The blank page and I are very well acquainted. If my wife knew how often I met him, she’d think something was going on between us. Of course, the truth is that very little indeed goes on when I meet him. Usually, nothing at all.
Maybe you know him too.
And maybe you do what I used to do when the words just wouldn’t come. Which is to say, you do anything other than writing, like paying the gas bill, de-worming the dog, or googling the symptoms of Morgellons disease.
It’s not funny when we need to write but just can’t. I find it most difficult when I’m about to start a new long-form project, but you may find you have difficulties because a plot point isn’t working, or you just can’t seem to express an idea in a wholly coherent manner. I’ve even become lexically constipated when I’ve sat down to write an editorial report — which is kind of ironic, seeing as somebody else has already written what I’m trying to write about.
But I discovered a way to beat the blank page and unlock my creativity.
An introduction to freewriting
Some years ago, I came across the concept of “freewriting” and I’ve never looked back — or up from my keyboard. I first found the concept in Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer and later I found Peter Elbow’s more academic approach. But the basic idea is simple:
For five or ten minutes each day (or whenever you’re stuck with a plot point or the start of a story, or some other impasse) just write. Write continuously, without pause and without regard for what you’re writing. Forget spelling. Forget grammar. Forget making sense. This is just for you, not public consumption.
And that’s it. It’s not a magic trick; no Leporids out of opera hats here. It’s just writing. But that’s the point — it’s writing. You’re not staring at a page, wondering what you can possibly put on it.
The trick is to use a kind of free association. Write down the first thing that comes into your mind. That will suggest something else, which you then write down. And so on. Just follow the train, wherever it might lead you.
You might find this a bit weird or uncomfortable at first, but don’t worry about that. So what if what you write is dopey and dumb? Who’s going to see it? If it’s banal, you could care less, because nobody else will get the chance to read it. And if it’s unseemly in some way, or even — gasp — downright indecent, keep it to yourself. Maybe you can reread those ones later.
But don’t stop, however strong the urge, until your allotted time is up. And if you exceed your allotted time, even better — just stop when you’re done, when you’ve said everything your subconscious wants to say.
You might be surprised by the power of what you’ve written.
Freewriting unblocks the subconscious
What we’re trying to do here is unblock the subconscious, or unconscious, or whatever psychologists currently call that part of our personality that sits in the dark, directing our actions and stirring up all kinds of trouble where we can’t see what’s going on. The subconscious is the prime suspect in many of our crimes against ourselves and it’s certainly an arch saboteur when it comes to writing. It’s at the root of most of our self-doubt, apathy, self-censorship, fear of failure, and all the rest — and they, my friends, are what stop us from getting all those words in print.
I can’t overemphasize how important it is that you do not censor yourself while freewriting. Just let it flow, stream-of-consciousness-like. If you’re struggling with a plot point, you may keep the issue in the back of your mind as an aid to focus, but don’t fret if you stray off-topic. Keep writing and you’ll come back around to it eventually. And your subconscious will have been playing with it while you were away, so you might find some new insights that you hadn’t thought of before.
Freewriting in practice
I know I’ve said that your freewriting isn’t for public consumption, but to illustrate what I mean, I’m going to share a freewrite with you. I suffer for my art — now it’s your turn.
For context, I was wrestling with the idea of Spiritualism for a novel, but couldn’t seem to get a handle on it. So I began a pretty focused freewrite, the beginning of which I quote below. I did write the novel, eventually, but it was very different to what I present here. What’s important is that it got my creative juices splashing about the place. Which reminds me, I must buy a new mop before I slip and break a leg.
Anyway, here’s the excerpt, warts and all:
“So, 19th century spiritualism. What’s it all about? I like the idea of the whole ‘parlour’ thing, people paying good money to come and sit in some charlatans front room and be duped. What’s the angle though? Obviously somebody doesn’t believe it — perhaps his wife or sister or some such has been duped and he takes it upon himself to expose the fraud. That’s fine, but hardly groundbreaking.
What does he do? He’s a writer? Pffft. No, he’s a photographer, and he wants to take pictures of ‘phenomena’. So far, so unoriginal maybe there is no mileage in this idea, I need a new twist, or a happy accide3ntal combination with something else. Can I drag Jack the Ripper into this, or is that too corny? How about Springheeled Jack? Are there anyother mysterious figures in that period (research?) I can coopt.
There’s no conflict, though. We need a bad guy.”
Putting my embarrassment aside for now, I hope you can see how this all tumbled out. Indeed, it almost reads like the transcript of a brainstorming session. An initial idea (“He’s a writer”) is dismissed as part of this “conversation”, which leads to another idea (“he’s a photographer”) that leads to another idea, about photographing the phenomena, and so on. Internal Q&A sessions like this are a good way of bringing new ideas to light . . . but only if you write with absolute freedom and throw caution to the howling gales.
Give it a try
As I’ve said, freewriting can feel a bit odd at first, and you may be awkward when you first sit down to try it. So, to give you a leg up, here are a list of openings you can use to get you going. Choose one or two and complete them by freewriting for five minutes:
- I quietly opened the desk drawer and . . .
- He stood on the edge and . . .
- What I mean is . . .
- She looked behind and . . .
- If I could only . . .
- And then I saw . . .
- She turned the corner and . . .
- The first thing I said was . . .
If these lame examples don’t do it for you, come up with a couple of your own and get to it.
Once you shake off the awkwardness, you might find that freewriting takes you into some very deep places and uncovers some seriously thought-provoking ideas, concepts, and even memories. Embrace them all, because even if what you discover isn’t right for your current project, no material is ever wasted by a writer, and you can file it away for later consideration.
Even better, if you do this every day before you write, within a short time you’ll have trained yourself to write on demand. Your creativity will suddenly be on tap, whenever you need it, and the blank page will have to go and pester someone else.
Try it and let me know how you get on. But if you start typing All work and no play make Jack a dull boy, over and over for five hundred pages, remind me to bring my baseball bat.