Freewriting — Fishing the River Styx
by Tanya Jarvik
Freewriting has been the foundation of my creative practice, insofar as I have a practice. It’s one of the best tools I’ve found for combating writer’s block, and it has the added benefit of functioning rather like meditation: After completing a freewriting session, I feel much more alive and awake to inner possibilities.
What is freewriting? Well, for anyone who wasn’t forced to do this exercise by some zealous language arts teacher in junior high, it’s when you take a pen to paper – that’s right, you have to write longhand! – and you just keep recording whatever comes into your head, not bothering to finish a sentence if some new thought – or bit of nonsense – elbows its way onto your page. The main point is to keep going and, if you can’t think of anything, you write, “I can’t think of anything” over and over, until some different words show up. You stop when you get to a pre-determined number of pages, or when you’ve written for a certain length of time.
In The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, Julia Cameron refers to this type of writing as brain drain. She believes it is important to get the “angry, whiny, petty stuff” out of our heads and on to the page, preferably first thing in the morning, so that it doesn’t muddy our thinking and get in the way of our ability to work creatively. Her feeling is that these “morning pages” – three pages of “whatever comes to mind,” written as soon after waking as possible – are “nonnegotiable.” They must be done, regardless of internal mood or external circumstances, every day.*
Natalie Goldberg, in her lovely book Writing Down the Bones, which I highly recommend, has a somewhat different take on why freewriting is useful. In her view, “the basic unit of writing practice is the timed exercise,” and its primary purpose 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.”** Goldberg advocates paying attention to images and emotions in particular, especially if they seem “scary or naked,” because this is where the energy is.
My own approach to freewriting has evolved over the years, after a couple of decades of experimenting.
The first freewrites I did, at age 14, were very much in the brain drain vein:
Oh gosh – tonight absoleutly [sic]…nothings happening!! I’m talking to Lisa again. I started to cry because Andrea was so upset (she feels she’s being ignored etc) and she asked me to give Lisa a chance so I am. Andrea has been sort of insecure lately. Oh well. More Bio Homework.
Five or six years later, my freewrites were all about proving to myself how poetic I was. They tended to showcase phrases such as the sky is black, stained, falling and snatching vultures bite the carrion dust.
I finally settled on a combo approach. Two or three mornings a week, I get up early, make myself a cup of tea, set the kitchen timer for half an hour, and write – with a cheap pen, in a cheap, lined notebook – until the timer goes off. I write whatever comes to mind, with this caveat: Whenever an interesting question or an image rises up out of my monkey-mind blither-blather, I try to stay with it for as long as I can.
Nearly every poem I have ever written first appeared, in nascent form, during a freewriting session. This is why I sometimes think of my poetry as a type of found art. It’s like fishing the Styx. The first things I dredge up from the river of my subconscious mind are usually clichés: an old tire, a soggy boot, a broken bottle. I just keep writing. If I’m patient, and I keep my inner critic quiet, I begin to glimpse the first flash-silver fishes of poetry.
I remember sitting in church, and there was a particular smell, the babies crying, the little tupperwares or plastic baggies full of Cheerios. The oppressive heat of those places! How different from a ghost-town church, all dust motes in the sunlight! Bare pews, blonde wood weathered and dusty. There’s a spareness to a ghost town … a kind of space & freedom – loneliness, w/ the wind whistling through the tumbleweeds, whereas there’s some kind of claustrophobia in my memories – stifling, my childhood seems stifling to me now. Packed with people … This goes back to the idea that our memories get tinged by the present – does that mean we really do lose the past?
And here’s the poem that emerged:
Every time I visit, there’s less to see.
The rats and ravens have been busy,
stripping plush from the pews
and pages from the hymnals
to line their nests in the rafters.
When they finally finish
picking the place clean, and relocate
to scavenge elsewhere’s clutter,
families of termites will settle
in the beams, chewing their way
toward a tinderbox apocalypse.
Some day, I want to usher out
the noisy throng of ghosts
still meeting here each Sunday,
shoes shined and bows tied,
in defiance of dismantling and decay.
I’ll send them to a mountain
or a restaurant or a peep show
and stand alone in the aisle
watching dust motes congregate
in shafts of weak winter sun,
listening for the silence
when the last echo
of the last hallelujah has gone.
The poem’s central image, the ghost town church, wasn’t something I constructed. It was already there in my subconscious mind; freewriting just stripped away enough of the everyday for me to see it. My task as a poet then became to develop this image in such a way that others would be able to see it, too.
Michelangelo is purported to have said, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it, and it is the task of the sculptor to find it.” I have found it incredibly helpful to approach writing the same way: as a process of discovery. A freewriting session simply provides me with the raw material I need in order to practice my art. However, a word of caution: I have also found that nothing crushes creativity like the weight of expectation. If I begin a freewrite by thinking, “There had better be a poem in here, or what’s the point?” I just about guarantee a creative shut-down.
Freewriting is, by definition, a pointless exercise. It’s writing done simply for the love of writing – and that’s the true beauty of it.
* Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, New York: Tarcher/Putnam (2002), pp. 10-12.
** Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones, Boston: Shambhala (1986), p. 8.