write. “You mean I can write anything?” they asked me.

“It’s your writing. It can say whatever you want it to say.”

Sometimes I had to stop some students as they erased or crossed out sections they didn’t think were perfect or sentences they didn’t like. “No erasing, no crossing out,” I told them. “Just keep writing.”

“I don’t know how to spell this word,” one told me.

“It doesn’t matter. Don’t worry about spelling. Don’t worry if it’s not perfect.”

I saw one boy staring into space after he had written only one sentence. “I don’t know what else to write.”

“Then write ‘I don’t know what else to write’ or keep writing the last line you wrote until something else pops into your head.”

“What if it doesn’t make sense?”

“It doesn’t have to make sense. Just write.”

Eventually he let go of resistance, of trying to follow “the rules” or trying to write what he thought his teacher or I might want. That class period we did several freewrites. The teacher whispered, “Wow. They’re excited about writing. I’ve never seen them this way.” Afterward each class period began with a fifteen minute freewrite. Rarely did I hear groans when I told them to open their notebooks. They anticipated each new writing prompt as if it were a present to be unwrapped.

What is freewriting? Freewriting is just what the word suggests. You may use a predetermined topic, such as a prompt or idea, or you may begin with no plan. Start with the first thing that pops into your mind and write for ten or fifteen minutes, without stopping, without editing spelling, punctuation, or grammar. Do not worry about “rules.” Forget about what your English drummed into your head. Think of this as play time. Allow yourself to write junk. Be silly. Have fun. Dig deep. It doesn’t even have to make sense. Tell your internal censor to shut up. If you get stuck, rewrite the last line until something else comes to mind. Do not stop writing no matter how difficult it is. Write through it. If you gather momentum and the words start pouring out, even after the fifteen minutes is up, keep writing until you come to a natural stopping point. Forget about the time. Receive it as a gift.

Some days will be energetic, and on other days, it’ll feel like wading through molasses. You may not always have good writing sessions, but it’s important to practice daily. I remember when I writing friend was ill, she made herself write, anyway. She wrote for three minutes. Only three minutes? It was some of her best writing. Write for three minutes or for thirty minutes. It doesn’t matter. Just write. Maybe some days you may not feel like writing. Make yourself do it. Set your timer for three minutes. It might be good. It might not. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you do write.

I’ll bet you’re wondering why deliberately ignoring “the rules” of writing as in freewriting can be so helpful in developing the writing craft. Peter Elbow and Pat Belanoff address this issue in their book, Nothing Begins with an ‘N’: New Investigations of Freewriting.
They also address why freewriting invites “some of our best writing and thinking.” Some of the reasons they list are:
· Writing is usually judged or graded, but freewriting is not.
· Writing is usually for an audience, but freewriting is private, thus safer.
· Writing is supposed to be more “important and dignified” than speech, whereas freewriting allows you to let the words be less important and careful.

Elbow and Belanoff also say while freewriting “removes the difficulties of regular writing,” freewriting is not easy. Probably the hardest part of freewriting is to keep writing, to not stop until the prescribed time is up. Did you know that when you take away the distraction of trying to construct perfect sentences, to make your writing totally coherent, you can focus your energies on what you really want to say? Freewriting works because you’re not allowed to stop. Therefore, you can allow yourself to get caught up in the momentum, the stream of consciousness flow. How many times have you been in the midst of an animated conversation, and for one reason or another, you’re interrupted? It’s hard to get back to the conversation. Sometimes you lost your train of thought, or the energy has died. Not so with freewriting. No stopping allowed.

So what do you freewrite about? If you’re stuck in the middle of a story or novel, you can pull yourself out of the “good” writing, the carefully constructed sentences, paragraphs, and dialogues and freewrite about a character, situation, or the problem you’re having with the story. Use the freewrite to play out the different options, and if they don’t work…so what? You don’t have to put it in your story. Or maybe you just want to get to know a character better. Write your character’s stream of consciousness thoughts, dreams, motives, wants. Ideas will come to you. Then you can get back to your story or novel.

