A Lesson in Jam Writing

I’m heading up my writer’s group for the first time, and I had to lead a discussion last week. My theme: discovering the subconscious. I taught my friends a few things I’d learned about waking up my imagination before trying to describe a vivid scene, and then we practiced jam writing.

My friend Evelyn, who led the group before she passed it onto me (she’s moving out of town), always gave me a difficult time about jam writing. She didn’t want to try it.

Jam writing is the attempt to break all mental barriers and self-censoring to just write. The rules are simple: once you pick up your pen, you don’t stop writing for anything. Not to fix grammar or spelling, not to gather your thoughts. You just keep writing, forcing out the thoughts you usually keep yourself from thinking.

Because of the brutally self-searching jam writing results in, many people fear it. Evelyn did. This didn’t make sense to me, though, because I don’t draft.

Most writers use the writing process of outlining, then drafting, then editing. Being an editor, I edit as I go and can write almost as fast as someone just drafting. When I’m finished writing something for the first time, it’s almost publication-ready. The average writing instructor will tell writers not to edit as they go, because there’s so much self-doubt going on, the draft won’t get finished. Write first, edit later.

Writers who use the write first, edit later process are still reserved and out-of-touch with the subconscious voice, though. I feel like I get both with my process: I know how to access my purely uncensored voice, but I also know how to edit myself to sound my best as I go.

The reason people fear jam writing is they fear what resides in the subconscious. I forced Evelyn to try jam writing with a notebook and pen for ten minutes. The goal was to make the writers feel free to say anything, so I didn’t say they had to share what they’d written. It was a personal exercise.

For me, I find an angrier, less confident, and less self-controlled person in my jam writing (my jam writing document is up to 68,000 words – more than a typical novel). Evelyn found herself writing about things she doesn’t usually let herself think about – situations she can’t control. She explained she doesn’t allow those things to reach her conscious thought pattern because why bother with it? She can’t do anything to solve those problems.

Try jam writing. It’s probably the one thing I learned from Travis Herche that I teach others the most often. You’ll learn things about yourself and learn to face the fear of your subconscious.