Jump in at the Deep End: Be a Fearless Writer

Before a swimming lesson when I was about two years old I jumped in at the deep end of the pool.

I loved jumping into the water, so while we were waiting for the lesson to begin my mum had been putting me up on the side so I could jump in, in the shallow end, where she was waiting to catch me.

I had other plans.

Mum put me on the side and she saw me walk towards the other end of the pool, where my swimming teacher had just entered. She thought I was just going to get a pre-lesson hug.

Instead, I was headed for the deep end. I stood next to the diving board and jumped in. My mum figured out where I was headed and got to me shortly after I jumped.

At two, I’d already learned to swim the width of the pool unaided, but I really had no business tackling its length. But of course toddlers don’t think of these things. For me then, there was no real difference between one end of the pool and the other (I couldn’t touch bottom anywhere) except the diving boards where the big kids got to jump in.

I had no fear. I wanted to jump in the deep end, so I did.

Child-like fearlessness vs the ‘shoulds’

Parents and carers everywhere are relieved that not all children express their fearlessness as dramatically (and potentially dangerously) as I did – but all kids are fearless.

When you first started drawing pictures and doing colouring in, you thought nothing of making the sky bright pink with green clouds and a purple sun. It was only when you got older that you started editing yourself: you learned (whether you were formally taught or not) that the sky should be blue, clouds should be white or grey, and the sun should be yellow and orange.

These are just a few of the ‘shoulds’ you bumped up against early in life. None of these shoulds, on their own, made a huge difference in who you were or how you acted, but taken together, they have a massive effect on your life.

Some of these changes are good, life-preserving ones: I no longer jump without looking, but I still have no fear of water. Others can get in the way. Why can’t the sun be purple; it’s your picture, isn’t it?

Using play to keep the shoulds at bay

It can be helpful to know how to quiet the shoulds any time they’re getting in the way of what you really want to do – whether they’re interfering in a business decision, a life choice, or in your writing.

Unsurprisingly, we’re going to focus on how they get in the way of your writing. If you look back at early examples of your writing, you didn’t let little things like not knowing how to form letters or spell words get in your way. You wrote what you wanted to write anyway.

Now that you’ve grown up, you do need to edit your writing to make it easy for others to understand, but only after you’ve made the beautiful mess your inner child delights in.

How do you do this? You get creative.

Keep a stash of brightly-coloured, unlined paper and some crayons or glitter pens on hand. When you need to write fearlessly, step away from the keyboard, get your art supplies out, and create.

When you do this, your inner editor (the keeper of the shoulds) will get out of your way and let you write freely without fear of judgement. She knows that when you’re colouring, you’re not writing copy that’s going to go out into the world. Since she knows you’re not going to post things from your colouring pages to your website (though you could if you wanted to!!), she doesn’t mind how many ‘rules’ you break.

When you use play in the early stages of creation, you make connections and have ideas that you wouldn’t have had if you were following the rules. Being a truly fearless writer gives you the freedom to express yourself, explore ideas, and find your voice.

Once all the words and ideas are out of your head and on the page, your inner editor won’t be so fearful of them. She’ll see that you wrote them and nothing bad happened to you – she doesn’t need to protect you from them.

‘Anything can happen’

This post has reminded me of a poem by one of my favourite children’s poets: Shel Silverstein.

LISTEN TO THE MUSTN’TS

Listen to the MUSTN’TS, child,
Listen to the DON’TS
Listen to the SHOULDN’TS
The IMPOSSIBLES, the WON’TS
Listen to the NEVER HAVES
Then listen close to me—
Anything can happen, child,
ANYTHING can be.

from Where the Sidewalk Ends



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How Freewriting Can Make You a Fast and Fearless Writer

All writers fear the blank page sometimes. Freewriting helps you fill that page quickly and easily. Once you have words on the page, you can start shaping them into the final product.

What is Freewriting?

Freewriting has long been recommended by writing instructors. One of the most famous accounts of what it is and why it works is by Peter Elbow in Writing without Teachers (1973). Though this book has been around for quite a while, Elbow’s ideas still shape how we teach and think about writing now.

He describes freewriting and explains why you should do it as follows:

The most effective way I know to improve your writing is to do freewriting exercises regularly. At least three times a week. They are sometimes called “automatic writing,” “babbling,” or “jabbering” exercises. The idea is simply to write for ten minutes (later on, perhaps fifteen or twenty). Don’t stop for anything. Go quickly without rushing. Never stop to look back, to cross something out, to wonder how to spell something, to wonder what word or thought to use, or to think about what you are doing. If you can’t think of a word or a spelling, just use a squiggle or else write, “I can’t think of it.” Just put down something. The easiest thing is just to put down whatever is in your mind. If you get stuck it’s fine to write “I can’t think what to say, I can’t think what to say” as many times as you want; or repeat the last word you wrote over and over again; or anything else. The only requirement is that you never stop. (p. 3)

It really is that simple, just write (or type) without stopping for 10 minutes. The point of freewriting is to get your ideas flowing and down on paper. It gets easier with practice, but I’d suggest following Elbow’s suggestion of starting with just 10 minutes of freewriting several times a week. Doing this will help you learn to write without the fear of making mistakes.

Remember that your freewriting is just for you. Use it to help you turn off your internal editor. I agree with Elbow when he explains that one of the most useful things about developing a freewriting practice is that it encourages us to be less critical when we’re producing new material when working on longer, more organised pieces (pp. 4–7). In other words, if you commit to freewriting several times a week (for 10 minutes each time), you’ll be less likely to suffer from writer’s block.

When should you freewrite?

If you’re working on a long piece like a book, use freewriting to help you generate ideas for each chapter or section. Likely, you won’t end up using what you write in your freewriting sessions exactly as they are, but it will get you started. It’s always easier to write once you’ve begun. So, if you begin in the judgement-free zone of freewriting, you’ll get started more quickly.

Freewriting is also useful when you get stuck on something. We’ve all been there. The writing had been going well for days, or even weeks, and then all of a sudden you feel like you’ve run out of ideas. You’ve hit a block.

This is where freewriting really comes into its own. When you’re experiencing writer’s block, I always recommend changing your writing situation (if you write on your computer, switch to pen and paper or vice versa; if you’re really stuck, switch to crayon and brightly coloured paper—you can’t judge what you write in pink crayon). Once you’ve changed where and how you write, set a timer for 10 minutes and freewrite. You may be surprised by how much you now have to say.

If you’re still stuck, take a break and do something that doesn’t require a lot of concentration like taking a walk or doing the dishes. Repetitive, nearly mindless activities have a way of breaking you out of writer’s block. Then, try freewriting again—you’ll be fast and fearless again sooner than you think!

How to use your freewriting?

Once you’ve finished freewriting, you may find that you have no desire to return to the material. That’s absolutely fine. It has served its purpose, so it doesn’t need to do anything else for you.

If, however, you find that you hit upon a turn of phrase you particularly like or that you’ve written your way out of a problem, you’ll want to hang on to it and refer to it later.

When you find a phrase or an idea in your freewriting that you like, spend some time developing it. Ask yourself questions like these:

  • How does it fit into your project as a whole?
  • How does it develop or challenge your previous thinking on the topic?
  • What more do you need to do to turn it into a useable (printable) passage?
  • Do you need to do more research? Or do you just need to polish the writing?
  • If you don’t often find such hidden gems in your freewriting, why not? Have you, in previous sessions, been overly critical of what you had written? Or was there something different about how you approached the exercise this time?

Download your copy of the Freewriting Guide here. This one-page PDF will help you remember how to make the most of your freewriting sessions!