What is "Free Writing"?

Many authors, both amateur and professional, have difficulty writing that next story or novel because of a lack of ideas.  A technique used by some to generate an idea is called “Free Writing”.  So, what is this technique?

Free writing has probably been around forever, but got its official start with Alexander Bain in 1855.  Alexander was a Scottish philosopher and educator with psychology and linguistics among other things.  He coined the term “stream of consciousness” to refer to writing that attempted “to depict the multitudinous thoughts and feelings which [sic] pass through the mind" of a narrator”.  

James Joyce, the author of “Ulysses” wrote much of this novel as a series of frank, intimate musings as well as using other techniques, but it was the style of “stream of consciousness” that earned Ulysses the reputation for being obscene.

An American author and poet of French-Canadian descent, Jean-Louis Lebris de Kérouac also known as Jack Kerouac, was greatly influenced by James Joyce and applied the “stream of consignees” technique to his writing, though he called it “spontaneous prose”.

It was Natalie Goldberg, an author, painter and poet who conducts writing workshops, who made the first attempt at formalizing this technique into what she calls her “four rules of writing”. The explanation is rather lengthy so I’ll paraphrase from “The Rules for Writing Practice” from “Wild Mind”, by Natalie Goldberg.  

1. Keep your hand moving.  Set a time for which you will write, one minute or ten minutes, and once you begin writing, don’t stop no matter what.  

Natalie’s explanation for this is interesting and probably something all writers experience at one time or another.

She says many writers get their “creator” side and their “editor” side mixed together.  The “creator” wants to write something that is not socially acceptable, but the “editor” is saying, “You can’t say that.  It’ll offend people”.  Her point is if the “creator” side of a writer writes fast enough, the “editor” side can’t catch up and inhibit the “creator”.  

2. Lose control.  Say what you want to say.  Don’t worry if it’s correct, polite, or appropriate.

The example she uses is Allen Ginsburg.  He was studying rhymed verse at Columbia.  One night, he went home and told himself he was going to forget about formalities and write what he wanted to write.  The result was “Howl” and is considered to be one of the great works of American literature.

3. Be specific.  Not car, but Cadillac. Not fruit, but apple.  Not bird, but wren. Not a codependent, neurotic man, but Harry, who runs to open the refrigerator for his wife, thinking she wants an apple, when she is headed for the gas stove to light her cigarette.  

Don’t let the “editor” catch up to you if you forget and write “tree”.  Just write “sycamore” beside “tree” and keep writing.

4. Don't think. We usually live in the realm of second or third thoughts, thoughts on thoughts, rather than in the realm of first thoughts, the real way we flash on something. Stay with the first flash. Writing practice will help you contact first thoughts. Just practice and forget everything else.

She has some other “rules” she teaches during her workshops as well.

5. Don’t worry about punctuation, spelling or grammar.  If and when what you write becomes part of an actual work, you can correct these things then.

6. You are free to write the worst junk in America. You can be more specific, if you like: the worst junk in Santa Fe; New York; Kalamazoo, Michigan; your city block; your pasture; your neighborhood restaurant; your family. Or you can get more cosmic: free to write the worst junk in the universe, galaxy, world, hemisphere, Sahara Desert.

7. Go for the jugular. If something scary comes up, go for it. That's where the energy is. Otherwise, you'll spend all your time writing around whatever makes you nervous. It will probably be abstract, bland writing because you' re avoiding the truth.

Hemingway said, "Write hard and clear about what hurts." Don't avoid it. It has all the energy. Don't worry, no one ever died of it. You might cry or laugh, but not die.”

So, the next time you’re stuck for an idea or stuck with where to take a story, try using Natalie’s rules.  I have, and it does work.