freewriting

Write Off Worries

Overwhelmed by too many things to do, too many situations to keep track of, too many worries about what could go wrong in all those situations? All these concerns can weigh heavily on your mind. Why not unload them? Here’s how.

  1. Get paper and pen (handwriting this is better than typing it), and make a list of everything that’s weighing and preying on you. Don’t worry about order or organization; we’ll take care of that in a later step. For now, put on paper each thought, task, nag in your head in whatever order they come in, like dealing cards off the top of a deck. When the stream slows to a trickle, add anything that’s missing. Done? Let’s do some annotating.
  2. In the margin, write “DO” next to anything that is a task you can physically accomplish.
  3. Next to anything you’re worrying about that is not a clear to-do, draw a worry-icon (a frowny-face, or a dark circle—anything simple). If it’s a task you’re worried about, you can alleviate your worry by doing it; not so with worries that have no clear DO that will make them go away. Keep DOs and worries separate.
  4. If there are any situations you want to do something about, but aren’t sure how to deal with, mark those with a “?” (or “Huh?” or “WTF”…). These are things you need more information about, to enable you to do something about them.

If you want, you can now put all the DOs, all the Worried Faces and all the ?s on their own individual sheets.

Separated from all the worries and question marks, DOs feel more doable, ’cause now they’re merely to-dos and nothing else.

Worries, when written down and separated from doable tasks, start to lose their mystery and menace: they’re merely thoughts, and often there’s nothing that need be done other than accept them.

Questions about situations are merely another kind of DO: get information. Knowing that you need to find something out is much less stressful than feeling like you have to do something but don’t know what.

Finally, notice if there are any recurring themes. You might discover that many worries are really about one or two things—work, for example, or money, or relationships.… What appear to be a multitude of worries often boil down to a few manageable categories of concern.
 

Worries are like hungry hyenas: they’re terrifying when we know they’re there but can’t see them; they’re still scary but less monstrous when they’re in front of us and we can keep an eye on them; they’re not so dangerous when separated instead of in a pack; and they’re harmless when they are mere words on a page. When you’re dogged by hungry hyenas, transmute them into ink on paper, and see who’s laughing then!

Focused Freewrites (FFW):
Response Journal

Focused freewriting is perhaps the most versatile pre-writing technique of all. A focused freewrite is the same as a regular freewrite (all the same rules apply), except it starts with a prompt. Some quick examples:

Do a ten-minute focused freewrite…

  • about one of your favorite foods
  • describing a peak experience you had as a student
  • beginning with the words, “From when I was eleven years-old, I remember…”

The response journal (a.k.a. “2-column” or “double-entry” or “dialectical” journal) is a kind of focused freewrite in which the focusing prompt is a quote, and the freewrite is a response to that quote. Response journals are endlessly useful. Whole, thoughtful, original, well developed essays can easily evolve out of a series of response journals.

How to do a response journal

  1. From a piece you’ve finished reading, go back and choose a quote
    • Generally speaking, a quote no longer than a single sentence and as short as a single word is the easiest and most fruitful to work with)
    • The quote should draw your attention (why is totally irrelevant); pick a short passage that strikes you in some way
  2. At the top of a fresh page, preferably in a different color, copy out the quote (the whole quote: writing it yourself is a way of taking it in)
  3. Under the quote, write a FFW response

What kind of response, though? Well, any kind, as long as it is a response. A response is when we listen to something that someone else has said, and say something back that is in some way related to what they have said. Our response might be personal, analytical, descriptive, comparative, sympathetic, argumentative, or something else, or some combination of two or more styles—in other words, no rules. If you said to me: “Nice weather today,” I could respond in various ways:

  • You: “Nice weather today.” Me: “I thought it was cold, but you’ve made me feel warmer. Thank you!”
  • You: “Nice weather today.” Me: “Reminds me of being in San Diego. Not enough rain, though.”
  • You: “Nice weather today.” Me: “What do you mean by ‘nice’? ‘Kind’? ‘Solicitous’? ‘Gentle’?…”

These are all responses to what you’ve said to me. By contrast, here are some ways I could react that wouldn’t be responses:

  • You: “Nice weather today.” Me: “Piss off.”
  • You: “Nice weather today.” Me: “I’m, like, totally in love with your voice.”
  • You: “Nice weather today.” Me: “Whatever. Where can I get a good hamburger?”

