Thursday Thoughts: Freeverse + Freewriting

14 Jul

9:57 a.m. — Walnut Creek

Hello, gang. We have a reader suggestion today, from Viv: a discussion of freewriting, to which I added free verse, as there are people who confuse the two.

First, let’s deal with free verse. It’s not free. What the people who coined the term meant was free of metre and end rhyme. Everything else that goes into writing a strong poem still comes into play and, because we have taken metre and end rhymes out, we have to be more conscious of where we break the lines and of internal rhyme. And, the poem still needs a rhythm that works. Hmmm. I’m beginning to think we should rename it. If you missed the post on free verse over at One Stop Poetry it’s well-worth visiting and reading. An excellent essay on free verse.

Freewriting is free of all constraints. It is a strategy that works for many people [not me…sigh] either as a kickstart or a restart. When I began my blog last year, I wrote about it. Here, updated, is what I said:

Almost any writer on writing will tell you: write write write do not stop write do not edit write do not stop write write write. The problem most of us have is that we have a self-censor sitting on one of our shoulders. This censor says That sounds silly. That’s not grammatical. What kind of syntax is that? Did you put a comma in there? Did you spell that long word correctly? What kind of image is that? It doesn’t make sense. Enough of that and you will talk yourself into not writing.

If your mind goes blank because you are trying so hard not to self-censor, or your mind just goes blank, don’t stop. Keep writing the last word you wrote over and over again. Your brain won’t like that and will kick back in. The surrealist writers believed that they had to reach a state beyond reality in order to find and write that which is true. What we call freewriting developed from them.

Ideally you want to write several pages without stopping. If you can do that you will find when you go back through that your mind and hand have taken you down many paths. You can choose one of the paths to follow knowingly, or choose words and phrases that speak to you and pull them out as a seed to a possible poem.

Rather than setting a time, I have found it easier to set yourself a number of pages. If you have never done this before, start with two pages and write. If it will help, pick a topic, but then don’t worry or panic if you notice that instead of writing about whales, you are writing about hot air balloons. Your brain made some kind of connection. Go with it. It may take you wondrous places.

Things not to worry about: grammar, spelling, sense, punctuation. That can all come later. Use what you are most comfortable with: computer, pen, pencil. Above all: if handwriting, do not stop the movement of your hand. Studies have found a direct correlation with the movement of the hand and creativity. Computer people, don’t panic. While the creative process works differently, these studies do not mean you have to change your modus operandi. When freewriting if you hit a stop point hit any key and keep it up until your brain starts again.

The object of freewriting is not to come up with a poem but to loosen the creative juices; if you get a poem from the process = bonus.

Remember: You need to write before you can write well. You need to have written something before you can worry about revision. You have to write before you can craft.

Let’s start with that and if you want me to address a specific aspect, ask. I can already see a couple of areas we can delve into further, but this post is long enough.

I will see you tomorrow for the week’s roundup of prompts; Tuesday for the next form; and next Thursday is open so far. If anyone has a suggestion, an idea they want me to discourse on, please let me know. Writing on reader generated topics has quickly become something I look forward to working on. Thank you, Viv, for this one.

Happy writing all.


Posted by on 14/07/2011 in poetry, writing


Tags: , , , , , , ,

17 responses to “Thursday Thoughts: Freeverse + Freewriting

  1. vivienne Blake

    14/07/2011 at 1:24 pm

    You are amazing, Margo. That is exactly what was needed. I most often use freewriting if a prompt doesn’t appeal to me – maybe it’s not my scene. But letting it all hang out in pages of scribble frequently leads to something worthwhile. It happens, very occasionally, that the freewrite itself is worth posting as is. It depends how your mind works – mine seems to work in complete sentences, but even if the freewrite is just a string of not-very-connected words, there is usually a seed that can be expanded, worked into a poem or story.

