Kiini
Ibura
Salaam

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KIS.list

Vol. 7, Freewriting and Asemic Writing

Posted on 27 September 2001


Freewriting in my Apartment
Brooklyn, NY

A few months ago Tim Gaze, a zine editor interested in experimental fiction asked me to write a piece for his zine. He had read the first speculative short story I had ever written, “Of Wings, Nectar, and Ancestors,” in the literary journal Anansi and wanted to read more similar work. In “Of Wings, Nectar, and Ancestors,” I switched voices between standard English and an approximation of English spoken by someone who speaks another language. The play with language was inspired by my experience learning to speak Spanish. While studying abroad in the Dominican Republic, I had a really difficult time expressing myself. I had lots of wonderful and intelligent things to say, but my grasp of Spanish was slippery. I might want to talk about the sociopolitical influences of merengue and guava fruit, but all I could say was: “the dog is nice.” I became fascinated by the idea of intelligent beings limited to juvenile levels of communication.

In “Of Wings, Nectar, and Ancestors,” I created a character who was not only struggling with language, but also with the society itself. She was a recent arrival to Earth and saw everything through foreign eyes. When I was writing it, it was an honest attempt at fictionalizing my very real alien perspective on life in the Dominican Republic. I wasn’t trying to create anything bizarre or experimental. I was just trying to entertain myself. Yet, when I read it today, I see how difficult it might be to read a piece that is half written in a fragmented language. Here is a section that WaLiLa, the otherworldy being, narrates.

“call malkai me fuse re-flames. me fire burn long way to club. we go in club. i excited. i holding on wrist malkai. i feel air white & thick on me skin. me eyes see sticks skinny people use to spread air thick. glow of light on end of stick make me think home. i feel burn in me nose. malkai tell me is scent: smell of rum. me heart pumps to music beat.”

Some readers see it and love it. Some readers see it and try to struggle with it, but ultimately find it too challenging and give up. For them, the fragmented language is too much of a barrier. Still others struggle with it at the beginning, but then the story takes over and they are able to flow with this new way of speaking. I have since moved on to other themes and expressions, so I told Tim I had not written anything like that since, so I wouldn’t be able to send him any experimental fiction. Undaunted, as a good editor should be, he sent me a few copies of his zine and said maybe I could write something experimental since I’d done it before.

Tim’s zine was truly inspiring. He obviously has a love for the work he publishes and skimming the contributors list, I could see that he sought out writers from all over the world to include them in his vision. The energy on the page was palpable. It reminded me of Red Clay, the zine my friends and I put out during my senior year of college. Send me three words, I said, and I’ll send you a piece.

He immediately sent me three words, and I wrote them down somewhere and went on with my life. Sure I intended to write something eventually, but in the meantime, I had other things to do. Last Thursday, weeks (months?) after he sent me three words, I received another package in the mail. This time it was a copy of Asemic 2, another zine he puts out featuring asemic writing. Tim describes asemic writing as “text with no semantic information, yet in some sense still a text.” When you open the magazine, there are all these scribbles in it. It looks like handwriting, but it doesn’t say anything, you can’t read it! On first glance, I thought this is useless, what’s the point of this? Then I read Tim’s statement on asemic writing. I was specifically caught by the following section. Tim writes:

“[Hand]writing does not just contain semantic information. It also contains aesthetic information (when seen as a shape or image) and emotional information (such as a graphologist would analyze.) Because it eliminates the semantic information, asemic writing brings the emotional and aesthetic content to the foreground. By contrast, email is writing almost devoid of aesthetic and emotional content, apart from what the words contain. Asemic works play with our minds, enticing us to attempt to ‘read’ them. Some asemic works make the viewer hover between ‘reading’ (as a text) and ‘looking’ (as a picture).”

I must be an intellectual, because after reading Tim’s thoughts on asemic writing, I decided to give the zine another try. I flipped through the entire book, taking time to look at every page. I can’t say what I got out of the experience consciously, but when I closed the magazine, I was inspired. I believe I was inspired by the rawness of the expression, and the immediacy of it. It’s simple little doodles all over the page that catch you however they catch you. So I decided to sit down and work on a piece for Tim immediately.

