For the past few months, I’ve been meeting with others two or three times a week to do virtual writing marathons.
On average, I write just over 4000 words during each marathon.
On average, I can “use” about 1/3 of this written material without having to change anything about it. I can just plug it right into one of my many active writing projects. The writing is good, clean, and done. There was no struggle. It just flowed.
As nice as this is, I consider this the least valuable part of the experience.
The real value of a writing marathon is far richer and more subtle than mere output.
That’s what this article is about.
My personal experience
I am an avid supporter of freewriting in general, and I have many years of experience doing some kind of writing marathon at least periodically. Writing marathons are great for diving deep with something, whether it’s
- goal writing or visioning
- personal process writing
- a dive into on a major creative project
- a chance to savor the experience of flowing with what comes
When I felt the impulse to host and participate in virtual writing marathons, I entered the arena without any preconceived notions as to what it should look like. I felt inspired to do this as part of a group, and I had no grand notion about how I personally was going to use the time. I just wanted to spend some time writing with others.
So, I followed what felt alive for me. Each week, each new marathon, I went with what felt sparky for me. I knew I wanted to make progress on my scifi book, but I wasn’t going to force things to look any certain way.
Organically, over the weeks, I came up with a very simple workflow that has made this writing time especially useful.
The workflow that emerged for me
At some point before each marathon, I feel into what I would like to work on.
What I know for sure:
- Two hours will pass
- I will fill those two hours with words
Given that fact, I choose what to invite into that timeframe.
Step 1: I come up with a few questions to guide my session
Here’s what that might look like.
I’m sitting there feeling into my story and I realize that chapter five is too complicated. I sit with that. What would I like to have happen there? What feels right for chapter five based on everything else in the story?
There is usually a character or two I will want to explore a bit more. Maybe I understand the character but I want to understand something more about them. Much of this might simply stay as backstory, but it defines the character more fully for me. What are they all about? What’s their relationship with some of the other characters?
I often have questions as to the larger story dynamics. What’s the heart of the story? If I had to summarize the whole thing as it stands right now how would I put it?
When I write into the space of these questions during a writing marathon, I always experience revelations.
Step 2: I keep those questions handy so I can glance at them during the marathon
Generally I just put them in a sidebar. Sometimes I write them down on a notecard.
Now I’m all set for the call.
Step 3: Marathon begins
When the call begins, I share with the group where I’m at with my project and my intentions for what I would like to delve into during the time. Like everyone else, I’m open to receive input, but generally it feels complete for each us to share our intentions and then move right into writing.
During this phase, I also receive everyone else’s share. It often happens that something sparks in my own writing based on what someone else says or even just from the vibe of their project, despite it being completely different from what I’m working on.
Plainly put, I make myself open to receive inspiration.
Even though this phase is very quick and simple, there is a lot of magic happening behind the scenes.
Step 4: During the marathon proper
This part is obvious. During the marathon, I write nonstop. Periodically, I glance at my questions.
I am loyal to what feels the most alive in the moment. I generally will address each of my questions, tackled in the order that feels most fun first.
The magic happens as I get deeper and deeper into the space of my project. Due to the nonstop nature of a writing marathon, this generally takes twenty minutes or more and often lasts for the duration of the call.
Step 5: Marathon outro
At the end of the call, we all share our experience.
Sometimes, some people experience dramatic departures that are really interesting to hear about.
The sense is like — wow, you ended up there based on how you began? That can happen when you flow with what feels alive in the moment?
It feels awesome to hear from others about their experience.
Step 6: Review
After the call, the writing remains a record of the experience.
The writing itself is not to be kept, not to be discarded. It’s not about the words. The writing serves the purpose of giving me access to the spaces and dynamics of the story. It offers elements of information, surface, glints of goodness.
As I mentioned, I might only use about a third of it more or less verbatim. The rest is useful as meta-writing.
I don’t bother with editing the document. I leave the marathon material exactly as it is. I copy everything from it that I might want to use and I plug it into an intermediary document.
