(This is my morning’s 1000 word writing exercise.)
There is something delightfully seductive about free writing. It’s all about creativity, letting the muse loose, going productively wild and crazy. Best of all, a thousand word burst gives you that chest-thumping, Hemingway-eque certainty that by God, today I’ve been a writer! Wow.
But while free writing is a good way to tap new ideas and to get the flow going in your tired early morning writerly brain, there may be some times when a writer should use the exercise cautiously. Not because we’re likely to unleash some kind of dangerous awarenesses (shades of 1950s Freudians rise here and point fingers, but they are, after all, dead if they are “shades.” Ignore them.) And free writing isn’t generally a bad idea in terms of nurturing those nice, cozy writerly feelings, which in themselves are fine things to nurture. Keeping the brain tuned to the task of writing is very good for one’s development as a scrivener.
The main danger, psychologically and productively speaking, may be that freewriting exercises can be a splendid way to avoid doing whatever real writing you need to be doing. Because when you are working on a book, a blog post, or an essay, writing is work. Often very hard work. And the danger is that a writer can fill their daily word-work quota (heck, as of now I’m already at 240 words), but get no further along on their main, most important, possibly paying projects. (254, including the numbers; a mere 746 to go.) In that sense, when you need to be producing something, freewriting can become a seductive time waster. And in a way, that can weaken a critical faculty a writer needs: a well-honed sense of discipline. For while the “free” part of the exercise is critical, in the sense of thinking freely, having a flow of free-flowing ideas, a never ending stream that bubbles up on demand, the other half of the job is that of bottling that stuff in big heavy glass bottles that are suitable for shipping somewhere.
You know, the work part of a writer’s work.
Freewriting is seductive because it feels good. It’s really rather easy, once you get the hang of it. You sit, you scribble, the timer goes off or your word counter tells you you hit the mark, and you feel great. You produced. You are a goddamned writer. That’s all there is to it, you tell yourself. (While bragging to friends about how hard you worked today, maybe.)
We often assume that what feels good now will also feel good later, either in retrospect or upon a later look at what you accomplished. A simple example, well known to many writers (especially if they’ve read Stephen King’s book on writing), is that you can spend much of your free time watching TV reruns. And at the time, that seems like a pretty good use of your evening. It’s late, you’re tired, it’s amusing, etc. TV seems to feel good.
But both Stephen King, scientific research and personal experience tend to disagree. TV watching generally doesn’t make people happier. And if you’re a writer, it’s toxic to your development. (Full disclosure: I waste a big chunk of most evenings doing it. Listen to what I say, not what I do.) Time spent watching TV in the evening is generally not shown to increase happiness, based on ratings by real scientists — the kind with clipboards and stopwatches and statistics and chimps in cages. Rather, time spent doing… well, just about anything else, generally works better. (599.) In other words, people are often poor judges of how what they do affects their sense of well-being. Sadly, as has often been observed, people just don’t learn from experience much of the time.
So, being now at 643 of my 1000 word target for the morning, am I any happier? Yes and no. Here’s a breakdown of some things to consider as you rate the usefulness of a freewriting exercise:
- Is there anything on the page at all, and are you making your word count? (That is the “free writing” goal: you either count time the pen is moving, or you count words. Give yourself one point for this one. I’m now at 714 words. Problem is, all by itself, it’s a psychological Twinkie: it won’t help me feel any more accomplished at the end of the day to just know that I scribbled my 1000 words on “something.)
- Is what you wrote fairly well done? (Meaning whatever that means to you. For this piece, I’m happy if the general flow of the material sort of hangs together without needing a ton of editing. But again, it’s a sort of small goal — a one pointer; sometimes the best gems are buried in the stinkiest piles of writerly manure.)
- Is your writing something you can USE for something? A blog (check), a book or article? Or at the least, is it a useful note which goes into a pile of potentially useful notes that you wlll later rake through for clues, ideas, great sentences? Ten points for this one!
The latter, I think, is the criterion which gives you the best late-day, reviewing my accomplishments satisfaction. If you have a project of some sort and what you are writing is at the very least a sort of noodling around that topic or problem, you are more likely to have advanced your project, your writerly career, or to have developed your writer’s brain a bit. If you’ve actually gotten some serious pages down in that project, you’re going to feel much better at day’s end.
When I worked on my two Idiot’s Guides (on social intelligence and phobias), I was very aware that I was on a production schedule. Same with some of my articles, e.g. for a martial arts magazine… or back many years ago, when I did my doctoral dissertation, for that matter. These were all production pieces. That does not mean that I had to be in pain as I did them, of course. But it did tend to mean a few things which to me, at least, felt distinctively different than journaling, say, or than my own laziest version of “free writing”:
1. They were WORK, and felt like it. I had to sit and get the chapter done on the day it was due. In doing a piece like an Idiot’s Guide, you have an editor who expects you to complete X amount of work by X date. You get nervous little managerial emails to see if things are progressing. He or she may be nice or grumpy, but it’s pretty clear that you have to do five chapters in a relatively short period of time. That means you don’t get to scribble away on irrelevant things, at least not during your workday.
2. You don’t always feel inspired. Sometimes you hate the chapter you are doing. Or you are desperately trying to figure out something worthwhile or clever to say. Often, you end up writing up the best you’ve got, telling yourself you’ll get back and make it clever or interesting if and when you can figure out how to do it, if and when there’s time before you have to email the chapter off.
3. The whole project may start to stink. It interferes with your work on a novel you love maybe for months at a time. It’s boring. You realize you were hoodwinked into taking on a poorly paying book project that turned into vastly more work than you expected. You hate it and the editors and will never do it again. And on and on and on. (A writer friend calls this, in the world of idiot books, the “idiot slog.”)
But afterward, in the cool of the evening when you sit with a glass of wine and review your day’s work, or better still, when you get the box of little phobia books, like little babies from the baby supermarket, all wrapped up for you to unwrap and enjoy, you may feel differently. You may open the book or review your piece and see something nice in it. Maybe it won’t be perfect (you are guaranteed to find the typos that both you and your typo-searching editor missed). But it will still be a real accomplishment, and you may be lucky enough to feel good about it.
Not everything has to be that kind of production writing, of course. Freewriting is a valuable training device, a great way to nurture your creativity and fill the well with ideas, and a fine hobby for people who dream of “being a writer someday.” Not to mention a great fundraising device for little nonprofit “writer training schools.”
In the end, though, the work you do that involves actually working, may be more of a contribution to your own development as a writer than the stuff you write just for your little disposable notebook. And like a night spent reading instead of watching Friends reruns, it may be remembered as a more satisfying use of your life energy as you drift off to sleep. (1536!)