The Peculiar Discipline of Free Writing

Last week I had the pleasure of attending a workshop hosted by the folks over at Mass Poetry as a reward for supporting their Poetry on the T campaign.  (and I happened across some of said poetry just this week on the Red Line, which made me extra happy!)  The workshop was appealingly titled “Super Writing Fun Time” and was led by Jill McDonough.

I’ve been working on several projects recently (which is why I haven’t posted as much this month, oops!) and those projects have had me thinking a lot about editing, both prose and poetry.  One of the hardest things to do is look at a piece of writing and say, “You know, there’s really only one good line in that whole passel of words.”


Sometimes, though, it’s worth just hanging on to that one good line and rebuilding around it, and that was made abundantly clear in McDonough’s workshop.

Cape Cod National Seashore, National Park Service (public domain)

Cape Cod National Seashore, National Park Service (public domain)

In a series of word-spilling sprints, she urged us to write about one particular summer day, read our result aloud, and then run on again from whichever phrase she highlighted as the most interesting part of our rushed verbiage.  After several iterations, we had to look back through everything we’d written and give ourselves an assignment to create a more thoughtful poem draft using themes or language we’d found in our earlier efforts.  Where we were stuck, she offered help by way of a format or a title or a direction, and then came around to ‘mess with’ our work if we indicated we wanted help/critique.   I ended up writing and rewriting a Shakespearean sonnet in about 25 minutes, and it was an enormously confidence-boosting evening.

A passel of words thanks to McDonough's workshop!

A passel of words thanks to McDonough’s workshop!

So why was it so effective?  Beyond McDonough’s humor and generous handfuls of Hershey’s kisses, she created a judgement-free zone.  Spilling all those words on the page in the beginning, without worrying about quality or phrasing overmuch meant it was easier to let those words go in favor of the best ones–and it’s a device I think I’ll adopt in future.  I’ve never been much of a ‘drafter’ by personal preference: I like spending the time and thought to feel like I’ve got it ‘right’ the first time around, but what works in an essay or a professional memo is really not conducive to the creative process, which is almost by definition iterative.  And carrying that mindset over from the workshop has been helping me edit the rest of my writing, as well.

If you’d like to find out more about McDonough’s process in her own words, I recommend this article: “Primary Sources” hosted over on the Poetry Foundation website.  Between that evening and this article, I’ve spent not a little time recently seriously entertaining the idea of going back to grad school, and then smacking myself on the back of the head, a little.  (Is there an Academia Anonymous?  ‘It’s been two years since my last graduation…’)

2 thoughts on “The Peculiar Discipline of Free Writing

  1. You had me at handful of Hershey kisses 😉

    I have written the same way as you describe, calculating the “right” way to phrase a story the first time around. I suppose it’s my day job as an engineer that does it to me. I have found my long lost creative side over the past year of writing. And with it, I have discovered (or should I say stumbled upon) some wonderful nuggets of wisdom. One of those, as you might expect, is the process of free-writing. Well, sort of.

    I have tried true free writing by letting my mind wander, random and sometimes incoherent thoughts spilling on to the page. That didn’t work out for me so well. What did (and is) working for me is starting from a single word, or sentence, and letting my free-writing take flight from there. A little nudge from my sarcastic muse and I am off and running. It allows you to discover and play with so many different ideas. And the thought you provide about stripping out the fluff after this session and using the one good thought as a basis to expand further is a wonderful idea.

    Peculiar is a very good word to describe this practice, but it is so liberating to give yourself permission to explore uncharted lands within the safety of your own psyche. Wonderful post, thanks for sharing and best wishes for an inspired day!


  2. Hi Dave, thanks for pitching in to the conversation! It definitely does take a strange kind of control to let yourself (make yourself?) not care so much about what gets on the page in what order, but it seems to be great practice, at least some of the time. Hope your day is inspired/inspiring as well!


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