Free-writing part 3

With a stunning lack of foresight, last spring, when I was arranging my autumn term, I set myself up with four classes that would each be discussing different novels in the same weeks.  Consequently, I’ve recently been on a readathon, and my writing time has been squashed into snatched fragments.

book pileAt least most of my brain space has been taken up with some excellent literature.  How could I have forgotten how brilliant Tolstoy was?  Meanwhile, I’ve been discovering new joys – particularly Dorothy L. Sayers.  Re-reading her carefully, as I prepare class notes, opens up all sorts of literary trails.  I shall definitely be looking at some of her other novels again.

I’m about half-way through Arnold Bennett’s Old Wives Tales with one group, and reminding myself that he is not so dusty as he’s sometimes painted; while nearing the end of Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at The Museum with another.  It’s been a fascinating autumn, but hectic.

So given only an occasional five minutes writing time, I decided the best use I could make of that space was to take my own often offered advice, and free-write.  The result is a satisfyingly expanding notebook.

These jottings are intended as rough drafts: a collection of words I might ‘mine’ for ideastimer at a later date.  No sense intended, only a fancy to free myself from the restrictions of preparing reading groups.    I set the clock for five minutes then let my pen lead the way.

Describing the process is always challenging, so I’ve decided this week to share one of my quicker fragments.

She would always want the things that he told her were unobtainable belonging to worlds that had not yet visited the western leaning curves and when the dog left home without her nothing would stay where it was but electricity sang when the moon rose and bloomed in delightful sequences of song that lifted lifetimes from their shoulders the past disappeared and gravity took years from their faces because the long winded clock gave up they were free, see the sea, shallowing and delightful, played with her ankles drawing her deeper towards a world she had never imagined.

If you’re wondering what I might do with this, I’m not sure yet.

On a previous post, Random ramblings that work I’ve gathered some thoughts on the benefits of using time in this way.

If you’ve never tried free-writing, and would like to have a go, I’ve put a recipe on Writing Blocks – strategy 2.

Random ramblings that work – free-writing part 2

One of my all-time favourite songs probably says an awful lot about my approach to writing.  I can’t find any information about the way Guy Marks wrote this, but Loving You Has Made Me Bananas feels like it might have started out as a piece of free-writing.



Yes, it is a parody, but the absurd combination of images and malapropisms are what can happen when writing against the clock to a given trigger word or image.  The opening lines feel crafted,

From the Hotel Sheets in Downtown Plunketville
The Publican Broadcasting Company presents:
The Music of Pete DeAngelis and his Loyal Plunketvillevanians!
Here in the beautiful gold, yella, copper, steel, iron ballroom
of the Hotel Sheets in Downtown Plunketville,
Overlooking the uptown section of Downtown Pottstown!
Stay with us, won’t you, and enjoy the sweetest music
This side of the Monongahela River!

but, such combinations can emerge while practicing what some people call automatic-writing. In the rush to get my words on the page I could easily mis-write Hotel Streets as sheets.  And, when following the free-writing rules rigorously, even if I noticed, I would not be allowed to stop and correct it.

Learning to value this kind of experiment helps to ‘free’ us from the restriction of writing-rules.  Rules are good, rules are important.  Grammar, punctuation, all the theories about how writing and plot work, we need to know about, because then, when we break them, we can add dimension to our writing.

I don’t think the great experimental writers were accidentally creating marvellous writing.  When we read their essays or interviews, they usually talk about literary influences.  They knew/know the rules.

I’m not claiming all great writers practice free-writing.  But some did, and do.

Here’s me, rambling along as if you all know what I mean by free or automatic-writing.  For goodness sake, don’t google the second term, click on this free-writing-link, which will take you back to one of my earlier posts.  I just checked on-line descriptions for automatic writing which, according to them, is a psychic phenomena.

I’ll stick with free-writing.  In my version, this is an exercise in freeing us from self-critical thought.

It’s also prone to throw up all sorts of intriguing word and idea combinations.  With practice, it can allow us to write from that area of consciousness that I think of as the area between waking and sleeping: the realm of drifting into or out of dream*.  There, stories happen.  They may be muddled and confusing, but free-writing sets them on the page.  Then you can pick out words, phrases or ideas, and set yourself on a fresh route to creating stories.

The great thing about this exercise is that so long as you write without stopping to think, correct or workout what you want to say, you can’t go wrong.  Whatever you write is right.  Sometimes it will make sense, often it will not, unless you step sideways and take a slant view of it.

