Last semester, I surprised my creative writing class with a simple but profound assignment. Forget about the usual high standards for submissions. No need to labor over their words. Instead, just write for 10 minutes a day.
I didn’t care about their topics, punctuation or logical sequencing of ideas. In fact, I didn’t want to see their homework at all. But over the next few weeks, they surprised me to the point where I write 10 minutes every day too.
Along the way, I’ve learned to lighten up, be more fun, have more fun. Here’s what happened…
Even though I never saw a word of their 10-minute exercises, the benefits showed. Everyone improved tremendously — and yes, I do mean every student. They functioned at a writing level more developed than I had ever witnessed at that particular stage of the course.
Another unexpected bonus: My students seemed to be finding resolution or at least deeper understanding of their personal issues. These writers began submitting kick-ass reflections about complicated relationships. From reflecting on difficult dads and diva moms to romances gone bad, they wrote in compelling ways that thrilled me.
Their writing voices also began transforming. Several of them unearthed a hidden gift for sharp humor in describing their most painful moments. Most said they wanted to continue free writing as a daily practice. Now, we’re all doing it!
How free writing works
Free writing has been around for decades. Even though I’ve known about it for years, I only got interested after self-publishing guru Joel Friedlander blogged about how this type of writing saved his life.
There’s plenty of stuff out there about this technique for writing raw, honest and fast. Here’s my summary of how it works:
- Free writing liberates us from the trap of overthinking. Even non-writers can use it to clear writer’s block, develop creatively and spark new ideas.
- Perfectionists, take note. The freedom to write crap banishes performance pressure. It frees me from doing my best, giving my all, writing to win — and other toxic, paralyzing clichés.
- The free writing process is flexible. Some people tap into it once in a while. But for me, it’s as essential to my daily morning routine as brushing teeth and putting on contact lenses.
- Writing for only 10 minutes sets parameters. I set the timer on my iPhone, which eliminates the distraction of watching the clock. I stop writing once the alarm rings. Done.
- What I write is unimportant. It’s the practice that counts. So if I’m feeling blank, I might type, “i don’t know what the %&$! to write about this sucks. why am i doing thiss.” Or, I might look around the room and describe an object. The pure act of writing usually triggers other random thoughts.
- I can’t stand to re-read my free writing. But when I come up with an occasional appealing phrase, sentence or idea, I copy and paste it for future reference. Will I ever look at it again? Who knows? Who cares? Whatever!
Write free to solve problems & improve relationships
Even though I see a shrink and find group support at places like Weight Watchers, free writing offers a different kind of healing. Those daily 10 minutes of alone-time create a meditation. By talking to myself without anyone watching or responding, I stretch and declutter internally.
For instance, yesterday’s free writing brought an awareness of posture. I tend to hunch over, shrimp-backed, abs slack, zero core involvement. For the rest of the day until now, I catch myself slumping and straighten up. I need to sit and stand tall, both literally and spiritually. Amen, girl!
This morning, I woke up cranky. I started off by complaining about my life. Profanity pounded through paragraph after paragraph — until the fury dissolved. And then, clouds parted to reveal the true reason for my rage. I felt ashamed of of my own imperfections, my own inability to complete a to-do list of personal projects. By the time the 10-minute alarm sounded, I had flushed through the frustration. And I was beautiful.
Why am I so hard on myself? Hmmm. In the old days, I’d blame my parents. But free writing has helped me to appreciate them. I’ve also gotten more relaxed around my loved ones. At least in my own mind, I’m less demanding and bossy. :)
Free writing allows me to catch the harsh voice and soothe the hurt, neglected inner child who wants to screw up my life as a way to get attention. I can pinpoint destructive thinking because I see it take the form of cruel words towards myself and others. Articulation leads to liberation.
What if I’d known how to free write when I worked for a horrible boss who shall remain nameless?
Best of all, I feel like life is moving forward in ways that feel good. I’m having more fun too. That’s the key to the process — getting to a place where life is much more fun.
How about you? Have you tried free writing or have thoughts about the writing and problem-solving process?
P.S. — If you’d like to take a creative writing or creative non-fiction writing class with me, I’m teaching online at The New School. Here’s the link to my profile and course listings: Betty Ming Liu at The New School.