Free Fall


On American Idol the other night—yes, I’m a fan and I’m proud to admit it—I heard a bit of advice delivered to an Idolette by one of the industry mentors that rang a resounding bell of truth in my head.  The mentor, a famous drummer that I’d never heard of, told the singer that she was thinking too much.  He said that the secret to a great performance was to prepare, prepare, prepare before the show, but then to “free fall” once she hit the stage.
Hearing those words made me realize what’s wrong with my writing when it doesn’t work, and what makes it euphoric when I’m in the zone: When I think too much, the writing suffers.  I believe that’s one of the reasons why I vastly prefer rewriting to writing.  In those later drafts, I already know where the story is going, and I can allow myself the luxury of playing the in world I’ve created for my characters.  I get to step into the story and free fall.
Sometimes, the free fall happens on first drafts, too.  Actually it happens frequently.  Perhaps that’s how I’m able to write a book per year and still have a demanding Big Boy job.  I don’t know.  That’s one of the things that I try not to think about too much.
I am on the record here in TKZ regarding my thoughts on writing classes and such—that at the end of the day, successful writers are created exclusively through the act of writing—but this throw-away line on American Idol fine-tuned the point in my head. 
Books on writing and classes on writing can be of enormous value, but only as part of the preparation for free fall.  But if the class assignments and the reading invade the writer’s consciousness during the process of writing, those taught words and techniques thrust a giant wind break into the airstream of the free fall.  The writing becomes the fulfillment of an exercise rather than the flow of the writer’s imagination.
I think that’s why so much writing that flows from MFA classes feels stilted and leaves its creators  so frustrated in the long run.  The danger of the wind break is why I tell new writer to quit searching for rules, and to search instead for their own voices.  The only way to do that is through butt-in-the-chair writing.
Let me be abundantly clear: workshops and writing books can be of enormous value, but only insofar as they provide an intellectual foundation for what is essentially an emotional experience for the writer.  If the writer does his job correctly, that emotion will transfer to the reader.
I used to tell people in classes and speeches that the single major difference between the first three (unpublished) books I wrote and the first book to get published was that when I wrote Nathan’s Run, I was less concentrated on Writing A Book (that phrase should be read with rolled Rs and an exaggerated English accent) and more focused on telling a story.
From now on, I’ll tell people that the difference was that with Nathan’s Run, I allowed myself to free fall.  I inserted myself into the world I’d created, and I wrote from the heart.
So, dear Killzoners, what do you think?  Are you ready for a free fall?  You’ll note that I never mentioned anything about a parachute—or about the potential for a very hard, very uncomfortable landing.
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15 thoughts on “Free Fall

  1. Brother Gilstrap! I am exhilarated to hear about your “fine tuning.” Because this is exactly what all the best teachers of writing say: When you write, write. It’s called “turning off the inner critic.” It’s what one must do to create the best story and prose.

    But that’s not the only part of it. As you note, it’s in the RE-writing that the work happens, the craft happens, and you can learn how to make your raw material better for the reader, which is what this is all about. .

    Also, as you say (and as noted by the American Idol guy), PREPARE. Work, study, practice, plan…do all that with the craft in mind and then, when you let go, your writing is not only fresh, it’s organic.

    I often lecture to “seat of the pants” writers (this seems to be the preferred method). I tell them that if they write a free form first draft, what they are really doing is an outline for the book they will eventually write. They are finding their story. And that’s great. Others find it in other ways. I prefer a “white hot” ongoing document at the outset, often taking the form of a letter. I add to it daily for awhile, annotated it, find the story in there.

    But it all works toward the same end. And when you write, write. Don’t think, feel your way through. Fix it later.

    Books on writing and classes on writing can be of enormous value, but only as part of the preparation for free fall.

    Exactly. And what you learn after the free fall becomes part of your writer’s mind, so you don’t have to think about it, you just do it.

    What I worry about is writers who free fall and splat and don’t learn anything from it. Then it’s just splat all over the place until the city comes in and cleans up the road kill.

    BTW, I don’t conflate what comes out of MFA programs with the craft of cash-and-carry prose, which is what we at TKZ write. Often it’s the MFAers who IGNORE the craft of storytelling, who cast on it disdain in the name of “aht” and who splat as far as readers are concerned. Not all. Some actually come around. I remember an article by one literary type who “confessed” to discovering that PLOT was not a bad word after all.

  2. Most of my MFA-type friends hate the idea of a plot, and they think it is redundant or cliche. I don’t understand that. Then again, they’re devoted to language, and I do love language.

  3. John, I’m a huge fan of American Idol, and was also struck by Tony Kanal’s (bass player for No Doubt) comment on free falling. In the past, I’ve thought of that stage of writing as being “in the zone” where I put forth non-restricted thoughts onto paper. For me, it’s a stream of consciousness that produces the raw footage for my story–sort of like a movie crew shooting on location. I rarely reenter the zone during the rewrite stage. It’s during that phase that I apply many of the tips and advice often discussed here at TKZ. My goal is to use all the tools in the box to take the free-fall raw footage and edit into what I hope will be an enjoyable mental movie for the reader.

