In praise of the free write

This morning I had a rare treat. I got up early (as is my wont) and went about my errands, fetching carby breakfast goods for the household, and I stopped into a little café near Prospect Park and decided, what the hey, I’ll sit and have a scone and a cup of coffee all by my lonesome. This is actually one of my favorite things to do: sit in a café in early morning drinking coffee and watching the world wake up. It makes me feel like I have a secret. Sometimes we just need to make a date with ourselves.

After what felt like a marathon spring/summer of writing, I turned in Beauty Queens to David Levithan last week, and I am now in that strange, no-man’s land between first draft and revision, between old project and new. I always have other writing projects simmering on back burners, but I found my fried brain & soul needed a solid week of doing nothing but reading, walking, doing summer things with The Boy (Hello, Yahtzee and Scrabble! How ya doin’, swimming pool? What’s up, ice cream cones?) and trying to sort through piles of mail and other piled-up things before jumping in again. I describe this period as the post-partum depression. I usually feel restless, not right in my skin; too wired-tired to concentrate on anything and a little out-of-sync with the world. (Well, THAT’S not unusual. LOL.) I hate that summer seems to be going by so quickly. Already, there is a warning of September in the air. The clouds have that storing-nuts-for-winter fullness to them. School clothes are hanging in the store windows. I’m not ready! I demand more summer. Harumph.

In the midst of this, I decided to look through my boxes of old writing journals. I spent an afternoon reading through my scribblings. I’m a big proponent of the free write. I often talk about how it helps unmask whatever fear lurks behind the writer’s block. This blog serves that purpose, too. But there’s no substitute for a notebook, a pen, a quiet corner, and the sort of stream-of-consciousness writing that you allow to just happen without stopping yourself.

I think I need to get back to that place and do more free writing. Maybe we could all agree to squeeze in some free writing in the next few weeks as summer winds down? Might be a fun shared exercise? You could post the links to your free writes so that we can all check them out. I might even be able to supply a prompt or two. (At least until that manuscript wings its way back to me.)

So, here’s a notebook free write I did a few years back. I remember it was Labor Day weekend and I was betwixt and between and unable to sleep. So I went for an early morning walk around my neighborhood. This was what came out of it.

Five forty-five a.m. Saturday morning
Can’t sleep.
Resigned, I tiptoe through the dark
Careful not to wake the husband, the boy, the house
Feed the cat who weaves between my legs
Awake and hungry like me
Turn the lock, open the gate, and I’m out
Into the sleepy stretching streets of Brooklyn

Walking down Fifth Avenue
Umbrella under my arm, two bucks in my pocket
Past the bodegas, those constant night owls,
The OTB, Designs by Julie, All Hail the Laudromat,
The 99-cent store promising a wonderland
Of whimsical pencils, laundry sheets, white dishes
Plastic toys, pink flower barrettes, saints’ candles,
Washcloths, four to a pack, because nothing should be
Alone.

Walking the streets of Brooklyn
With my iPod on high
Sufjan Stevens singing about Chicago but I’m
Thinking about New Orleans
Laurie and me driving over the Lake Ponchatrain
Bridge in the dark, all white knuckles and high hopes
Stumbling through the French Quarter with Mary
Drinking beer with the Scottish bartender
Throwing darts that always missed
Dancing down Bourbon Street in black lace and
Smeared mascara, cemetery angels under sea level
At five forty-five a.m. so far from
Brooklyn

Light rain falling; the wind blows a dirge
That whispers across my neck
“October’s coming.”
Traffic lights do their Busby Berkley routine
Red, yellow, green in perfect synchronicity
Slick streets shine with color, letting the sky know
It’s time to come awake
Red, yellow, go
Four college boys fresh from a bar
Weave down the street
Drunk on youth, they snap pictures in the dawn
Freeze-framing themselves in a moment
We nod and pass, nod and pass

Newspaper truck idles on the corner of Ninth
Delivering the DailyNewYorkPostTimesofOurLives
Beside the promise of coffee, 24 hours a day,
7 days a week
For those who can’t sleep.
Fluorescent bright bleaches away the night
And HelloMyNameIsSiham offers me a medium, two sugars and cream
Shiham with her shy smile, round belly, pink-and-orange
Dunkin Donuts hat atop her beige hijab
A clash, a confluence, a compromise of cultures
An advertisement for the borough

Up the hill on 9th Street, the shops are closed till seven.
In the distance, the BQE buzzes with the lights of cars
People coming from
People going to
People who can’t sleep at five forty-five a.m.
High on a billboard, Magic Johnson
Smiles down like God
Over the cracks in the sidewalk where leaves of grass grow
Offering a miracle ten years too late
For the boys I lost

The lady in the baby blue jacket staggers near
Enough that I can smell the 100 proof evening on her
Breath. “Miss,” she asks, soft as a child, “Miss,
Are they on?”
She points to her false eyelashes, glittery as stars,
They peel up at the corners of her eyes
“Could you fix it?” she asks, and I put my finger
To the soft caramel of her skin, patting down till it sticks
To the dried tears there. “How do I look?” she asks.
“Beautiful,” I say and mean it.
The light changes. No longer revealed, she moves on.

Cross the crest of Seventh Avenue, wander down Tenth
The brownstones jigging and jagging the length
Of the hill, crooked teeth in an old man’s face
Sixth Avenue, Eleventh Street, Twelfth, Thirteen
The streets criss and cross toward home
They stretch across my soul like a Jupiter line
While Sufjan Stevens whisper-sings in my ears,
“I’ve made a lot of mistakes, I’ve made a lot of mistakes.”

Down at the bottom where the Gowanus tries
To become something new, the dark’s lifting
Hot Bagels rolls up its iron nightgown
Miguel sweeps the sidewalk of cigarette butts and Friday night’s revelry
Dogs pull their sleepy leash holders into Saturday morning
Tired new parents stumble with their small fidgety
Cocoons toward the salvation of
Breakfast. Daisy’s Diner winks neon at them
And they follow like johns
The biker boys and tattooed love girls roll out as they roll in
The night shaking hands with the day
Punch the clock and hang your ticket
A busy intersection of saints and sinners

Turn down my street where the paper boy’s been
The stoops glow blue with plastic bags
Full of stories about other people, other
Places, other lives printed in black-and-white
That always smears, smudging your fingers
Leaving stains

And I’m too alive to sleep
Too alive to sleep
Too alive
To sleep

2 thoughts on “In praise of the free write

  1. I first read this entry on the day it was posted. I loved the freewrite and remember feeling inspired, especially as I was at a tough phase with my writing. I had never heard the song “Chicago”, though.
    Now I love the song. I was flipping through your blog, trying to pass time so I wouldn’t have to write today. The writing as not been easy lately. I got to this post just as the song “Chicago” came on. For a moment, everything was perfect.
    I feel it again. I feel inspired.

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