How To Freewrite

HOW TOFreewriting means writing as fast as you can and without self-censorship. This can serve two purposes: it can be an amazing way to brainstorm or get started on a writing project, and it can also be an awesome form of journal therapy.

Just because it’s called “freewriting” doesn’t mean you can’t start with a prompt! For example, you can have a specific problem to solve, like “What are my phobia triggers?” or “What makes me truly happy?” This type of freewriting is often the most useful, but you can practice freewriting without a prompt to get used to the process, or just to aid you in creative work.

Here are some tips:

  • Find a format that works for you. This will probably require experimentation. Some people like that they can type faster than they write, but I feel tempted to erase and fix things when I’m on a computer. You can do it on a Word document, a blog (private or public), a journal, loose-leaf paper, a napkin– whatever.
  • Get comfy, isolate yourself, and set a timer. Having no distractions is important for this process, unless you want to play music as inspiration. Start out with a few minutes at a time (maybe 3 or 5) and work your way up to 20 or more. Just like when you’re practicing meditation, you can start out with very tiny spans and then slowly grow your time spent freewriting. Since the idea is to get into a flow state, the more time you spend in one sitting the more likely you are to get surprising and helpful results.
  • Getting past self-censorship while writing takes practice, especially if you have been trained to think that your writing is going to be graded. The only thing that will solve this is repetition. If you make a habit of it and still find that you are censoring yourself, try doing some relaxation exercises before you start.
  • If you feel yourself stalling and sputtering out, just write nonsense words until you think of something else. You can write gibberish or type “I’m writing I’m writing I’m writing” over and over again.
  • Take a break before reading it over. Get a glass of apple juice, drink it slowly while you watch Stargate, and then come back to what you wrote. Don’t correct anything. (However, it may be useful to draw one cross-out line through the nonsense that doesn’t fit your goals for the session if you are brainstorming or trying to deal with a specific project or issue.) Usually, you will find at least one really interesting thing per freewriting session. That’s the bare minimum– freewriting is extremely powerful.
  • If you aren’t impressed with your own work, remember that this is a process and not a product. Every minute that you spend freewriting will improve your ability to freewrite in the future.

Do you freewrite already? What’s your process?

Please feel free to comment!


Why We Need Self-Diagnosis

WHY WE NEEDSelf-diagnosis is portrayed as the psychological equivalent of looking up exotic diseases on WebMD, but really, it’s a healthy process that leaves people with mental health problems more empowered.

So why are people so against it? I think anti-self-diagnosis rhetoric is based on a series of misunderstandings.