    • margo roby

      14/07/2011 at 3:24 pm

      And it wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t suggested it, Viv, so thank you. I wish I could shake my overcontrolled brain enough to make it work for me. I can freewrite in a group setting when told to do it, but by myself…

  2. Gay

    14/07/2011 at 1:52 pm

    Thank you for noting Steven M Grant’s article on Free Verse at One Stop Poetry. His was the last in a series of four. These others guest hosted for me on their own takes with this form – Sam Peralta, Joy Jones (Hedgewitch) and Shay Caroline. I believe they are all archived on the site for the present. Please feel free to link to them. I enjoyed your article here. Thanks again. Gay Cannon (@beachanny)

    • margo roby

      14/07/2011 at 4:00 pm

      Thank you, Gay, for the heads up. I’ll check out the others and give the links in comments or on next Thursday’s blog.


  3. Mike Patrick

    14/07/2011 at 2:12 pm

    You struck on a couple of thing I need to try. First, I’ve never tried to freewrite two pages without stopping, and I’ve never just repeatedly struck a random key when stuck.

    I do all my writing on a keyboard—that’s the only way I can read it—but most of my writing is in forms shorter than two pages. For any poetry prompt, I simply read or look at the prompt and place my fingers on the home keys. Then, for the next few minutes, I type a complete stream of consciousness, no cognitive thought involved past what is needed to punch keys.

    I find it to be a strange experience. I’m aware of what’s being written, and seem to be monitoring it enough to keep it in a poem format, but I am only an observer when it comes to what is being written. There are times where my first glance at the prompt sees a direction I would like to go, sometimes that’s were the writing goes, sometimes it’s not. I’m often surprised and delighted with what comes out. The result of this type of writing is always the best writing I do.

    I’m sure the writing is mine, and not from some evil entity, because it does require editing (most of the time) to clean up spelling, punctuation and a little phraseology. My internal editor is deeply flawed, as my dearest poetry friends can attest. They are gracious enough to find all the mistakes I mess.

    If that string of consciousness doesn’t kick in automatically when I first look at the prompt, I begin forcing words onto the page. Then the finished product feels contrived, or as I’ve said in some of my process notes, it has no heart.

    • margo roby

      14/07/2011 at 3:35 pm

      Mike – I deliberately didn’t write about this phenomenon hoping it would come up in comments, so thank you.

      While I cannot freewrite, I can sit down and do what you describe, although I do it with pen and paper. And, it is a form of freewrite with a brain cell somewhere directing the degree of freedom. This is what I call organic, when a poem appears almost whole from a prompt. I love these poems.

      You say your best poetry comes from them. The poems most outside my box appear for me, and that’s why I love them. That’s also why I like the wordles. They almost always — so far — prompt this kind of poem.

      And, I understand what you are saying about heart. Like coming up with ideas we want to write about, a prompt from another source needs to spark us, to have heart.


      PS Evil entity…I am laughing.

  4. neil reid

    14/07/2011 at 2:26 pm

    Oh Margo, this is such a delicious trap. I could easily want to sit and respond to this all day long! (but brief time before work calls me off)

    And how do you do it, I don’t know. But now you also engage the impish desire to write “free verse” and deliberately break the rules, as you rightly said, which are still left behind. Yes, of course, everything still matters, even outside one prior (we say “formal” sometimes) set of rules. But now I have this lovely image of a poem that stutters, starts and stops, lingers, then is gone in a whisper again. (Is that just like the breezes do?) (And yea Margo, I know, that’s really just changing the rules – making it “look like” the rules are blow away!) Delicious, huh?

    And yes yes, like “Writing Down the Bones”, how do you write? Pick up pen, apply to paper, now move! Yes, I don’t believe in writer’s block. There’s just I wanna write, and, I don’t wanna write. We just need to forgive how we like to think of ourselves, allow ourselves to be as we are. (Then there’s also her book, “Wild Writing” or something like that – the other half.)

