As a newbie to the world of novel creation, I read everything I can get my hands on about how to produce a work of stunning originality and beauty. Inevitably, in each of these pieces, I read some semblance of one of the following: Writing requires discipline. Writing happens in bits and pieces. Set a daily word count. To be a writer you have to start writing.
I agree with all of these perfectly correct tidbits, and I would guess that everyone who has chosen this path will also agree with these simple truths.
Writing also requires the writer to clear out the junk rolling around in his or her brain. You know, the daily to do lists and car pool info and worries of yesterday, today, and tomorrow that swirl around the words that are going to make the right sentence, the right paragraph, and/or the right chapter for the day’s writing session.
Blind free writing offers a way to dump the junk and open up the brain waves.
I learned this exercise in my years teaching thousands of composition students to compose two-page essays. Most college students take an English class within the first two semesters of their educational journey. Most do not want to be there. Most are scared of words.
Does that last sentence ring true for you, as well? Maybe you are not actually scared of words. Maybe you are just mad at them because they fail you when you sit down to write, when you sit staring at the blinking cursor and the words of the experts are pulsing in your head with every blink: Just. Write. The. Words. Just. Type. You. Can. Edit. Later. On and on it goes. You think. The cursor blinks.
I discovered years ago that if I took away the blinking curser and forced movement of fingers on the keyboard, students could get words on a page. I now use the strategy from those years whenever I find myself unable to produce during a writing session. There are three steps to the process.
Step One: Turn off your monitor
We have been trained to correct our mistakes. In general, this is a good rule. When getting thoughts onto a page, though, this training can be stifling, even crippling. The idea behind this step is to train your brain to dump the junk, find your buried ideas, and not focus on correcting mistakes as they happen.
To begin, turn on your computer (monitor, too). Open a blank document. Put that annoying little blinking cursor at the top of the page. Type a word or two about your idea or work in progress (WIP). Keep it simple. If you are not at all sure of where you are going today, you can use a character name or the name of the place where your story will take place. Anything to think briefly before you start typing. Tab down a row. Make sure that blinking demon is still there.
Now the hard part. Reach up and push the button on your monitor that will plunge it into darkness. If you are using a laptop, tape a piece of construction paper to your screen. It cannot be paper you can see through. Your brain will tell your eyes to try to see through it to the mistakes and perceived horribleness.
Step Two: Set a timer
With your monitor prepped and your fingers ready, set a timer for three minutes. We can do anything for three minutes. At least that is what I tell my students, and they have proven me right time and time again. As your brain begins to accept its fate of not being able to stop and correct, you will be able to set the timer for longer periods. I do one hour stretches, sometimes several times a day if I am really stuck on a scene or character.
Remind your brain of the word or words you typed at the top of the hidden page. Start the timer. Start typing.
Step Three: Do not stop
Once the timer starts moving, the rule is your fingers must move constantly.
You cannot stop typing, not to think, not to revise, not to tap the keys in anticipation of the next great idea. This is key to making this work. Trust me. I’m a composition instructor. Would I lie to you?
If you cannot think of what to say, say that.
I cannot tell you haw many first attempts from my students includes line after line of “I do not know what to say. I wish the timer would go off. I hate this exercise. I don’t know what to write. I need eggs from the store. I wonder if I can get a ride. When this is over I need to ask Josh. I don’t know what to say.” But somewhere along the way, sometimes during the first three minutes and sometimes not until the second or third attempt at three minutes, I start seeing those lines followed by something like:
“Why did I even write ‘cats going to the moon’ at the top of the page? What am I trying to do? Cats and moons. Who wants to read about cats and the moon? Well. Me. But who else? My brother. He’s five. Does he count? Maybe he is my audience. We have to chose an audience. Is that okay to be typing? What words would I use? Can I use pictures in our essay? I need to ask Dr. Bird. My main cat is going to be called Jasper, after my little brother. I like that….”
Here is what happens during this exercise. You tell your brain that there is something you would like to have space to explore. Your brain tells you there are already too many things in your brain for more. You tell it you are willing to write blindly until some of those items come out of your brain and onto the page. It eventually tells you that you have dumped enough and there is now room to explore your idea. You start exploring.
From the “I do not know what to say” to the “I like that,” you were reading an actual piece of a blind free write by a student who went on to write a phenomenal children’s story in place of her essay. The rendition here is given sans a few curse words and the typos that naturally come with not being able to see the screen. The clean-up is part of the fun. If she had not gotten through the other items first, she likely would not have found this awesome idea.
Like my students, the first few times you do this, it will feel weird. You will hate it. It takes time to retrain your brain. Do not give up after one attempt at this exercise! Soon you will have so much good happening behind the curtain of darkness that you will type long after the timer has indicated you are free to stop.
If you try it. Let me know. I would love to hear about your experience. Do you have other tricks that you use to make your brain cooperate? Tell me about those, too.
And when you get all of the words on the page and are ready to start those revisions, Angela Ackerman has amazing tips and tricks for that part of the journey.