  • Self-diagnosis is not the same as an off-handed comment. For example, someone saying “Yeah, my books are in alphabetical order– I’m kind of OCD about it” is not the same as someone revealing that, after lots of careful thought, they think they have OCD. It can be kind of tough to tell the difference sometimes, but it definitely exists.
  • There are no laboratory tests for mental illnesses. Say you think your finger is broken and you go to the doctor. You report your pain, but your doctor also has an x-ray done and reveals that your finger is, in fact, broken. Everyone agrees it should be put in a cast. However, there’s no laboratory test for even the most common mental illnesses. So how does psychological diagnosis work?
  • Diagnosis relies on the self-reporting of symptoms, which people really can understand and report accurately. When you have a broken leg, you might report the pain, which is an important part of the diagnosis. With mental illnesses, you’re self-reporting every aspect of the disorder. This involves a couple of steps: realizing you have a problem, researching that problem, checking your experience against the symptom, and finally making a decision. For example, you might begin by realizing that not everyone has constant, life-altering fatigue. So you research it and find out that it’s commonly an aspect of depression. Depression? You agree that you feel sad a lot of the time, and often have thoughts of suicide, so you go to the doctor and report all this, and probably get a diagnosis of depression in return. This means that even when you have a doctor’s help, a large part of the diagnosis process rests on you.
  • Not everyone can access healthcare to get an official diagnosis. Assuming you have insurance (which is not a given) wait times for doctors can be essentially infinite, leaving you to fend for yourself in the meantime.
  • However, self-diagnosis doesn’t mean that there are no professionals involved. Professionals may unofficially diagnose, or agree with a self-diagnosis. For example, my therapist doesn’t believe strongly in diagnoses, so she gave me a very vague one to appease the insurance company while still exploring my symptoms. Now, she would diagnose me with something very different. Other professionals won’t officially diagnose more “severe” mental health problems due to the accompanying stigma that the patient may face.
  • Professionals almost always under-diagnose. When you see a general practitioner, you will almost always come away with a diagnosis of depression and/or anxiety. Many people with less common disorders, like Dissociative Identity Disorder, go through a variety of professionals before someone diagnoses them accurately.
  • The right diagnoses don’t always exist, even when they should. I am an enthusiastic advocate for the inclusion of Complex PTSD in the DSM, but as yet it hasn’t happened. That means that the diagnosis that accurately suits me, and has helped me grow immeasurably, doesn’t officially exist. (The reasons are mainly inter-scientist politics.) Therefore, a professional diagnosis is always going to be slightly inaccurate.
  • The point of a diagnosis is to get better and/or learn to manage your illness, and a self-diagnosis can do just that. People can use a self-diagnosis to find a community and coping skills that they may not have had access to otherwise. For example, someone’s self-diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder might lead them to find Dialectical Behavior Therapy techniques that they can practice on their own or with guidance.
  • Someone else’s psychiatric diagnoses aren’t your business. Interestingly, mental illnesses are really the only self-diagnosis that gets called into question. People won’t even ask, “Are you sure it’s the flu and not just a cold?” I wonder why that is…

Please feel free to comment with your thoughts!

Writing for the Stage: A Primer

WRITING FOR THEBeing a writer who also works in the theatre has offered me a unique perspective on both writing and creating theatre. Fundamentally, they aren’t that different: just variations on the transmission of narratives. However, the reason that so many genres exist is that certain stories belong as fiction, and others as movies, and some are made for the stage.

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Review: Fiend by Peter Stenson

by Peter Stenson is an amazingly creative novel. In it, he manages not only to add energy to the popular zombie narrative with chilling details (like the eerie laughter they emit while hunting) but shows us a really engaging portrait of addiction. The entire work is an allegorical portrayal of the author’s inner life, but in my opinion it doesn’t feel heavy-handed. Instead, it feels like an honest portrayal of the verdict when an addict asked himself “What would happen if I was alone with my meth?”

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Titles 101: Choosing Engaging Names for Creative Work

1Recently, I finished a chapbook of poetry, and while titling each individual poem was something I had been doing for years, drawing together a collection with a cohesive and interesting name was new for me. I ended up copying the title of one of the poems in the collection, “Losing Teeth,” but it got me thinking about how and why we give the names we do to our creative works. I have written poems, plays, articles, and stories, and I’d like to share some ideas for those who may not know where to start.

Summarize your work.

This worked for Kerouac with On The Road, and J.K. Rowling with each installment of the Harry Potter series. It has the advantage of immediately telling readers what they are in for, but titles chosen in this way aren’t necessarily going to be creative or gripping.

Guide readers towards themes and motifs.

The central conflict in Rent is whether or not the main characters will be forced to pay their rent. However, the stories that the musical tells serve to remind the audience that “you can’t take it with you” and to not take life or relationships for granted. The simple title gives weight to the line “Everything is rent,” and invites us to read it as the main idea of the show.

Pick an interesting and unique phrase from your work.

This is particularly easy to do with poetry, because the use of language in the work is creative by definition. However, it would have worked for Kerouac too, who could have just as easily written Burn, Burn, Burn, which is a phrase from one of my favorite passages in the book:

The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.

—Jack Kerouac

Draw connections to another work.

This was one of my favorites to use in college, because it really impresses professors. Think of some similar works, especially literary, that might give your work deeper meaning through a connection with it. To again use Kerouac as an example, he could have gone with American Odyssey or, more subtly, My Name is Nobody.

