How to Get Out of Your Own Way: Suzanne Murray on Free-writing

by | Feb 23, 2010

Several years ago I returned to writing after an absence of many years. Hard to believe now, but I had found other channels for creativity over the years—as a designer, a teacher and a cook—but the central importance writing had never diminished. There was only one problem: I didn’t enjoy writing.

Oh, I had written plenty, including at least two books, one of which I had published. And heaps of “corporate” writing, institutional prose that, in itself, seemed able to dampen any desire to write anything else.

But even more troubling was the fact that I had come to distrust my own connection to the creative. I was wandering in the wilderness, with no idea how to find my way.

A Happy Coincidence

Jill and I were looking for activities we could enjoy together, and one idea I had was to try a writing workshop. Mind you, this was along the lines of “Let’s take a Thai cooking class,” or “We could catch one of those personality type panels.” Just another activity that might—or might not—be fun to do together.

Through Craigslist I located an intriguing-sounding class, right in San Rafael. We booked in and were soon sitting in a circle with six other brave souls, clutching our pads and pens. We shouldn’t have worried.

Through the most fortunate coincidence, we had landed in the class of a very experienced teacher, Suzanne Murray, who taught something called freewriting.

The dream of writing had never died for me, and I had read several of Natalie Goldberg’s wonderful books on writing, which embodied this same approach. Goldberg is a longtime Zen student as well, which only made me more interested in the process.

Over the next 8 months, and after Jill had decided to move on to other things, Suzanne taught me to open myself to the often illogical, unreasonable, unpredictable stream of creativity that lies in the unconscious mind. Through prompts, exercises, and timed writings we explored what would come out of the end of the pen if we could only “get out of our own way.”

The miracle, to me, is that it actually worked.

Now writing is a daily practice of mine, quite apart from the writing I do on this blog. Almost every morning I park myself in a quiet room, or overlooking the bay in my car, or in a coffee shop corner, and write to a prompt, allowing whatever it is that wants to come out, to come. It’s a powerful way to connect with myself.

Get it From the Source

I wanted to interview Suzanne for my blog readers, and sent her a list of questions to answer. Her response to the first question inspired me to post it by itself here. It’s an introduction to freewriting, something I’ll be writing about in the coming months.

But here’s Suzanne, speaking for herself.

Can you explain what “freewriting” is, and how you use it in your workshops?

I first encountered the concept of freewriting in 1977 when I found Peter Elbow’s book, Writing with Teachers. Elbow, who had been a professor at MIT, presented this way of working on your writing that is at once simpler and more powerful than any other way I know. I’ve come to believe that most writers eventually figure out that in order to write well you have to learn to get out of your conscious mind in order to tap the creative flow. Freewriting helps you to do this. I’ve certainly used the technique extensively to evolve my own writing.

All you do is simply force yourself to write without stopping for ten minutes. If you get stuck you keep writing “Keep the pen moving” until you break free. Sometimes you will produce good writing, sometimes you will produce garbage. The point is to keep writing. The goal is in the process, not the product. It is the easiest way to get words on paper and the best all around practice in writing that I know. Freewriting gives practice in focusing, but-not-trying; it helps the conscious self to stand out of the way and let the words be chosen by the sequence of the words themselves or the thought. The benefits are many: it helps with the existential difficulty of facing the blank piece of paper; it is best way to learn to separate the creative process from the editorial process; it’s a good warm up; it helps you to learn to write when you don’t feel like writing; it teaches you to write without thinking; it’s a good outlet for clearing away preoccupations; it’s good for brainstorming; and it improves your writing by leading you to tap a true voice

I started teaching writing workshops almost twenty years ago, where we freewrite for ten minutes and then share what we’ve written in a completely safe and supportive environment. Group members respond to what touches them, what rings true, what they want to hear more about or by parroting back a line that really strike them; all as a way of mirroring the writer’s voice and the potential of the piece. Freewriting allows you to write a tad faster than you can think which gives you access to the unconscious mind. When you have finished you rarely have any idea what you have written and your conscious mind armed with the critic and censor leads you to believe it’s no good. So receiving feedback on what is working in your first draft helps you to learn how to do that for yourself. I write and share with the group because I feel it only works if I’m willing to feel the same vulnerability as everyone else. I’m amazed year after year at the fine writing that emerges from all the different people who come to the workshops and how I can hear a writer’s voice evolve as they continue to work with this process.


Takeaway: Freewriting can revive your joy in writing, and connect you more deeply to your own creative juice. Watch for more of the interview with Suzanne Murray in future posts.

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  1. Elizabeth Rogers Underwood

    Does using the keyboard accomplish the goal of freewriting, or is it the actual writing on paper that is needed. I can keyboard fast enough to go ahead of my conscious thoughts.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Hi Elizabeth,

      Some people use a keyboard, some write longhand, I’m not sure it matters. What does matter is that you’re able to keep writing without stopping, and if the keyboard works better for your “thinking speed” then I say go for it.

  2. Geraldine Nesbitt

    I so relate to this post. I too, after having written consistently for years, even publishing POD and writing a column on the writing process strayed away from writing for several years. But, despite having other creative outlets, I always felt like a writer on a prolonged sabbatical. I am writing again, but it is not easy at times. Where before I was able to ‘ find the zone’ these days my head is filled with thoughts, most of them not conducive to creative writing. I find that keeping a journal will get a lot of the congestion out of my mind. All the ‘ I can’t’ and ‘ I don’t want to’ and anything else that stands between me and my creativity, goes into the journal.

  3. Elaine Campbell

    I once attended a poetry reading by Adrienne Rich. Afterward, I asked her if she creates a quiet period before composing her poems. She thought for a moment, and then replied in the affirmative: “You have to get the cobwebs out of your head.”



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