The Oxymoron of Finding the ‘Free’ in Free Writing

When I was young, my father said something to me about the novel I was writing at the time that I’ve never forgotten. His response to my concern that I was spending years of my life doing something that might lead ‘nowhere,’ was “Write it. What have you got to lose?”

Children learn rules adults have to forget

Some rules we learned as children hold us back when we become adults

Although in many ways it’s a reasonable question, intended to encourage a sense of adventure, my answer hasn’t changed much in almost 30 years.

The answer for a lot of writers at any age, level of skill or experience  is, “Actually, I have a lot to lose.”

Although perhaps it shouldn’t be true, in fact, we have a great deal invested in our writing.

Self-esteem, ego, a desire to be part of the writing world, to publish, to see our name in lights; to have a movie made out of our writing, to be taken seriously—all of these desires might be wrapped up inside the act of putting pen to paper. Writing can seem desperately important for so many reasons, it’s hard to list them all.

My early experiences with writing led me to the place I am today, and I have lived every step of the process I talk about. I’ve watched students and clients struggle with their own esteem issues around writing, and I have learned that not everything we’re taught about writing helps our self-esteem; that in fact, there are very good reasons to question a lot of our inherited beliefs about writing.

Too many of those beliefs are either holding us back or causing us some kind of unnecessary anxiety. How do we liberate ourselves from our self-imposed limitations? By changing our minds about what we think we know.

Because I take the need to work at craft seriously, I’m a strong believer in the idea of discipline when it comes to one’s writing habits, except for two caveats.

Why Do We Need To Write Everyday?

I do not, technically, disagree with writing every day, even though I don’t believe you have to write every single day. I don’t think you’ll lose your chance to become a writer if you write less often, nor does writing more sporadically (and probably more realistically when it’s not your primary paying job) delegitimize you as a writer.

In fact, at least one book, The Weekend Novelist, has been written to help the aspiring writer maximize the use of her available time when writing every day sounds like a form of torture, and you’re afraid if you don’t develop ‘the writing habit’, you won’t be a “real” writer.

The only negative you’ll usually hear about developing a daily writing habit is that it’s tedious:

Of course there’ll be days when you feel uninspired, when you have nothing you want to write about, or when you’re hectically busy. But if you’re going to stick with writing fiction long-term, it needs to become part of your daily life.


Forcing yourself to write every day is the first rule every professional writer uses to impress upon the aspiring writer how disciplined you have to be to succeed. Although forming a daily writing habit is usually a good idea, there are writers for whom this particular rule is a hurdle, not a help.

The uncertain or insecure writer isn’t sure he should be writing in the first place. Perhaps he’s taking time away from his family. Maybe no one supports his desire to write. Since the desire to write is quite often squelched early in life, and dismissed as impractical, many people feel guilty for wanting to write at all.

Maybe he has sent many pieces out, and has yet to receive an acceptance. Perhaps he’s had an emotional blow elsewhere in life, and now doubts himself in general. All of these situations have happened to me, or to others I’ve known and worked with, so I know they’re all possible, even for professional writers who have grown accustomed to writing as their way of life.

Too rigidly adhered to, forcing yourself to write every day can feel like scraping a dry bucket out of empty well, which can lead to feelings of self-doubt.

As writers, we need to accept that the ability to write begins with feeling good about ourselves (contradicting the prevalent social myth that all writers are emotional messes). There’s not a lot of personal freedom in the act of writing when we’re tied up in self-imposed knots of misery about ourselves, our habits, or beliefs that keep us stuck. 

The aspiring writer who has too many hurdles to overcome before he’s even begun to think of himself as a writer is at risk of preventing himself from continuing on.

How and When to Use the Writer’s Notebook

The other habit I disagree with is feeling forced to keep a writer’s notebook, especially if you feel no impetus to do so, but think you should because that’s what “real” writers do.

Instead, my belief is that keeping your notebook should flow organically from your internal desire to practice two important writer-skills: Observing and describing the world around you; and encouraging your imagination.

Although the idea of encouraging your imagination might seem obvious, or, conversely, like it’s an unnecessary skill now that you’re no longer a kid, Jessica Lasser, a writer who also conducts writing workshops for 9-16 year-olds, has the following to say about developing your imagination:

[I]magination isn’t some artsy fartsy muse that floats around sprinkling fairy dust on a few lucky people who “just happen” to have great imaginations. Imagination is a muscle. And like any other muscle, it gets stronger when you exercise it regularly. Think about it. What does your brain do when you read your favorite books? It takes a jumble of letters on a page, and it turns them into sights, smells, sounds, people, places … it creates an entire world inside your head out of nothing but ink and paper. That’s your imagination at work.

Jessica teaches free writing as a way to access the imaginative part of your mind’s capability to free-associate and exist in what I could call “flow-writing,” where the writing, as she reminds us, resembles the inner (imaginative) world we create when we’re immersed in a good book. However, I think the key here is not to bother calling the writing anything in particular; rather, to use your writing as a way to encourage this flow to happen.

The fastest and easiest way to use a notebook to encourage your imagination is to create simple writing prompts for yourself. You can use someone else’s ideas to do this, or you can set yourself a task each time you open your notebook that you’ll focus on one word or idea and then write whatever you want to, for as long or as short a time as works for you. 

The thing is, imagination doesn’t really respond all that well to rules, and when you start writing, that’s the worst possible time to impose rules on yourself (and that includes “calling” your writing anything). At the writer’s notebook ‘stage’ of writing, your writing might consist of notes; it might be made up of lists, it might be responses to color; it might be drawings. It might be phrases you’ve overheard others make. The point to the notebook, I believe, is to feel free keeping it. If you feel like you have just found yourself a new rule to bind yourself with, find something else to inspire your imagination, since imagination is easily destroyed by too much reality.

If keeping a writer's notebook sounds boring, why not draw your thoughts?

If keeping a writer’s notebook sounds boring, why not draw your thoughts?

To find that sense of personal freedom, you have to let go of a lot of rules. You know how people always suggest you try thinking like a kid at times like this?

I went to sites for kids to see how adults who teach kids engage their attention to do things they don’t necessarily want to do (one of which is writing, especially on command).

I very much like many of the suggestions on this page, and this writer’s energy about keeping a writing notebook:

You’re going to write and draw and paste all kinds of things into your Notebook so it could all end up in a big jumble!

As the whole point of the notebook is to make your ideas instantly accessible, it’s a good idea to number all the pages of your book before you start writing in it, and to leave some pages blank either at the front or the back for an index where you can list the page numbers of various types of information as they build up.

For example, one heading might be “Names for Characters” or another might be “Quotes” or “Ideas for Stories” or “Information for Settings.” Make sure also to put the starting and ending date on your Notebook as it will be the first of many Notebooks you will fill up as a budding author!

Instead of focusing on rules every writer should follow, implanting the idea of creating writing habits that might not be entirely necessary or even entirely realistic, I suggest we start small, and keep the goal realistic. If you want to create solid writing habits that will stand the test of time, there’s nothing that says that “writing every day” can’t also mean writing one sentence, one paragraph, or even just one simple idea. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with planting a seed on any given day that, when the time is ripe, will stand a chance to grow into something splendid because, little by little, you grew it and persevered, over time.

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