Of course, titles are an important piece of any creative work, and they require careful consideration. You have to consider everything from the age group of your audience, to conventions of the genre, to the overall effect you want your work to have; for example, Kerouac may have picked his title not only because it is an accurate summary of the book, but because he wanted readers to make connections between his semi-autobiographical character’s adventures and Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, or maybe he wanted the focus to be on the geography and milieu of America more than individual characters. The ideas listed above are good ways to get your juices flowing, but don’t forget to make sure your title is the perfect one.

Happy titling! If you have any questions or there was something I didn’t address, feel free to comment!

Book Review: Out by Natsuo Kirino

Out is a fantastic read for anyone who is sick of predictable narratives. It was introduced to me as a mystery novel, which always follow relatively unsurprising patterns: there is a murder, an amateur sleuth gets involved, they solve the mystery, and the crook gets their comeuppance. Devotees of the genre are in it for the twists, but the timing of them, and often the twists themselves, are all too often predictable as well. However, in Out, we are know all about the murder and its perpetrator almost from the very beginning. In fact, we see it happen, and we know the identity of everyone involved. To me, that made the book even more mysterious than most of the genre, because I couldn’t even imagine how everything was going to come together in the end. Not only did I care about the fate of Masako and the other characters, but I kept reading because I desperately wanted to know how Kirino would solve this puzzle she had laid out for herself.

The novel is told from multiple viewpoints, but the protagonist turns out to be Masako, a serious and savvy middle aged woman. Many of the characters are housewives or widows who work together at a factory making boxed lunches; others, which show up later in the novel, are involved with the Yakuza and other similarly seedy occupations. Masako, as a middle-aged, lower class woman, is given a sympathetic treatment in a way that’s rare for characters like her. She is practical, sometimes to the point of ruthlessness, and yet readers can’t help but empathize with her. Her son hates her, her husband is distant, but readers see something in Masako that her family doesn’t: an astonishing inner strength. Natsuo Kirino’s interest in psychology is evident in her portrayal of each of the very different characters, from Masako to the sexually sadistic Yakuza to the homicidal housewife who sets the story rolling. Between the structure and the characters, Out feels extremely realistic. Like in real life, there isn’t a clear sense of the narrative as a discrete, clean package. Instead, the story goes until it is over, and due to the high stakes and the way we’re made to care about the characters, it is riveting all the way through.

It was published in 1997 in Japan, so English readers will have to read the translation that came out in 2004. However, nothing about the translation, or the portrayal of Japanese culture, feels clunky. For example, since Western readers may not be familiar with bento and its cultural significance, the translator just refers to them as “boxed lunches” and fills us in a little about the type of people who eat them when a character purchases one herself. Snyder has no need for the type of exposition blocks that I have seen in other, less skillful translations, and for that I was very thankful.

This novel is suited for all relatively mature readers who would be able to appreciate its complexity. Even those who aren’t fans of mystery (like myself) should give it a try because it is gripping but doesn’t lack the humanity and subtlety that we look for in more literary fiction. However, it is not for the faint-hearted. There are many grotesque scenes, made even more grotesque by the intimacy of the author’s portrayal. If you would be disturbed by an empathetic depiction of a combination rape/murder or a dismemberment, spare yourself the nausea, because much of the book contains very detailed, very bloody acts.


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Book Review: Breakers by Edward W. Robertson

A mysterious illness wipes out two thirds of the population, leaving the very few that are immune to fend for themselves. The narrative focuses on Walt, who ventures from New York City to the west coast after his girlfriend Vanessa dies, and Raymond and Mia who live a uniquely comfortable life farming and scavenging in Los Angeles.

Breakers was so good that it gave me new neuroses. After the population was taken out so quickly, I stayed away from dense crowds, and spent sleepless nights thinking about how fragile our carefully constructed society really is. If you are sensitive to health anxiety or anxiety in general, Breakers might be a little too intense for you.

