I spent all of yesterday in my bedroom, hunched over my laptop with the monotonous sound of a printer churning out page after page or words that all started to look the same. After putting off the mammoth task of making hard copies of all of my stories/scripts/poems that were currently dangling in cyberspace for months, I was finally able to wrestle the strong limbs of procrastination to the ground and cradle years of work in my arms. As I read over everything I have written in the past few years, it dawned on me that all of these details, all of the characters and ideas had stemmed from one single writer’s tool. I know a lot of writers have a toolbox of implements to tweeze the strands of inspiration out of their heads, from story to story they delve into this surplus of prompts and ideas while my toolbox stays relatively empty. There’s a single spanner rattling around in the bottom, rusty and worn with the word “freewriting” engraved on it. The holy grail. The saviour of all writers. The one and only think you’ll ever need.
My brother was the first person to tell me about freewriting, and up until that point, I hadn’t even heard of it. I was in my late teens, frustrations were high and staring at a blank page for hours on end was raising them even higher. I called my brother and told him that this writer’s block was stubborn as hell and being a writer himself, he knew all about that – “just sit down and write whatever comes into your head. Don’t even think about it. It doesn’t need to make sense, but it will get rid of the block” – he told me, or words to that extent. For some reason, I felt incredibly self-conscious freewriting for the first time. It didn’t seem natural to me, to someone who spends eternity forming meticulous details for intricate stories in their mind. How could I not think about what I’m writing? There reached a point when I could only distract myself for so long by checking my phone repeatedly while eating everything out of the fridge, and at some point, I embraced the dreaded white page. I actually found what I’m ninety percent sure is my very first freewrite.
I don’t care about a lot of things. Then again I want to feel everything. Reaching through broken windows and scraping arms on glass, blood running down the panes. He had never hated someone and loved them so much. ‘If you killed yourself, I would be so upset, I would never get over that.’ Walking onto the metro in the summer when the air is suffocating, the sweat is dripping down the walls and Paris is vibrating, pulsing and moving in a way that anywhere else would feel so impossible. Darkness brings solace and danger that is welcomed entirely. The air is hot but the wind stirring and cold, breathing through spaces, through fingers and hair.
Yes, it’s embarrassing to read back old work, especially when they’re littered with grammatical errors and things don’t flow the way they would upon editing, but that’s part of the ugly beauty of freewriting. You write as you think and sometimes that doesn’t fit into the realms of the rules of literature. I like that freewriting is a direct measure of what is going on inside of year head at a specific moment in time, even if it is pretty bleak. So my first freewrite was particularly sensitive, but, guess what? It worked. Now, whenever I write anything, my first and most important piece of planning is freewriting. Regardless of what your writing about it’s easy to use freewriting as a tool to extract your very best ideas and apply them in a range of ways to your work.
Creating Story Ideas
Usually, I start writing because I already have an idea for a story in mind, but there was a time when I was studying a creative writing module as part of my literature degree where I would have to come up with strong stories consistently. Anyone who has a creative job or passion knows that inspiration doesn’t tend to come at the drop of a hat and is even less likely to appear during a tight schedule and on demand. I an attempt to produce organic ideas that didn’t feel forced or contrived, I would sit at my laptop and freewrite. My writing would go from nonsense to the beginnings of a tangible story and the more my mind would wander, the faster my fingers would try to keep up. I would follow the theme of where the story idea seemed to be going and stick with it, instead of writing down random sentences about different things that occur mostly when I’m trying to get rid of writer’s block. Below is a freewrite I used as the basis for one of my short stories with a deadline. I always love doing this because writing a story on a time limit is so much less daunting when the scaffolding is in place already.
