“Lower standards. Let the writing begin!”––Mary Lastra, Writer and Teacher
I was first introduced to the benefits of a rigorous, disciplined approach to freewriting by Peter Elbow in his book Everyone Can Write. Though freewriting, in fact, is the most undisciplined and least rigorous way to approach a blank page.
After all, at its most basic, a freewrite only requires that one keep moving the pen––no struggling to stay on topic, no trying to make sense, no slowing down to think about grammar, spelling, or punctuation. Gifts will emerge (I promise) if only our focus is kept from a preferred outcome or the burden of making sense.
The glorious promise of a freewrite, which is especially helpful whenever one feels stuck, is that it is always better to have something on a page than nothing. Something is always better than a blank white screen.
Rituals and rules are one way to occupy a mind anxious to be done writing before writing has even begun. So though freewriting may be well described as undisciplined, a close honing to its “rules” are nevertheless required. Carefully cultivate an inner sense that its sacred rituals must never be violated.
Here they are:
- Agree on time limit for writing and steadfastly keep to it, say, 10, 15, 20, or 30 minutes.
- Like athletes, one must train for the longer sessions.
- No talking during a freewrite; maintain sacred silence, which builds writerly energy in a room.
- When more than one writer is present, each person draws from the energy of others and contributes to it too.
- For some writers, music also helps, and thus it is allowed as long as it is not distracting to those who require silence.
- Write fast, faster than you can think.
- Keep the pen moving no matter what. Write your name over and over again, the last line, a grocery list, the phrase, “This sucks. This sucks. This sucks…”––whatever it takes.
- First thoughts, best thoughts!
- Be willing to be surprised.
- Don’t plan.
- Don’t try to make sense or stay on topic.
- You are NOT the boss of what you write; your pen is the boss. Follow it where it takes you.
- Likewise a writing prompt is not the boss; you must follow your pen above all else.
- Say yes! Say yes to the pen! Or the sound of your fingers tapping at keys.
- No worrying about grammar, spelling, or punctuation.
- You can’t do it wrong.
- No reading back. No crossing out. No erasing.
- When freewriting, you are more like an athlete, hoping for a physical sensation of flow, that tangible connection between the muscles in your hand, your writing arm and the wisdom that lies in the rest of your body––the place ideas and memories reside before drifting upward to the mind.
- That said, it is not necessary to fall into flow. Physical and/or emotional discomfort is no sign you’re doing it wrong.
- Keep going.
- Don’t rely on the mind.
- Say you are feeling a bit nauseous or over exposed, keep going.
- 5, 4, 3, 2, 1…
- Begin and end with the soft ringing of a good meditation bowl.
- “Lower standards,” as Lastra says, and begin writing.
- Then, keep writing.
Advanced freewriting rules (courtesy writing teacher Ruth Danon of New York University):
- Rule number one: Follow the rule.
- Rule number two: Break the rule when you need to.