    Me, I don’t much do free-writing either. (I get bored.) But I’m happy for anyone who finds that path useful to them. My way out of not-writing is reading (as much as anything else), and the more free-associative the better for me. I trust the associations minds will make, and even if I don’t understand in a literal way myself. (Someone once said, “understanding is the booby prize”.)

    Yes, however done, allow the connections to connect. Then write. That is elemental trust.

    Oh, and here’s a writing exercise I consider amazing. (I take no credit. It was Dana Guthrie’s idea, two years back, prior to the NaPoWriMo, when folks were moaning, “a poem a day, oh my!”) So Dana suggested, how about a poem a minute for thirty minutes! There’s your thirty poems, indeed! Wow. Don’t think many took her seriously, but I did. And so I did. Set the timers up on the computer to tell me – drop that one, start again! And yea, OK, they were pretty awful “poems”, but for me that wasn’t the point. After a few minutes, fast and faster went my thoughts, trying trying trying to keep up – and they just couldn’t. Literally. It was that “internal editor”, and it just plain ran out of breath, and I witnessed it actually really STOP. Amazing! So that’s what it looks like without an editor! (Try it sometime. Dare ya!) 🙂

    I love what you said, “…if handwriting, do not stop the movement of your hand. Studies have found a direct correlation with the movement of the hand and creativity.” Beautiful. Real actual physical movement, that’s a real part of poems, of writing. I’m getting more and more impressed with that truth. (Might be a wonderful prompt, but don’t know how to phrase it yet.) But free-association, that’s the other part, hand in hand. I know many people don’t trust themselves that way. I’d like to more deliberately play with that idea (and motion) too.

    And good good “remembering” Margo. Yes. As you say, “You need to write before you can write well. You need to have written something before you can worry about revision. You have to write before you can craft.” This is gospel. I don’t know that what we have to say is of such importance, but that we do speak, I think that matters very much. I think that’s what we care about, even why we care.

    Good write you did, and do.

    (Aren’t you lucky I don’t have more free time on my hands!) 🙂

    • margo roby

      14/07/2011 at 3:56 pm

      Oy! Neil! I already am three things behind responding to you. Things are beginning to bump each other in the Neil queue. I hope you know I kid [not about three things behind]. I always love hearing from you as you give me plenty to chew on.

      Delicious indeed. I am going to start looking at things through a Neil lens. What is most likely to provoke rebellion?

      But, I wonder if that is why I can’t freewrite. I also don’t believe in writer’s block, as such. Either I have an idea to write about, or I don’t. It works for me, or it doesn’t. I’m on form, or I’m feeling lazy. Yes.

      “Yes, however done, allow the connections to connect. Then write. That is elemental trust.” I like that. That pretty much sums it up, doesn’t it? I think that is what the surrealists believed. Their connections were a little out there but they believed in what the mind put together.

      Hmmmm. The thirty poms in thirty minutes sound like a freewrite in another form [what? You thought I wouldn’t notice?]. Loosening control. However, challenge is noted, and brain is piqued, I have to admit.

      Word association. Yes. I think you can get a prompt out of that. Two ways to go. I’ll get back to you. Maybe the motion too.

      ‘I don’t know that what we have to say is of such importance, but that we do speak, I think that matters very much. I think that’s what we care about, even why we care.’ It depends on how you define importance, hmmm? I was taught by my mentor that poems convey a truth. Our job is to make the truth as clear as possible for the reader, and this involves all the poetic devices that we consider when revising [many of which we automatically consider if we have been writing a while]. And speaking that truth fits with your ‘that we do speak’ is what is important, because sometimes just a true image of a bird is important to share.

      Oh, I have given you so many openings to respond to. You did just fine with the free time you had 🙂 And those things in the queue? I haven’t forgotten [although you may have!].


      • neil reid

        15/07/2011 at 4:04 am

        Fret not my friend. I can’t even keep up with myself!

