Monday, July 16, 2012


One of the most valuable things about the first writing workshop I took was the freewrite exercises we did at the beginning of every class.

It was 1997. I hadn't done any freewrites before I took the workshop, though I'd been writing for a few years already. The process of discovery was enriching:  being put on the spot and on the clock helped jar loose a lot of great ideas that would've lain dormant had I been working off of an outline, and I was fascinated at the different ways my classmates interpreted basic prompts. Every week someone in class had a spontaneous eruption, a freewrite that blew me away with sharp humor, beautiful imagery, or prose that sang like a bird.

Before the workshop, my process had been to brainstorm and compile notes of what I was going to write about, then boil those notes down into an outline, write the first draft, and edit until I had what I wanted. This method has served me reasonably well for twenty years in non-fiction, where the material is concrete, but I have found it inadequate for creative writing. Which is where the freewrites came in.

Not a year after the writing workshop let out I became a contributor to my employee newsletter. The assignment seemed easy at first - a 200-300-word prose poem per month - but it was more challenging than I'd expected. Other than holiday issues where there was an obvious prompt, I didn't have a lot of direction. This gave me creative freedom, but it also meant I had to come up with a different topic every month and make something out of it no matter how many ideas I started out with.

So I fell back on freewrites. Typically I did five on each subject (while at cafes or crouched in the back of the bus) over the first 7-10 days after the previous deadline, and photocopied them. Then I re-read, highlighted, asterisked, and made notes in the margins of the photocopied versions, found an overall structure, cobbled together passages to fit this structure, massaged the text up until I emailed my submission, then started over a couple days later.

I did this almost every month for two years - and used freewrites for the trickier scenes in a novel I was working on at the time - before I moved on to less free-form assignments for the newsletter (indie film reviews, employee profiles), and then largely abandoned fiction and freewrites for non-fiction writing.


One night last fall I happened to see an ad on Facebook for a novel writing class taught by one of my friend's friends. The novel draft I'd done many moons back had gathered dust. At first it had been put off because of time-consuming non-fiction projects, but after a while I had just lost interest (and, more importantly, confidence) in resuscitating it.

All along, while I'd slogged through a succession of heavily-researched, very involved journalistic writing projects, the unfinished novel - my biggest creative goal - had been a monkey on my back, so I jumped on the opportunity to take the class, thankful I had been on Facebook at that very moment and happened on the workshop post, a needle in the haystack of hundreds that'd passed through my feed that day unnoticed.

There was an electricity in the air at the first class, a group of eager engaged writers sitting in a small room with big ideas of what they were about to accomplish and perhaps not as much acknowledgement of the amount of work it would take to get there.

After introductions, meet-and-greet pairings, and a discussion of various texts, our instructor gave each of us a freewrite prompt in the form of a photo. In my hand was a photo of a long-haired young man in a t-shirt who stood up smiling, looking down at the picture-taker. The subject bore an uncanny resemblance to Tommy Bolin, a phenom '70s guitarist who'd died young that I had recently re-introduced myself to. Though the subject's torso and face were clear, the trees and foliage in the background were blurred. I thought for a moment and came up with this:

I was hanging around the apartment with my morning coffee next to me in the early afternoon when Steve burst into the room and said, "I got it!"

The enthusiasm in his face pulled me in, though I was nursing a hangover. But that's another story.

For months now we had wanted a photo or a painting or a drawing or anything that clicked for my album cover, and here it was, according to Steve.

As he crouched in front of me talking fast the details fuzzed out but he gained my faith and before I knew it he had pried me out of my lair across the street to the Panhandle. [A park in San Francisco.]

"Stand over there," he commanded. I stepped into a clearing and he lurched around, pulled a big stick off the ground, handed it to me. Didn't tell me what to do.

Then he said, "Oh yea, and this," and yanked a t-shirt out of his backpack. Standing there I switched shirts and waited.

A minute later he was kneeling in front of me with the camera pointed at me through me into the sky saying, "Yeeeaaa...that's it..."  
Once the time limit was up, everyone in class read their freewrites out loud. I was impressed with a couple of the readers and the range of approaches to the exercise. My creation wasn't much, but it tracked me back onto run-and-gun, free association writing, for which I was and am grateful. More to come.

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