Alvaro Cardona-Hine (1926-2016), a beautiful poet and visual artist, came to my classroom as a visiting writer through COMPAS: Writers-in-the-School. He spent a week working with my ninth-grade students and encouraging them to write from their hearts. When I signed up for this program, I had no idea how much I too would benefit from knowing him and from being encouraged to write along with my students.
That was the first time I heard the term “freewriting,” a stream-of-consciousness writing in which we were told to write whatever came into our minds for the next 3 minutes. Don’t stop. Don’t lift the pencil from the paper. Simply write the words as they appear in your mind. He first asked the students for three nouns, completely unrelated, wrote them on the board, told them to choose the first word as the starting point. “When you run out of things to say about (purple), move to the second word, and so on. Trust your mind to supply the words. You cannot do this wrong.”
This was a shock to my system. Write without thinking? Impossible!
Try it, he encouraged. Trust me.
And so we did. Three minutes could be an eternity, or the blink of an eye. Students who never ever wanted to write anything found words filling their papers. I found my thoughts drifting, often silly, always unaware of “meaning,” simply having fun putting words onto the paper.
The “trick,” of course, was starting. “I can’t think of anything to write!” Such a common complaint from children and adults. But with this technique, the first word was given (the first noun). By the time you wrote that first word onto the paper, more were ready to flow from the pencil or pen, sometimes hesitantly, but there. Once words were on the page, a topic, a memory, an emotion almost always leapt out at some point. If you were truly stuck, write “I am thinking. Repeat. Your brain will not like this for very long and will come up with something else. Trust me.”
I remember telling myself to relax. No one would criticize my efforts. Just open the gate and let words spill out. The surprise came later when unexpected lines or connections popped out. If nothing momentous showed up, that was fine too. The act of writing words on the paper, the physical act of moving the pen across the paper was exhilarating.
Today I have given myself an assignment: Free-write about certain elements for book 3. My starting points include:
1) Oelsa, the protagonist. Who is she at the beginning of this book? How might she change? (She has to change, doesn’t she?) What kinds of problems will she face in this third adventure?
2) Anvyartach, the really evil antagonist. Who will he find to do his evil work? In what ways has he changed since the second book? (spoiler alert: Something really bad happens to him near the end of Book 2, The Key of Idelisia: The Power Awakens.)
3) Theme: What is the overriding message I want to emerge in this final book of the trilogy?
4) Characters – returning ones? New ones?
5) What are the elements I love in other middle grade fantasy novels? How might I incorporate them?
All that is needed for free-writing is paper, pen (or pencil), trust, and a bit of courage. I have procrastinated, however. What if this time no words are there? What if I have nothing to say, no story line to pursue, no clear notion for any character or turn of events?!! EEK! What if I fail??? (refer to paragraph #2, Sharon).
Note: I realize that the act of writing isn’t always with a pen and paper. In fact, I write almost all of the drafts for my novels by keyboarding. This is in part because I can type quickly and keep up with my thoughts.
I do write with pen and paper, however, every morning. These are “morning pages” as suggested by Julia Cameron (The Artist’s Way). In these scribbled notes, I write whatever comes into my thoughts, whatever worries are still there, dream images that amuse or frighten or puzzle me, lists, today’s “To Do” lists, problems I haven’t resolved, people I miss, funny observations, things I know are true at the moment, and so on. Story elements and problems sometimes appear in these sessions.
In fact, some might call these “morning pages” freewriting. I have no plan. I write the first thing that comes to my mind, and go from there.
Why morning pages are so useful and fun and rejuvenating is undoubtedly connected to the freewriting technique. Moving a pen (pencil) across a piece of paper, the physical movement and sensation of holding the pen and allowing the thread of thought to move down your arm from your brain and into your fingers and then pop onto paper—all of this is a physical connection between the muscles and nerves of my fingers and those in my brain.
You could also call this Magic.