by Catriona Mitchell
Barbara Turner-Vesselago PhD visits Ubud once a year to run an intensive writing workshop, based on a method she’s developed over 30 years, called FreefallWriting. I wanted to know why she chooses Ubud, and what happens to people who dive deeply into the stream of creativity, as she encourages them to do – even if they feel blocked before they begin.
Barbara, the Freefall Writing method is said to encourage the “thinking mind to step aside”? What is writing, if not working with the thinking mind?
By “thinking mind,” I mean the everyday planning, analysing, predicting functions of the mind. The Freefall precepts are designed to get those predicting, planning, analytical functioning to take a back seat, so that the writer can be fully present on the page in the moment, intuitively and spontaneously. In that way, the creative function of consciousness can take over. There’s a lovely line in a David Whyte poem, “What you can plan is too small for you to live.” It’s too small for you to write, too – and that is where Freefall comes in.
One reviewer says of your new book Writing Without a Parachute: The Art of Freefall, “this book makes me want to write, immediately and a lot, with a burning intensity I thought I had lost.” The participants I spoke to last year after your workshop in Ubud had a similar response. What do you do to kindle this kind of fire in people?
I’m not sure we could say I kindle it! I think in most people, it’s waiting to ignite. Once I can get them to stop interrupting themselves, stop limiting themselves by trying to go directly to what they have planned, and above all, to stop being fearful of what will happen, all of that innate power and intensity becomes ignited. When they see how successful the writing then becomes, they trust themselves. Then “the wheels catch fire from their own motion” as Colderidge puts it, and they’re off!
It sounds as though you’re helping people to trust their instincts. Is this likely to affect them outside of their writing lives – in other creative fields or other professions, perhaps?
From what I hear back from participants, learning to trust themselves in this way often has a huge effect on their lives in other ways. A woman from the southern United States who’d attended a week-long workshop several years ago told me recently that since then she had been “applying the Freefall precepts” to her work as a corporate business consultant. She said that had completely turned her work around, but more than that, had “made it possible to keep doing it” when she had been feeling burned out and about to quit. She looked wonderful – knit together, and completely different. Visual artists, actors, singers – and PhD students! – have reported similar breakthroughs.
You teach regularly in Canada, the US, the UK and Australia. What sets the Bali workshop apart? How do you think the Ubud environment affects the creative process?
The reason I wanted to hold workshops in Bali was that I wanted to see what would happen when the creative process took place in the midst of such an open-hearted, spiritual culture. I first came to Ubud in 1980, and was bowled over by that aspect of what I found there – and really, in spite of all the changes Ubud and Bali have gone through since then, that hasn’t changed.
Always, the workshops bring about a transformation in people’s writing – and often in the people themselves. But, this happens even faster in Bali. Many people experience a sudden rather pronounced vulnerability here, and since one of the five Freefall precepts is, “Go where the energy is, or ‘go fearward,’” that immediately provides quite a bit of grist for the mill.
Perhaps it wouldn’t be going too far to say that once people arrive here, the transformational process has already started. The process of the workshop itself is very much in alignment with what happens very naturally for the people when they come here, so everything works together for a profound – and permanent – deepening, as a result.
The workshop will be an intensive and residential – participants will go deep into the writing process while eliminating distraction. What can realistically be achieved in 6 days?
By the end of the six days, participants are typically writing 10 – 12 double-spaced pages a day. Their writing is engaging and absorbing, and they have found a direction for it that they hadn’t, or hadn’t entirely, anticipated. I tend to summarize what’s achieved by saying they’ve “found a new relationship to writing”: by that I mean, they feel confident about it, they feel as if they’re moving in the direction they really want to move with it, and they now know how to go forward on their own – whether what they’re writing is memoir, fiction, poetry, or even non-fiction.
What’s most important, it seems, is that something has shifted inside them permanently with regard to the act of writing itself. They trust their own ability to write and to express what they want to express. (There’s really no other way to explain why someone would walk away from a Freefall workshop suddenly able to write their Ph.D. thesis, for example!)
Should participants come with a clear notion of what they are going to write? What do you do with participants who are blocked or resistant or have no ideas?
I prefer that they have no clear notion of what they’re going to write – in fact, that they have no ideas at all! The first precept is “Write what comes up for you.” By that I mean, sit down, start writing, and then see what comes up to be written about. The other precepts help you out with this, but that’s basically what I’m asking for. In my view (and experience), writing is not the same as thinking. Writing seems to have access to a much vaster field of consciousness. That’s the field I want to help writers play in, and having pre-conceived ideas of what you’re going to do can only hinder that.
Sometimes, yes, people do come who consider themselves “blocked,” but that doesn’t last very long.
During the workshop meetings, why do you read the work aloud, rather than have everyone read their own work?
One of my students put it very well when she said “It allows me to be a fly on the wall at the discussion of my own writing.” People can really hear their writing when someone else reads it, and they can also really see and hear other people’s response to it.
It’s also important to me that the writing not be attributed to anyone in particular. That lets us discuss it as writing. An added benefit is that people don’t get to talk about their own writing as such. What you wrote is on the page. Nothing you can add verbally is going to change that.
How much emphasis do you place on the generation of raw material, as opposed to creating a finished, publication-ready piece of writing?
The emphasis in the workshops is certainly not on creating a finished, publication-ready piece of writing (though that said, some people do go on to publish pieces of Freefall they’ve written in the workshops, virtually unchanged). Really, the emphasis is on creating a better balance in yourself between will and surrender, in the writing process.
What I’ve observed is that we’re all pretty good at “will” – what we want and intend for the writing. But most people are not very good at “surrender” – at giving in to or joining with the process of writing itself, and learning to trust that something good – often very good – will come out of that.
So yes, I guess some pretty “raw” material is generated, but actually, it usually sounds pretty amazing, right from the get-go. The better you get at trusting that, the more intention you’re able to bring in without interrupting the surrender. But you’re writing one piece, then another one, then another one, rather than revising the same thing. Then, after you’ve done that for a while, you can go back to the earlier pieces and see what needs to be revised and what doesn’t. That’s the way the whole process looks, in an overview.
Barbara’s FreefallWriting workshop will be held this year at Taman Bebek Resort in Ubud, from October 4-10 (just prior to the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival). For more information see www.freefallwriting.com or contact Catriona Mitchell at firstname.lastname@example.org