After that the choice is yours, whether to lift out fragments and work it into something rational and logical, or enjoy the bizarre aspects of it.  Who knows what you might come up with, a walrus and a carpenter, walking by the sea… or the chorus from Guy Marks’ medly:

Oh, your red scarf matches your eyes
You closed your cover before striking
Father had the shipfitter blues
Loving you has made me bananas.
Oh, you burned your fingers that evening
While my back was turned.
I asked the waiter for iodine
But I dined all alone

Sometimes, sense comes from non-sense.  Maybe loving this has made me bananas, because somehow, when combined with the music, these lyrics do seem to transport me back to wet Saturday afternoons spent watching re-runs of the Bob Hope and Bing Crosbie road movies.  Happy days….


Here’s a Tip:

If you want to push yourself with this writing exercise, aim to get as many words down in the given time as is physically possible.  The faster you write, the less time there will be to form sentences.  This, after-all, is stream-of-consciousness writing.


* I know a few people who claim never to dream.  Scientists say that we all do, some of us just can’t remember them.


This week, a quote:

I was browsing through my old Mslexia diaries, in search of some notes, when I saw this, and thought it worth repeating.

Writing is a world.  It’s a place we inhabit entirely when we’re there – putting words down on the page, letting sentences connect and form on computer screens.  We can’t imagine, when we’re writing, that there’s any other reality than this.

Kirsty Gunn

I don’t know about you, but this, I think, is what I aim for.

DSCF4818 - Copy - CopyWhere is the world of writing?  It’s not only in my imagination, it’s all around me.  My imagination translates the reality I experience into words, and if you’ve not yet understood the value of practicing free-writing, then this seems to touch on what happens when we practice it.



Writing Blocks – Strategy 2.

I had to go for some training the other day.  In the break one of the other tutors said, ‘I’d love to write, but I have no imagination.’

A lot of people believe that.  I don’t.

I suppose it depends on how you perceive imagination, and writers.  Even though writing courses are now available at many universities, it is still possible to come up against the belief that writers are born and cannot be taught.

My friend, the language tutor, had something like that in mind, and we had an interesting discussion about how much creativity she already used in planning and delivering lessons.   The discussion broadened out to include other activities.  I suggested that any kind of a plan required the use of our imagination, from writing a shopping list to working out the details of a holiday.

‘Yes, but,’ she said, ‘it’s not like writing a story. I’ve never had a good idea.’

There it was, the one word that gave the game away, ‘good’.  She had had ideas.  Most people do.  What was really stopping her from translating her ideas into writing was that most annoying of all blocks, her inner critic.

I’m sure you know the one I mean, that quiet but insistent voice that is always trying to control your imaginative impulses.  It says things like:

  • ‘You stole that idea.’
  • ‘Anyone can see you’re not being original.’
  • ‘You think you can write?  This is just a cheap copy of Katherine Mansfield, A.S. Byatt, Raymond Carver, Stephen King…’
  • ‘How can YOU, call yourself a writer?  You’re not clever enough, or wise, or talented.’
  • ‘You are being ridiculous.’
  • ‘You are not a writer.’

The list goes on, endlessly.

I have two strands of attack for my inner critic.

  1. Overpower it.  Timed writing exercises are great for this.   The need to complete a task within a set period means my focus is all on what I am writing.   Try the free-writing exercise I’ve set below.
  2. Aristotle.  Yes, I am talking about a theory that was written in 335 BCE.  Think about it.  Aristotle claimed that there were 7 basic plots, and most of us still agree with him.  So, all those years, those hundreds and thousands of stories told and written, have all been reworking the same seven ideas.  If it was good enough for Chaucer, Shakespeare, Boccaccio and the hundreds of other storytellers to do that, who am I to think I can produce plot number 8?  Of course, that won’t stop me trying, but there’s another story.

Free-writing – The rules are strict on this.  If you break them, it doesn’t work.


A timer – mechanical or digital, or a friend with a watch.

paper & pen/pencil,

or wordprocessor.


  • We’re starting off gently.  Your aim is to write for two minutes without stopping.
  • Once the timer is set the writer must start writing and not stop until the two minutes are up.
  • You must not pause once you have begun – ignore grammer, spelling and punctation mistakes.
  • This is not about creating a plot, with a beginning, middle and end, it is about freeing up your access to the creative areas of your mind.  Don’t inhibit or restrict yourself, let words form on the screen or paper without thought.
  • If you get stuck don’t stop, write, ‘I’m stuck I’m stuck I’m stuck…’ You will soon find you are writing something else.
  • Do not think about where you are going with this peice of writing, you must not be following a plan. Copy the words and then continue writing without stopping until the timer stops you.
  • When you are ready to begin, write:  ‘She would always…’

If you try this, why not post your result below.