My favorite aspect of this book was the choice in protagonists. The world is so interesting that Robertson could have gone in a lot of different directions, but he chose two protagonists that begin the story as regular, if reprehensible, people. Walt’s first reaction upon finding Vanessa dead is to grope her breast one last time, and soon after the illness breaks out Raymond gets involved in the black market, and then takes advantage of the looting that’s a result of the mass panic. However, by the time they meet, all three protagonists have been strengthened and improved by circumstances, which I thought was a very good move on the author’s part.

This is the first book in a trilogy, and is available for free on Kindle. Please support self-published authors like Edward W. Robertson and check it out!

Press Freedom: Before the First Amendment

Almost 250 years after America’s founding, lawmakers and the Supreme Court are still trying to strike a balance between the practicalities of running a nation and the spirit of that deeply important three-word phrase.

It’s astounding that the phrase was even included in the Bill of Rights at all. It was really bold for the new nation to value its lofty democratic ideals over the stability of its government, since every ruler up to this point had considered censorship a matter of course for their own well-being.

However, history classes often make it seem like the founders of America dreamed up the concept out of nowhere, and that minimizes the fascinating history of freedom of the press in the English-speaking world.

(Since I bet all y’all are preoccupied with barbecue, I’ve done my best to make this one as concise and entertaining as possible. Enjoy!)

The Printing Press

Around the time that Gutenberg invented the printing press, the rulers of Europe were both political and religious leaders, and therefore many types of new ideas were a threat to their power (and their heads). In modern secular America, very little speech is viewed as a real threat to the stability of the nation, but in Gutenberg’s day, even agnostic thinking was very, very dangerous. Therefore, the printing press served to really upset kings, who then kicked a bunch of people out of their country.

“Prior Restraint”

In England, printers were required to be licensed until 1694, which served as a way for the government to control what they published. Even after the law was repealed, printers were often charged with “seditious libel” for printing anything that might harm the nation, and therefore they often self-censored.

Milton’s Areopagitica

John Milton, the same guy who wrote Paradise Lost, wrote a pamphlet that advocated for total press freedom, because he believed that, like in a free market, the best and most truthful ideas would win out. Milton’s popularity meant that American leaders were undoubtedly familiar with this work.

The Zenger Trial

Around 1735, a very popular interim Governor in New York named Morris got replaced by William Cosby from England. Cosby started behaving poorly according to his citizens, and a group called the Morrisites hired a printer named Zenger to publish their anti-Cosby newspaper. After a few unsuccessful attempts, Cosby had Zenger arrested. The Morrisites found a couple of quality lawyers but Cosby, in a true dick move, disbarred them right before the trial. Andrew Hamilton (not Alexander!) volunteered to defend him, and gave the jury a stunning ending statement that continues to affect rulings today.

When someone was charged with seditious libel, all the prosecution had to do was prove that the person in question had published material that would harm someone else (or something, like the government as a whole). Hamilton argued that the jury should take into account whether Zenger had published anything false. This set an important precedent, and helped clarify freedom of the press for the new nation. And Cosby probably ended up pretty upset.

George Mason

When the colonies split from the new nation, each one drafted its own constitution and many of them not only set down how the state was to function in a practical sense, but in the anti-British frenzy, also included “inalienable rights” that lawmakers couldn’t restrict.

Virginia was one of the first colonies to get to work, and the effort was headed by George Mason, who was strongly in favor of a free press. Most of the other states used his work as a blueprint, and therefore freedom of the press got included in many state constitutions.

After the Constitution was drafted, the states refused to ratify it unless they included a Bill of Rights, thereby cementing freedom of the press into the structure of our nation.

Happy Fourth of July!




Commedia Dell’ Arte: Background

In early Renaissance Italy, theatre was mainly happening privately, in the courts of the rich and the halls of the academies. By the mid-1500s, a new type of theatre for the masses had bloomed, known as the Commedia Dell’ Arte (which can be translated to “professional theatre”).

