In her writing guides, Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind, Natalie Goldberg encourages readers to practice timed free writing. The key to timed free writing is not that you write five minutes, or ten minutes, or twenty minutes, but it is what you do when you think you are finished. You set the timer for five or ten minutes more and keep going. The reason? You will often be surprised, even startled, by what your creative brain spits out when it thinks the free writing is over.
I have followed this practice many times during my writing life, and am always amazed at how well it works. Often, in those last few minutes, the meat or the meaning of what I was trying to say falls out onto my paper. This surprise in writing is one of the reasons why I love it so much. But free writing is not the only place where I enjoy surprise in writing.
During the poetry session of a writing workshop I led, I borrowed my daughter’s poetry magnets and gave each participant and myself a small, random handful. The group and I were almost astonished by the beautiful poems our brains produced with these random words. Everyone created pieces with meaning and insight. I’m not a brain scientist and it isn’t important how they do it, but it fascinates me how our brains can take random things and put them together to create something concrete and meaningful.
The best poems I’ve ever written are dripping with surprise. When I free write, many times I merely pay attention to the words flying through my head and I copy them down in my journal. As I’m writing, they seem random, independent, and not connected at all. Often when I’m done, I have an entire poem that I think is just comprised of haphazard words. But then I read it. Sometimes it happens immediately and sometimes it doesn’t happen until I read it maybe months of even years later, but I find meaning. A real, honest-to-goodness poem with insight and meaning my brain created when I was just paying attention to individual words. Usually, I’ll need a few words added to cement the meaning, but it is all there in the original transcription.
Even what I initially fear are mistakes in my writing sometimes end up being my brain actually saying what it meant to say. For example, the title poem of my poetry collection, The Other Side of Crazy, starts off with “Peddle down the street, past salted pines.” When the initial proof came, I thought, Oh no, I made a mistake. Peddle means to sell something and pedal a bicycle is what I actually envisioned. But then I read through the rest of the poem and I remembered when I wrote it. I was in the middle of a prospect-calling campaign for my business and I realized the poems described precisely how I felt about cold calling. And peddle actually fits better. So I kept it.
Surprise in writing practice can manifest in many different ways; the writer just needs to be open to it. And believe. But there’s a catch: you have to be writing to find it.