What do these reactions have in common? Not one of them has taken in what you’ve said, and given something back in conversation. Response journals are conversations with the text.

Sample response journal

Here’s an example of a three-minute double-entry journal on the poem “Piano” by D.H. Lawrence:1

a woman is singing to me

A woman. A woman singing makes me think of my mother singing to me at bedtime. Except my mother didn’t actually do that. So I guess I’m just thinking of some mother singing to her child—I mean, singing her child to sleep. It’s comforting, a comforting picture. For some reason I’m seeing a big down-feather blanket—a comforter—and the mom sitting in a wood chair next to the bed. She’s singing. There’s nothing else in the room, just the mother’s voice.

As you may suspect by now, the response is a true free write: no should s about the content. This is your chance to explore the text freely; to interrogate its concepts, conjure its images, test its implications and boundaries, play with its language, and plumb its associations. Freely written responses do all of these things. Analytical responses are fine; over-analytical responses miss much. The more parts of yourself you allow to respond, the richer your reading and writing will become.
 


  1. Here is the complete poem(1918):
     
     

Process Writing

Process writing (A.K.A. process notes, A.K.A. metacognitive writing) is the quintessential self-learning tool.

After doing any freewriting exercises, reflect on the writing and thinking process you were just engaged in. Did anything surprise you? What was your experience while you were writing? (—anxious, liberated, fuming, vulnerable, giddy—whatever it was, elaborate on it). What was interesting about the arc the writing took?

Process notes are especially useful and revealing when they reflect on the composition of an essay or the creation of a work of art. Because essays and art projects are long, involved processes, it is best to pause and do some process writing at various stages throughout the project. For instance, you have an Economics assignment on stock investing that initially you’re not sure how you want to approach; but later, while watching an ice hockey game on T.V. it all suddenly becomes clear to you: Of course! an investment is just like the puck, getting slapped up and down the ice! (value fluctuations)—and the players are investment brokers, checking each other on the boards and trying to score! (Can you tell I’m not an economist?)… Anyway, after you scribble down your brilliant idea (in a focused freewrite, of course), follow up with process notes on just how stumped you were when you first got the assignment, and then how you became inspired.

Process writing is done as a narrative, not as an outline. (In that respect, the term itself, “process notes,” is a little misleading, because they’re not the kind of notes you can jot down on Post-Its.) One way of thinking of process writing is to tell the story of what happened in your thinking process and in your writing process;—a story more like a personal essay, less like a report;—a story about how your intimations arose from the primordial goo of your brain, and were fruitful and multiplied, and how and by what/whom they were influenced, and how you nurtured them into ideas, and lo, how you brought them forth and arranged them just so onto sheets of paper, and they were good.

The reflective aspect of process notes is key. Imagine you were going to write about an experience you had with your family: you’d write it reflectively, thinking about what happened and why, just as much as (if not more than) merely recounting the bare events. In this very same way, your process notes should talk about the conception and writing/making of your essay or art project as your experience, not merely as an assigned activity. Why do process notes take this tack? Because an assigned activity ultimately belongs to the class that assigns it, whereas a writing or artistic experience belongs to the writer/artist: you. Process notes are a way of taking full ownership of what you’ve created.

It is true that students and even many faculty have found the exact purpose of process notes elusive. You might feel that this metacognitive exercise is arbitrary and redundant: “I already wrote the paper! You want me to explain it again?” Like response journals, process writing is a method of inquiry and learning, except whereas in response journals you’re writing about the assigned reading, in process notes the subject you’re writing about is yourself—you as learner and author. Patricia Hampl in her essay “Memory and Imagination” makes the distinction between “writing what I know” and “writing to find out what I know.” The benefits of process notes come more into focus if we augment Hampl’s statement to: writing to find out how and what I’ve learned, how and what I think, how and what I write. This kind of reflection is usually not manifest in the essay itself.

