Have you ever heard of something called “free writing”? It’s a process that some people use to work through decisions, to gain clarity, or to clear out the mental clutter from time to time. The process itself isn’t hard to do, but it can be difficult for some to get started. (It was for me at first because I kept feeling like I was doing it wrong.) If you can get into the practice of doing it regularly though, it can benefit you in a lot of ways. So, what is free writing, what’s the best way to do it, and what are the benefits?
First things first, what is “free writing”?
Free writing is the practice of allowing your thoughts to flow out through the pen, without censoring them or trying to control them. What you’re writing doesn’t have to make sense, fit together, or follow a timeline. You don’t have to worry about using proper grammar or spelling, and the words don’t even have to be real words. Simply put, it’s writing down whatever pops into your mind.
This style of writing can be difficult to do at first because most of us aren’t used to allowing our thoughts to flow freely without judgement.
We filter everything we think through self judgement, doubt, and the fear of what others may think or say about us.
On top of this, we also have what are known as “automatic thoughts” rolling around in our minds, which are thoughts that are recycled day after day after day. These thoughts are our brains way of trying to save time by “reusing” the same thoughts over and over again, and not having to process new ideas. For example, if we try something once and dislike it, we are likely to continue to have bad feelings about it on and on, without ever trying it again to see if our tastes have changed.
These automatic thoughts can come in handy, by keeping us from having to try certain foods over and over again, or by remembering our way to work, school, or home, but they can also really get in the way of our growth and forward movement. Over time they create something like a rut in our brains and once those ruts are created, they are hard to break out of.
This is especially a problem when we go through experiences in life that cause us to feel unloved, alone, or like we aren’t good enough. Once we get these thoughts into our heads, too often we can keep reinforcing them by thinking there is something wrong with us, and those ruts get deeper and deeper. We’ll continue to think that we aren’t good enough, or that there is something inherently unlovable about us, even if we’re given a thousand reasons to believe otherwise.
Free writing gives us a chance to get past these judgements, to get past these automatic thoughts, and to get to the heart of what we’re really thinking and feeling about something. It allows us to challenge these judgements and automatic thoughts, and begin to change them for our benefit.
It’s a great way to process your thoughts and to learn to listen to your intuition at the same time.
Imagine this scenario: you’re in a room with a group of people who are all talking, but one or two people are dominating the majority of the conversation? Those one or two people are loud. They talk over other people who may try to say something, and they just won’t let anyone else get a word in edgewise.
This is how our minds work most of the time because we let them go on their own. The repetitive thoughts, our own fears, insecurities, doubts, other people’s opinions and expectations of us, and our own unrealistic expectations of ourselves, are the loud ones who are talking over everyone and taking over the conversation. The one who is sitting back, waiting for its turn to talk, or talking quietly and not being heard, is our intuition.
It’s not until we go in, bang the gavel, and take charge of the situation – i.e., taking charge of our thinking by telling the loud ones to pipe down – that we even realize that the small voice of our intuition was trying to say something.
This is exactly what free writing can help us do: break through those pushy, loud thoughts in order to hear the quieter ones that are trying to guide us to those things and people that most resonate with us.
Because we continue to write whatever pops up without stopping, we don’t allow our mind to attach to any one thought, which is one of the main benefits of this practice.
The very fact that we don’t have to worry about being perfect, or writing the exact right thing, frees us up to lean into it. And, because we don’t have to worry about someone else reading it, judging us, or misunderstanding, we can write things that we normally wouldn’t say out loud. This non-attachment gives us the opportunity to learn more about how we really feel about situations, other people, and about ourselves.
(It’s an excellent tool to use if you need to have a difficult conversation and you want to get clarity on how you feel before you try telling the other person/people. It can help you sort through what is actually important to you, and figure out what to say.)
It’s a safe way for us to figure out and process our emotions because no one ever actually has to read it, including us. Occasionally I will read back over my thoughts, but most of the time I don’t. The goal for me, most of the time, is to get the thoughts out, do a deeper dive, and attempt to find those ah-ha moments.
If I’m processing the past, and trying to release it, a lot of times I will actually shred the papers when I’m finished writing. You can also burn them (safety first), rip them up, or paint over them, depending on what feels right to you.