        What’s most likely to provoke my rebellion? Just about anything you suggest I think! (So, you don’t think of yourself as being provocative?) But your presentations/discussions are just that powerful (ripe with possibilities, one might say). 🙂

        Nice thing about “free associations” is that’s precisely what minds are built to do. (why we’re so clever sometimes; why we get in trouble sometimes too!) Like ink blots you know. Add this to your list of things to try… imagine (really) odd first lines, then see what meanings associate! Here’s one of my favorites (yet unused, and I hate giving it up to public sight, but… ), “Nobody expects much of a xylophone”. So just try to make sense of that! But it’s like starting the ball rolling down the hill. Mind loves this kind of stuff.

        And (this is embarrassing) just to demonstrate my sometimes honesty about 30 poems in 30 minutes, that’s the link and you can go see for yourself (good to be aligned with writing bad poems! a necessity perhaps). But among other things it really got me past worries about writing bad poems. Ha! Then you can begin getting dangerous!! Besides, no worries, that “editor” is a resilient thing, ready to return at the drop of a hat. However, well worth witnessing it run out of breath. Amusing!

        Margo, I have to report as well (surprising me) a first draft on the poem your latest “rules” implied to my delinquent ears. It’ll be a while, but we’re rolling down the hill. Thanks for being such good fun. (And no, I don’t remember, but sure more opportunities will present themselves!)

        your appreciative student, neil 🙂

  5. Tilly Bud

    14/07/2011 at 4:33 pm

    I have been using freewriting for years, like Viv; we learned to do it with the Open University. But your take on it was interesting because, once something becomes a habit, we stop thinking about the whys and wherefores.

    Have you tried surrounding yourself with pictures for your freewrites? Just write what you see in each picture and your mind,as you know, will do the rest.

    A great post. Thank you.

    • margo roby

      14/07/2011 at 6:18 pm

      I have not tried that. Thank you, Tilly. Of course pictures. Brilliant. I can write forever with a picture. I had forgotten. Another thing that works is to listen to pieces of instrumental music and write the story or scene you hear.


  6. aubrey

    17/07/2011 at 8:08 pm

    For me, a work of free-writing is often the end result. My sense of grammar and rationality is pretty loose anyway and I like to keep it that way – as long as the work doesn’t teeter into idiocy. The things I write are very brief and heavy on descriptives – I’m not a story writer: perhaps I shouldn’t be commenting here at all.

    My writing isn’t a constant motion; often I’ll look at the computer screen and observe with wonder that I’ve written only two sentences in one hour. If I continue writing after that, it will be obvious on a later reading that that was exactly where my daily creativity dried up. I have to know when to stop and save it for another day. I am an extremely slow writer!

    The physical act of writing isn’t what gets the words on the paper/screen. There’s an idea that I have, an image…I empty my mind of everything else and eventually a phrase or a timid pairing of words will appear that describes that vision. It is just as Tilly said. Photographs, paintings, drawings are often my favorite subject matter!

    I remember art teachers telling us to create our sketches with constant movements of hands and wrists. I always had trouble with the quick studies.

    • margo roby

      17/07/2011 at 8:46 pm

      Welcome, Aubrey. Of course you should comment. There exists a lot of poetry that doesn’t tell a story, or whose story is description.

      And I welcome someone who is an extremely slow writer. I watch with amazement the speed at which other writers produce work. Having said that, I have found the wordles at The Sunday Whirl have helped me speedup, as have the prompts at We Write Poems. If I want to join in I have to write a poem!

      I am fascinated that you start with an image. That should make the creation easier. I start with words and never try to picture what I am writing about, although, having said that, I start plenty of my poems from images I see around me and jot notes on, on the fly. And I do love writing from a painting or photograph.


  7. neil reid

    19/07/2011 at 4:44 am

    Is this a progress report? (back from the battle lines… )

    This meaning I took upon myself the challenge to write a poem that breaks so many “rules” as I can imagine to do (yet have it work at some level or another in spite of that). First report says, it ain’t all such an easy thing to do!