In process notes the writer becomes the object of examination and analysis. Some people have found this image helpful: To write the essay, I read, take notes, compose, edit. To write process notes, I step outside of myself and observe myself reading, taking notes, composing, editing… in order to gain insight into the evolution of my thinking. The question remains, though, to what end?

One of my mentors and a former colleague, Jamie Hutchinson, offered this as one of process writing’s many useful purposes: “[To learn] how to make a case for what one has written, both its form and content.” The ability to articulate a case for something you yourself have written implies a capacity to see yourself in a broader context of other learners and authors; to be able to think of yourself on the same plane as and in relation to, for example, Patricia Hampl, or the author of the text you’ve just been assigned to read, instead of being content to sit back and shout praise or criticism at books from the grandstand. In a more immediate sense, articulating a case for your writing enables you to see and think of yourself in relation to fellow learners and writers (including faculty) in your class at your school.

Perhaps more than any other type of writing assignment, process notes build intellectual community. Certainly metacognitive writing directly fosters the conscious (as opposed to impulsive) development of authorial voice.

Despite all these Utopian pedagogical sentiments, many people nevertheless find process notes difficult either to do or to explain how to do, or both. Really the only known remedy for this predicament is to practice process writing until their benefits become self-evident, as when the obscured image suddenly emerges out of a “Magic Eye” pattern. Once you’ve beheld their effects, process notes might very well become a learning tool you never want to do without.

Believing & Doubting (and “Negative Capability”)

Believing & Doubting is when you write on two opposing sides of an idea, an assertion, an interpretation—something an author says that can be agreed or disagreed with.

The most basic way to do this exercise is to freewrite a “pro” paragraph followed by a “con” paragraph.

The more difficult (but more rewarding and far more useful) way to do this exercise is really to discover and be able to understand (as in stand under and support) two opposing points of view with equal conviction—allowing yourself to become “of two minds” (after all, two minds are better than one). The idea is to articulate your point of view first, and then to do your best to imagine the opposite point of view as fully as possible. It helps to pretend you are someone who really believes this opposite point of view, and write as if you are that person (use first person!).

This is a very powerful exercise of the imagination, leading to all kinds of surprising insights. One potential outcome is a higher synthesis of the two opposites (which are, respectively, thesis and antithesis): a perspective that rises above and encompasses the contradictions. Another sublime outcome is what the Romantic poet John Keats called “Negative Capability,” which, in a letter to his brothers, he described this way:

… at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason—Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half‑knowledge. This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.

Free Writing

Want your papers to be thoughtful? Think on paper.

Do you sometimes know what you want to write but have trouble writing it? Are you ever given an assignment and have no earthly idea how you want to approach it?

“Freewriting” is probably the best way to throw the doors wide open between your intelligence and the blank page. It’s equivalent to, and as necessary as, warming up before beginning a strenuous physical activity. It’s certainly the easiest, consistently fruitful kind of writing there is.

Here’s How: Either on a sheet of paper or at your keyboard (always use whichever is more effortless and productive for you), write for 5–10 minutes straight without stopping. Write whatever comes into your mind, write freely. Freedom always must be protected. We all have an inner editor, whose mission is to seek and destroy bad writing; and a good and necessary mission it is, but not yet! There will be plenty of time for editing and polishing after your ideas have made it safely onto the page and been re-vised—that is, re-seen by you, not in your head but on paper. The following simple rules will prevent your inner editor from oppressing the free flow of your thoughts:

  1. Write for the full amount of time you have set yourself (usually 5–10 minutes), and keep the pen/fingers moving: no stopping, except to shake out and stretch a sore writing hand.
  2. No going back; no editing! “No editing” means no stopping to think, no deliberating, no second-guessing, no hovering over how something sounds, and certainly no rejecting (i.e. crossing out or stifling) anything. In freewriting, the concept of stopping to think is an oxymoron. Just keep the pen/fingers moving.
  3. When you’re finished, no changing what you wrote; no editing; leave what you wrote alone! The next step is not altering or deleting, but looking over and collecting any interesting thoughts that have come out.
  4. Your freewrites are your private property. No one should see, nor ask about, nor think about, nor look in the general direction of your freewrite unless you want to show it.

