What’s the worst that could happen if you just wrote?
“Take out another notebook, pick up another pen, and just write, just write, just write. In the middle of the world, make one positive step. In the center of chaos, make one definitive act. Just write. Say yes, stay alive, be awake. Just write. Just write. Just write.” – Natalie Goldberg
In my long-ago school days, when teachers handed out sharp pencils and told us to write 250-word themes in class about our summer vacations, there would be long moments of quiet broken up by tap tap tap tap tap tap from around the room. As the class period went on, each burst of tapping grew longer until one student after another finally counted the number of words on his or her page up to 250 and turned in the result.
Inadvertently, the teacher was showing her students how not to be a writer under the guise of inspiring them to be writers. We weren’t concentrating on making our summer vacations live on the page. We were counting words, counting them in much the same way prisoners mark days off a calendar until they’re released from jail. When they come out—if they’re smart—the ex-cons avoid more jail time with the same diligence most students from high school composition classes avoid writing and reading for the rest of their lives.
But Suppose You Have a Story to Tell: What’s the Worst That Could Happen if You Just Wrote?
In a college writing class, I once taped a pencil to the blackboard and told my class that today’s writing assignment was to tell me a story about the pencil until they were done telling it and then leave the room. Once the students realized the assignment had no rules, no word counts, and could go any which way they desired, they began typing on their electric typewriters more or less without stopping. Some of those who thought they’d write for ten minutes and then get the hell out of there, ended up writing for an hour or more.
Later, when I read them the results, they were amazed at the gut-wrenching humor, the pathos, the celestial prose some pencils used in conversation, and the heavy-duty fun that came out of the work. How could all of that have possibly happened when it went against the grain of every writing class they’d suffered through before?
The answer: free writing. That means, writing without stopping to think or look back or correct anything or ponder what’s going to happen next. The subject is: anything. The expectations: none. What’s the worst that could happen if you just wrote and . . .
- didn’t worry about what you wanted to say
- didn’t keep looking at your word count
- forced yourself NOT to write an outline
- stopped thinking about it
- turned off the spelling and grammar checkers
- told your inner editor to shut up
Perhaps you write about the weather, last week’s party, a food fight in an upscale restaurant, having sex in a random car in a random parking lot, or a stick on the ground.
It’s time to let loose and not think about what your parents, your minister, your writing teacher, your critique group, the author of a writing textbook or innocent readers may or may not say. Nobody has to see it.
Is it all chaff the first time out. Perhaps, but probably not. If so, who cares? Next time, there will be more wheat and less chaff. Sooner or later, you’ll find more stuff you want to keep. Maybe a novel will come out of it or a good short story. Then you can clean it all up.
If you do this often, you’ll get the good words down on the page and will never again fear the blank page or the empty screen.
For More Information (from the publishers):
Writing Without Teachers: “The core of Elbow’s thinking is a challenge against traditional writing methods. Instead of editing and outlining material in the initial steps of the writing process, Elbow celebrates non-stop or free uncensored writing, without editorial checkpoints first, followed much later by the editorial process. This approach turns the focus towards encouraging ways of developing confidence and inspiration through free writing, multiple drafts, diaries, and notes. Elbow guides the reader through his metaphor of writing as ‘cooking:’ his term for heating up the creative process where the subconscious bubbles up to the surface and the writing gets good.”
Writing Down the Bones: “With insight, humor, and practicality, Natalie Goldberg inspires writers and would-be writers to take the leap into writing skillfully and creatively. She offers suggestions, encouragement, and solid advice on many aspects of the writer’s craft: on writing from “first thoughts” (keep your hand moving, don’t cross out, just get it on paper), on listening (writing is ninety percent listening; the deeper you listen, the better you write), on using verbs (verbs provide the energy of the sentence), on overcoming doubts (doubt is torture; don’t listen to it)—even on choosing a restaurant in which to write. Goldberg sees writing as a practice that helps writers comprehend the value of their lives. The advice in her book, provided in short, easy-to-read chapters with titles that reflect the author’s witty approach (“Writing Is Not a McDonald’s Hamburger,” “Man Eats Car,” “Be an Animal”), will inspire anyone who writes—or who longs to.”
Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of paranormal short stories and contemporary fantasy novels.