  4. Great observations, John. I’ve called free fall “rule breaking for the sake of the story” in the past. It’s important to hone your craft & be exposed to techniques or methods, but not let them strangle the life out of your story. At the end of the day, it’s all about free falling.

    Inspired post. Simon Cowell would be proud.

  5. You’re absolutely right, John: it’s about story telling, not writing. Writing is the craft that makes the story telling seem effortless (easy reading is hard writing), but a good natural storyteller should let go and just tell the story. Tidy up in revision. As Elmore Leonard has so famously said, re-write anything that sounds like writing. If a writer wants to make a living on the sheer beauty of his or her prose, s/he had better be not just good, but James Lee Burke good.

    As a recovering musician myself, I do have a bit of an issue with the “free fall” comment. What I was taught–and worked very well–was to hear whatever was being played and make my part fit. Sometimes it would be more prominent than others, but the point was to make what the audience heard match the sound in my head, as if on a tape delay.When I was playing well, I heard everything in my head a split second before it was actually played. not thinking, per se, but definitely not a free fall.

  6. Wow, I’d observed (and occasionally experienced) this phenomenon during my writing journey, but didn’t know how to characterize it, any more than Joe DiMaggio could characterize his ability to see and hit the ball for 56 consecutive games. I once called it, “In the zone.” Now I’ll call it “free fall,” and I know a bit about how it comes about.
    Thanks to you and the other great writers (Jim, Joe) who’ve unlocked this mystery.

  7. I agree with you about the free fall, but I think it absolutely takes both elements (study plus free fall) to make a good manuscript. I’ve watched writers toil in critique groups over the years. Those who study the craft, learn what doesn’t work, and then learn how to fix it, seem to position themselves to free-fall earlier in their careers.

  8. Nice post, John. Much appreciated. I tried to follow “the rules” for so many years. Do this, don’t do that. I tried to please crit partners early on that I thought knew so much more than I did, and from a technical stand point they did. However, I finally figured out they were editing the life out of my stories and I didn’t know any better. Jordon said, “It’s important to hone your craft & be exposed to techniques or methods, but not let them strangle the life out of your story.” That’s what happened to me early on.

    I love books on writing, especially JSB’s. And after writing many words and having almost completed 3 novels for publication I am finally learning to trust myself. For me, that’s the free fall. That’s the storyteller in me that’s been trying to jump out of the plane for years but been to scared of the possible splat.

    I liked what you said here. “I used to tell people in classes and speeches that the single major difference between the first three (unpublished) books I wrote and the first book to get published was that when I wrote Nathan’s Run, I was less concentrated on Writing A Book (that phrase should be read with rolled Rs and an exaggerated English accent) and more focused on telling a story.
    From now on, I’ll tell people that the difference was that with Nathan’s Run, I allowed myself to free fall. I inserted myself into the world I’d created, and I wrote from the heart.”

  9. One of the things I love about being a radio talk host is that while you can prepare all you want to prepare when that “On Air” light turns red you’re free falling. There’s no turning back or do overs because its live and with tens of thousands of people listening you have no choice but to go and hope you do well.

    I feel the same way about writing and narration both, once you start you’re on the air and there’s no direction to go but forward.

  10. John, I’m reminded of the Roadrunner cartoons. Wile E. Coyote always runs off the edge of the cliff, and he’s fine until he stops and looks down. Don’t look down, and don’t look back.

  11. I completely agree with you. I’m working on my second novel and submitting to agents my first. At times when I get those form rejections, it’s discouraging and it makes me second guess get my novel. It makes me think, “well such and such is represented, maybe I should write like that or should get a degree in it or completely change my writing to fit what’s popular in the media.” Then I give my head a good shake and tell myself that I write what I write because it’s my voice telling my story the way I want it to be told. When I write, my mind is blank and the story flows out naturally without thinking, like in a hypnotic state. My favorite part is editing. I love taking out sentences that don’t belong or adding a new scene or character with his or her own story connecting to the protagonist. Thank you for your great advice. If you ever what to check out my blog, visit moviefilmreview.com and click on my name to the lower right, Nicole Hamilton. Have a great day!!

  12. I understand this concept perfectly as a painter. I understand it as a writer of first drafts. I have, however, a much harder time letting go in the revision. In revision I have a hard time falling into the story and the consequences of that is that revision becomes joyless. Darn.

  13. John– I agree with you, Sir. Free-Falling is the only way to do everything . . . except brain surgery, I’d suppose. 🙂

    I wrote a poem about Free-Falling years ago. The topic referred to love, but it applies to everything. You can substitute the word “love” with “writing.”

    If you don’t mind, here goes:

    FREE-FALL

    You dare me to open my eyes:
    Look out the door of my heart.
    (I’ve been safe inside
    this roaring turbine of my mind.)

    I pull back. Catch my breath.
    I prefer to keep my eyes closed.

    Your smile offers no parachute.
    Yet, with cross winds and doors ajar, you stay.

    I look, once again.
    You dare me to free-fall…
    Trust you.

    I pull back. Catch my breath.

    You wait, patiently.
    You ask, would I have more?
    You dare me again:
    Free-fall…Trust Love.

    I hear a roar inside my heart.
    It is now or never! Love or die.

    I catch my breath.
    I jump.
    Full-knowing Love has no ripcord.

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