In high school, I was taught to write using the following method: 1) determine your topic and the main points you want to make, 2) outline the steps needed to make those points, 3) research the subject so you can prove those points, 4) flesh out the outline, and 5) revise and edit as needed.

Although most of the time this method worked for school papers, it always came at a cost. I was riddled with anxiety. Choosing the topic out of thin air or a class discussion was near-paralyzing. Outlining was painful because I didn’t know much about the topic. Research was a one-sided, self-fulfilling prophesy because it supported pre-conceived ideas — or, catastrophically, refuted them. Fleshing out of the outline was largely mechanical and anything but creative.

I wonder how many of you can relate to this subtle form of torture.

This method got me through high school and much of college, but once I started to write in the “real world,” it didn’t serve me well. As a reporter and creative writer, I generally didn’t know what the real subject was until I was halfway through the piece. More often than not, my preconceived ideas were either wrong (reporting) or unworkable (fiction). Outlining was like trying to build a sand castle at the edge of the incoming tide.

As I struggled to write my articles and stories, I found myself constantly revising and reorganizing, frantically struggling to make the incoherent cohere. I felt doomed to failure before I’d fully begun.

The techniques I’d learned were the “correct” way to write, so why weren’t they working? The fault, I figured, must be mine. Until, in 1974, I stumbled on Peter Elbow’s recently published book Writing Without Teachers.

This book couldn’t have crossed my path at a better time. No longer did I have to struggle to write something in my head before my fingers touched the typewriter. Freewriting gave me permission to write the way I actually thought — more fluidly, learning and clarifying as I explored.

In this short, brilliant book, Elbow demonstrates how to use freewriting to empty your mind of garbage, find the kernel of a writing project and nurture it, and thereby overcome writing blocks.

Elbow’s biggest innovation was to use freewriting to separate the generative part of writing from the analytical. In Elbow’s world (which soon became mine), you set pen to paper or fingers to keys and just start writing, without editing or even pausing. Then, after ten or fifteen minutes, you stop and look over what you’ve done.

If it all seems like junk, great! You’ve emptied the trash in your head and cleared your mind. If there are sentences that interest or surprise you, also great! These become the kernels of whatever you’re trying to create.

For eight years, several of us began our biweekly writing group sessions with a freewrite, usually in response to a prompt one of us had chosen or invented. The prompt could be a random sentence drawn from a novel or a poem, or an exercise like “Use only one-syllable words”  or “Write a one-paragraph autobiography.” Occasionally we began with no prompt at all — just started writing and kept at it, pen in constant motion, until the ten or fifteen minutes allotted to the freewrite ended. We did not edit; we just wrote.

When we were finished, we’d read our freewrites to each other, with no comment and no judgement. Our motto was “Freewriting is never having to say you’re sorry.”

Although at first many of our freewrites were disconnected collections of thoughts and phrases, fairly quickly we all developed a “freewrite mode” that often enabled us to produce short, coherent pieces in less than fifteen minutes. Mine were usually the beginning of what could have become a short story or novel.

Here, unedited, is one I wrote in response to the prompt “The world was an ugly place.”

The world is an ugly place when you woke up with a hangover. No surprises there. The surprise was that I knew I hadn’t a drink since the accident, a decade or more. But the sensation was identical, unmistakable: the pounding head, the tangled gut, the blaring lights and sounds of ordinary existence magnified a couple hundred times over. I tried to remember where I’d spent the night, but I drew a blank. No surprises there, either. I’d been on benders before. I knew what that was about. But the difference between then and now was the drink, and I swore on my mother’s grave (God rest her soul) that I hadn’t had even one.

I picked my head up off the desk. It was my desk, all right, an old oak roll-top desk I’d like to say had been handed down from my father, and his father before him, but actually I’d lifted it from the rubble of the historical museum when they tore it down to make room for the new media center. The veneer on the sides was peeling and there was a crack in the roll-top, but that never bothered me any.

I checked my face, prodding and pinching. A day’s growth, like a cat’s tongue against my fingers, but no obvious injuries. Then I hadn’t been in a fight. I checked the desk drawer for my gun, a black police special, .38, and that one was like the one my dad had used before they kicked him off the Force. I checked the chambers. There were three bullets missing and, from the scent of the barrel, they hadn’t been missing long.

I’ve always liked a mystery. I have ever since I was a kid, poking around in my parents’ bedroom trying to figure out what it was all about. I liked the rush of finding a piece of the puzzle, and another, and another, just letting them all hang there in my mind like laundry on a rope, the thrill of putting all those pieces together and knowing, from them, where to find the rest. But until this morning those had all been other peoples’ mysteries, other peoples’ puzzles. This one was different. This one was personal.

I cracked the blinds and a blast of sunlight like a laser hit me square between the eyeballs and knocked me flat. The hangover that I shouldn’t have had? No, I’d been scanned, and the scan had not exactly been friendly. I crept up to the window on my hands and knees and cracked the blinds again. Another blast, this one caught me on the cheek. I had to get out of there. Whatever had happened last night, whatever had given me the hangover, was still out there, and it was pissed.

I practice what I preach: I’ve used freewriting to jumpstart my writing for nearly fifty years, and I still use it today.

Check out Elbow’s book. Or just give freewriting a try.

It could change your creative life.

More soon,

Copyright 2022, David J. Bookbinder

Street People: Invisible New York Made Visible
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