Diary Entry

Freewriting? or Writing for Free?

One of the nice things, or so I thought, about publishing a book that actual people might read, was being asked to answer interview questions in writing. How cool! I get to talk about the book I wrote, not to mention me! Soon after publishing my memoir Breathless, I received a few requests of this sort. Flattered, I said yes. I said yes more than once. I’m still saying yes, though, skeptically, and with a sense of embarrassment sliding into shame. Why is that? Because I am writing for free. I’m sure that well-known writers would not do this, write for free. Either the inquiring venue would offer a fee, or the agent would demand one. Only we sps (supplicant writers) never even ask. We are grateful for the chance to win over another reader. We drink the Kool-Aid.

Screen shot 2014-01-08 at 4.06.13 PMAs an academic, of course, I’m used to writing for free. (Why pay us? We earn a salary.) Our reward for publishing books that don’t make money for their publishers and therefore don’t receive advances is appearing in a footnote a few years later, turning up in an index. Whoa, now that is exciting, or what we academics consider rewarding, especially since the opposite—being left out of a note or an index–can be a vexing, if not humiliating experience. (For a stellar account of humiliation see my colleague Wayne Koestenbaum’s brilliant Humiliation.)

I realized that I was getting bothered by the prospect of writing for free when I was asked to provide a photo essay for a travel magazine that had run a piece (um, interview) on my book. It would take a fair amount of work (on the assumption that they found my photographs exciting enough to run), and would it really send readers to my book? Was it worth my time?

Screen shot 2014-01-08 at 4.07.38 PMAs I was thinking not just about time, but how much time and money (there’s the website, the publicist, the author photo, the launch—all on our nickel) we sps spend to help our books to survive, the concept of “freewriting” popped into my mind. Freewriting is a term for a wonderful writing practice developed by Peter Elbow in Writing Without Teachers. The key to freewriting is nonediting during the exercise. Freewriting means just sitting down and letting whatever comes out on the page flow. Freewriting expresses your voice, your rhythm, Elbow argues, and without that you are nothing. Now, you may well want or need to edit after you’ve completed the exercise, oiled the machine. That’s a courtesy to your reader. But it’s a different process. Elbow no doubt coined the term before automatic spell check came along to turn freewriting—one word—into two. And of course the compulsive self-editing built into writing on the computer.

So here’s my idea. Do “writing for free” only as freewriting. Again, with the caveat, of checking afterwards for spelling mistakes or total incoherence. That way, you do the writing for free faster, which means cheaper—for you—and, according to Elbow, writing better. You are wasting less time doing something with dubious cost-benefit ratio. I, for one, already feel a lot better.

What say you?

Nancy K. Miller. Diary

Welcome. Some musings on my current preoccupations with the worlds of illness and the worlds of books, the vicissitudes of living with cancer and the need now, in my eighties, to imagine what new writing might be. 

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