I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to write purposefully.
In my quest to write as many words as possible in 2019 (more on that eventually), I’ve spent a lot of time writing random things I’m not sure will ever turn into anything I could send off for publication.
However, doing this more and more has made me realize how beneficial this can be — not just for my own process and sanity but for other writers’ ambitions as well.
Think of how hard you always try to write something as close to perfect as you can make it. It’s almost never exactly what you want it to be, is it?
Well what if it could be?
What if you could just sit down, open a blank document, and start writing whatever you wanted? What if sentence structure didn’t matter? What if plot devices and grammar and coherent sentences just didn’t matter?
You want to know a secret?
You can write things where none of this matters.
I call it free writing. Some call it stream of consciousness writing. Basically what it means is that you sit down in front of a blank page and just start writing. Not worrying about whether or not it’s good. Not caring if any of it makes any sense at all. Not focusing on all the details. Just writing.
Doing this could change your life. It has certainly changed mine.
Free writing is like warming up before a workout. Typically, every long-distance run begins with a slow jog. It’s not necessary — I have started many runs without walking or jogging first and they have turned out just fine. But it does give your muscles a chance to loosen up, and it also allows you plenty of time to mentally prepare yourself for the daunting task you are about to start.
(Most of running is, after all, about mentality — physically if you’re trained well enough you can almost always run the distance; it’s your doubt, your mental negativity, that stops you.)
A writing session can work almost the exact same way as a long-distance run. You don’t have to start off right away diving into the last place in your story where you left off. If you’re not quite ready to do that yet — but you do need to get to it pretty soon because time is a thing that exists — give yourself a few minutes to sit down with a blank document and just write whatever comes into your head.
It could be about the story you’re working on. It could be something completely unrelated. It could be a 200 word rant about how much you hate going to the DMV. It doesn’t matter what you write or if you even end up using it for something else later. What matters is that you write SOMETHING to warm up your brain and get in the right headspace for whatever you need to write next.
Worried about getting distracted by another idea? Don’t be. I’ve heard many people say they can’t write randomly like this because it’s too dangerous for them to write something that isn’t related to what they are currently working on — and this is a completely logical argument.
The danger, of course, is that they will become so infatuated with a new idea that comes to them after a free writing session that they won’t want to work on their current project anymore and will instead want to work on the new idea instead.
However, just because this is a legitimate concern — distractions are real and they’re annoying and I completely understand the struggle (since I have been distracted by something three times now while writing this post — aren’t Saturdays great?) — does not mean this is a problem without a logical solution.
This tendency to chase shiny objects as a storyteller, in my experience, isn’t actually something that ever goes away. I have about six ideas for stories right now that I wish I could sit down and work on all at the same time. But I don’t. Why? Because I’m just a person and my brain (and schedule) can’t handle that.
Sticking to your original commitment, however, is a form of discipline as a writer — and this is a pillar of creative productivity that can and should be learned. It takes a lot of practice and sometimes many years to get really good at not running to the first new idea that comes calling. The temptation is always there, but you can learn to keep it quiet while you continue on with what you’re doing.
So yes — you can free write without worrying about getting distracted. It just takes some serious skill building. I will dive deeper into this particular topic at a later time. For now, the best thing you can do is write down the concept for every new idea and let it sit in a folder. You’ll either go back to it at some point or you won’t. The point is to leave it there for if and when you are ready to give it your full attention.
No writing time is wasted time. This has been my mantra both on this blog and in my own journey as a writer for a very long time. Think about it this way: At the end of the day, would you have rather written 500 words of something that made you feel good, or have tried to write 500 words of something that needed to be done and instead you wrote nothing at all?
Time is precious. I understand this just as well as anyone at this point. There seems not to be enough time to take care of all your real-world obligations plus rest and take care of yourself — and oh, also, write 500 words of something you might never publish.
But let’s go back to our running example. When you go out in the morning and run 3.1 miles around your neighborhood, do you call that run a waste of time? Probably not. Because even if you aren’t training for a race, you’re still exercising your muscles and keeping your body in the best possible shape you can. Even though you didn’t get a medal for running around the block, you still did it, and it’s going to help prepare you for the next time you do run with the intention of training for something bigger.
Even writing 500 words about the DMV that are never going to make it off your hard drive still counts as productive writing time. Why? Because you’re using your brain. You’re practicing. Many people don’t think of writing as “practice” for something bigger because it’s somehow different than playing an instrument or running. But in terms of process, it really isn’t. Everything you write makes you a little better at writing every time. You may not see the difference, but the difference is still developing.
Don’t be afraid to write things that don’t make sense. Don’t worry about getting distracted or not spending all your time writing something that might get published someday. Sometimes writers are under a lot of pressure and don’t even realize it. You need to allow yourself the chance to write just for the sake of writing. To set yourself free. To see what your brain can come up with when you let it create without restrictions.
Let go of your fear of writing nonsense.
You never know — you might end up accidentally writing something better than you have ever written before.
It’s amazing what we can unintentionally accomplish when we, at least for a few moments, stop trying so hard to do our best.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.