You’ve heard the expression, if you have nothing worthwhile to say, then say nothing. I have a new one when it comes to writing. If you have nothing worthwhile to say then write your way into finding it.
This is one of the primary precepts of ‘freefall’. It’s a writing technique developed by Barbara Turner Vesselago. The idea is that you write whatever comes to mind, pausing from time to time to think, but there is to be no stopping to look back over what you have written. You write whatever comes to mind as long as it feels to have some frisson, some significance for you.
As Barbara suggests, write what comes up for you, simply because it occurs to you. Do not plan. Trust your unconscious; trust that what comes up for you has meaning that may not be immediately apparent.
Barbara likens the process at the start to one of fishing. You sit at your keyboard or with pen in hand and wait till something comes to you, much like a fisherman waits for a nibble on the end of his line. The nibble is the initial idea, or image, or thought, or the something that might ‘feel’ worth writing about.
You write without planning or forethought, you write into the unknown. Barbara has five precepts, as I recall. She calls them precepts to get away from the notion of hard and fast rules. These are guidelines only.
The first is to write what comes up for you, as I have described above, without looking back over what you have written, because Barbara argues the process of reading and writing are different. They require different skills and if you do them simultaneously it can muck things up. It is a bit like changing gears too often, or getting too many instructions from a back seat driver. Some people even cover the screen of their computers with a tea towel or scarf. I do not do this. I look down doggedly at my keyboard, instead. This is just as well because I am a lousy typist. I find I need to check the screen from time to time, just to check that my writing is registering. I have known myself to type away for long periods only to find that I must have pressed some button inadvertently and I am no longer typing into the computer. My words have not registered. It is all lost except in my memory and imagination.
Hence the second precept is to leave the writing as it is. Do not correct spelling and typos, do not read back over what you have written, leave it all. Leave it for some time before you read it back – a day, a week a month, but do not re–read as you write.
The third precept is to include as much sensuous detail as possible. By sensuous, and I mean ‘sensuous’, not sensual, by which Turner Vesselago means, you write from all your senses. Include the tastes and smells, the things you hear, the things you see in whatever scene you might describe. Even dialogue is sensuous.
The notion of sensuous detail is most important because this is the one that will allow your readers in. If you do not include such details you will not create an image that readers can use in their own imaginations to explore further. Sensuous writing opens all the senses in the reader. It creates resonance. When we pay attention to the sensuous details surprising things can happen. They lead to new and unexpected associations, memories, and images ideas. They open up the world on the page. It is the associative quality of writing, the links between ideas and images that creates the life of the writing.
I imagine in some ways this is what poetry achieves first and foremost, but good prose can do so, too.
Fourthly, Barbara urges you to write fear ward, to go where you are reluctant to go. To write whatever it is that ‘makes you sweat’. This is one of those tricky ones. It involves getting beyond the censor in your head, your parents looking over your shoulder, the monkey at your back. Write as if there is no one listening, at least not someone who will sit there, disapproving. Write fear wards. Go fear ward. If there are a number of things that occur to you at once, go with the one that has the most force for you, whether it is positive or negative, or choose the one you are most afraid of.
Energy is that which absorbs you. It grips you and often it is the thing you least want to follow. Go into the thing you want to avoid, go fear ward. I agree with Barbara Turner Vesselago, the greatest tension comes with the expression of a taboo. And going fear ward fosters an ‘openness to the moment’.
The final precept is what Barbara calls her ten-year ‘rule’. In this process it is best to write only about things that are at least ten years old or older. In this way the events you describe will have had time to percolate. Scenes and experiences from the past generally have completeness to them that comes with time.
It is an artificial completeness. It is an illusion on the page. Most events are never really complete. They have tentacles that reach into the future but they can seem complete in themselves given our tendency to look for what has now become an unfashionable word called ‘closure’.
Of course this is a guideline only, this so called ten-year rule. If something from the present urges itself onto you, it is probably best to follow it but Barbara has found that writing based on more recent experience and events has a quality of incompleteness, an unprocessed quality, whereas matters from the past do not.
Wait till your material is composted. The idea of waiting ten years is a suggestion only, especially for young people for whom ten years might be half your lifetime. The reason to not choose more recent material is that often it is not composted. The writer is too close to it. As Barbara suggests, the writing can read as though a traffic cop is directing traffic too much; not letting readers decide for themselves; ‘showing not telling’ enough. Older material seems to be a world unto itself, untouched by present concerns.
As you can imagine freefall, certainly in its beginning stages lends itself to the autobiographical, but with time and practice it can lead into fiction. Given that I am not so much a fiction writer myself I cannot explain this process so well, though Barbara Turner Vesselago can.
Shall I give you an example of time spent at a freefall workshop? To begin Barbara explains her precepts, then she might suggest a simple writing exercise to get people going in the group. Eventually you are on your own. One such initial exercise involves the suggestion to write about a sound from childhood.
You can do this now. Write about a sound from childhood.
It is much harder for me to do this now sitting at my computer alone, with only an imaginary audience in mind, but in the middle of a workshop surrounded by some twelve people, all keen to write, this makes it much easier. The writing process in a group lends itself to productivity or at least it does for me.
