The Value of Writing Junk

Sometimes, the pressure of the screen or the crispness of a blank page is too much. Paralysis stays the fingers and words evaporate. I’ll type out a sentence or two and immediately delete the progress. The more I erase, the more I feel like I should call off the whole project.

For me, and maybe you experience this too, writer’s block strikes when I fall into fantasies of perfection. Writing becomes an all-or-nothing experience. 

On the days when I’m pretty convinced I’ve got nothing to offer, I pull out my dog-eared copy of Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. Post-it notes tab a few key chapter and the spine is worn. She has seven rules for writing.

These. Are. Game. Changers.

The rules are all about relinquishing control. She talks about giving yourself permission to write “junk.” Over the years, I’ve incorporated her rules into both my personal writing practice and my pedagogy. 

Once a week over the semester, my students practice free writing using Natalie Goldberg’s seven rules. Initially, asking them to write nonstop for five minutes causes them some anxiety. They worry about sounding smart enough. I’m interested in their ideas, the ways they are thinking. We can clean up sentences later. But to do that, we need to have ideas to work with.

Each time we do this exercise, they become a little bolder. My students like this activity because I’ve given them permission to take risks, to make errors. In fact, I’m telling them the mistakes should actually remain on the page. It is, after all, part of the process of writing. I tell them that we’ll return to papers and ideas again and again. We are not one-draft people.

Over the semester, the stacks of paper I collect become messier. Handwriting pushes past the boundaries of the carefully calculated lines. As the weeks tick by, my students become less concerned with being neat and more concerned with how they write. They practice experimenting with language and phrasing.

It’s a much more comfortable environment when writing myths like the “one draft writer” are debunked. First and final drafts are not interchangeable. An initial brush with the page will have mistakes. Beautiful mistakes. Writing requires revision. Bound up in the act of revision is a return to the page. Revision–seeing again, or maybe more accurately, seeing differently. You will never just handle writing one time.

Removing the pressure of revision from the initial draft can help alleviate writer’s block. There is a time for cosmetic edits. But as I work through my ideas, I am free to write junk.

The junk teaches me things.

Repeat after me if you are suffering from writer’s block: You are free to write absolute junk. 

Trying to be perfect on the first draft sometimes causes writer’s block. It limits creativity, even frames how you might approach the project at hand. So in the spirit of giving yourself permission to write junk, I’d like to offer some other ways to combat writer’s block. 

An Incomplete List for Cultivating the #WritingLife

  1. Go for a walk. Better yet, go for a run.I find that when I walk or run, I think through my ideas. (Pro-tip: use Google Drive to record your mid-walk/jog epiphanies!) Writing and running have a lot in common. Both place emphasis on process. Your personal best changes day to day, hour to hour. That’s okay. The important thing here is that you complete the run. Equally important: you complete your word/page goal or write for your predetermined amount of time. You can and will revise later.  
  2. Cook a meal. My Italian grandmother’s recipes were just a list of ingredients–no measurements. I like this way of cooking because you have to taste as you go and it also means you are giving the meal room to evolve and grow. This translates to writing, too.
  3. Check out Fighter’s Block. If you look below, you’ll see I have some mistakes. I wrote what popped in my head. I got out of my own way, wrote, and defeated the monster

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