How Freewriting Saved My Life

POSTED ON Jul 20, 2010

Joel Friedlander

Written by Joel Friedlander

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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,

Joel Friedlander

Written by
Joel Friedlander

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