Diary of a Poet

Generating New Poems from Freewrites

I’m a dedicated freewriter. I especially like that freewriting has roots in poet Jack Kerouac’s stream of consciousness, “spontaneous prose,” the Surrealist Movement’s “automatic writing,” and in Yeat’s “trance-writing.” (Check out this videopoem by Helena Postigo, “I Think of Dean Moriarity.”)

My first introduction to freewriting was in a college English class in 1980. At first, I simply hated it. I stopped often, stumbled, stared at the clock, felt awkward, and concluded that freewriting was a huge waste of time. However, I had to turn in my daily freewrites as part of my grade, so, in spite of my resentment, I kept at it.

It got easier, and eventually I saw the value of this exercise: getting unfiltered, unedited and unpredictable ideas onto a piece of paper as fast as possible, before your left brain can take over and squelch your spontaneity. 

Many, if not most, of my completed poems, essays, reviews and articles started as freewrites. Sometimes I’m not even aware that’s I’m doing; I might open my journal up to a blank page and start making lists of words, which become sentences and phrases.

For example, an entry from two years ago starts with some words I was playing with:

lamp / lump                             wall / worth

bird / beard                              chair / choir

ruler / school                           pen / dead

book / bulk                              napkin / crumble

Then I wrote these lines:

“I went to St. Vinnies to donate a few dozen books I’d removed from my office it was cloudy and threatening rain I wore my ‘Oregon’ blue flannel shirt which I bought at St. Vinnies last year seamless dirty scudding a map is sad a bit of earth that belongs to you in my dream I am picking up small stones from a dry riverbed each stone is a word balloon the comfort of feeling the stone teardrops and hearts I wish the rain would”

That freewrite resulted in the poem “Donating Books to St. Vincent de Paul,” which was just published in the journal Blue Unicorn.

A year ago I was thinking about Germany, the land of my mother’s people and where I was born. I wrote down “German desserts have rosewater and sour cherries and Spaghettieise jeder liebt ein comeback* leviathan is a sea monster or the political state having a vast bureaucracy I sat under the lime trees happily alone Every corner is a door to the city of the past the street was bright with seraphim and stumble-stones”

At this point I realized that I was writing about the city of Berlin, which I last visited in 2015 and was missing in that first pandemic summer. The freewrite became the poem “Evening in Berlin,” which has yet to be published.

So how do you find the good stuff in your freewrites? Sometimes it just jumps out at you, but other times it’s more difficult. I have some techniques that I use when I need help seeing the possibilities.

First, make a copy of your last five freewrites. Then, do any or all of the following three activities:

  1. Go through them and highlight every third sentence. Type these new sentences into a Word document and see what comes up.
  2. Look for any themes that arise, any places where the freewrites seem to be talking to each other. 
  3. If 1 & 2 don’t shake any ideas loose, try this: starting with one of the freewrites, write the whole page backwards, then do the same with the other four.

Let yourself creatively misinterpret things you’ve written (think of song lyrics, aka “mondegreens.”) 

Your freewrites are a rich vein of inspiration. I hope you’ll mine them for more poems. And keep freewriting; it does get easier.

*”Everyone loves a comeback.” I saw this printed on a bus in Berlin in 2015.

8 replies »

  1. Thank you, Erica. Your examples and suggestions are very helpful. I really appreciate the preciseness of your process. I’m going to share your essay with my poetry friends so can also benefit.
    Hope all is well with you and I look forward to reading your new poems online!

  2. I really needed this post today. I’m in a weekly poetry workshop that ends with a freewrite. I hate freebies and rarely am able to write much of anything. After reading your post, I’ve decided to stick with it and keep trying.

  3. I really needed this post today. I’m in a weekly poetry workshop that ends with a freewrite. I hate freebies and rarely am able to write much of anything. After reading your post, I’ve decided to stick with it and keep trying.

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