This document is a sort of filing cabinet or rolodex for the actual manuscript. It consists of many labeled sections much like elements in an outline.
The sections are ordered roughly in chronological order in terms of what gets revealed and what gets felt into during the progression of the story.
I make and label a new section for each section of pulled material. I drop it there.
For example, maybe I have a few paragraphs in which I wrote about Character X’s history with Character Y. I would find roughly when in the story’s chronology that might be relevant, make a new section titled “Character X’s History with Character Y,” and plop it there. Then I would move on to the next bit of usable material from the marathon and make a home for it.
After I have pulled everything I want from the marathon, I never have to look at that document again.
Now my attention goes to the intermediary document. I can thumb through things and trim out any material that isn’t useful and condense what is there. The general idea is to make things easier on myself in the future when I will need to know what to write about.
When that time comes, I open both the intermediary document and the main document.
As needed, I can review my reference material or even pull sections directly from it and insert it into my manuscript.
Generally, I find it supportive to have this other document open and available as I write, revise, and rewrite the actual manuscript.
My writing during the marathon is guided by questions.
The value of this writing stems from how I gain access to deeper levels of my project. I learn things I never would have otherwise. I don’t have to use that material, but I can. Much of it serves as reference material.
Important principles to highlight
- Writing is not merely useful when it is kept.
- Many things happen when a person is writing, and “getting it right” should be wholly beside the point.
- The whole value of following the flow is about gaining access, unlocking the experience, making discoveries, bringing things into greater detail. Living with things, perceiving them more fully, embodying them.
In other words, writing is rewriting
Even though I have made it my professional focus to explore the benefits of freewriting, taking part in the virtual marathons has led me to (finally) discover a far greater extent to which rewriting can feel liberating.
Part of me had always believed that rewriting = more work, that if I could somehow get it right in the first pass, it would save time.
Well, of course it would save time! And if it happens that way… it happens.
The truth is, it’s just not valuable to hold that expectation. Instead, the process of making a painting is a very useful analogy.
A painting, generally speaking, gets made in layers.
As with painting, so with writing.
It’s not a sign of the amateur to make changes.
It doesn’t mean you did anything wrong when it becomes necessary to rewrite whole sections.
It does not matter how smart you are, there will always be a need to go back and change a concept, an idea, an arrangement which in its day was the best possible one.Edward De Bono
A better belief than clinging to what has already been written:
Easy come, easy go.
The more I embrace nonstop writing techniques, the more this statement becomes owned rather than merely asserted.
Writing marathons free us from the linear model of writing
The old model of writing strangles our creative process in expectations of red ink.
The unquestioned belief is that we are supposed to start at the beginning and work our way through.
We’re supposed to develop an outline and proceed from there. There are a million things wrong with this model.
The opposite is much better.
Write and be open. Write and adjust to experience and stay open.
The main value of a group writing event is…
Other people are present.
It feels collaborative. We are united in our individuality.
Everyone is working on their own thing, but we’re doing it together.
Care and shared presence
There is some sense of accountability, for sure — at the beginning, you share your intention, what you plan to do. Then after the time is up, we reconvene and share what happened. If it turns out you didn’t follow through, that’s probably going to sting at some level. You’re a writer, and you weren’t true to your word. Ouch.
And no one else needs to do or say anything for this to happen. It’s built in.
It’s supportive but also effortless. We know that no one is going to grade your work.
And you also know that everyone legitimately supports you towards your goals.
That counts for a lot!
Put plainly, they care.
They are under no obligation to care. Nobody’s grading them for caring.
They just do. They can relate to where you are.
Despite the fact that they are probably writing something completely different, they can relate to the effort. This is especially true because the experience is happening to all of us at the same time.
The main value in a gathering like a writing marathon is not so much in the feedback or input, but how the experience is shared. The care that you feel from others in the group is earned; they’re putting their own efforts into their thing just like you are.
And it’s all happening live. There’s an intimacy, because we are all in our own spaces… and anything can happen.