A woman performs an Indian classical dance form known as Bharatanatyam.

A woman performs an Indian classical dance form known as Bharatanatyam.

I’ve studied an Indian classical dance form known as Bharatanatyam on and off since I was five. Bharatanatyam, like writing, has its own syntax: a combination of hand gestures, specific sequences of steps, and so on that are pieced together to tell stories.

My last dance instructor reminded me frequently that good dancing was not simply about flowing with the music. You must learn to stop with intention, she’d tell me. Complete the movement. Know where each fingertip reaches. Feel your spine bend. Finish with energy. She’d cite this verse from the Natyashastra (“The rules of dance”), a text that dates back to the 2nd century BC:

Where the hand goes, the eyes must follow. Where the eyes go, the mind follows. Where the mind is, emotion is evoked.

I’m reading a different book now, called “The Mirror of Gesture,” that was also written about the same time. It’s mostly a catalog of the hand gestures (mudras), poses and other grammatical elements of the dance form. But the author has a lot to say about excellence, much of which extends to writing, too, I think. Like this line:

Excellent dance wears the air of perfect spontaneity, but that is the art which conceals art.

The “rules” of good writing

In theory, I know the rules of good writing. I know I ought to write some sentences long and others short. I can spot dry writing. Dull and unvarying verbs. When jargon stiffens a paragraph. After six years of freelancing, I know how to deliver a story my editors will find acceptable.

Read about the widespread and varied use of free writing, and what a workshop of journalists say about the practice.

But I’d like to grow out of the too-familiar pitch-report-file-repeat rhythm into that space where craft and rules turn into art. I have found moments of that in free writing.

I’m pretty sure I pulled a face the first time I heard the rules of free writing. Aren’t we supposed to write with purpose, to convey information and context essential to our story? Know where to start and end a sentence, a section, a story. Stop with intention. Omit needless words, that trusted Strunk & White mantra from fall-quarter newswriting class. How does free writing help with any of this?

The first time I tried it, I wrote about a wooden hoopoe that lives on my desk. The second free-write was done in a dusty purple house. I wrote about not writing to my newborn daughter. I bawled as I read it aloud to a dozen others, shook with emotion on the flight home hours later. Never looked at the words again. But a year later, my toddler is the proud owner of three letters she’ll read when she’s ready. I also pitched two new outlets and did two stories I’d never have attempted before.

The freedom of free writing

It wasn’t the writing that mattered, I think, but the “freeing.” The world did not end if I wrote and even shared — a few needless words. It was okay to write what I didn’t know, not knowing where my hand would lead. The point was only to follow the words forward. The third time, I clung to a writing prompt to the letter, tried to keep it mundane. It took me to a weird place anyway. But it’s one I didn’t know existed, and that may be exciting to explore.

In case it wasn’t clear, I still cringe at the mention of a free write. It’s irritating and uncomfortable, this creaky free-form stretch into the void of a few minutes and a blank page. No rules except a really clear beep to stop. Yet somehow bits of craft inch closer to art in these few minutes.

When I returned to the dance book after the last free-write, it started to make sense. How simply keeping your eyes on a moving muscle can harness the mind to evoke emotion and create flow. So when I was asked to free write this piece on free writing, I winced, but picked my pen up and set a timer.

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