A Conversation between Donna Druchunas and Cynthia Morris
For the past few years, I’ve been taking a quarterly writing course with Cynthia Morris, called the “Free-Write Fling.” In this course, we receive a daily writing prompt, and commit to writing at least 15 minutes every day for a month. Doing this four times a year gives me enough raw material for almost everything I have to write in the entire year. The non “fling” months, I spend reviewing, revising, editing, and polishing the writing to create book chapters, articles, essays, and stories. I love how this quarterly ritual has enriched my writing process.
Cynthia’s course starts up again on May 1st, and I can’t wait. I have a new notebook ready and I’ve bought special purple ink for my fountain pen. Why don’t you join us? There’s still time to sign up!
I’ve invited Cynthia to have a conversation with me about how we both use free-writing in our work.
Hi, it’s Cynthia Morris, a fan and friend of Donna’s. I’m a fan because I love how she has brought her unbridled creativity into a wonderful life for herself. We’ve been working together since 2010, in a coaching group I lead and in my online writing class, the Free-Write Fling. We’ve worked to help Donna bring even more creativity into the planning of her work. It’s been a total joy to see her colors and sketches help her map what she wants to create for her readers and knitting tribe. Donna has taken free-writing to heart and has really used it to her advantage for all kinds of writing.
Donna is the kind of person I love to work with—smart, successful, creative and willing to learn and grow even more. I’m known for being both left- and right-brained in my coaching, speaking, writing and art making, and I love helping others be more holistically creative and successful.
When I’m not running my company Original Impulse from Denver or on the road, I am making watercolor illustrations, going to yoga, reading books and eating really good food.
It’s been fun to collaborate with Donna on this interview to share our experience with free-writing.
I know you write a lot of different things, Cynthia, from a novel and essays, to blog posts and marketing copy. I’d like to ask you a few questions about how you use free writing in your process.
1) Do you outline before you write?
Generally for short articles, interviews or blog posts, no. For books, yes. I mind map all the content and turn that into an outline and that goes into a table of contents and those subjects become prompts. From there I free-write on them.
2) Where do you get prompts to write from? Are your prompts always related to the specific piece you are writing?
As I mentioned above, for specific project, the prompts are topic-related. They may be concepts or specific stories or case studies. I generate a list of ‘scenes’ or stories and use them to begin writing.
3) Do you write every day?
I do. I am always writing something, either sales letters, marketing copy, articles for my newsletter or blog, feedback for clients and students or personal journaling. That said, I am likely not writing every single day, but probably at least five days.
4) What do you do with the words you create in each free writing session?
For me, when I participate in the Free-Write Fling, I use the timed sessions for personal journaling. I am not working on any big projects now, so I don’t need that time to generate publishable material. So those pieces are in lovely journals. Sometimes I peek back in and see what is there, but mostly it’s the process and not the product I value for those.
Last November, I participated in National Novel Writing Month. The goal is to generate at least 50,000 words on a novel. I cheated and worked on a memoir. Every day, I did three free-write sessions: 10, 15 and 20-minutes long. I ended up with 60,000-ish words and have a beginning, a middle and an end of a shaggy first draft.
That book may never see the light of day but it was wonderful to get those stories out and to go through that clarifying and healing process of writing the stories out.
I have a great process for the articles and blog posts I write. It may seem like a lot, and it is time-consuming. But I think writing we are going to publish should be polished. So here’s what I do.
After I type a free-written article, I print it up. I revise with a pen, and type those changes into the document. I print it up again and make more hand-written changes. The first round of changes is quite extensive. It’s where I am adding connective language between paragraphs. I am making stronger word choices. I am adding pieces that didn’t come out in the first flow. By now, it’s almost done but for the headline and a few final passes.
That’s how I write my articles.
5) Is there anything else you’d like to share?
I’m not one of those people who thinks everyone should do the same thing. However, I do believe very strongly in the power of free-writing. And that’s because I have seen hundreds of writers liberate themselves from writer’s block using this method. It’s so useful—it can be used for all kinds of writing, by all kinds of people. I love how truly liberating it can be.
I’ve been writing professionally since about 2001 when I got a job as a tech writer. Two things have been most influential in my writing process and improvement that have been constant in all that time: free-writing and working with editors.
I learned so much at that first job about how to be a better writer from carefully observing the changes my editors made to my words. I learned how to streamline my writing, form better sentences, and avoid ambiguity in my statements. But editing is the second part of writing.
Before you can be edited, you need pages of written words, or what is usually called a first draft. The tech writing group I worked in was full of creative writers who had a day job to make a living. For Christmas one year, our boss gave each of us a copy of Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. That was my first introduction to the idea of free-writing: just dump words onto the page, don’t think, don’t cross out, don’t edit, don’t stop.
With those two tools, I’ve continued to grow and improve as a writer and even though I’ve now published several books, a multitude of articles, and I’m now working on personal essays and short stories, I always consider myself a beginner and I go back to free-writing and working with an editor every time I write.
Donna, I know you’ve just launched a Pubslush campaign for a new book, Lithuanian Knitting: Continuing Traditions.
1) Did you have stories—both your own and others’—that you used in the book? If so, how did you write them?
Yes, I do. In fact what I think makes my knitting books special is that they are full of stories. I use free-writing to get all of my stories started. I love having a seemingly random prompt to get me going, and watching how my mind connects it to a story that I want to tell. Later, I print out my material and make notes on it, then add more and make revisions as I type it up. I’ve used free-writing in my series called Stories In Stitches, too.
2) What did you learn about yourself as a person and as a knitter through the process of writing this book?
I learned to be patient with myself and that I am not really deadline driven. That’s a change for me. Working in corporate jobs in my 20s and 30s, I had to meet deadlines all the time. But in my own creative work, I have to give myself time to gestate the material and sometimes when I make an arbitrary deadline, I’m just not ready to write by that date. So I had to cut myself some slack and let the material develop more organically. The same thing happened with the knitting designs.
3) I’m curious about how you write the instruction for your patterns. I imagine it’s very precise, like recipe writing. Do you use free-writing or another method to get them on the page?
Knitting patterns are the only things I don’t use free-writing for. Because they are so structured, I have templates for them. For example, I have a template for a sweater, a template for mittens, and so forth. I am basically just filling in the blanks when I write a pattern. Technical writing is so different than other writings, and consistency is so important. Creativity is not actually a benefit in this type of writing.
4) What do you most want readers to get from this book? If it were a gift they are getting, what’s the treasure you want them to have?
I want my readers to feel the connection between knitting and humanity. To me, knitting is just one way to get to know people and their history and culture. I hope that Lithuanian Knitting: Continuing Traditions lets readers connect to knitters who have lived in Lithuania in the past as well as knitters who are living there today. Although the book does have patterns for things to make, these knitted items are in a large way illustrations to the stories that are in the book. It’s my dream that this cross-genre book will be one of a new breed of knitting books that are interesting to a general readership and provide an interesting experience to women and men who may never decide to pick up knitting needles or travel across an ocean to a faraway land.
Thanks, Cynthia! It’s been fun to chat with you and compare notes on our writing practice. I can’t wait till May 1 to get my first Free-Write Fling prompt in email!