Photo Credit: Jennie Anne Benigas



March 2011

"The temptation in language in its easy flow, as well as its inadequacies, is understood by many writers."

Vera John-Steiner, Notebooks of the Mind: Explorations of Thinking.

Inspiration Is a Daily Freewrite

Dear Reader,

In her book on creative thought, Vera John-Steiner uses a quotation from Metamorphosis by Ernest Schactel. While I admire what Schactel said about the conflict described above, his sexist language, albeit understandable in 1959, is really distracting to me. So, I will insert the awkward, but necessary, "his/her" or "her/his" in order to acknowledge the fact that, yes, indeed, we women are writers, too.


At every step a word beckons, it seems so convenient, so suitable, one has heard it or read it so often in a similar context, it sounds so well. If he/she [the writer] follows the temptation of this word, she/he will perhaps describe something that many people recognize at once, that they already know, that follows a familiar pattern; but he/she will have missed the nuance that distinguishes her/his experience from others, that makes it his/her own.


It is the "easy flow" of writing that we chase after, especially in early drafts. This happens when ideas can pour out of your brain, unedited and free. You can use the act of pushing pen across paper to find out what it is you are trying to say in a way that no one else can say it.

One tool made for the chase is freewriting. It is a strategy first introduced to me in the 1970's by Peter Elbow in Writing Without Teachers. It was an important book for me because it demystified the process of writing. Most writers I know credit their mentors, and this book unlocked a world for me. Another was Donald M. Murray's A Writer Teaches Writing.

Freewriting materials are few: pen, paper, a clock. Rules: write quickly, without stopping, for about 5 minutes. Without stopping means just that: if you can't think of the next word, keep writing your last word again and again until you get unstuck. Don't pause to read what you have written, do not edit (cross out/correct). Just keep going for 5 minutes. You should end up with about a page of writing.

If you sit down and begin to write with no plan or word in mind, it's called an unfocused freewrite; if you begin with an image or an idea, it's called a focused freewrite.

For the month of March, I offer you an image a day to begin each of thirty-one focused freewrite pages.

1. A sharpened pencil
2. Narrow streets teeming with children
3. Tree trunk etched with shadows from its branches
4. The word crepuscular
5. Too many workers
6. Crushed paper on the countertop
7. A palm tree out of place
8. A drift of snow detests the shovel
9. Three quiet smokestacks
10. From under a five inch slab of ice, sunlight
11. A red, black, white papier mâché doll
12. The library's floor, covered with books
13. Out of the corner of my eye, a sweeping motion
14. Scowl of a waitress
15. Rust on the edge of a shovel
16. This is the month of minutes added to daylight
17. A surprise of pink tags tied to branches of doomed, infested trees
18. I remember a booming voice
19. The fringe of a Persian rug
20. The layer of boredom in the technician's voice
21. Noticing all things red between the hours of 8 and 9 a.m.
22. The disguises of a fork
23. Two hundred stumps painted pastel
24. Look at a paragraph and see a list
25. A freshly scoured sink
26. The head of a nail gleaming in the light
27. An empty birdcage
28. Three broken shopping carts
29. Attending a lecture by a local mystic
30. One fine day, lacking triteness
31. Volcanic ash covers my bicycle

On April 1st, your thirty-one pages will hold nuggets of language, all taken from the stream of your mind. Plan to take uninterrupted time to read them. You should hear your distinct voice, the "you on paper" that cannot be mistaken for anyone else. What do you notice? Pan for the gold.