I suppose the technique I chose to use in writing the piece for Tim—”freewriting”—is somewhat related to asemic writing. Freewriting is the act of sitting down to write without a preconceived notion of what your content is going to be, drawing from outside sources of inspiration and writing whatever comes to your mind. The point is to turn off your editor, to not censor and not necessarily “make sense.” The intention is to tap directly into your fountain of creativity. Your automatic writer that isn’t concerned with the result, only the immediate process.

Freewriting is great for writer’s block, for deepening or developing a character, imagining new directions for a story, hashing out the arguments in a nonfiction piece, or simply keeping your writing gears flowing. There’s a couple of ways to set up free writes. You can ask people for words. You can open book and place your finger blindly on the page and pick up the word or fragment you’re pointing to. You can do freewriting in a group and each person writes a description of a person (Bettina who sells bows on the corner), a place (in the fork between the giant’s toes), or a situation (Superman decides to become a drag queen). Everyone switches descriptions and writes using a situation, place or person someone else has set up. The point is to use ideas that come from outside of yourself. Then you decide how long you’re going to write (10 minutes, 15 minutes) and start writing. You don’t stop writing until the time is up. If you can’t think of anything, you write “I can’t think of anything to write” over and over again until your brain hits upon something.

A successful freewriting session circumvents your conscious mind. Every writer has their own tropes and arguments that they repeat over and over again. Freewriting has the power to take you outside of where your conscious mind would take you into a fresh new realm.

If someone asked me to write a story right now, I probably couldn’t write something that felt fresh and original to me. My conscious mind is an editorial force bogged down with the daily details of being an adult. Yet if you gave me some words to play with, watch out!

I have a notebook full of freewrites and I’ve been able to use them in a number of wonderful ways. When I wanted to write a new speculative fiction story, I was able to mix two freewrites and do minimal changes to make it a whole. I came up with a vampiric psychic who is pressed into service by her community. She has to choose between life and death when her mentor is killed in a flash flood. Bizarre right? Hey, it came from my subconscious. It’s almost as if I didn’t write it.

At a Clarion West writing workshop, when Nalo Hopkinson challenged us to come up with second story lines (a story that is separate from the main story line to add depth and texture to a short story) for our short stories, I flipped through my freewrites looking for a second story that would fit the main tale I was telling. I found a funny little freewrite about a woman who was the queen of comfort by day, feeding folks and providing softness to all around her, and a dominatrix by night. It explored the flip side of comfort and how she comforted those who were emotionally uncomfortable by bringing them physical pain. I flipped that into the second story line of a story I was working on called “Cut.” It was about a mental health patient and his recovery, the second storyline I developed was of a nurse who provided comfort to the patient, yet in private he caused himself pain to deal with his mental demons.

I’ve used a character from an exercise in horror writing, to add a vital element to my novel-in-progress. I’ve also used snatches of inspired descriptions from freewrites (“I bathe myself in roach dung and wash my hair in rotten fruit. Perfume each armpit with tree sap and sprinkle my skin with gin”) in new stories I’m building. Sometimes little excerpts fit in perfectly.

You get the idea, freewrites can spark a writer’s creativity. It can add texture and variety and creativity to whatever you’re working on. Also, because it comes from your subconscious rather than your conscious mind, it makes writing fun again. It is pure creativity. The self, creating.

I’m not going to tell you what I ended up writing for Tim because he reads the KIS.list and I want him to be surprised when he gets it. But I will tell you what my words were:

Ancient
Magic
Now
Lamppost
Roaring
Migration

What can you make out of that?

Be well. Be love(d).

Kiini Ibura Salaam

==KIINI’S REJECTION/ACCEPTANCE O’METER==
: : : August 2001 – present : : :

Rejections:
Publications: 2
Grants/fellowships: 0
Residencies/workshops: 0

Acceptances:
Publications: 1
Grants/fellowships: 0
Residencies/workshops: 0

==KIINI’S REJECTION/ACCEPTANCE O’METER==

This week I received a short rejection letter. It said: “Thank you for sending us your proposal for Clarion West from the Inside. It was read carefully and given our full consideration. Unfortunately the piece doesn’t sound quite right for us.” The editor wished me luck and signed off.

What I proposed was an article on the Clarion West workshop experience. I could seek to publish such an article elsewhere, but I am busy preparing applications and editing more pressing work. So I add another rejection to the balance.

P.S. I put in an application to a grant today. I’ll find out whether or not I get it in April.