Rethinking Freewriting in the Age of COVID
August 18, 2020 § 16 Comments
By Christina Larocco
For years I’ve adhered to the Julia Cameron/Natalie Goldberg school of freewriting: at least thirty minutes, longhand, anything that comes into my mind, as soon as I wake up. This method has been tremendously fruitful for me in the past, especially when I’ve been blocked or don’t know how to fix an essay or chapter. When I let my mind wander for long enough, I uncover connections that I did not know were there or memories that had fallen out of my conscious mind. This kind of freewriting was a reliable first step in my writing process. From a parade of brightly colored Leuchtturm notebooks, I transcribed raw passages into Word. Many of these passages became the basis for published essays.
Lately, though, this method hasn’t been working for me. In part this is my fault: I’ve been furloughed from work for the past several months, and without a reason to wake up I’ve fallen into an ever-worsening cycle of staying up until 3 or 4 a.m. worrying about the world, sleeping until noon, and then napping again in the afternoon just to get out of my own head. The pandemic has exacerbated my depression-induced bad habits. I’m sure I’m not alone in this. As a consequence, though, mornings are out until I figure out how to break this cycle.
At the same time, and relatedly, I find when I sit down to free write that my mind is just…empty. “Blerg blerg blerg blerg blerg,” I write over and over again, “nothing to say, nothing to say, nothing to say.” The world is chaotic, but my life has shrunk to the size of board games, Skype, and (worst of all) my own brain. With nothing coming in, I’ve been unable to put anything out.
Certainly no one has to write during this time if they find they cannot or simply don’t want to. For those who do, I’ve found a way of generating material that has been working for me. In The Writer’s Process, Anne Janzer lays out her seven-step writing process. In her chapter on research, she describes the importance of “inner research” or “writing for discovery”: once the writer has assembled, compiled, and read over their research for a particular section, they put the notes aside to discover their own thoughts on the subject. I’m trained as an academic, so it’s especially important for me to step away from my formal research. Gathering information is easy for me, but my writing will not be interesting or creative unless I take the time to figure out what an event, memory, or theme in my own or someone else’s life really means.
To embark on this inner research, I follow Janzer’s instructions: I open up a blank Word document, save it as “random thoughts on [blank],” set a timer for thirty minutes, and brainstorm bullet points until the time is up. Rather than aimlessly jotting down anything and everything that pops into my head, which worked for my pre-COVID self, I focus my attention on one particular topic for the entire writing session (keeping in mind that if my thoughts head in unexpected directions, all the better). I even started this piece with a document titled “random thoughts on freewriting,” but I didn’t consciously understand how the waning efficacy of my previous practice was connected to quarantine until I sat down to write about it. The process of discovery still takes place through freewriting, but freewriting about something.
For the past several months, I’ve been trying to complete my book manuscript, a biography-in-essays of the White abolitionist and feminist Martha Schofield. Born and raised outside of Philadelphia, she spent over half a century teaching freed people in South Carolina, witnessing the racial violence of the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras. This was the part of her life I was trying to tackle when protests and violent reprisals broke out across the country. It was impossible to ignore the resonance: I was a White woman trying to confront the reality of racial terrorism, in part by writing about another White woman who did the same. Was my brain, already frazzled by months of quarantine, up to the task? It certainly wouldn’t have been without this new strategy.
As I began to experiment with Janzer’s method, I first tried to address some of these big questions. What is witnessing? What is Whiteness? What is history? But I was unhappy and unfocused in these writing sessions, spinning my wheels in search of interesting thoughts. I’ve had more success in responding to something concrete—a book, a film, a specific event—anything that provides the “something coming in” that the stimulation of the outside world normally would. When I turned to more specific stimuli—Citizen, I am Not Your Negro, an interview with Tomika Miller—I found that I was able to contend with these big questions more naturally—and more interestingly. Ultimately, I came to understand White people’s resistance to seeing themselves as part of history in a way that I do not think I would have without Janzer’s method.
I haven’t yet fully integrated these new observations into the manuscript, but I’m excited to see where my now slightly less random thoughts lead. If you are also struggling with creativity and generativity in this time, try tackling one small, concrete slice of your project this way. It might just help unblock you, and remind you that your brain is a pretty interesting place to be after all.
Christina Larocco is a writer and historian based in Philadelphia, where she is editor-in-chief of a scholarly journal. She is at work on two books: The Women’s Rights Movement since 1945, forthcoming from ABC-CLIO, and a hybrid memoir/biography about Martha Schofield. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in Feminine Collective, Avidly, Hotel Amerika, and elsewhere.
You remind me. In school, the history we were taught was appalling in its narrow focus and the inclusion of women and people of color, in history and literature, was limited to the mere existence of slavery and Anne Frank. I worked to correct the flaws in my education with my own reading and throughout college read almost exclusively and deliberately for a broadened perspective. When I became a teacher of English in a public high school, I tried to pass that earned awareness along to my students.
Your approach appears powerful and effective and worth emulating. Thank you so much for your strategy to expand understanding of identity and perspective, and the uses of freewriting.
I find inspiration and much-needed optimism in this line, “It might just help unblock you, and remind you that your brain is a pretty interesting place to be after all.” You are writing about huge topics here, and your advice about how to keep going is practical and down to earth. Thank you!!!
Just what I needed today! I’ve just begun casting about for new topics and feeling anxious about it. Glad for a different process to consider.
Maybe it’s because I have more time during the pandemic, maybe it’s because I have more thoughts, maybe it’s because I write to get my thinking straight…but I have been writing more than ever during these past five months. I’ve filled five journals and gone back and made notes on the pages I’ve already filled. I realized, with my current journal, that I must leave lots of blank pages for this rethinking, adding to, additional words.
I am going to try this approach on some pieces I’ve gotten stuck in. Thank you.
I am also an academic writer trying to find connections with my subject of study. I appreciate the ideas that you set out here. A more directed form of freewriting just might allow me to think more deeply about my topic and find a way to make those same personal connections you too seek.
This is so helpful. I have been searching for alternatives to the right-now- for-me-too-open-ended free writing. I will try it today!
I’m glad that you’re finding the approach helpful, Christina. I think that COVID has made us all more scattered. Thanks for sharing this.
How neat to hear from you, Anne! Thanks much for TWP. It’s one of the best craft books out there.
I’ve been using a similar process and also finding it works for me. Now I’m anxious to read Anne Janzer’s book. Thanks for the recommendation!
Thank you for sharing your process! So much of what worked before pandemic life simply doesn’t now.
I must point out that in Natalie’s books after Bones, and in her intensive workshops, she teaches a process similar to what you’re describing. She suggests writing aimlessly until you figure out your obsessions and ultimately where you’re going which might include researching a topic.
Natalie prescribes reading like a writer (or researching like an academic) to absorb information and carry it in your belly (mind or heart) until you know what YOU think (feel) about it. After this process of digestion, you sit down and write again.
People often confuse writing practice with morning pages or journaling. They are similar only in the beginning. Writing practice is as much a philosophy as a technique. Forgive me for being protective. I assisted her for many years and am therefore biased.
Also, I must read Janzer’s book. The writing process belongs to no one teacher. We all teach ourselves. Thanks again for helping me think this through.
Thank you, Nita! I’m grateful for this clarification and reminder to reread Goldberg (whom I love).
So, this pandemic has caused a lot dramatically changing to people, included me. Now, i try to find a way out to make my self and of course some people around me can survive, especially in the term of financial problems. Thanks for sharing your thought, it helps me to think a lot
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