The Five-Minute Free Write

Five-Minute Free Write (Author Cat Saunders)

“Writing is like taking off your clothes in a crowded room
and turning around slowly—twice.”  —Janice Levi

By Cat Saunders

Before I went into private practice as a counselor in 1985, I worked for a mental health agency in Seattle. One of my duties there was to facilitate a writing group for clients. The population we served were considered “seriously emotionally disturbed” adults.

I was diagnosed as manic-depressive in 1976, and I have experienced psychiatric wards as a patient. As a result, I felt a special bond with my clients at the agency. To me, the words “seriously emotionally wounded” would have been a more compassionate and accurate way to describe our clients.

Labeling someone “disturbed” is, at best, a judgment call, based on an inability to comprehend and appreciate the perspective of the person being labeled. Let me tell you a personal story to illustrate what I mean.

In 1975 and 1976, I went in and out of being “crazy,” which I define as being unable to keep my act together in consensus reality. During that time, there was one friend who never stopped seeing me underneath all the wildness of my manic behavior. That man was my longtime friend, Joe Rahn (who died in 2004).

When I was with Joe, I not only didn’t feel crazy, I actually acted more sane. In retrospect, I think this was largely due to the fact that Joe never saw me as crazy. It’s not that he was in denial. It’s just that he saw me as wounded, rather than insane. As a result, he felt protective of me. But he never tried to control me in order to alleviate his own concerns about my unusual behavior.

Most importantly, Joe was not afraid of me, and he never judged or labeled me. He took my words at face value, and he tried to help me get whatever I said I needed. He always believed that I knew what was best for me, even when other people thought I was nuts. Because Joe treated me with respect, I was able to treat myself with more respect.

Through Joe’s love, I came to understand that there are better ways to deal with “crazy people” than to shoot them up with Thorazine and strap them down to their beds, which also happened to me. I vividly remember waking up in restraints, alone in my room on the psychiatric ward.

I was terrified that I had done something awful to be treated that way. When a staff member finally came to release me, I asked what I had done to deserve restraints. She said I’d been walking the halls the night before, unable to sleep. That was it!

To be fair, I realize that love—and the time it requires—are both in short supply on psychiatric wards. There is no question that the love of a true friend is not easily duplicated in a hospital setting. However, I still believe it’s possible to bring more respect and more kindness to the treatment of people. It’s especially important to extend compassion to those who get caught under the wheels of a speed-addicted culture that runs roughshod over sensitive souls.

Ultimately, Joe’s gift to me became my gift to others when I began working as a counselor a decade later. It was as if I carried Joe around with me in my back pocket. Whenever I met a client who was walking a path similar to the one I’d walked, Joe’s fearless compassion welled up in my heart. His fearless compassion joined my own growing capacity to be that way in the face of other people’s pain.

I may never attain the effortless ease with which Joe extended this compassion to me. Nonetheless, his love remains a powerful beacon that lights my way.

With the clients at that agency in Seattle, Joe’s kind understanding brightened the room every time I did a writing class. This happened for me even though I never told anyone about him. The thing is, writing is an act of creativity, which means that it is an act of love. In addition, writing takes time.

As I mentioned before, time and love often get the short end of the stick in our over-amped world. Yet people—especially those who have been seriously wounded—need time and love in order to live and grow.

During my twice-a-week writing class at the clinic, I tried to give people a sense of temporal as well as psychological spaciousness. Labels fell away as I encouraged everyone to join me in another world: the world of creativity. With awe and delight, I watched quietly as so-called “dysfunctional” people came alive with the spirit of passion.

People who never uttered a word elsewhere would read long stories out loud. It was as if they’d been master storytellers all their lives. Adults who were considered “uncontrollable” wrote silently for extended periods by themselves. Then they listened with rapt attention while others shared their work.

Clients who rarely cracked a smile or showed any enthusiasm would suddenly be transformed during group brainstorming sessions. They would grab pieces of colored chalk and take charge of the blackboard, laughing and cajoling others to contribute their ideas.

Through the vehicle of simple writing exercises, these exceptional people revealed the nature of their true selves. In between the lines of their anecdotes, they unwittingly disclosed their own stories under the guise of fictional characters. I learned more about my clients during our writing groups than I did in all the other therapeutic activities offered at the clinic.