If you’re ready to get started, here is the exact process I use each time I sit down to free write:
Grab some paper and a pen (a pencil, a marker, a crayon – whatever writing utensil you want to use).
Sit somewhere that you won’t be disturbed for at least seven or eight minutes.
And start writing.
It’s as easy as that. =)
The hardest thing about this practice is often giving ourselves enough uninterrupted time to do it.
Seven or eight minutes is the minimum amount of time that I would recommend allowing yourself, because (normally) it takes about four or five minutes to get through those automatic thoughts. Once you do, that quiet voice that isn’t so pushy can start to speak to you and guide you. The more time that you can give this quiet voice to speak, the more you will ultimately benefit from doing this practice.
Free writing is a simple practice that you can make your own as you continue doing it.
At first, if you’re worried that you’ll lose track of time, if you have somewhere else to be, or if you’re reluctant to sit there for very long, set a timer for yourself. That way you aren’t constantly interrupting the flow of ideas to check the time. If you’re going to do this on your phone, be sure to set your phone to silent all except for the timer itself if you can.
(On our phones we can set the alarm, silence our phones, and the alarm will still go off. Depending on what type of phone you have, or what your life looks like, I understand that not everyone can do this. If you can’t, just do your best to avoid interruptions while you’re writing.)
After you’ve done it a few times, you’ll start to figure out more about your own free writing process – how long it takes you to get past the automatic thoughts, when the best time to try to write is (normally it’s at night for me), etc.
Know this though, your process may look a little different each time you’re doing it, depending on what you’re working through at the time, on what’s going on in your life in that moment, and on how open you are to what you’re doing. It can also depend on things like how tired you are, if you’re hungry, and other basics. Give yourself permission to be present with what is and write whatever comes up.
Some days I can spend an hour or more writing things out, only to finish and see that I’ve just gone in circles. Other days I can write for a few minutes and work through massive amounts. Whatever comes up for you, or doesn’t come up, don’t judge it. Just keep practicing. Your intuition may be trying to direct you to something that seems insignificant or completely unrelated.
The other thing that sometimes happens is that we sit down to write, with the best of intentions, and our minds just go completely blank.
If this happens, try one of these exercises to help you get started:
1) Start writing out everything that happened today (or yesterday if you’re doing this in the morning).
2) Write out your to-do list for the day, or even a to-don’t list, and how you feel about doing each item on the list. What might you be worried about getting done?
3) Make a list of five things that you’re thankful for, in your current circumstances.
4) Think about something that may be worrying you and start writing out all of the solutions that you can think of.
5) Make a list of animals, food, or something else completely random.
6) Look around you and write about an item that is in the room with you – like a clock, a picture, or even the chair you’re sitting in. Write out the details of what it looks like, what color it is, how comfortable it is, where it came from, etc.
7) Think of somewhere that you’ve always wanted to go, like Niagra Falls or Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, and start writing about why you’d like to go there. Make a list of all of the things you hope to see while you’re on your trip. Don’t get hung up in whether or not you can actually go right now, just focus on the possibility.
Some of these may sound silly, but they will help you to at least get started. While you’re doing them, as soon as your mind starts to wander, let it. Follow it. Write down everything it says like you’re a court stenographer. Even if it’s “cake yum bing bong monkey dance woohoo”, just keep writing. Remember, this doesn’t have to make sense, especially in the moment. Just write whatever pops in your head.
This isn’t something that anyone is going to read (unless you want them to). It isn’t something that you’re going to be graded on, and you’re not trying to win a contest. Grammar doesn’t matter. Spelling doesn’t matter. You won’t lose points for writing messy. Just write.
Free writing certainly isn’t going to solve all of your problems all by itself, but it’s a great tool to keep in your back pocket in case you need it.
I can’t tell you the number of times that I have been frustrated with everything and everyone around me, without really knowing why, and free writing has helped me to figure it out. Even when it doesn’t point to a solution directly, at the very least it helps to point me in the right direction.
More often than not though, it’s a way to get the clutter out of my mind so that solutions can more easily come through later. It’s like the art of feng shui teaches: clean out clutter to make room for what’s to come, be it more freedom and space or better things and people. Cleaning out the clutter of our minds helps us to free up space to concentrate on those things that are truly the most important to us, rather than the things that are just leftover.