“Writing is like breathing, it’s possible to learn to do it well, but the point is to do it no matter what.”
— Julia Cameron
Iam a martial artist. By the time I turned 20, I already had 4 mixed-martial-arts bouts under my belt.
All that sounds minorly impressive, but here’s the thing:
Nothing in my life has vexed me, kept me on my tippy toes and best behaviour, than writing.
You see, the act of writing is a uniquely solitary endeavour. There are no business partners to answer to, nor coaches to impress. It’s as pure and ice-cold lonely as can be — just you against the blank page.
You against yourself.
And among the myriad of problems writing presents, the dreaded writer’s block is by far the most common, and the most deadly.
I know, because I used to suffer from it. On some hallowed days, the words would flow like honey, like sweet Valhalla-mead. On other days, though, my fingers are made of lead, my brain of slush. Quicksilver words turn to bone-dry dust in my grasp, and my stories would fall flat, dead, and aborted before they had a chance to live as words on paper.
All that changed when I attended a writer’s retreat in Bali. There, deep in the jungles of Ubud, I picked up a technique called “free-writing.”
This little technique killed my writer’s block stone dead. It revolutionized the way I approached writing, forever.
4 Priceless Lessons I Learned On a $2000 Writing Retreat
The retreat was set in Bali, and it was everything an aspiring writer like me dreamed of.
Know what the best part is?
You don’t have to fly all the way to Bali and pay over $2000 to pick it up! I’m happy to share everything I learned on that trip, right here on Medium. If anything, I’m glad to be of service to my fellow writers.
Read on, my friend.
Stream-of-Consciousness Writing (Or Free-Writing)
…a person writes continuously for a set period of time without worrying about rhetorical concerns or conventions and mechanics, sometimes working from a specific prompt provided by a teacher. While free writing often produces raw, or even unusable material, it can help writers overcome writing blocks and build confidence by allowing them to practice….. phases of the writing process without fear of censure.”
I remember the day clearly.
It was a typical Bali afternoon, which means it was swelteringly hot. I was taking shelter in a gazebo along with two dozen writers, waiting patiently for our guest of the day (Andy, a poet) to speak.
However, instead of speaking, he assigned to us a strange task. We were each given a topic to write, and exactly 2 minutes to write it.
Also, there was a catch.
We cannot stop writing. Our pens must be in continuous motion, scrawling down whatever was in our minds.
This meant that after 2 minutes, my end product looked something like this:
Topic: A First
Man’s discovery of fire: sometime in the palaeolithic, a man (or woman) was the first to discover fire. How crazy it must’ve been for a caveman to do that. Did it fall from the sky? Was it a bushfire? It has been lost to history, the annals of history. I wish someone wrote it down, maybe in a cave painting or something. Did he carry it back with a torch? Have torches been fashioned yet? What did the other members of his tribe think? How did they eventually harness fire and use it to cook and scare animals and take over the night? Come to think of it Prometheus was the first to discover Fire and bring it to Man, so it has been written down of sorts, like 3000 years ago, not however much Millenia, but it’s still cool to have a collective conscious memory –
As you can see, this is literally me rambling. It’s borderline unintelligible and absolutely unpublishable. Why do it, then?
Because it’s a great warm-up!
How many of you have had this experience? You are jolted awake by your alarm clock. You proceed to roll out of bed, dump some cold water on your face before plonking down to write — only to find that the words don’t come.
I’m guilty as charged.
The purpose of this seemingly pointless exercise isn’t to create a masterpiece. It’s to warm up our minds, to ready ourselves for the act of writing.
Just like how an athlete must limber up with some jumping jacks before embarking on a strenuous workout, so must a writer prepare his mind for a day of serious writing ahead.
Andy the poet was a true professional. He knew how important warm-ups were.
After a handful of minutes writing stream-of-consciousness style, we started on our poetry assignments. I was surprised to find that despite having zero experience in poetry, I was able to churn out several poems that day.
That unintelligible gibberish I wrote at the top? Upon revision, it became “Prometheus” — the first poem I ever wrote.
It wasn’t magic. I was simply warmed up.
Warm-ups are tremendously important, yet criminally neglected.
That’s why Julia Cameron introduced the practice of ‘Morning Pages’ in her book, The Artists Way.
“Morning Pages are three pages of longhand, stream of consciousness writing, done first thing in the morning.”
The practice of Morning Pages is simple. Write three pages, long-hand, when you wake. Don’t overthink it. Just write. Put pen to paper and jiggle it around until raw ink transmutes into formed words. What you write doesn’t matter.
What matters most is that you write.
Writing these morning pages serves to start your day on the right note. It rouses your creative muse, flexes your mental muscles.
Simply put, free-writing will help your writing mind warmed up and your creative gears firing at all cylinders.
Remember That The First Draft Always Sucks
“There is no wrong way to do Morning Pages — they are not high art. They are not even “writing.” They are about anything and everything that crosses your mind– and they are for your eyes only.”
In my opinion, the reason why many writers suffer from writer’s block is simple. They are deceived by the illusion of perfection. They lust after a myth and are consequently crippled in the pointless pursuit of an impossibility.
I know. This is precisely why I suffered from the block.
Many writers hold writing in such high regard that they end up treating it too seriously. Writing, like all acts of creation, should be fun. Bukowski said: “Writing must never be boring! It must not bore the reader, the writer — it must not bore anybody!”
He’s right, you know.
Great writers edit with a serious eye but write with a playful heart. They enjoy their craft.
So, when you sit down to free-write, suspend judgement. Leave your critic-capped adult at the door. Get in touch with your inner poet-child. Hand him the reins. Tell him that it’s okay to suck, that it’s okay to fail. Encourage him to have fun.
Then watch him make magic.
And when the blank page is blank no more, when you have the skeleton of a story, then, and only then, do you put on the critic cap and start the editorial process.
Never, ever write and edit at the same time.
“Write a million words–the absolute best you can write, then throw it all away and bravely turn your back on what you have written. At that point, you’re ready to begin.” — David Eddings
I’m not a morning person, so I usually get my free-writing done in the wee hours of the night. Just me, my good-old-fashioned fountain pen, and a battered journal.
Ever since I started this simple practice, I’ve never suffered from the dreaded block. Not once.
I like the above advice by David Eddings very much. It’s useful to pretend the first million words you write will be complete garbage. It’s prudent to take out the trash as quickly as you can.
Your first million words — that’s your warm-up.
So pick a topic, and write about it. Write the first thing that comes to mind. Remember to relax. Flow. Drift along the stream of your imagination, let it take you where it will. After two or three minutes of this, I promise you’ll feel something visceral inside you roar to life.
That’s your creative spark getting warm, preparing for action.
That’s your inner writer flexing his fingers, saying “I’m ready now, champ. Let me at em’!”
So here’s my tip.
Writer’s block is nothing but mental cramps. To prevent it, get yourself properly warmed up by writing freely. Write whatever comes to mind, stream-of-consciousness style. Julia Cameron recommends 3 pages first thing in the morning, longhand.
Incorporate the simple practice of free-writing into your schedule, and watch the dreaded block — the bane of every creator’s existence, disappear behind the rearview mirror, never to be seen again.
Good riddance, and happy writing!