A Practice For Making Your Writing Come Alive

Would you like a practice that would help make your writing come alive?  Whether you are working on a novel, a short story, a memoir, poem or a non-fiction piece, free writing can help you loosen your stiff writing muscles and allow your writing to shine.

Free writing was first introduced in the 1930’s by Brenda Ueland and Dorothea Brande.  Over the last thirty years it has been recommended by several writing teachers including Julia Cameron, Pat Schneider and Natalie Goldberg. You’ve probably read Natalie’s classic Writing Down the Bones – Freeing the Writer Within in which she talks about the practice in detail.

Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to experience free writing in many settings.  Currently I’m enrolled in a ten week poetry writing course with Barry DempsterOccasionally Barry will invite us to free write in class. Many of my classmates and I fight a tendency to overwork our poems at home, but when we respond to a prompt in class, we have only a short period of time to write, and the assurance from Barry that this “doesn’t have to be good”.

Boat on the wavesBefore we start, it’s as though we are small vessels moored by thick ropes to an old wooden dock.  But as we free write, we leave the safety of the harbour and venture out on the vast ocean.  We feel the swell of the waves, and the unpredictability of the weather.  The depths of the ocean are readily available to us, and while we don’t know exactly where we are going, we trust that our inner compass does – and we write it all down.

The work that results from our free writing often surprises us with startling metaphors, exquisite sensory details and delicious unexpected twists. For me, I know it’s very different from the work I write at home when I sit down and try very hard to sound poetic.

Getting Started

  •  grab a notebook.  You may want to dedicate one strictly to your free writing
  • you’ll  also need a pen that writes smoothly, a timer and a selection of prompts (see ideas below).

 Tips for Free Writing

  •  choose a prompt, but don’t feel constrained by it.  Use it as a springboard and see where your imagination takes you
  • set your timer,  5 – 10 minutes is best when you’re new to the practice
  • start writing, and don’t worry about grammar, spelling or punctuation
  • keep your pen moving.  The critic has a hard time keeping up with a moving pen
  • don’t go back and make revisions while you’re writing
  • write until you hear the sound of the timer

What should I do with my free writing?

  •  some people never do anything with it.  They think of their writing practice as an athlete thinks of calisthenics – both build muscle
  • you may choose to put your free writing aside for a while, then come back to it with a coloured marker in hand. You can highlight juicy metaphors, words or phrases that have energy, segments that contain the seed of a story or poem, or the start of a future piece of memoir

Where can I find prompts?

  1. Start an inspiration treasure chest.  Find an attractive container to house your inspiration.   tea or cookie tins work well. Keep supply of scrap paper strips nearby and begin to collect your ideas. Write down a poignant phrase or sentence from a novel you’re reading, or a beautiful image from a poem.  Clip intriguing headlines from the newspaper. Drop in an old grocery list or ticket stubs, or small found objects from your walk – acorns, pebbles, a dried flower.  Keep adding to the treasure chest.  When you are ready to write, lift the lid and pull out your prompt.
  2.  Use old family photographs.  Dig out old family albums – the ones you haven’t revisited in years.  Select one photo and study it before you begin to write.  Look at the photo with new eyes.  You may want to ask yourself  “Why does Aunt Em have that faraway look in her eyes?” You may think “Great Uncle Bill looks so handsome in his uniform.  Look at that smile.  He didn’t know he’d never return.  What was he thinking that day?” If you don’t have your own vintage family photos, you can often “adopt” ancestors in the form of photos for sale at auctions and in antique shops.
  3.  A basket of small objects. Choose one of your favourite baskets and fill it with small everyday objects that will spark your imagination such as an empty perfume bottle, a child’s toy car, a cookie cutter, a wood carving.  When you’re ready to write, close your eyes, and select an object from the basket.
  4.  You can have a prompt sent to your email box every day.  The writer Sarah Selecky offers this service for free. You can sign up on her website.
  5.  Flickr.  This photo-sharing website site provides an array of images to choose from.  You can select the type of image you want by putting key words in the search box.  Here are some categories to get you started:  vintage photos, landscapes, cities, markets, abstract or impressionist art.

Spend five to ten minutes a day free writing, navigating your own deep waters, guided by your inner compass.  Soon you’ll be bringing  the sense of magic you experience, to your other writing.  Bon voyage!

Janis McCallen

BONUS – here’s a photo prompt to get you started.  Fee free to share the results of your writing in our comments box.  


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