In 22 years of teaching writing workshops I’ve shared many concepts for putting pen to paper. Initially I was inspired by other writers such as Natalie Goldberg (Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life) who lead us to keep the pen moving for ten minutes for “writing practice,” and Julia Cameron (The Artist’s Way), known for writing three “morning pages” each day. For many years I started classes with a “download” which encouraged students to write about whatever was on their mind to shift from the busyness of everyday life to being present in class.
The “download” or “meandering monologue” is simply free writing – a stream-of-consciousness, full-on rambling, blathering and unrelated tangents. We write by hand with no concern for spelling, grammar or transitions to new topics. Unlike everyday life, where we edit and tweak for politeness, strategic efficiency, space limits and business rules, the free writing practice is open for ranting, cussing, whining and weeping. It’s also great for boasting, gloating, dreaming big and planning to make the dreams a reality. (Note: you can’t whine too long on paper or you naturally begin to bore yourself and write about possible solutions.)
Free writing contributes to mindfulness. It is a conversation with yourself and an opportunity to be a patient, listening friend to yourself. It connects you, to you. With the nearly constant bombardment of demands in life and messages and information in our digital world, a few minutes each day on the page gives you quality time with your own mind and feelings.
Sometimes writing is a prayer, a meditation, or a negotiation with yourself. Having a little existential crisis? The best place to find yourself is on the page. There’s no where better to work out ideas – safe from critics, doubters and haters.
Free writing -works wonders for everyone – whether your goal is to write and publish, or do other art, or as a creative outlet to support to other endeavors. Putting pen to paper is stepping up and saying yes to the big “I am. I exist.” It’s claiming yourself, your life, your thoughts, your feelings, your power and purpose. It’s more than the very adult sounding “taking responsibility for your life” – it’s an act of radical self-care to honor yourself with the time and effort to really get to know yourself. It’s bravely stepping around our culture’s limiting idea of only some people qualifying for the joy of being a writer or artist, and relegating the rest of humanity to only observing and admiring.
As the pen moves across the page, the topics may range from the mundane to the esoteric. The physical act of writing shifts energy from ruminating thoughts looping over and over to details, emotions, facts, possibilities – words on paper, now more tangible for contemplation and motivation.
I’ve found a side effect of writing frequently is better conversations. When I’m not writing every day, I chit chat more about the trivial crap of life, and sometimes feel I’ve wasted opportunities for more meaningful conversations simply because my head isn’t as clear and focused. Daily writing gets the negative and petty stuff on the page instead of spreading it around to the people in my life.
I’ve wondered at times if people still need a Write Your Life class. Especially in recent years as we’ve begun writing, blogging, tweeting, Facebooking our lives. But I continue to see the amazing effect of writing in my students’ lives.
The real beauty, value and purpose of writing, and any art form, is not the final product, the readers response or commercial success. It’s the transformation of the writer from the experience. And art will transform you – writing every day will change your life. That’s why we procrastinate or rush to it, often simultaneously – it’s scary and exciting and we know we must keep evolving. Rapid evolution and radical self-care are really what we all need and what the world needs from us.
One of my favorite artists, Richard Stine, has a wonderful piece with this line: “The irony is this… if you don’t go in, you can’t find out.” Step away from the computer… get a pen and paper and go within. Meet yourself on the page.
(This essay originally appeared in skirt! magazine in 2015.)