Hello and welcome to the 100 Day Writing Challenge, Day 17.
Yesterday we took the first step into transitioning between freewriting, and a technique, a practice, an ancient practice in fact with centuries of cultural traditions and beliefs surrounding it, that might – on the surface – seem the same but is, for me at least, distinct and capable of producing quite different results.
Gosh, how many qualifying clauses did I manage to slip into that last sentence? This is what happens when I’m set free from a copyeditor. When I don’t have the wonderful Strong Shepherd of an agent standing over me gently suggesting Tim, do you think this might read better if you didn’t write it like a lawyer drafting an immensely complicated bargain with fiendish representative of the infernal bureaucracy?
But that’s ok because it’s my voice, and we’re chatting, and I really love the freedom of giving myself permission to make airquotes mistakes closeairquotes.
So freewriting first rose to prominence in creative writing pedagogy in 1934. This was really the golden age of creative writing teaching, or if not a golden age, at least a boom time. The balance of supply and demand has never been so skewed in favour of writers. You had record international literacy rates, you had improved automatization and transport networks making paper costs low so that – despite the market crash of 1929 – relative to people’s incomes magazines, comics, newspapers and books were increasingly affordable. You were just about to get the birth of Penguin paperbacks in the UK. You had record audiences for radio and radio dramas. You had an explosion of audiences for the cinema.
There was this huge hunger for stories. For pulp novels. For scripts. And so we see a concomitant rise in demand for ‘how to write’ guides. Educational pamphlets. Correspondence courses. Formulas.
Dorothea Brande’s book Becoming A Writer came out in 1934, and it’s undoubtedly the most successful writing book of that decade. It’s still in print. I read it a couple of years ago and, to be honest, I agree with her on a lot of stuff. She was hugely influential and I think a lot of her attitudes and assumptions have, by proxy, flowed through to me. She’s forthright and opinionated, enjoyably prolix, and she takes as axiomatic some of the quasi-Freudian psychology of the era. Here’s a bit I particularly liked – she says, quote:
‘Most of the methods of training the conscious side of the writer – the craftsman and the critic in him – are actually hostile to the good of the unconscious, the artist’s side; and the converse of this proposition is likewise true. But it is possible to train both sides of the character to work in harmony, and the first step in that education is to consider that you must teach yourself not as though you were one person, but two.’ End quote.
That’s quite similar to stuff I find myself saying, nearly ninety years later. The idea that there’s a creative production mode, the divergent thinking mode, then a refining, analytical mode, the convergent thinking mode. Dorothea Brande was the first person to advocate this idea of morning pages. That you must rise half an hour or an hour earlier than you customarily do, and write with no especial agenda, and through this you’ll circumvent your inner critic and begin to produce great reams of creative work. This is an idea that has become ingrained in creative writing culture. It was revived to form the centre of The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron in the 70s.
Now my main problem with this technique is that I’ve never, ever been able to do it. It sounds good in theory. In practice my compliance rate has hovered somewhere close to zero. My daughter rises at 6am. If I got up an hour earlier than I customarily do, I’d meet myself going to bed.
So to do that seven days a week, for the rest of my life? You must be kidding. But it made sense, and I had a not small amount of admiration for Dorothea Brande, who makes a good argument for its effectiveness, so I felt really guilty and useless for not doing it.
But wait, what else was the 1930s a golden era for? Oh, that’s right. Fascism.
Turns out during the 30s Dorothea Brande married Seward Collins, editor of The American Review, the biggest Far Right magazine in the country. He was proudly anti-Semitic, he praised Hitler and Mussolini, and she wrote for the magazine too and wrote some deeply anti-Semitic stuff herself. So fuck her. If you find it difficult to get up every morning to do an hour of freewriting in your journal, remember it’s a regime invented by an actual nazi.
In fact two years later she wrote a book called Wake Up & Live! which is one of the key books of the New Thought positive thinking movement, where she basically says, look, we’re all responsible for ourselves and no one else, life is divided into winners and losers, and if you don’t make a decision just to think your way to success, you’re one of life’s losers and you’ll be deservedly crushed.
This is the person from whom the whole self-actualising writing-as-therapy movement emanated. And I get the allure of ideologies promising self-empowerment. But I think we can do better.
I’m telling you all this so, as we continue to work on this course, you can be mindful of your own inner fascist. That part of you that, at some level, conflates your self-worth and how well you do at any one of these exercises, how much writing you produce in a day. In the mistaken belief that doing so will a) pressure you into writing more and b) lead to you ultimately feeling happier about yourself because you produce more writing.
Just quietly take that tiny inner nazi and place a glass over them as if they were an angry wasp at a picnic. Self-acceptance and easier writing work the other way round. First you have to recognise the truth – that you’re perfect and valuable already. Then, in acknowledging that, you free up energy to write more, if you so choose, without pegging all these extra conditions to it. You write because you’d like to, because it challenges and satisfies you, to find out what happens next. And you allow those reasons to be sufficient.
So today I’m going to give you another prompt to kick off your freewrite. It’s a bit like how the Finns, at New Year, melt little horseshoe-shaped bits of tin then drop them into cold water, and whatever shape the tin forms prophesies something about their year to come. Oh look, it’s formed the shape of a tiny spool of intestines. Perhaps I’m due twelve months of exceptional bowel health.
I give you a little something, a little molten droplet, and you drop it onto the page and see what shapes form. It’s called molybdomancy, in case you’re interested in words that are awkward both to pronounce and to work naturally into a conversation with your friends.
So here we go. Remember, today we’re looking to train your unconscious artist, we’re working with Good Dorothea here, not your inner jackbooted fascist, or Evil Dorothea. For the purposes of this exercises, the more you can let go, give yourself over to intuition, feel and play, the more you’ll be contributing to the eternal fight against totalitarian oppression.
Ok, so are you ready? Here’s the phrase you’re going to start this ten minute session with: ‘The box opened easily. Inside was a…’ That’s it. I’ll repeat it again. It’s seven words. Put these at the top of your page then continue: ‘The box opened easily. Inside was a…’
Ok? Ten minutes. Don’t think, write. Three, two, one… go.
And that’s it. I hope that was ok for you. And I hope my constant exhortations to give yourself over to intuition and ‘just write’ don’t become their own form of pressure. Like I’m expecting something magical to happen. It’s a gradual, incremental process. In some ways, it’s best if it sometimes does feel unfamiliar and uncomfortable, because that means it’s an area worth your working on, where there’s room for progress. If you turn up, and you simply expose yourself to this new way of working, whether it feels like it’s working for you or whether you feel like an awful fraud just sort of faking it and writing down any old shit for the sake of it, whatever’s going on for you, you are participating in a kind of strength training that will pay dividends down the line.
I’ve waffled far too much today. Thank you for your efforts, however that was for you. You’ve done so great. You turned up. You didn’t have to. You’re not getting money. No one’s making you a sandwich as a reward – I mean, at least I assume not. Maybe they are. That’s very kind of them.
But look. Thanks. We’re going to continue with this story of Dorothea Brande and freewriting and it’s cousins tomorrow, because it sneakily moves towards our next stage of writing.
See you tomorrow.