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Freedom through Constraint
Getting deeper and wilder in your writing
The topic I have been thinking a lot about lately is depth versus width. In reading, and in writing. How can I go deeper, more wild, closer to the truth.
Especially in freewriting, I tend to cover many topics and I want to get better at honing in on one image or idea and exhaust it almost to the point of ridiculousness. To do some rereading (which is not typical for me) and slow down to study that reading more often. I do it with short pieces, but not books as often.
Dear Getting Deep,
There’s nothing inherently wrong with letting loose a flood of ideas and thoughts and images, and roaming all over our imagination when we write. But this is only one tool in our writerly toolbox, and sometimes we need to put down the hammer, because not everything is a nail, and practice using a screwdriver.
The beauty of freewriting is that it can go anywhere. This is also the trouble with freewriting. And sometimes, we end up in a bit of a rut, doing the same things over and over again, which in your case is repeatedly writing about all kinds of different things. Writing involves hundreds of tiny decisions, and our brains sometimes are decide they’d rather travel the familiar routes they’ve always travelled. Your brain prefers the familiarity of going somewhere else.
This is a form of resistance, except rather than a resistance to writing, it’s a resistance to slowing down and fully exploring an idea for a while. Maybe it’s simply the resistance that comes with something being unfamiliar and uncertain. Maybe it’s resistance to committing to a particular idea or image. I don’t know, but gently probe this idea and see what’s going on.
Are you halfway through writing one idea when a shiny ball of a new idea pops up and your writing self thinks “Look over there!” and runs off and chases it? Maybe you need to keep a second notebook or scrap of paper near by, to note these ideas, before returning to what you were doing. Catch the shiny ball and put it down somewhere safe. Sometimes we want to get every idea down because we’re afraid of losing them, but you know, this is a scarcity mindset. There is no finite limit on creative ideas. You have them in abundance. It’s okay to let them go; there will always be more.
Or is it, you start writing an idea, and you start considering going deeper with it, but there is a tiny moment of hesitation, of discomfort or uncertainty, and then you turn away from it. Getting closer to the truth, as you put it, may mean being willing to sit with something for a while and let it feel uncomfortable, or awkward. Maybe you need a moment to pause (yes, I know Natalie Goldberg says keep the hand moving, but that doesn’t mean it can’t move slowly) and let the deeper idea emerge.
Or maybe you have no idea at all, and this is why you asked me. Freewriting can sometimes seem like a mystical force, and perhaps we need to remember that it comes through us, and all of our very non-mystical fears and worries and habits. See if you can observe what happens when you change ideas. See if you can feel it in your body, and interpret that feeling. Figuring out the nature of that resistance can help make it easier for you to go deeper and wilder.
But in the meantime, we can try a few ways to get off the familiar path, noting that when we try something different, the writing might feel very different. Pay attention to the feelings and see if that tells you anything.
In some ways, there’s no way to slow down except to like, actually go slowly, but here are some tricks and exercises to try, or to adapt, to see if you can explore a different way of writing.
Sometimes, what helps is simply having different inputs. It’s easy to get into a writing rut when our life is also in a rut. Take a rest from writing, and take yourself out on some artist dates: go to an art gallery, see a play, go explore in nature. Create some art, entirely for fun, in a medium that is not writing: painting, sculpture, dance, music, knitting, making miniature models, learning origami, collage…. whatever sounds fun. Go somewhere, even locally, that you’ve never been before. Try something entirely new. Refresh yourself with new ideas and new experiences, and see if this sparks something new in your brain that you can explore in more depth.
But other times, it’s about working differently with the output. One way to do this is to introduce constraints.
Constraint can be good for art; imposing them takes some of the decisions out of our hands, and then forces us to choose things differently.
We still do this with the mindset of freewriting: to keep the hand moving, to not edit, to not judge. But we can still introduce some guidance, a gentle push back to the middle of the pool instead of swimming around everywhere.
My first thought for you is to go at it directly. Your constraint is to, in fact, exhaust an image to the point of ridiculousness. Pick an idea, an image, something from your previous freewrites that seems interesting to you, or stands out to you in some way. Don’t judge it, don’t try to compare which would be best. If you can’t decide, do them all, separately, in the order that they appear in the text. Set a timer for 30 minutes. Now write about that image.
If you notice the writing wandering away from that image, don’t beat yourself up. Just stop whatever you were writing about, and go back to the image. Rewrite the last sentence you wrote about the image and go from there. Or start anew and return to the image with a new perspective. Or keep re-writing the last word related to the image over and over again until you land on something related. You can set yourself a rule ahead or time, or you can do whatever feels right to you, as long as you go back to the image.
If you can, see if you can notice how it feels when you find yourself going somewhere else, and see what that tells you. But if you can’t, not to worry. Just go back to the image and keep going.
It’s in some ways like meditation: don’t beat yourself up for getting lost in your thoughts but rather, notice and gently guide yourself back.
Try this a few times, and see what happens.
Remember that it’s okay to write slowly, to wait for words to gently float up through the mists and clarify. Sometimes freewriting brings about the urge to write as quickly as you can, but it doesn’t have to be that way. You can form the words slowly, write deliberately. It’s okay to pause and wait for the next word to appear, as long as you are not pausing because you are judging whether or not it is the correct word.
It’s okay for your mind to go blank. You don’t have to immediately fill the blank space with the first idea that comes to you. You can let it be blank until something that takes you a little deeper appears.