Neon light dancing on the water. The steep jagged edge of the cliff jutting out like a pier in the moonlight. Opaque black water, welcoming us in. Naked bodies, diving, one by one, the cold numbing our fingers and toes. The quietness of the vast expanse of ocean filling our ears. We were the only three people in the world. ‘I can feel it kicking in.’ Euphoria. Nothing mattered. Looking into his cool blue eyes and remembering the first day, remembering that my heart would never beat the same way again. Water lapping over my face as my whole body pulsated. The one look. Under the soft guise of the still water, through the blue light which glittered under the glowing moon, one touch. His hand reached out and caressed her body. Over almost instantly, but not missed. The whole world moved. She looked at him and I knew. Aching from the deepest pit of my stomach. The starless sky burning so brightly in my eyes. Red light moved, illuminating my face, the colour of blood. Trying to think straight, trying not to think of the drugs in my veins. A scream. Nothing mattered. Numbness, not just from the cold, naked and feeling so small. Anger taking hold. My name, her voice, my sister, not of blood but of bond. Forcing myself to breathe, red light moving and shrouding me in darkness. Hoarse voice, desperate screaming, I look behind me. Fingers outstretched as he slipped under.
Whether you are coming up with new characters or expanding ideas for characters you have already created, it’s important to flesh them out so that they become human to people reading your work and most importantly, yourself. Characters should be four dimensional, and sometimes it’s difficult to really grasp who they are. Freewriting with a particular name or character “shell” in mind has helped me enormously to discover who they are inside and out. They need faults, they need imperfections, it makes them more relatable. Below are two descriptions of characters I had in mind for a short story I was writing about a teenage miscarriage. I knew the bare bones of the people, there was going to be a boy and a girl who weren’t in love but had found themselves in this situation, any other details came from the freewrites and as I wrote the story.
Valentine: I see you. You have grey eyes and eyebrows darker than the hair on your head. The same colour as the hair all over your body. You bleach your hair and wear it long, you look like you could have been around with Marlon Brando and James Dean with your leather jacket and the way you smirk. Your skin is tanned, sun-kissed and your lips are kind of pink, like they’ve just been kissed. Maybe they have. When you turn around you have this sand-coloured birthmark on the nape of your neck. Your voice is deep, like it cracked years before everything else and it drags and drawls and rings inside of my head. The silhouette of your naked body makes me feel like I don’t deserve it. You never wore braces on your teeth and I wonder whether there was something about you that wasn’t perfect. Maybe the way you screwed everything that moved. Maybe the way your fingernails grew with ridges in them. I also heard you had a heart defect.
Mia: I see you. You have dark skin and hair that grows long and curling over your small shoulders and down your back. Your eyes are an intense hazel colour that pierce through everyone you talk to and your cheekbones rest high on your face, you’re too small to be a supermodel but your face catches lingered glances and you don’t know it, you don’t notice. You’re stronger than you look, you work your muscles and sweat through your clothes everyday but your mind isn’t as strong as you’d hoped. You can’t work your brain like you work your limbs. Your lips often hold back what you want them to say but they taste like cherries from the lip balm you use. Your friend thinks it’s because you’re secretly hoping to be kissed, but it’s because you bite them so often, you keep making them bleed.
It was my creative writing tutor who explained to me the importance of having ‘anchors’ in stories to make them more believable. Small details that would really make the locations, people and circumstances so much more real; such as a body being dragged across a beach and the imprints of the person’s toes making grooves in the sand – this tiny detail is an anchor. As well as characters, stories should also be multi-dimensional, and sometimes it’s incredibly challenging to think of relevant small details as well as the bigger picture, but the best stories are built on small details. I get some of my best ideas for filling in details when I’m performing repetitive tasks; whether I’m at work, running around getting things done in the city or house work. I get my best work done when my hands are busy, and my brain is free to wander. I will always have a piece of paper or a notebook with me at times like these, to jot down any details, metaphors or character traits. After writing the first draft of a story, I also use freewriting as part of my editing process, which is where I take the time to add more anchors and important detail into my work. This may seem like a strange concept, but it really taps into the ideas swimming in your subconscious.
Now before you read the word ‘freewriting’ writing one more time and get the urge to put your face through a brick wall, I shall stop with my gushing appreciation post. At the risk of seeming self-indulgent, I’m hoping that this post and examples of my work help you if you ever get stuck. I know that reading other people’s writing and understanding their writing process has always helped me, so I’m hoping it can help you too. Writing is changeling enough at the best of times.