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Free at Last

One thing I saved up from my mini account of what I saw of the Historical Novel Society’s Conference in Manchester in October was the workshop Creative Writing, Creative Reading: Bringing the Past to Life. What, I thought as I pondered the programme, is that about? I had no idea. So I went.

The session was run by Orna Ross, an Irish novelist and teacher of Creative Intelligence. Creative Intelligence: right. Well, Orna defines it as “the ability to own and hone our innate creative potential…by understanding how the creative process works and learning to apply it.” She believes that our formal schooling, with its obsession with measurement, analysis and efficiency, has stifled our creative intelligence. I picture this as the Gradgrindian world that Dickens described so wonderfully in Hard Times: the world where innocents are murdered by facts, by rules, by a pair of scales. I don’t think anyone has exposed this outlook any better than Dickens.

But doing is always better than talking about doing, so Orna set us an exercise which was an introduction to the technique of FREE Writing. She gave us a topic “money” and three minutes to write about it. We were to write as fast as we could, without worrying about the niceties (punctuation, spelling etc), and without stopping. The idea is that the technique allows you to resist the inner censor – you know, the one who’s always telling you to be sensible and get a proper job, not pretend you’re a writer. The benefits of the technique are numerous, for example it helps you connect both to your inner self and with the world around you.

After about a week or so of FREE Writing you take two coloured pens and you read over what you’ve written, and you highlight insights in one colour and actions with the other. You don’t have to translate the actions into a to do list; just recognise them. Eventually you will find yourself doing them, because intention and attention work together.

Orna’s work looks back to the earlier work of writers like Dorothea Brande and Julia Cameron. Brande’s Becoming a Writer is almost required reading and if you’ve got a copy it’s probably as well-thumbed as mine! The technique of FREE Writing is very similar to Cameron’s “morning pages”, when you sit down every day and write in the same uncensored, stream-of-consciousness way. The difference, Orna explained, is that Cameron hasn’t focussed on the “speed” aspect of this kind of exercise. But both techniques are a kind of meditation, a “meditation on the page”.

If my Brande is well-thumbed, I’ve already had to buy another copy of Cameron’s The Artist’s Way as my first one fell apart. I’ve used it for years and I go back to it again and again. I don’t do morning pages daily but I do use them during difficult periods or just whenever I feel the need. The FREE Writing technique is another tool to add to my creative armoury, and I’m grateful to Orna to introducing it to me.

If you want to find out more about Creative Intelligence visit Orna’s website
Orna Ross -

For more on Julia Cameron's The Artist’s Way see


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