Students that come to the writing center often ask me how they can get better at writing. In my head I giggle to myself sometimes because it seems as though they are asking me for a “quick fix” so to speak. However, if one would ask any writer–any artist–how he or she became a good writer, I would be willing to bet that many responses would include something about time, trial, and error. There are very few of us that are born with excellent writing skills. In fact, I have yet to meet anyone that was a “natural born” writer. The reality is that writing is a skill as much as it is an art. In this sense one must learn the grammar rules, styles, professional vs. unprofessional writing, etc. before he or she can create independently. This reality involves a lot of editing, rewriting, rephrasing, and editing once more. The process can be quite grueling to many. However, this period of frustration presents artists with a choice: We can choose to let the frustration make us bitter (and eventually cause us to stay away from the pen all together) or we can take it as a challenge–rising to the feat. We can choose to take each road block as a chance to grow and learn. Life shows us in more than one way that in order to grow we must experience some sort of tribulation. As artists, we learn quickly how not to view this process as a set back. We wrestle with these rules and regulations so that we can get to the core of what our individual art looks like. We have learned that creating art is a journey, often taking more twists and turns than we expected. Perfecting the art of writing is a beautifully messy but wildly rewarding process.
So how do we even begin on this journey if we can’t see a path in the first place?
To begin, we have to give ourselves the freedom to create outside the realm of structure (i.e. putting something–anything–down on paper just for the sake of putting our thoughts out into the world; even if these thoughts are unorganized and unfocused). Think about it this way: When you wake up on a Saturday morning and (assuming your Netflix or Cable is down), how do you plan your day? Does this TERRIFY you? Do you think, “Oh no! I have a COMPLETELY FREE day! What if I make the wrong choice? What if I totally waste my time?! What if I MESS UP. I CANT START OVER. IM GUNA DIE.” Not typically, no. So, why do we look at a blank sheet of paper and suddenly assume the world is ending? Why do we look at a blank canvas and feel we don’t have the “grandiose artistic ability” to create something fantastic? Why can’t we just DO instead of thinkthinkthinkthinkthinkthinkconvinceconvinceconvinceconvince THEN do?
An issue with our culture is that we label everything, causing people to lie to themselves about what they can and cannot do. It says: To make art, you must be an “artist.” To write a story or put your thoughts down on paper, you must be a “writer.” To make music, you must be a “singer.” You get the gist. But in reality, this thinking is completely flawed. I cannot tell you how many times I ask friends to go to a coffee shop with me and paint, and the response I get is, “I’m not good at art.” Ahem, I didn’t ask you to create the next Mona Lisa with me at Starbucks. Why can’t we just take a risk and see what happens? The same goes for writing: Just because you’re sitting down to write intentionally doesn’t mean that what you put down defines you.
This is how free writing begins.
We have to give ourselves the freedom to put something down and not worry about how it comes out. This habit is a difficult one to form, but it is (in my opinion) the best way to practice giving yourself the freedom to create without boundaries. From there, papers will get easier and easier to tackle. Many times when students don’t take time to free write, they sit down to write an essay and immediately have writers block. They’re somewhat, “out of practice.” If they are free writing every day, or even twice a week, writing will be infinitely more free-flowing. They will get used to seeing their thoughts on paper and understand more of their writing style.
Free writing not only helps us with writing, but it also helps us better understand ourselves. When we allow our thoughts to run rampant on a page without regard to structure or focused subject, we get to see our mind in a concrete form. In fact, we almost get to look at ourselves from an outside perspective. When we see our mind on paper, sometimes we can more clearly understand our thoughts processes which could lead to gaining greater understandings of our lives as a whole.
I encourage any any and all students to engage in free writing not only to clarify and further their own skills, but to engage in a journey to a fully realized self.