You may also use the freewriting for writing articles, essays, and memos. Maybe you have a topic for an article, but you don’t know how to narrow it down. Freewrite all the possibilities—even the seemingly ridiculous ones. And what about the memo? Begin by freewriting, “What I really want to say…” and go from there. Not too long ago, I had to write a letter of resignation. It was a task I dreaded. I couldn’t figure out what to say or how to start. Before I wrote my formal letter, I wrote everything I really wanted to say to this horrible boss. The things were too crude and unprofessional to include in my formal letter. But getting those feelings out on paper first helped me write a gracious, professional letter—all the while I was giggling in my mind.

You can use freewriting as a warm-up before doing your “serious” writing. Or freewrite just to keep writing daily. Create a random prompt generator. Write a list of writing prompts ahead of time and choose one randomly each session. Use index cards, colored paper, or whatever else. Write one prompt on each. Put them in a bowl, basket, hat, or whatever else suits you. Other suggestions for prompts:
· Make a list of song titles or book titles.
· Make a list of first lines of books, poems, or songs.
· Write each letter of the alphabet on a card or along one side of the paper. Beside each letter, write the first word that comes to mind beginning with that letter.
· Pull out random words from the dictionary, any book, newspaper, or magazine.

Sources of prompts are endless. They’re as limited as your imagination.

Here’s a sampling of prompts. Choose one and freewrite for fifteen minutes. Remember, no stopping. Do not edit. Don’t worry about whether or not it’s good or if it makes sense.
· A bathtub
· Describe your favorite meal.
· I remember…
· Write about feet.
· Write about hair.
· Write about pink.

Here’s a variation. This is a list of random words. Instead of freewriting about the individual prompts (though you’re welcome to as well), use all of these words in a freewrite. You may use them in any order. Do not worry about trying to make them fit. Write whatever comes to mind.
· plastic pink flamingos
· keys
· chicken soup
· step
· diary
· rose
· sock

Let yourself go and have fun with it…

“People often lack any voice at all in their writing because they stop so often in the act of writing a sentence and worry and change their minds about what words to use. They have none of the natural breath in their writing that they have in speaking....We have so little practice in writing, but so much more time to stop and fiddle as we read each sentence.
~ Peter Elbow

1 comment:

jeff said...

I often use Freewriting, I call it "Slushpile Building" when I'm on the hunt for effective and interesting sales copy... some of the best stuff is always found in my pile of crushed-up paper in the waste can... it could be just a sentence or two or even just a couple of words that will materialize and create a story...

I let my "loony-genius" out of it's cage(the door is always unlocked anyway) and let it have a go at whatever it wants to come up with...

"Semi-Retired Copywriter Goes On Rampage! Beats Poverty Into a Quivering Pulp!"

" Had it coming!" was all he would say....

Poverty's neighbors, Despair and Destitution, were also seriously injured in the attack and had to speak for Poverty, who was rendered speechless...

Destitution, who had been stripped bare during the assault, said "We were just hanging around, like we always do, you know... we didn't expect someone named Peaceful, to go off on us like that!"

Despair said the attack "Consisted of a furiously written article, with one of the most violently attention getting premises that Mr. Peaceful ever wrote, about copywriting while the mind was "hot"!, "Not a one of us realized that it was going to be an article that would nearly kill us and send us packing, but it did!!!

Mr.Peaceful, who was still satisfactorily foaming at the mouth, said that he was through trying to write "formula" and getting "impoverishing results" and just let his imagination "go wild"!

"No more, trying to follow the "system", dammit!",he snarled, "I'm going to write like I'm talking to people that I know!"

"That's the beauty of "social networks" and Web 2.0!" howled Mr. Peaceful... "It gets people "COMMUNICATING" again, and that's sure to improve your copywriting!"

Poverty, Despair and Desperation have stated their desire to avoid Mr.Peaceful in the future, and are looking for some other place to live...