by Helen Kenwright
It’s that time of year again, when people set goals and resolutions for the year ahead. For writers, that often includes ‘write more’, or ‘write a novel’, or ‘get a book published’. We head off into January full of optimism, with a clutch of shiny notebooks and good intentions, convinced that this will be the year it happens.
Except, then it doesn’t.
All too often by February our notebook is gathering dust on the pile on our desk devoted to well-intentioned projects, while our lives are once more consumed by responsibilities and other demands on our time. If we do get as far as opening that notebook, we are met with a blank page which gives us no more than an accusatory glare. That sinking, deflating, ‘I told you so’.
And so it goes on.
I’ve had my fair share of writer’s block (or paralysis, or anxiety, or resistance – all are very accurate terms, in my opinion). I once took someone’s criticism of my burgeoning Dungeons & Dragons based fantasy novel way too much to heart and abandoned writing fiction all together for nearly two decades. This was terrible for my mental health, and represents a lot of wasted learning time – because only by writing do we truly learn how to write. I’m glad to say that since I did pick creative writing up again I have never had a dry spell that bad, and I’ve got a lot better at using feedback constructively (and knowing whose opinion to trust)! But every now and then I do find myself staring at the screen or the notebook, convinced that I’ve completely forgotten how to so much as string a sentence together. Or a phrase. Or even to find a word I actually like the look of. It happens to nearly every writer I’ve ever met.
I won’t go into potential causes of writer’s block here, because I honestly believe there are as many as there are writers, and for each writer it can be a different reason every day. What I’m going to suggest works whether the cause is imposter syndrome, brain fog, second-book anxiety, low self esteem, lack of ideas or broken plots. It works in nearly every situation.
I feel this is the most important tool I can give any of my students, and it’s the one I always fall back on myself. (Such is the impact of depression and anxiety that sometimes my friends have to remind me of this, but once I remember, and do it, everything gets better.) I see freewriting as the equivalent of sketches or doodles for visual artists; it’s the musician’s scales and noodlings. It’s the improvised dance, it’s digging your fingers into cool, wet clay and squelching it around. It’s play.
Writers are so rarely encouraged to play. But we need to. Play is the essence of the creative spirit. It’s what drives us to think of new, amazing things. To express ourselves. To put aside all the shoulds and musts of adulthood and let us believe that in this, our world, anything is possible.
Freewriting reminds us that we are writers. We have only to trust our own imagination, let our own words emerge, and we can do this.
Routine freewriting is the basis of our practice as writers. It’s like scales for a musician, stretches for an athlete. It’s the basis of a good writing habit. And it doesn’t even require skill. Just you and your writing materials of choice, and ten minutes a day.
In Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life, Natalie Goldberg says writing practice is like:
“… moving one foot in front of the other when you walk. The problem is that we don’t notice that movement of one foot in front of the other. We just move our feet. Writing practice asks you to notice not only how your feet move but also how your mind moves. And not only that, it makes you notice your mind and begin to trust it and understand it. This is good. It is basic for writing. If you get this, the rest is none of my business. You can do what you want.”
Once you have that trust that you can keep the words coming, you can let it happen. Later you can shape and mould and polish those words into the form you want. The hardest part is done. You’ve generated the clay. Now you can make your pot.
Sometimes this works in a literal sense: your freewriting generates an idea that might grow into a story, a novel, a script, a poem. Sometimes it’s just about building that trust with yourself so that when you get the idea, the writing will just happen.
Many new writers start with the plot, or the structure, or the research, and find the writing so intimidating they never leave that stage. Their research grows, their outline grows, they may even have an impressive cast of characters. But without the writing, it goes nowhere and they end up feeling like failures, unable to convert this incredibly imagined thing into a living, breathing story. Because you can’t build a house if you can’t lay bricks, no matter how good your design.
How to Freewrite
My advice is this: freewrite every day, for at least ten minutes. You can write about anything. Pick a random sentence from a book on your shelf. Write about what’s in your fridge. Write about a memory. Write from one of the daily prompts on the Writing Tree Twitter. Write a letter to your past or future self. You can write anything. Just remember the three rules: don’t censor, don’t censure, don’t stop.
I teach my students two freewriting methods. The first is to write whatever comes to mind in a stream-of-consciousness style (sentences and paragraphs optional). This is the traditional freewriting method as recommended by Natalie Goldberg, Julia Cameron and Peter Elbow, among others. If you get stuck, just write ‘I’m stuck, I’m stuck, I’m stuck’ until you think of something else to write. (It’s amazing how quickly the brain will get bored of that and offer you something else to write about!)
The other method is to start with a single prompt, and free associate words from it. When you’ve got a dozen or so words down, take a few of these and free associate from them, too. Then take half a dozen of these words and for each, write a sentence including it. Then for each sentence write a paragraph. And so on.
The key to both methods is to keep writing. Don’t let your hand stop moving your pen or keyboard. Don’t cross anything out (if you really find this hard, underline ‘mistakes’ instead – but please try not to). Don’t stop yourself from writing anything that comes to mind for fear it might be ‘wrong’, ‘silly’ or ’embarrassing’. This is play. It’s learning. It’s supposed to be experimental and silly.
Opinions vary as to whether you should read your freewriting back or not. My rule is to leave it at least a month. By then I will be able to detach myself from it and mine it for any goodies I want to use in further writing, without self-criticism. Your mileage may vary!
So go on. Crack open that notebook. Open that file. It’s 2020. This is the year you do it.