Freewriting is a practice I first learned about in Spilling Ink (A Young Writer’s Handbook by Anne Mazer and Ellen Potter). It’s simple:

Once a day, begin to write and don’t stop – don’t take that pen off the page or those fingers off the keypad – for five minutes. No thoughtful pauses to get the words right. No waiting for big ideas. No revising the phrasing. Just write, fast and furious – a scene from your novel, a description of your sofa, your feelings about angelhair pasta, every verb you can think of that begins with the letter A. It doesn’t matter. Just write for five minutes straight. Every day.

That’s it. The Rx for enhanced creativity.

Common barriers to freewriting

I write for many hours a day, with a clear goal and lots of planning and pausing and judging and revising. Freewriting is free of all that. But it’s not just filling in five minutes of time. It’s overcoming inertia, banning inner critics, playing with words, getting over yourself and your ambitions, breaking the habit of judging everything you write. And if you make freewriting your habit, it will open your mind. I swear to God.

My freewriting has recently become more lyrical, thanks to the young writer I’m mentoring – a relationship made possible through the MASC literary scholarship program.

This young writer is a poet. I, sad to say, haven’t written a poem since my youth. Knowing I had better couch my ignorance in some fancy terminology (tercet? apostrophe? anapest? slam?), I cracked open a kids’ book, Poem Making (Ways to Begin Writing Poetry by Myra Cohn Livingston).

Weird-headed jay (Cyanocitta cristata eard-way ed-hay)

I read it on my back deck in the September sunshine. I was distracted, tossing peanuts to the weird-headed jays (Have you seen them this year?) and thinking about the fort I’m building for my son at the wooded edge of the yard and what a bummer it will be if they ever develop the abutting land… when suddenly, on page 13 as I read, “it’s important to know that all of these [poems] are written in the narrative voice…” a poem sprang into my mind.

I mean sprang: kapow, there was a poem where there hadn’t been before. It’s not like I thought up the poem. It’s more like the poem had been sitting fox-like in the woods, just behind the ferns, and I spotted it. I grabbed my Freewriting journal and I wrote:

It’s important to know the names

of things.

To catalogue is an art. It takes

years of study to do it well.

We stood in the field with

guides and cameras and wifi connections

writing down the names

of things

before the excavators arrived.

It was important work.

Boreal spittlebug, blue bead lily,

red-backed vole. (They streak by too fast to be certain

of the species.)

Paper birch and white birch—

it’s important to tell those two apart.

We listed as many as we could

before the road rollers came.

“You can take samples of unusual specimens,”

someone told me.

“It’s amazing what they can do with 3D imaging these days.”

The prints will be dusty and delicate

but easy to label and store.

That’s it. My first poem in twenty-five years, written out of the blue, in five minutes flat, just for fun. That’s the kind of freaky thing that happens once you’re in the habit of freewriting.


Since then, I have freewritten several poems. This may not seem like a big deal for all you poets out there, but for me it’s huge. I’ve never been good at poetry and I could never get past the negative judgment of every line I wrote. I stopped writing poems because the experience (of continual disappointment in my ability) was no fun. (Prose I stuck with because I’m good at that.) Fine. But when I stopped writing poetry, I stopped playing with language and perceiving the world in poetic ways.

Fort in the idealized future (really it’s my family cabin)

But now, thanks to young poets and freewriting, I’m getting unstuck in my ways. I remember the wisdom of my youth:

It’s not the poem that matters. It’s the feeling of writing the poem that matters.

(Unless you want a readership, in which case the poem matters a great deal. But that’s another issue….)

Beaver (Castor canadensis) at my cabin

Now that I’m armed with my beginner’s mind, my freewriting journal, and my library bag of how-to books, I’m ready to mentor a young poet and help her express her truth.

BTW, I like young people’s truths far better than middle-aged people’s truths. Their energy infuses even their darkest thoughts with power. On that note, I’ll leave off with a fave fragment of a poem Dylan Thomas wrote when he was, oh, 16 and ever so wise.

Wetten your tongue and lip,

Moisten your care to carelessness,

For she who sprinkled on your brow

Soft shining symbols of her peace with you,

Was old when you were young,

Old in illusions turned to acritudes,

And thoughts, be they so kind,

Touched, by a finger’s nail, to dust.

Spring Peeper (Pseudacris crucifer) with 10-year-old finger

And I’ll throw in the immortal words of Theodore Roethke:

The stethoscope tells what everyone fears:

You’re likely to go on living for years.

With a nurse-maid waddle and a shop-girl simper,

And the style of your prose growing limper and limper.

😉 Next post I’ll offer a list of recommended books for young poets and places to submit your work. (And I’ll try to update this blog more than once a month. Sigh.)

In the meantime, try freewriting.

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