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Why We Freewrite

By Tracy Ferrington

Last week a friend said to me, “You have some down time now. I bet you’re getting in some writing.”

“No,” I said. “But I cleaned my whole house top to bottom and re-organized all the files on my computer.” That was more appealing than facing an empty Word document. When I’ve been away from my writing, a little army seems to form around it, keeping me outside the gate.

While I don’t have a cure for those doubts, fears, and judgmental voices that hang out around my writing desk, I do use a method that can temporarily chain them up in a closet so I can get some work done. Freewriting—a loose, fluid style of writing with no concerns about form, structure, grammar, or purpose—is a tool I count on to get the ink flowing and get past the blockades that stand between me and my writing.

With freewriting, you just write. No crossing out, no erasing, no stopping to think, no revising, no editing. You just write your way past all of that until you catch a wave and ride it to its own natural conclusion.

Natalie Goldberg, a true inspiration to the New Orleans Writing Marathon, details a simple freewriting method in her book Writing Down the Bones, a classic that writers have turned to for solid advice for nearly 30 years. Here’s what she says in a chapter called “First Thoughts.”

1. 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.)

2. Don’t cross out. (That’s editing as you write. Even if you write something you didn’t mean to write, leave it.)

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

4. Lose control.

5. Don’t think. Don’t get logical.

6. Go for the jugular. (If something comes up in your writing that is scary or naked, dive right into it. It probably has lots of energy.)

Goldberg says the goal is to “burn through to first thoughts, to the place where energy is unobstructed by social politeness or the internal censor, to the place where you are writing what your mind actually sees and feels, not what it thinks it should see or feel.”

I usually set my timer for 10-15 minutes, pick a random topic (most often just a word). The physical act of writing itself can be enough to get me in the groove, and I’ll end up spending several hours at my desk, transitioning from freewriting into more structured work. I used this method for years in my classroom to get students to relax in front of a blank page and trust that the writing would come, given enough space and sacred time.

On our Writing Marathons, we suggest freewriting as a way to cut through anything that might inhibit the writer. Those one word topics are helpful, but sometimes all you need is to start off with a checkpoint—where you are, who you’re with, what you see or hear. That will usually be enough to get you going, and then you can follow the ideas wherever they take you.

On a recent marathon, Brant Osborn and I wrote with a novice who struggled at each writing spot, writing a bit and then reading over her sentences, and even erasing and starting over. After a couple of rounds, we described freewriting to her and watched her struggle turn into a smooth flow of writing. Once she realized every sentence didn’t have to be perfect, or even connect, she could let go and get her thoughts on the page.

If you’re stuck or fearful or out of practice or judging yourself too harshly, try freewriting to get back into your writing rhythm.

Tracy Ferrington is a retired high school English teacher, owner of Social Butterfly Event Management, and event planner for the New Orleans Writing Marathon. She lives and writes in New Orleans.

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