How Freewriting Saved My Life

by | Jul 20, 2010

Freewriting . . .

Unimpeded and nonstop writing to a prompt and for a set time, in which you give yourself permission to write “whatever comes”

. . . saved my life.

Well, it didn’t perform CPR, but it saved my life anyway. My imaginal life.

You see, at one time I was taught that the imagination was my enemy, out to take me away from the “present moment.” This had the effect of walling me off from my own imagination for many years, and it’s the principle reason I stopped writing.

If you think that your eternal salvation or immortality depends on paying close and specific attention to everything happening in the “present moment,” then it stands to reason that any wandering you do in your mind becomes like, a sin. Imagination = sin is not a formula for creativity.

Sure, I wrote things over the years. I wrote a whole book, but it wasn’t from me, if you know what I mean. It was a competent explanation of a certain set of facts, but no more.

Living with your own imagination locked in the root celler is a prescription for a sterile life. Eventually you have to break out. For me the breakout came in freewriting class.

Adult Education for the Child Within You

In freewriting class I learned the essentials of the practice:

  1. Intentionally bringing yourself into the writing environment
  2. Having a clear prompt to write to
  3. Establishing a time limit and using a timer
  4. Getting out of the way, allowing whatever wants to be written to happen
  5. Write faster than you can think, and don’t stop until the timer goes off
  6. Giving yourself permission to write crap, not judging your writing
  7. Sharing with others in a positive way

With the other members of the class, I spent Thursday evenings emptying my mind and filling my journals with whatever flowed out of the end of my pen. It seemed to have little to do with me on some days.

Other times stories from childhood would surface, sometimes told from odd vantage points.

Some of the prompts we used required us to begin from a sentence that was gibberish. This was meant to defeat the endless commentary of the “monkey mind.” It’s that voice in your head that thinks it knows everything.

Prompts could be non-verbal. Sometimes we’d pass around photographs to each other so each of us got something we’d never seen before. Then the photo became the prompt.

I discovered that my imagination wasn’t harmed at all by my long absence, it was roaring along all the time without me.

Writing Prompts

A lot of each 5- or 10- or 20-minute freewrite was driven by the prompt you used. I also learned to get prompts from books, like Natalie Goldberg‘s books, or Deena Metzger‘s writing book.

The first prompt I ever wrote to was Goldberg’s: “I remember.” It’s still one of the most powerful. When you hesitate, you start writing the prompt itself until you start up again. The idea is to keep the pen moving all the time:

I remember. I remember. I remember looking at Bernard in the white pine box. I remember how he looked a little disappointed, like things hadn’t worked out the way he wanted.

You get the idea.

I started reading the poems of Billy Collins, full of prompts:

My pen moves along the page
like the snout of a strange animal
shaped like a human arm
and dressed in the sleeve of a loose green sweater.

Eventually I realized that the prompts themselves could be used to weave even more intricate fabrics.

But what I want to leave you with is the sense I have of the magical and mysterious process by which freewriting can get beneath the ordinary day to day way we use our minds. It can open the door to that other world. That in itself is huge.

From one point of view the world inside, the world of invention and fantasy and the realm of all other possibilities is larger than the natural world. The more I write the more I feel that the true way, the middle path is being able to walk the line that includes both worlds in our experience.

We go pick up the dry cleaning, we turn in the report at work on time, but we remember that we’re connected to something much larger, something wild and unruly and unpredictable when we connect to the imaginal world. Freewriting is what connects me. What connects you to that world?

Takeaway: The practice of freewriting can connect us to our own source of creativity, energizing our writing and our life.

Image licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License, original work copyright by Sam,

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  1. avwalters

    Joel, it sounds like you are ready for NaNoWriMo. I’m a bit behind this year–what with the summer from hell and the move but I’m struggling to catch up. NaNo is very much like free-writing.

  2. Naja Tau

    Very cool experiences, Mr. Friedlander! I’m wondering if you have any plans for becoming a novelist? I noticed that the book in your link was very firmly non-fiction! (Although I think there must be some imagination involved in writing about how your body type affects your behavior. :)

    Best wishes,

  3. Rio Guzman

    Hi Joel. Being present is not about stifling your imagination or creativity. It is about dropping the inconsequential nonsense in our minds.

  4. betty ming liu

    At your recommendation, I finally went to the library and borrowed Natalie Goldberg’s “Old Friend” book. Lots of good ideas in there. And I can see what you mean about prompts. She had one exercise where the prompt was, whenever you get stuck, just write “no thank you.”

    Well, I adapted that exercise for my memoir writing class — with marvelous results. I suggested to my students that if they get stuck, find a refrain of their own choosing. One student picked: “I should’ve known.” It became an incredible personal essay about lost love.

    Thanks for the suggestion!

    • Joel Friedlander

      Betty, that’s the best thing I’ve heard all day! The way these subjects like lost love, longing, the missed connections, family issues that were never resolved, pop up in freewriting is amazing. It’s almost like a substitute for therapy, in a way. Thanks so much for taking the time to let me know the results of your experiment. (love your new avatar photo, by the way!)

  5. David Stoddard

    What is it about sitting down (or standing or kneeling or lying down) to write that is such a pain at times? Why when we sit, do the words not necessarily come about… Why do we not necessarily know what we are going to write about? For me, prompts help a lot. Just take anything and write, ramble, type, scribble or whatever. While you may begin writing about something which has next to nothing to do with what you are hoping to write about in a clear manner, this could point you in a more productive direction than you may have intended. As Joel Saltzman writes about in his book “If You Can Talk, You Can Write,” (and I add the prompt connection), writing prompts can be starting points for you to just talk on paper (or computer screen or papyrus).

    • Joel Friedlander

      David, I’ve also been working on prompts and the way they can influence the coures of freewrites as a way to work on longer projects. I’ll have a look at your Prompts book, it looks quite handy. Thanks for visiting.

  6. Jessie Mac

    Hi Joel, I’m glad you got over that hurdle of being in the present as opposed to daydreaming and being in a world inside your head. I believe it’s possible to do both and the benefits are obvious. We as writers get to do both every day. When we’re at the computer or holding the pen or sat in the park listening to the leaves whispering in the trees, we should be able to allow ourselves to go where our imagination takes us. And then when we’re with people and just plain living, that’s when being in the present helps. Reminds me of one of my favourite books ‘The Present’ by Spencer Johnson. As writers, we have a vivid world within our heads and outside – and it’s part of our job to utilize both. To experience life in the present and then transform and embellish it from within.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Hey Jessie, thanks for that. It’s a special role to be the kind of writer that walks “between the worlds” in a way. Thanks for the Johnson book, sounds interesting.

  7. Leda Sammarco

    This is a fabulous post and very timely, as I’m struggling to write a book at the moment! It’s great that you champion the power of the imagination and its importance in the creative process. If I didn’t let my imagination run wild (rather like a child playing on the beach), I would stifle the flow of ideas. Freewriting and the non-judgement that accompanies is also an essential element in writing. Thank you for reminding me that I don’t have to be present all the time!!

    • Joel Friedlander

      Leda, thanks so much for your comment, and good luck with that book! Sometimes it comes in fits and starts, and you just have to keep going with the faith that you will eventually get there…



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