In her 1938 book If You Want To Write, Brenda Ueland gives a beautiful description of what it takes to foster the imagination and support a productive writing practice. She describes two things that I have also found to be key components: stillness or “moodling” (for me meditation serves this purpose as well as many others) and regular freewriting.
I freewrite pretty much anytime I write. When I sit down to write, I just go. Later I come back and polish what I wrote.
What is freewriting?
Freewriting can be understood as a kind of openended writing. You start writing whether or not you have something to say. You write to presence yourself.
Maybe you want to explore certain ideas or maybe you just want to write and see what happens. Maybe you want to freewrite the draft of your nonfiction book or a chapter of your novel. Or freewrite to experience the world from the perspective of one of your characters. You can freewrite your life vision and goals. Freewrite a love note. Freewrite collaboratively. Do an all day freewriting marathon.
Create, then criticize
Freewriting draws a distinction between two major modes that a writer can work in: the creator and the critic. When you freewrite, first you invite only your creative side. You don’t go back and make changes or worry about assessing your writing as good or bad.
Continue writing until you have reached completion, such as when your session feels finished or your time is up.
Afterwards, if you want, you can invite the critic to revisit what you wrote and either rewrite it, identify what is working best, or make edits to the material.
That’s the general description of freewriting. There are numerous applications for it and many many strategies that you can take to make your freewriting sessions more effective and custom-tailored to whatever project you are working on.
Experience is the best teacher. I learned a lot about freewriting from reading writers like Peter Elbow but really it was my own experience that taught me the most granular and nuanced lessons. I share from these distillations of many years of practice in my Depth Freewriting course.
How can you be sure whether the kind of writing you’re doing is technically freewriting?
Your writing should vitalize you, recharge you. Bring you closer to yourself. Manifest something of the mystery of the imagination.
Sometimes it can be really helpful to hear descriptions of the logic and philosophy underlying freewriting. For that purpose, I want to share some brief excerpts from If You Want To Write.
Brenda Ueland is brilliant at enacting, showing, performing — not reciting or merely describing — the fiery creative spirit behind freewriting.
The imagination needs moodling,–long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling and puttering. These people who are always briskly doing something and as busy as waltzing mice, they have little, sharp, staccato ideas, such as: “I see where I can make an annual cut of $3.47 in my meat budget.” But they have no slow, big ideas. And the fewer consoling, noble, shining, free, jovial, magnanimous ideas that come, the more nervously and desperately they rush and run from office to office and up and downstairs, thinking by action at last to make life have some warmth and meaning.
The great mystic philosopher Plotinus said about this:
“So there are men too feeble for contemplation.” (This is his word for what I call the imagination.) “Being unable to raise themselves to contemplation from the weakness of their Soul, unable to behold spiritual reality and fill themselves with it, but desiring to see it, they are driven to action that they may see that which they could not see with the spiritual eye.”
But I must come back to my subject,–writing.
If you write, good ideas must come welling up into you so that you have something to write. If good ideas do not come at once, or for a long time, do not be troubled at all. Wait for them. Put down the little ideas however insignificant they are. But do not feel, any more, guilty about idleness and solitude.
This is what I want you to do–where you sit with pencil and paper or before a typewriter quietly putting down what you happen to be thinking, that is creative idleness. With all my heart I tell you and reassure you: at such times you are being slowly filled and re-charged with warm imagination, with wonderful, living thoughts.
Now some people when they sit down to write and nothing special comes, no good ideas, are so frightened that they drink a lot of strong coffee to hurry them up, or smoke packages of cigarettes, or take drugs or get drunk. They do not know that good ideas come slowly, ant that the more clear, tranquil and unstimulated you are, the slower the ideas come but the better they are.
for what we write today slipped into our souls some /other day when we were alone and doing nothing.
it must come from your true self and not your theoretical self, from what you really think, love and believe, not from your hope to make an impression.
The next steps can be your own
There’s no time like the present for joining in. Try your hand at freewriting, holding in the background the spirit of magnitude and warmth shared by these excerpts. Make it a dance, a celebration. A chance for you to really step out of your own way and shine.