That’s it. That’s the whole principle: write down whatever thoughts are in the front of your mind without hinderance or let.

First normal obstacle: when sitting down to do a freewrite, people often feel like there is nothing in their minds. If you find yourself feeling this, remind yourself of the truth: that it’s only a feeling, and it’s an illusion.1 Often the feeling is, Omigod, I’m supposed to be clever, which is why I sat down to write in the first place, but I don’t know what I’m supposed to be clever about—or I do, but my mind suddenly feels like a vast, silent, deserted stadium… and BAM: a mind filled with the profound emptiness known as “writer’s block.”

Brain Storm

Most of the time, though, the real problem is that there is so much in and on your mind that finding the starting point is like finding a tiny little arrow in a big maze. This is another illusion. In fact, there are countless possible starting points. Just like there is no one right interpretation of an idea, there is no one best entry point to your intelligence.

Some possibilities: Are you hungry? Full? Full of anticipation about this project? Full of anxiety about this project? Plain old grouchy? Just dying for a chocolate muffin?… ANYTHING goes. This is free writing.

You might well wonder, what does writing about craving a chocolate muffin have to do with your political science term paper? The answer is, obviously, that one has nothing whatever to do with the other. But if a chocolate muffin is on your mind, then political science isn’t on your mind at that moment—at least not in the front row. Our brains do have fronts: the pre-frontal lobe; and studies consistently show that we can only think about one thing at a time, and only even keep fewer than ten things in short-term memory.2 Writing about the muffin unloads it from you thoughts. Just like unloading crates off a ship, you often have to move trivial items first in order to get to the valuable cargo.

The Benefits: Freewriting simultaneously clears and lubes the discursive mind. The goal of freewriting is—not so much to write what you think, but to present all of your thinking to you, uncut and uncensored. Its great achievement is delivering your own individual genius onto the page. Is it a messy process? Yes. But then panning for gold requires sifting the weightier precious element through mud in a flowing stream.3

Freewriting is the foundation of a bevy of powerful pre-writing techniques (to be shared in future posts) that make writing easy, thoughtful, and original.

Whenever you sit down to start an assignment, try freewriting first. The few minutes you spend writing on no subject in particular will make writing about your intended subject more effortless.


  1. My wife and I have a lot of fun with the notion of an empty mind whenever a young (middle school) friend of ours asks us: “What are you thinking?”—We both instantly make brainless, mannequin-like faces, freeze, and go silent. 

  2. NPR article on the one-thing-at-a-time nature of attention: “Think You’re Multitasking? Think Again”. ScienceDaily.com article on the structure of working memory: “Brain Has Three Layers of Working Memory, Study Shows” 

  3. How to pan for gold (with pictures!) 

FFW: Loops

“Loops” are a series of (usually four) focused freewrites, done in succession, on a single theme. The prompt for the first loop is usually “first thoughts/impressions.” The prompts for the next three loops are then different perspectives on the theme. Here’s an example.

Theme:  Being afraid

Loop 1:  First thoughts
Loop 2:  Remember a time when I was afraid
Loop 3:  Describe the object/source of my fear
Loop 4:  Describe a person who helped me cope with my fear

Notice that the prompts follow the following pattern, which helps make the writing more immediate and vivid:

Loop 5:  Impressions—ease into the subject
Loop 6:  Setting: time &/or place
Loop 7:  Zero in on particular noun &/or verb
Loop 8:  Zero in on another particular noun &/or verb

Loops often work best when you give yourself (or are given) the prompts one at a time, so that you don’t think ahead, which would interrupt the free flow of the loops.