Even if you have never heard of Commedia before, you have definitely felt its influence. This makes sense, since it was the pervading form of entertainment in continental Europe for an entire two centuries! As we’ll see in later posts, many of the characters are familiar, and the pervading humor isn’t very different from The Three Stooges.

Italy was the center of Europe’s Renaissance, in part because of the vitality of its trade, but also because that was where the influence of Rome was most heavily felt. There, the arts blossomed, in part because of the ruling class status symbol of patronage for artists. It gave talented people time to develop and create artwork that otherwise, most people wouldn’t have the time for.

Commedia has two defining features: stock characters and improvisation.

The actors were both male and female, and for the most part wore easily-recognizable masks that showed their character’s personality. Not every troupe had exactly the same repertoire of parts, but audiences in different countries could recognize the most famous characters from their mask alone. This is familiar to us in the form of a family sitcom: we have the dull-witted husband, the controlling wife, and the smart-aleck kids, who entertain us with a new situation every week. Even if we’re watching a new show, the formula is basically the same.

When we talk about improvisation in Commedia, it’s important to understand that each actor played the same role for many years (often, their entire lives). Therefore, while it wasn’t scripted or planned in advance, the actors had time to tailor their lines based on favorable audience reaction. In addition to the main plot, there were “bits” planned in advance, known plurally as lazzi, which set the base for the individual scenes. (This will be discussed more in a later post.)

Another important feature of Commedia is the emphasis placed on acrobatics and other particular types of movement. Each character had a specific way of moving that was central to the role, and many of their trademarks involved athletic stunts and tumbles, in addition to stage combat. It would have looked very much like the work of Buster Keaton (made even better in this video by the addition of Queen):

Commedia Dell’ Arte’s roots are in the Roman theatre form known as Atellan Farce. Attelan Farce grew out of Greek theatre traditions, modified for a much, much less serious audience. It was obscene, improvisational, and featured stock characters, some that are obviously ancestors of Commedia characters.

The Commedia Dell’ Arte inspired a famous literary figure: Moliere. Moliere (which was his stage name) was a well-educated French playwright who wrote during the late 1600s. You may have heard of Don Juan? That was Moliere. His best talent was comedy, and he would pick-and-choose from Commedia scenarios to add to his work.

From a linguistics perspective, there is one aspect of Commedia that is particularly interesting: Gromalot. Since the actors traveled through a variety of countries that all spoke different languages, they came up with a creative solution to hurdle the language barrier: they used a nonsense language, which came to be known as Gromalot. Skilled actors understand how sounds contribute to meaning, and so do linguists (as we have seen from the famous “kiki” experiment). Therefore, an angry character might use harsh, guttural-sounding nonsense, and a jovial character’s speech might sound round and bubbly.

Here’s a video about Gromalot:

Review: Please by Jericho Brown

Jericho Brown’s 2008 collection Please is a free-verse auditory adventure from the place where blackness and homosexuality intertwine. This is Brown’s first book, but not his first foray into poetry, having completed an MFA and being published in numerous highly acclaimed magazines. He has also worked as a professor and speechwriter in New Orleans.

Divided into sections titled like the buttons on a CD player, Brown often uses music and musicians as a backdrop for his experiences. The collection focuses on themes of shame, but since the tone is neutral and the imagery is varied, it does not feel overwhelming, nor like a pity party.

Here’s the statement from the book jacket, presumably written by the author:

Please explores the points in our lives at which love and violence intersect. Drunk on its own rhythms and full of imaginative and often frightening imagery, Please is the album playing in the background of the history and culture that surround African American/male identity and sexuality. Just as radio favorites like Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway, and Pink Floyd characterize loss, loneliness, addiction, and denial with their voices, these poems’ chorus of speakers transform moments of intimacy and humor into spontaneous music.

My only criticism of the work is that his use of spacing is not necessarily successful. One poem in particular is divided into three columns, and totally baffled me until I realized it was supposed to be read horizontally and not vertically. Other spacing choices just don’t feel intentional.

I recommend this book for people who like cleanly-written, confessional-style poetry, and those who are looking for something a little meatier than a chapbook.