If you’re not sure if it will take you deeper, write it anyway… you’ll know soon enough if you’re veering away, or if you’re on to something.
If you need extra help getting out of cliches, try describing the image without using any of the standard words. Write about an apple without using the words, “crisp”, “red” or “sweet.” Write about the fall without describing the leaves changing colour. Write about sunset without describing the colour of the sky.
Alternatively, change the form. Don’t freewrite prose; write poetry instead. My limited experience with poetry hampers me a little in suggesting exercises here, (Any readers out have ideas they’d like to drop in the comments?) but my first instinct is to suggest further constraining yourself by working with form poetry: a sonnet, a glosa, a haiku. (My pandemic-interrupted poetry class with Rob Lucas Taylor used In Fine Form as an excellent text on form poetry.) But pick something where you have to work slowly to make it come together. Stay as concrete as you can while doing this; see what comes up that you can expand upon later in prose. (Or hey, maybe you’re a poet.)
If poetry is too terrifying, take a look at Stanley Fish’s "How to Write a Sentence and Read One Too”. Try the 100 word sentence exercise, but using one idea or image as the topic. See what comes up.
Another for constraint is George Saunders’ 200/50 exercise that he gives his students. Write a story, with a beginning, middle and an end, that is exactly 200 words long, and uses no more than 50 discrete words. (So “Once upon a time” would be 4 words; probably not the best use of your fifty words.) This isn’t an easy exercise, but the magic of it is that it forces you to work in a very different way. You aren’t simply letting sentences flow, but you also have complete freedom to explore any idea you wants.
Try it as a story. Try it as a way to explore an image instead. Try it as a way to explore an idea.
The idea in these suggestions is to let you keep freewriting while also not allowing you to fill pages after page with sentences that go everywhere.
Finally, you can always learn from others, which leads nicely into reading. Take a passage from a book or story that you think goes deep really well. Write it out by hand. Copying it out will force you to look at every detail deeply, every word choice, every sentence placement, every comma. Reflect on how what you’ve copied out feels different to write than your own writing. Are the sentences structured differently? Is the balance of concrete detail versus exposition different? Is the word choice, simple versus complex, different? How much is written in metaphor? How is the rhythm and musicality of the language different? How is the writer able to repeatedly return to the same idea, the same image, over and over again?
The next exercise is one you can do with a short story, or even an entire novel: copy it all out by hand. Have I done this? No, not unless you count the process of revising my own novel, since I rewrote the entire thing by hand, which has been very helpful in its own way. (Writing out a favourite novel by another author has been one of those things I’ve been wanting to try for a long time, but alas, I am lazy.) But Jennifer Manuel, a wonderful writer and writing teacher, has not only done this but has written about her experiences doing it, and also provides some history and variations on this exercise.
If this sounds like too much—as writing exercises go, it’s definitely a commitment—then try re-reading but with a purpose. Focus on one element of craft or writing and follow it through the story. If you are trying to learn more about structure, re-read a favourite novel and summarize each scene in a sentence, to make up a beat sheet. Write out what you’ve learned. If you want to study the progression of images in a novel, read through and either copy out the images by hand or make notes of where images show up and how they are used, and how they evolve and change through the novel. If you want to look at point of view, read through and summarize what each scene would look like if it were written in a different point of view. What would change about the story?
I have personally been able to learn most from craft by envisioning the opposite. Re-write sections of the book or the entirety of the beat sheet/outline, making a different decision than the author. What does this change about the story?
Do things in layers. It’s impossible to go deep on every aspect of a novel all at once. Pick a piece, get deep into that. Follow your own interests, or whatever you’re struggling with in writing, or anything striking or unusual that you see the author doing.
If it helps, keep a craft journal, and make notes about what you’ve discovered and learned—you will understand everything you learn better if you can explain it to someone else, and writing up your own notes is a first step in explaining it to yourself. If you need an audience, put it out on a blog, or a substack, or within a writing community of your own, to use as teaching or discussion material. (This is partly why I teach; it gives me reasons to explain craft to someone, and therefore have to understand it more myself.) Use these notes as ideas for writing exercises, constraints you can impose on yourself to explore how to go deeper working with these ideas.
All of this sounds very studious, I know. You could DIY a few MFA programs doing this. There is some degree of depth that we simply have to practice, or that we see more when we study craft, because then we can see all the craft tricks writers are using to go deeper with things.
But you also asked about getting wilder with it, and to do that, you need to allow yourself to have fun. One cannot study our way into being wild. Is the resistance to going deeper and wilder connected to a fear of not making any sense? Of people not really understanding? Of looking dumb?
Be willing to be absurd. Be constrained but also be willing to be ridiculous. Be willing to write nonsense. I have always found that my best writing comes when I feel like I have no idea what I’m doing or if it makes any sense. This may not, initially, be a comfortable feeling, but over time, the fucks will fall away and it will be a little easier. Be brave and willing to make no sense at all.
The most important thing to keep in mind, is that going deeper in your writing and reading is a journey with no endpoint. As Hemingway, that asshole, said “We are all apprentices in a craft that has no masters.”
There is always going to be more to learn and deeper to go. And there is always going to be some level that we wish we could reach in our writing that we haven’t quite gotten to yet. Make sure you don’t go down the path of denigrating your writing as it is now, because it hasn’t grown quite to where you want it to be. What you want from your writing may always be a step ahead of where you are in your writing. It’s just how you grow.
And hey, all these experiments with craft and form might turn into new work on its own.
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