Monday 18 February 2019

Freewriting For Anxious Writers

Freewriting For Anxious Writers

By Casey Douglass

If you write, the chances are high that, when searching for ways to boost your creativity, you will inevitably come across freewriting. As is frequently the way though, a technique that might help 9 out of 10 people can be a pain in the backside for someone with anxiety problems. When I first tried freewriting, it caused my Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) to flare, something that I wasn’t really expecting. I kept at it though, and by a gentle slackening of two of the “rules”, turned it into something that I could tolerate and benefit from.

In this post I will talk about freewriting, what it is, and the common sense ways that I think you can approach it to get the best out of it, without straining your mental reserves. There might also be the odd bad joke along the way. If you struggle with anxiety or mental illness, only you can decide if freewriting may trigger things for you or not. If it sounds like it will, you might be best checking out other creativity tools, maybe ones that involve a less brain-frazzling process.

Plunging the Depths

Besides being an excellent porn movie title, plunging the depths is an apt description for what freewriting does. You sit, intending to start with a topic, but with a willingness to branch out and write every thought that comes up, no matter how rude, bad, strange, off-topic or brilliant. You commit to writing for a certain period of time, and at a reasonable speed, not giving your mind time to censor or critique. You'll decide which material warrants further use later, if any does.

You might decide to start with the topic of “Creativity in the Morning”, then give yourself ten minutes to just write and write and write. All sorts will come up, how stupid freewriting is, that you’re hungry, that the world is going down the drain. The act of freewriting is a continuous splurge of mental wordage splashing against the page, with little thought for how you are going to clean up the mess later. You just need to capture it in the bucket that is your blank page. Sorry, I got a swept away by my water imagery there, but you get the idea.

Releasing the Demons

Besides being a bad porn movie title, releasing the demons is an apt label, as freewriting can certainly bring upsetting thoughts to mind. If you have any kind of problem with anxiety producing intrusive thoughts, such as something like OCD can bring, freewriting might turn into a bit of a horror show. I’m a long way down the recovery path with my OCD. I still have it, really badly at times, but I know it inside out; its tricks and quirks and the way it fools me. If you often find yourself grappling with your thoughts, freewriting might be something that puts you in a frame of mind that is pretty unhelpful, not just to your writing, but with regards to your mental health too.

An aspect of my own recovery was in taking to heart the viewpoint that thoughts are only thoughts, and that there are those we can control, our voluntary thoughts, and those that we can’t control, the ones our mind produces of its own accord. Any OCD sufferer will know that in any situation, OCD usually throws up the most horrendous thought possible, one that goes against everything the person really feels or stands for; one that will cause the biggest anxiety surge. You like going to church? Get ready for some XXX rated thoughts about Jesus. You view yourself as a safe driver? How about some fears and concerns that you aren’t as safe as you think you are, that you are terrible in fact, and are a menace to others? You get the idea. Do we really want to prod this aspect of our mind?

Cattle Prod Dreams

Besides being a bad... Okay I’m done with that joke. If we decide to engage in some freewriting, how can we do it without torturing ourselves? The only way that I’ve found, as in many things in life, is practising acceptance. Accept that you will have all kinds of thoughts. Accept that some of these might make you feel horrible. Accept that you could have these thoughts at anytime anyway. Accept that the reason you are doing this is to unlock more of your creativity. Accept that creativity always carries a risk. You get the idea.

How do we accept though? It’s easy to write it in words, but when your heart is hammering as if it’s been jolted with a cattle prod, and your mind is chewing through thoughts like a hyperactive beaver at a bothersome log, it can all seem overwhelming. The first thing we can attempt to accept is the discomfort itself. We’ve been anxious before, we will be again. It never lasts, even if it seems like it does. The next thing we can do is to take a break, providing some time for the body and mind to calm down. Thoughts in an anxious state will very likely be anxious ones. Focussing on other things for a while, or doing something else gives the body time to emerge from danger mode, and the quality of your thoughts will probably change too. If you did find yourself in the fight-or-flight state after freewriting, maybe your writing pace helped fuel things?

The Tortoise Spanked The Hare

It’s a shame I’ve given up on that joke... Anyway, there can sometimes be a problem with trying to write or type at speed, and that is how it can make your mind race. Personally, the faster I type, the more worked-up my mind gets. I can type very quickly, so my mind ramps up trying to give my fingers more and more word-fuel, and before I know it, my head hurts, my body too, and anxiety is very likely tickling my fight-or-flight response. The simple solution is to write more slowly. It doesn't have to be at a snail’s pace (see title picture). The main thing is that you don’t censor what is coming up. You can freewrite in a less frenetic way, it's a matter of experimenting to see which pace is comfortable for you.

Let Some Thoughts Go

I had to have at least one subheading that wasn't colourful... You don’t actually need to write down every thought, especially those that you can clearly see are part of your anxiety response or latest ruminations. If you are freewriting on the topic of a new horror story you want to write, and thoughts about the coming day or any other current obsession begin to creep in, just leave those ones alone and return to the last thought that seems fruitful. You can freewrite in the way that best serves you, it’s down to you to find your own workable “rules” and technique.

If doing something a certain way just leaves you feeling wasted and bleary, you’ve learnt not to do it that exact way again. Of course, there might sometimes be inspiration gained by following the very thoughts that you feel aren’t very productive. They might even reveal something about you and your mental health that you would never have realised. You are your own best judge as to when to follow the rabbit down the rabbit hole, and when to sit next to the tree and breakout your picnic. I hope you brought cheese and Branston pickle sandwiches, otherwise its not really a picnic.

Dammed If You Do, Sad If You Don’t

Freewriting can be a useful way to generate ideas and notions. If you find the technique overwhelming for whatever reason, relaxing a “rule” here and there can make something that feels stressful more workable. If it helps you concoct the ideas around which your next story, article or poem will revolve, the time taken to tinker and experiment with freewriting is time well spent. If it feels bad, stop, take a break, and then reassess what you were doing and what you might try differently next time. Using a computer? Try pen and paper. Scrabbling to record all your thoughts? Let some go.

If your creativity is locked behind a dam, opening a small release valve for a few trickles of inspiration is a lot safer than trying to punch through the concrete with a jack-hammer. It’s also far better than staring at the dam and not doing anything at all, feeling sad and dejected that you can’t think of what to write. If I was sitting at the dam right now, I would be wondering why these bloomin’ water images keep coming up.

Maybe I need a pee. I’m off to investigate.

Thanks for reading.