Saturday, August 4, 2007

Free Writing

Since I’d never taking a writing course or workshop until recently, I’d never been under the gun to put pen to paper for five or ten or fifteen minutes and write in response to a specific prompt. We did quite a few of these writing exercises at Grand Lake and each time, the goal was very specific and it was very often to write in a way that I might not typically do. I was surprised at some of the results.

An odd sensation, almost a feeling of being possessed would come over me in response to a free writing prompt. It was very different from sitting in front of my laptop at home, consciously deciding what to write next.

There is something to writing in a workshop environment that reminded me of the spinning classes I used to go to. A cyclist friend asked me why in the world anyone would need to go to a class to ride a stationary bicycle. Anyone who’s gone to one of these grueling classes will tell you that few people would ever maintain the insane riding pace for a fifty minute session if not surrounded by a roomful of people. The only thing that ever kept me on that bike was peer pressure and the desire not to be the person who slinked off to the locker room before the class was done.

The writing exercises triggered an automatic kind of writing where the inner editor was not present. The urgency I felt was to complete the initial idea before the time was over. I imagine it’s possible to replicate that sensation alone with some practice.

One of the many prompts was to create an establishing opener for a scene by using only the physical setting with no dialogue or internal narrative – all show and no tell. The goal was to lead the reader into a very specific moment within a story world.

I’m not sure where my establishing opener came from. It’s not Chekhov, but here’s the unedited version of what I came up with:

The girl slid down from the high brass bed, plastic pads from her footed pajamas scraping the plywood flooring. She ran to the kitchen, dragged a vinyl seated chair to the counter, climbed onto it and reached for the cereal box. Tumbling moons, stars and four leafed clovers rang out into the bowl and echoed throughout the room. She sidestepped old-fashioned glasses, half full with brown liquid and bobbing cigarette butts, carefully swiped an overflowing ashtray and several more glasses to one side of the Danish modern coffee table and crouched to her knees in front of breakfast. The glasses emitted a sharp smell that pushed at her face and nostrils each time she lowered her head to take a bite. A fur coat lay in a heap on the floor behind the sofa. She stepped across the room to the turntable perched on planks above grey cinder blocks. The colorful album covers lay scattered on the floor and a large stack of records revolved around and around, the faint pop coming through the speakers each time they made a full revolution. Carefully, she lifted the arm and guided the stylus to the outer edge of the record on top. Her eyes widened and she snatched at the black knob and turned all the way to the left. Slowly, she reversed the knob’s direction until weak strains of music came through the speakers. She lay belly down on the floor in front of one speaker on the thin carpet, the perfume of spilled drinks and overturned ashtrays at nose level, her ear pressed to the speaker.

This isn’t something I can use for my current work in progress, and I'd revise it quite a bit if I did want to use it, but I really enjoyed the exercise and this whole scene just seemed to pop into my head from out of nowhere. By focusing on establishing this scene and not using any more description than what an outside observer could see, not describing the thoughts of the girl or narrating, it forced me to think of as many meaningful details as I could to convey something about this person and her environment. It also illustrated for me how frequently we tend to write in back story or provide exposition that we might be able to more effectively convey with more show and less tell.

Do you consciously review your work to see how much telling you are doing versus showing? Do you have any tips, suggestions, ideas or anecdotes about the benefits of timed free writing exercises? If you are familiar with the psychology of how free writing seems to unleash something different than what our more disciplined writing routines do, please share your thoughts!


Charles Gramlich said...

I think part of it is that when we lable something simply an "exercise," then we remove some of the threat from it. We allow ourselves to play because it's just an exercise. it's not like it's serious, or anything. But when we sit to write "seriously" we put constraints and restraints on our efforts.

Lisa said...

Charles, that's exactly it. Between the time constraint and the idea that it's just an exercise, there's no room for self-consciousness. It's just go -- and see what comes out. Thank you for illuminating that for me.

Ross said...

Cool free write, Lisa! I think that it is almost a poem, if you trimmed down the sentence structure and split it into lines. BTW (and this is really regarding some of your posts on poetry), I think a lot of people are just too intimidated by poetry. I came to lit through poetry first, and I still think it is awesome. IMHO, it touches a different part of your brain than prose. It's more akin to music. And first and foremost, poetry should be FUN.

Lisa said...

Ross, I've been paying a lot more attention to poetry lately, so of course I'm also seeing it everywhere. I think there's something I still find a bit mysterious about I idea of writing it -- like I don't have a good enough grasp of what I'd be trying to accomplish yet, so I haven't tried it. One of these days, I'm bound to order something along the lines of "the idiot's guide to writing poetry", so I can get a better idea of where to start. Oh, and thank you!

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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf