Your Brain Moves By Train While Your Hand Is Still On Foot

by Harmony Button

This post is about the practice of freewriting — a style of brainstorming that writers frequently practice in both creative and critical pursuits.

The Thinking:

One of the most frequent complaints that I get from students about their writing is that they don’t have anything to say. They come up with a few sentences, and then they flatline: they face the white-noise of nothingness in their minds.

In these situations, what I suspect these students are experiencing is a kind of mental traffic jam — a bottleneck of cognition that makes them feel as they have nothing to say, when actually, what’s happening is that they have nothing that they think I want to hear. I’m sure there are plenty of other words up there, including a few choice ones for the particular assignment that is frustrating them at that moment. But if the mind is a highway of cognitive traffic, the reluctant writer is mentally setting up their own roadblocks in hopes of catching the elusive idea that will earn them an A on this assignment. It’s as if they were lining up all their thoughts at a police check point and searching them for some kind of insight; but instead of appropriate ideas, the writer interrogates car after car of their own self-doubt and frustration.

At this point, the best thing a writer can do is to break down the road blocks and send the mental cops away. Before they can produce interesting ideas, students need to stop berating themselves for not having interesting ideas. One of the ways that we can encourage students to explore their ideas without frustration or judgement is to practice freewriting on a regular basis.

The purpose of freewriting is to open up a few more lanes in the mental highway, to clear the roads, and get the cognitive traffic flowing again. As a practice, it goes against what we often teach about writing: to proof read everything, to check your spelling, to always write in complete sentences, to stay organized and on track, to control your voice and cultivate an academic tone. Instead, freewriting is about letting go of format, convention, and even an expectation of clarity.

You can read about freewriting in many different writing books, but I first encountered the idea in Anne Lamott’s classic Bird By Birda witty, honest, real-person’s guide to authentic writing. The rules that I have come to use with students are mostly based on the guidelines that Lamott outlines in her chapter on brainstorming.  Lamott encourages freewriting as a means of combatting perfectionism, which she describes as “a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are an artist’s true friend.”  I first encountered the idea of the beautiful mess from Lamott, who writes that “we need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here — and, by extension, what we’re supposed to be writing.” Read an article on Anne Lamott here, or just go ahead and buy her books. All of them.

The Practice:

Here’s how I explain freewriting to students: if your brain is a train, chugging along at a decent speed, then the act of writing is usually like watching your mind whoosh by in one loud, clanking blur. You can’t run along side the train — it’s moving too fast — so instead, you try to take a snapshot of the train at any given moment, and write down that static thought. But what if you tried to keep pace with the brain-train? Instead of grabbing one idea from the stream of your mind and then wrestling it onto the paper, what if you tried to sketch out exactly what you were thinking in each moment, one second at a time? What if your hand could move as fast as the train of your mind, and capture all the ideas, relevant or not?

Whoa, students say. That’s impossible! And at this point, I usually make some kind of joke about wishing that we had USB adapters for our brains, so that we could just plug in and download a minute’s worth of data to the computer, but we don’t. We’re still stuck with ancient technology: our hands. But there is something about speaking through our hands (whether at a keyboard or clutching a pencil) that makes us receptive to the idea of breaking linear thought: we can use the tactile nature of writing to help keep ourselves in the moment, rather than feeling the linear pressure of speech (although we naturally break that, too — just listen to someone talking through an idea. It rarely comes out in complete sentences). In writing, we can leave a sentence, start a new one, make a list, repeat the same word over and over… and nobody judges us, because it’s all still contained in our own quiet, private paper. Even though the brain is the speeding train and the hand is metaphorically on foot, if you do it right, you can have the amazing experience of feeling yourself suddenly running, as fast as you have ever run before, through words, past words, leaping through your thoughts to keep pace with the engine of your mind. And this, for a reluctant writer, is a transformative experience.

To use a different metaphor, the experience of traditional composition vs. freewriting is akin to the difference between looking at a ceiling fan and seeing a blur of movement, and focusing on one specific blade, tracking it with your eyes, and keeping it in focus while you follow it around, around, around. It takes an intense kind of focus to stay in the moment, to keep the single blade in the mind’s eye, and to keep pace with the motor of the fan. So it is to keep your hand moving in pace with your mind.

So what does freewriting really look like? Here are the guidelines:

1. Keep your hand moving — even if it means repeating the same word over and over until you find a new one. You are always writing, as if you have stepped onto the treadmill of thought, and you must keep moving. Pausing, even for a moment, is not an option.

2. Only look forward. Stay with the current thought and don’t look back at what you have written. This means that you will only generate new material, but not mark up or change anything you’ve produced. Don’t cross out, or erase, or edit. If you want to say something differently, just write it — don’t go back and change anything that you have already written. Stay in the moment.

3. Embrace the tangent. Feel free to go off topic as often and widely as you want, as long as the association is authentic. Recognize that linear thought is a construct of communication, not a natural means of generation: the brain rarely moves in straight lines. Instead, it loops, it stutters, it leaps. Follow it, wherever it goes. Hang on for the ride.

4. Turn off the Internal Editor — you know, that little voice that says that you’re doing it wrong, that everything you’re saying is dumb, that your handwriting is bad, and (all those other hateful things internal editors can say). You don’t need an editor right now. There is plenty of time for that later.

5. Trust that this is private. Because you are asking students to produce unfiltered text, they need the security of knowing that they will not be forced to share any of the raw material of the freewrite. You can solicit volunteers to share if they like, but collecting freewrites, grading them in any way, or requiring students to read their freewrite to peers will compromise the authenticity of the experience.

If your students have computing devices available, try getting them to dim the monitor on their screen, so that they can’t even see the words they’re producing as they write. It’s a magical kind of event, to turn a screen back on and see a block of text that you produced, without having seen it come out, word by word. This ability to separate production from product (along with the increased speed of typing vs. handwriting) accentuates the difference between freewriting and traditional composition — and students tend to really enjoy it.

Once you explain the practice of freewriting to students, give them a chance to try it out — but only for a minute or two. They do best when you give them a prompt of some kind — a starting point that is specific enough to spark immediate responses, but open enough to allow room to roam. Remember that freewriting takes an incredible amount of focus, and it’s easy for student to mistake freewriting for ranting if they get fatigued. In order for them to get a sense of the mental sensation of running with the mind, let them drop in for a few short sprints. It is the rare and practiced writer who can freewrite for extended periods of time.

When you begin a freewriting session, use time to measure completion, not quantity or length of writing. Time them exactly, and tell them to stop mid-sentence or mid-word. It gives them the feeling of leaping out of the steam of cognition, and getting out of the way of all the traffic of the mind.

Next, let them read back through what they’ve written, and underline anything that surprised them. This could be an idea that they didn’t know they had, or an image, or a memory. Next, you can either have them freewrite again, using this idea or image as their focal point, or you can move them into a more traditional mode of composition where they start to polish and explore this idea.

Lastly, it’s a good idea to debrief on the experience of freewriting. Some students find it transcendent and liberating. Others find it painfully uncomfortable. (Funny, I have had the same experience with all kinds of things that are good for me — running? Meditation? Hiking the Wasatch?). Let them talk about what kind of voice came out of the freewrite. Let them compare notes on the experience — does the handwriting get sloppy? Did their writing hand cramp up? Did they feel smarter than normal, or less articulate? Did they abandon punctuation? How close to linear was the text they generated? Remind them that this is a technique that they can use for any situation — to explore a problem or concept from school, or to process an event or conflict in their personal lives. Freewriting, at its best, reveals to the student the ideas and insights that they might not otherwise have discovered. In this way, it can be quite empowering for teenagers, who often feel as if they lack the voice or the context to really understand or express themselves. Combine the feeling of being voiceless with the sense of Big Things Happening all the time, and it is no surprise to me that adolescents can be chronically distracted, angry, and anxious.

The Habit:

Freewriting is a highly effective brainstorming practice. It can be used to start a discussion, to process a problem, to think about meta-cognitive functions, or to combat so-called “writer’s block.” I suspect that it is also just a really healthy thing to do, as a human being: asking students to check in with their own minds, to set aside judgement, and to practice mindfulness for a brief period of time could set them up to develop greater self awareness and an increased ability to express their ideas in their day to day lives.

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