Recently a writer friend mentioned how much she depends on freewriting to get her writing process out of the gate each day. This is a sentiment I’ve heard often over the more than three decades I’ve been involved with writing classes and writing conferences etc. At times it seems that every good writer I meet declares their devotion to either freewriting or journal writing (which to me are similar in that they both involve writing that is not intended for public consumption). All of which is very disturbing to me because I’ve never been able to do either.
One of my faculty friends from the now extinct UAA low residence MFA program is Edward Allen, a writer with credentials that are both inspiring and intimidating. He has published fiction in the biggest, toniest magazines in the country, has won major contests, has had a story in the Best American Short Story Award anthology. The guy is a hugely respected short story writer. Which, I have to admit, is almost an oxymoron. It’s like saying someone is the most popular hermit in the world. In any case he’s a long-time teacher of fiction who makes all his graduate writing students do pages and pages of freewriting. I can’t understand it.
Why do I resist this exercise that by all accounts helps thousands of people in the process of writing?
Maybe it’s because I worked for forty years as a small contractor, and I got paid by the job or by the square foot, meaning for some quantifiable finished product. As a result, I’m a product person. I have no interest in process. Not mine anyway. When I sit down to write I can’t bring myself to scrawl gibberish that no-one will see. I want every sentence I write to be at the very least a possible candidate for something a stranger would want to read. I write each page with the hope that there is someone out there who will be interested in it someday.
Of course, very little of what I write each day survives subsequent cuts and revisions before I send it out to those hoped-for readers. In the past few weeks, I had a great burst of writing energy and added two new point-of-view characters and chapters to a novel I’m working on. The new material totaled more than 7,000 additional words added to the manuscript. And when I got done, I looked at the word count of the novel and found that it had increased by fewer than two thousand words because every day as I added new material I also cut out suddenly unwanted verbiage already in the manuscript. As you can see, this is a terrible way to write.
Or maybe I can’t forget the possibility of outside eyeballs landing on my writing because when I was a kid, whenever I or one of my numerous brothers or sisters stuck out our tongue or made other horrible faces at each other, my mother would admonish us, saying, “What if your face freezes like that? It will be the way people see you forever!” I think I sort of believed her. Maybe I fear that a piece of gibberish will somehow end up out there in the world with my name on it. Maybe that’s what blogs like this are for? Hmm.
I’m fully aware of the benefits of freewriting touted by practitioners. Proponents claim it takes the risk out. You know that nobody will ever see those pages, and nobody will complain or criticize them. That will loosen you up and reduce your inhibitions. Well, if I get any looser, I’ll come apart like a badly assembled Ikea bookshelf. And if I had any fewer inhibitions I’d be in jail by now. As it is, I have almost no filter between my brain and my mouth. I remember the wonderful poet Li-young Lee speaking at the Kachemak Bay Writers Conference some years ago, fielding a question from the audience. He paused and said, “I’ll have to give that question some thought before I answer.”
I thought to myself, “Wow, what an idea! Thinking before you talk! I gotta try that someday.”
It hasn’t happened yet.
Rich Chiappone’s next collection of short stories, Uncommon Weather, will be published by the University of Alaska Press Literary Series this summer (2024).