Now you see I am avoiding my own set task, which is to write about a sound from childhood. I will need to pause a while.
In the laundry of the house in Wentworth Avenue there is a small briquette heater. It sits against the wall opposite the laundry trough and requires manual lighting every day. This is one of those rare tasks allocated to my brothers. They take it in turns to collect the kindling wood and newspapers, which they light before piling in the briquettes one after the other to get a roaring flame. It takes a good hour before the water is hot enough for dishes and washing, but this is never a problem as in those days we do not wash in the mornings anyhow.
In those days baths are a weekly affair, each of us in turn, oldest to youngest, each using the same bathwater and topping it up for warmth. By the time it reaches my turn the water has tuned a sudsy grey, with a fine rim around the inside of the bath, which builds up as long as I lie still in the water.
My daughter has arrived home and I have lost my train of thought. This happens often for me. This is one reason why workshops and writing retreats are important for me. I am lucky to get to one every two years. It is one reason why I think I have difficulties getting into fiction.
As I understand it fiction writing requires a sort of immersion into the interior that takes time and often time involves no writing at all. Anything I try to ‘make up’ seems stilted to me, so false and dishonest. It does not have the ring of truth that good fiction writing holds. Though I once wrote a short story called ‘Hold On’, which I shall include here. It’s one that managed to get itself published off line. But the process of writing this story was a torture. It began as a writing assignment. We were given the opening sentence from a series of other people’s published short stories and told to use one as the basis of a story. Mine was: ‘At the tea stall Mr and Mrs Das argued over who would take Tina to the toilet.’
Here’s the story that came if it:
Mrs Jordan scowled at her daughter. “What’s the matter with you? I told you to go before we left home.” Theresa shrugged her shoulders and looked down at the floor. She was a thin child with dull copper-coloured hair and a smattering of freckles across her pale face. She said nothing.
Mrs Jordan’s huge breasts heaved up and down and the yellow roses printed on her woollen blouse danced boldly on either side of her deep cleavage.
“Well, I’m not taking you now and that’s that.”
The toilet block was outside, behind the tearooms down a narrow laneway, which backed onto the car park. You needed to ask at the front counter for a key. The manager was fed up with finding overdosed addicts slumped on the concrete floor. He’d even put in a special blue light so they couldn’t find their veins.
Mrs Jordan pushed her coat further back onto the chair. She had no intention of moving out from the warmth of the tearooms. She’d already started on her first scone. Knife poised in the air, she jabbed it in the direction of her husband.
“You take her Ralph. I took her last time.” She spread the butter over her scone in thick lumps, then smeared the lot with a blood-red layer of jam, and reached for the cream.
“I can’t do that and you know it.” Mr Jordan looked peeved. He was a skinny man with a receding hairline and a face shaped rather like an upside down turnip. He too disliked the idea of the cold outside.
“For Christ’s sake. She’s only five. What do you think they’re gunna do, think you’re a paedophile?”
Theresa sat between her parents shifting from side to side. She hadn’t asked to go to the toilet. She knew it would be too much trouble. But her mother could always sense when she wanted to go because of the way she wriggled. Her mother hated her wriggling. Theresa figured if she held on tight between her legs and tried to think about other things the urge to pee might go away. For a little while at least, until they could get back inside their coats and hats and brave the cold wind outside once more. She knew that her mother on a full stomach was much more agreeable than her mother unfed.
Theresa was wearing Mrs Jordan’s favourite dress, a pink taffeta with a black sash and a silver snail pinned to the collar.
“Brightly-coloured clothes suit you,” her mother would say, “they make you look a little less sallow.” And then, for good measure, she would add, “before he went grey, your father had a reddish tinge in his hair. It must come from his side.”
Theresa herself had no strong opinions on the matter of colour. She only knew she wanted to wear trousers like the other little girls in their street but her mother insisted she dress as a lady.
“Heaven knows if you dress like a boy, you’ll be treated like a boy and then who will ever want to marry you?”
Theresa wondered briefly about the idea of marriage. It was her destiny, she knew, to be married, like her mother, to a man, like her father, for the purpose of producing a child, like herself. But it was too hard to think about that now. She was much too aware of the fullness in her bladder.
“Milk, Terry?” Her father asked, pouring the remains from the cow-shaped jug into a cup and thrusting it towards her. “It’ll make your bones strong and your hair curl.” He laughed. Her father was like that. He liked to laugh at himself, almost as if he were getting in first, beating his wife at her ridicule.
The waitress arrived with an extra pot of boiling water for the tea. She tried to clear a space in the middle but the table was already too full of cups, milk jug, sugar pot, scones and cream. She leaned over to take away the empty ashtray, assuming perhaps that this well-turned out family would have no need of it.
“Don’t take that,” Mrs Jordan said, her arms reaching out to hug close everything on the table, as if she were gathering in a loose pack of cards. In doing so she sent the pot of boiling water flying from the arms of the waitress into her husband’s lap.
Mr Jordan leapt from his seat, his mouth open in a noiseless scream. The lid of the pot rolled down to the next table. It came to a clattering halt at the foot of the manager who’d come out to see what all the fuss was about. And Theresa forgot to hold on. A little puddle collected under her seat and formed a small tributary to join the river running down from her father’s trousers.