Forms of Freedom: Reflections on Freewriting as Discovery

April 23 – April 24, 2004

"Freewriting is the best way to learn—in practice, not just in theory—to separate the producing process from the revising process." –Peter Elbow, Writing with Power (1981)

Since Peter Elbow wrote these words, high school and college teachers of English and composition have experimented with forms of freewriting as a practice for getting words on the page, for eluding the critical and judgmental voice that blocks writers, and as a kind of aspirin to cure the young or insecure writer's most frequently voiced complaints: "I can't think of anything to write about" or "I'm stuck; I don't know where to go with this." As a practice that helps the writer begin a story, an essay, or research paper, freewriting breaks through mental and emotional static, creates a space to breathe, fosters creativity, and liberates energy. But, as with aspirin, there is always the risk of irritation, leaving the writer with an abundance of words on paper, but little sense of how to shape a form or create a structure.

Freewriting—and forms of informal writing that have evolved from it, such as focused freewriting, reflective or process writing, and loop writing—is also a method for thinking through writing, for discovering ideas about a subject, and for initiating classroom discussion. Since its inception in 1982, the Institute has emphasized freewriting as a valuable practice for thinking creatively and energetically through writing, for finding a point of departure for a writing project, for unblocking. But what is freewriting's connection to other kinds of writing, such as the essay and the research paper? Can freewriting support critical thinking and skillful revision? Or does freewriting erode the writer's ability to think critically about either the subject or the writing itself? Does it leave the writer unable to find a way through the writing, or discourage intelligent and rigorous editing?

The Institute's April conference invites secondary and college teachers to take freewriting seriously: to consider what freewriting is, and what happens to language and thinking when writers use freewriting in various ways. The conference hopes for a rich discussion and careful examination of freewriting as an end in itself and in comparison to more structured forms of writing. We aim for lively responses to questions such as: How can writers remain connected to the creativity, energy, and agency unlocked by freewriting, while fostering the order and structure required of a good essay or research paper? How can we integrate critical thinking into the writing process without losing the energy, creativity, and discovery generated in freewriting?

Formal presentations, plenary discussions, and small group workshops provide the setting for experiencing freewriting as discovery, for hearing how teachers of composition, English, history, anthropology, and biology make use of freewriting in their classrooms, and for learning about how Bard's Workshop in Language and Thinking—established in 1981 by Peter Elbow—has developed practices that balance the creativity and energy of freewriting with analytical writing that furthers thinking.

Featured speakers

Keynote Peter Elbow, professor emeritus, University of Massachusetts, Amherst; author, Writing with Power, Embracing Contraries, and A Community of Writers

Respondent Robert D. Whittemore, associate professor of anthropology, Western Connecticut State University, Danbury, Connecticut

Participant/Observer Pat C. Hoy, professor of English; director, Expository Writing Program, New York University; author, Instinct for Survival