Each of our writing classes began with a Five-Minute Free Write. This became so popular that people would complain if I forgot to include it. The Five-Minute Free Write is so easy that everyone could join in. They knew that whatever they wrote would always be good enough, because criticism was verboten. People had permission to share their stories or to be private with them. Because of these ground rules, everyone felt safe to give their thoughts free rein.

Aside from the above guidelines for working in the context of a group, there is really only one rule for the Five-Minute Free Write. That is, once you start writing (by hand), you don’t stop until the time is up.

When my clients and I wrote together at the agency, I played the role of timekeeper so they could concentrate on writing. If you’re working alone, you can set a timer or use a clock. A stopwatch is even better, since it allows you to write without stopping to check the time.

When you start a Free Write, don’t worry about punctuation, capitalization, spelling, dangling participles, or any other rules of grammar. In fact, you can even turn your writing into one big run-on sentence. To do this, start with a capital letter at the beginning, write without punctuation, and then complete your five-minute “brain purge” by adding a period at the end, when the buzzer goes off.

If no words come to you when you sit down to begin, you can simply write “nothing nothing nothing” or “bongo bongo bongo” until you think of something else. If nothing coherent occurs to you, don’t be coherent! Write down whatever weird or wonderful thoughts pass through your mind. Don’t censor anything.

Remember: your Free Write is for you, and you don’t have to let anyone else see it. If you have to promise yourself that you will destroy your work immediately after you’re done, then make yourself that promise, if it will help you tell the truth.

Do whatever it takes to create safety for yourself. If you want to write for ten minutes instead of five, go ahead and write for ten minutes. If you want unlimited time for your Free Write, then give yourself all the time in the world.

This exercise is designed to satisfy the little kid inside of you. Some kids need lots of encouragement to come out and play. Let your Free Write be playful!

My longtime friend Peg Price taught me to take care of my inner child first, before trying to do anything on an adult level. She said that even if I’m on a tight schedule, it’s still good to give my inner kid some playtime before I start the work.

Consider if you had a two-year-old on your hands who is hungry and needs to eat right now. Children are much more likely to cooperate with adults if their “kid” needs have been met. In the same way, your inner kid shouldn’t always be expected to defer to grownup rules about delayed gratification. Sometimes, perhaps. But always? No.

Many of us grew up with the Puritan ethic that says “No play until the work is done.” Have you ever noticed how there’s always more work to do, so playtime never comes? If you keep this up for years, it’s likely that your inner kid might get a little ornery, rebellious, or downright depressed. Free writing is one way to satisfy the child part of you first, before you attend to other tasks.

For those of you who can’t relate to an inner kid analogy, here’s another way to look at the Five-Minute Free Write. I love to swim, not only because it makes my body feel great, but because it puts me into a meditative state.

When I swim forty or fifty laps in a big pool, the first few laps are always the hardest. I often feel inept or out of synch at the beginning, as if I don’t even know how to swim. Once I hit my stride, though, I feel as if I could swim forever.

Five-Minute Free Writes are like the first few laps of a long swim. Your writing might feel jerky or inept, but whatever the case, the only way to go the distance with your writing is to get through the awkward warm-up.

It doesn’t matter if you’re doing a Free Write for its own sake or as a prelude to bigger things. The first words, sentences, or paragraphs of any writing task will often feel the hardest. This is typical. Don’t let it throw you.

When I’m faced with a blank piece of paper, it’s the same as when I’m faced with a swimming pool. I know I’ll feel good once I get going, but how do I shift from my comfy inactivity to a flow of water—or words? Here’s the best way I’ve found to get through that moment of resistance: Dive in!

This article is a chapter excerpted from Dr. Cat’s Helping Handbook: A Compassionate Guide for Being Human (available at

Cat Saunders, Ph.D., is a counselor in private practice in Seattle, Washington. She is also the author of Dr. Cat’s Helping Handbook: A Compassionate Guide for Being Human (available through Amazon). Contact Cat by emailing her or by calling 206-329-0125 (24-hour voicemail).