The only way to finish is to start. But this is the scariest step, isn’t it? Too often we are hampered by the myth of creative genius. The idea that writing comes easily to the gifted, that miracles drip from their pens, and their drafts require little more than a polish before they’re ready for public adoration. But even Hemingway wrote shitty first drafts.
Today’s exercise is about what comes before that shitty first draft. It’s about leaving behind the drunk genius and setting out on your own. Letting go of this weighty myth leaves room for play and experimentation in your writing. It lets you follow your ideas down the rabbit hole and see where they take you.
Free writing, allowing yourself to release words without overthinking or inviting your inner critic to the table, is a habit we all should develop. It is a way of catching your ideas and thinking through your writing projects. It is the initial, chaotic information dump (or visioning phase, if you prefer) of your writing process.
You are not starting a draft. You are just putting ideas and thoughts on paper. They can be irrelevant, bizarre, or silly. All are welcome. No one will ever read it but you. Most of it will never be seen again. But you might find a jewel in the mess, a kernel worth inviting into your first draft.
Or, as Anne Lamott puts it, “Just get it all down on paper, because there may be something great in those side crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means. There may be something in the very last line of the very last paragraph on page six that you just love, that is so beautiful or wild that you now know what you’re supposed to be writing about, more or less, or in what direction you might go—but there was no way to get to this without first getting through the first five and half pages.”
Even if you’ve started your first draft, it is not likely to flow, unimpeded and glorious, to the end. We are always constantly starting. Free writing can be a way of thinking through these blocks or around challenges in your writing projects. This writing around your current project might lead to something you keep, or it might not. But it will help you think and start (or restart).
Find a way to distinguish free writing from your usual writing practice. Something that signals this is the thinking phase of your writing. If it’s not your usual first approach, writing longhand is a great way to free write. As writer Judith Freeman says, “when writing longhand the brain and the hand are connected…ink flows; ideas flow with it.”
There are many ways to approach free writing around your project, so play around until you find what works for you. It can be as simple as selecting a setting, object, or character from your project and visualizing it. Hold the image in your mind and then write down everything that comes up as you think of this person/place/thing. Do not reread as you write. Do not edit.
If you need a little more guidance, try this exercise:
Put one of your subjects in an unfamiliar place or time. Move them around the globe or into a different decade and imagine how they would respond. What would they notice? Or place them in a scene from a film or book you love and rewrite it from their perspective. Think of this as play—you have no expectation other than words on paper.
Go back the next day and reread what you wrote. Does it tell you anything interesting about your subject? What surprised you? Does it show you anything about how they interact with the world? Are they funnier or more timid than you’d imagined?
Photo by Robert Capa from the Robert Capa and Cornell Capa Archive, Gift of Cornell and Edith Capa, 2010