    What I’ve observed is:
    1. There are what I’d term “external” rules (those I don’t consider really mine). Those are easy, even amusing, to break.
    2. There exists a deeper set of parameters, ones that I might not even call rules, leastwise not till I get really consciously close to them. These more operate at the borderline of conscious attention, yet operate they do, and forcefully. Interesting. Much harder to go against the grain at that level. Still working on that poem (with lots of uncertainty). (But then, I guess that goes with the territory!)

    Makes me tonight wonder how this might be a discussion topic (here or WWP or both?) about “rules” in all their many specifics. (What are the rules we attend? What are the consequences for breaking the rules? Both in terms of how that might damage expression AND how it might also “serve” in making new understandings from old shoes.) (And add that to my list too!)

    (comment in lieu of a poem!) 🙂


    • margo roby

      19/07/2011 at 12:57 pm

      What? You thought I wouldn’t notice lack of poem, so you confessed? However, I am fascinated reading the results of your efforts. So, what are the parameters you find more difficult? And, why is it harder for you [the consummate rebel] to go against the grain?

      As a discussion topic I think this would have value [you aren’t really asking me to make the decision where, are you? I went for both, Haven’t worked out how yet as we have crossover readerships. I thought set up on one, post on the other but that gets messy. Hmmm. Maybe a two-parter, started on one and finishing on the other.].

      And that is the question to ask: List the rules you attend to when writing a poem [I know: not in the form of a question — I get wild and crazy around you]. What rules would you not break and why? Take an old poem where you follow your parameters and break a rule. What is the effect? A little rough but something to get the brain cells working. [yep — on the list]

      Back to free association as a prompt, there are two possibilities [probably more, but this is what I came up with]: You can come up with a list of words [and come up with a list through your own free association] and ask people to, without conscious thought, write down the first word or image in their heads on looking at each word on your list. Then they can pick as few or as many as they like to write a poem [and, if curious, ask them to write process notes].

      Or, ask readers to come up with their own list: jot down the first thought in their heads, then the next, the next, the next until they have a dozen words. Write using at least six words. A bit rough but your brain is good at the prompt thing so I know you will add this to the queue and run with it.

      Okay, I have been using this to avoid writing my blog where I am attempting to explain a ghazal. Maybe I’ll just give directions and run 🙂


      • neil reid

        20/07/2011 at 4:29 am

        Well, there exists a raw body of a draft, but in transferring from pen to keyboard, looking for some better initial sense of where it was going – it became obvious I didn’t know what to do with it. Breaking rules of writing>/em> is most interesting and challenging. It’s a big topic, more broad than first imagined. And there’s (my discovery about writing for me) layers and layers of rules, AND bigger (obvious) truth about the universe – right down to the quantum level, there are indeed rules to existence itself. I cannot step away from those. (Even supposed randomness is a rule!) I haven’t sat down to itemize (but hopefully will, maybe afterward) but try to imagine this – how might the wind write a poem? There are pauses, discontinuities, repetitions, changes in energy and flow (seemingly random?), jagged edges, calms – and don’t we appreciate that sense of wind on our skin? But how does a poem do that? (Yet there’s some message to also “carry” inside that form – also the poem’s job.) So how does that happen? I don’t know. So that’s what I’m trying to connect with now. (Not a poem about wind, but one that feels like wind. Interesting?) Right now it’s just a big block of words. (And some challenges are even worth failing at doing right.) You’ll know when I do about this one.

        I’m out of steam for tonight, however…

        Yes, some prompts like good seeds in what you say. And be it prompt or discussion or article, I am desirous of doing something collaborative (something about that just appeals to me) but don’t know yet myself just how to best make that work. We’ll see.

        Thanks for the conversation Margo. I just get more and more ideas talking with you.


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