The rules of freewriting apply fully to loops. Quality is not a consideration. What counts is dumping the contents of your brain as quickly and dirtily as possible onto the page.

Sprints (mini-loops)

Sprints (mini-loops)

“Sprints” are short (3–5 minutes each) focused freewrites. Each sprint can be just a few sentences; the whole exercise might take the form of a quickly scrawled list. Sprints have the quality of a word-association game—you know, when a psychiatrist with tiny wire glasses, a salt-&-pepper beard, and thick Austrian accent tells you: “Now I vill zay a vord, und I vant you to tell me ze first vord zat comes to your mind. . . .” Just as with the psychiatrist, if you think first about what you’re going to say, the sprint will be compromised.

Sprints are an effective way to rough-sketch a map of your mental landscape. Here are some tried & true ways to use sprints.

  • Associations—e.g. what do I associate with the word “love”? (Get creative: in addition to word associations, try sounds, exclamations (Ooo! . . . Mmm. . . . Huh?), medications, vegetables, and so on. See Synesthesia, below.)
  • Definitions—e.g. what are three true definitions of the word “time”? (In addition to truths, try defining opposites & falsehoods: what are three absolutely false definitions of “time”?)
  • Images—e.g. what images come to mind when I think of the word “effortless”?
  • Emotions—e.g. what feelings arise in response to “coaching”?
  • Synesthesia—i.e. describing something in the “wrong” terms. E.g. what colors does this incense smell like? What music is this painting playing? What animal am I? . . .
  • Drawing—e.g. draw a picture of “love,” or “time,” or “effortless,” or “coaching,” or the smell of incense . . .

“Here the frailest leaves of me”

Here the frailest leaves of me
 

Here the frailest leaves of me and yet my strongest lasting,
Here I shade and hide my thoughts, I myself do not expose them,
And yet they expose me more than all my other poems.

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

Go Fish in
Streams of Consciousness:

absenceacceptanceaccomplishmentADHDaimsanalysisannotationanxietyAPAappearanceappleappreciationargumentartistaskingattachmentattentionawarenessBatmanbeingblank mindblissboatboring!brainstormingbraverycandlescenter of gravitychoicechoosing collegecognitioncommunicationcompassionconclusionconfidenceconsciousnessconversationcreative writingcreativitydawdlingdiagnosisdoorsdramadreamdrinkingecologyemotionenergyessaysessentialevidenceexamexcitementexecutive functionexerciseexperienceexpositionfailurefearfeelingfightfigurationflowfootballfrederick douglassfreewritinggamegedankenexperimentgesturegetting startedgoalgrammarhappinesshealinghearthonorhopehumanideasimaginationimagination_exerciseimplexinnovationinspirationinstinctinterestjubileekinestheticknifeknowledgelogicloudlovemagicmanagemasterymeaningmechanicsmedicationmeditationmetacognitionmilitarymindmistakesMLAmothermotivationmountainnontraditional collegenote-takingnotesorganizeout-of-the-boxparticipationpartspassionpatiencepeak-experiencepedagogyperseverancepersistencephysicalizeplanplayingplaywrightingplotpoetrypositive pointingpre-writingpreferenceprepositionpresenceprioritiesprocessprocrastinationprofessorsproofreadingputteringquestionsreadingrealityreflectionrelationshiprelaxationrepresentationreservesresourcesresponseresponsibilityrevisingsanctuaryself-actualizationself-assessmentself-relianceseptembershort storysocratic methodsoulspacestorystrengthsstressstudyingsuccesssummariessynthesistalkingtasksteachingtechniquetest anxietytest-takingThanksgivingthemethesisthinkingtimetolerancetomorrowtreetrusttruthunderstandingveteransvisualizationvoicewaldorfwelcomewholewillwillpowerwomenwordsworkingwriter's blockwritingyearningyesterday

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