20 September 2022

By Tim Baker

Have you ever felt like you have a story to tell just waiting to get out? Or thought journaling or keeping a diary might be a useful way of processing your experiences? Or just felt like getting something off your chest without burdening those around you with your angst?

Allow me to recommend free writing. Since my diagnosis, I’ve never been more grateful to be a writer, for the catharsis and therapy available through simply scribbling down your thoughts.

If you’re new to this sort of carry on and are looking for a way to get started, here’s a simple exercise to kick start your writing life. I use this exercise in writing workshops with reluctant high school students, trying to introduce them to the joys of writing and it often surprises them by re-casting writing as a pleasure rather than a chore.

Consider for a moment the miracle of writing. You can have thoughts in your brain, synapses firing and electrical impulses triggering the passage of those thoughts from your brain, down your arm, through your fingers gripping a pen or pencil, and transmitting those thoughts on to paper in a series of markings that others can comprehend and thus understand your interior world. It’s a kind of magic!

So, let’s begin. Get yourself a pen that works and writes smoothly, a notebook, a comfortable seat at a desk or table where you won’t be disturbed and block out ten minutes of your life to give yourself over to the joy of writing. Don’t grip the pen too hard or your fingers will get sore. In fact, let’s warm up our writing hand by shaking it out, stretching the fingers, clenching and unclenching a fist several times.

Now, there are three very simple rules for free writing:

  1. Keep the pen moving at all times. If you can’t think of anything just move the pen across the page, drawing loops or writing, “I can’t think of anything to write,” until the ideas begin to flow.
  2. Go with your first thought. Don’t have an idea and reject and try and come up with a better one. Just start writing, let it flow, and see what comes out. You might surprise yourself.
  3. And most importantly, don’t criticise yourself. Turn off that inner voice that sometimes heckles you, that says you don’t know what you’re doing or you’re doing it all wrong. It is literally not possible to do free writing wrong. The clue’s in the name – “free” writing. It can be anything you want it to be.

The idea here is not to produce a perfect, polished piece of writing, but rather to get out of the way of your own writing, to tap into the unconscious or sub-conscious mind and see what lurks there. You can use a stopwatch or clock and set yourself a five- or ten-minute free writing task and try and get in a daily routine of doing first thing in the morning over a cuppa to start the day.

Your free writing might be garbled, largely unintelligible, but may contain the kernel of an idea – a storyline, a character, even a single sentence or turn of phrase – that can provide inspiration for a more considered piece of writing. It might record and interpret a dream or reveal some nagging anxiety about something that has already happened, or your feelings about upcoming events. By being able to read these thoughts and feelings on the page, for me at least, makes them somehow less scary or intimidating.

Free writing is a great way to get the creative juices flowing like metaphorical jumper leads for your writing practice. You might not aspire to winning a Pulitzer Prize, or even to be published, but recording your experiences as you navigate a cancer diagnosis might help you take some of the emotional sting out of your feelings or help those around you better understand and appreciate what you are going through.

For me, writing is therapy, but we’re all different and some other form of creative expression might be the thing that works for you – music, art, dance, life drawing classes, amateur theatre, a community choir. I think a cancer diagnosis can liberate us to try things we might not ordinarily tackle because, honestly, the fear of failure at some creative endeavour is small potatoes compared to the challenges of staring your mortality in the face on a daily basis. I made my debut as a slam poet at the age of 53, for example, and as a rapper at 55, the very idea of which might have once caused me to curl up in the foetal position in embarrassment.

Creativity is a great way of feeling alive, bringing purpose and meaning into our lives, to tap into something greater than ourselves. Free writing is a bit of a soft and safe entry into the world of exploring and nurturing your creative instincts. If you want to take this further and explore what other creative outlets might appeal, I can recommend The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, to cultivate your creativity. Many parts of Australia have writers’ centres and festivals with busy rosters of workshops to develop your writing. But one of the best ways to improve your writing is, of course, reading good writing and trying to understand why it works. What keeps you reading? How has the writer conjured such a vivid world? What makes a good book unputdownable?

And if you’re looking for something to read, I could recommend a book about a guy with prostate cancer. But that’d be a bit self-indulgent of me.


About the Author

Tim Baker is an award-winning author, journalist and storyteller specialising in surfing history and culture, working across a wide variety of media from books and magazines to film, video, and theatre. Some of his most notable books include “Occy”, a national bestseller and chosen by the Australia Council as one of “50 Books You can’t Put Down” in 2008, and “The Rip Curl Story” which documents the rise of the iconic Australian surf brand to mark its 50th anniversary in 2019. Tim is a former editor of Tracks and Surfing Life magazines. He has twice won the Surfing Australia Hall of Fame Culture Award.

Tim was diagnosed with stage 4, metastatic prostate cancer in 2015 with a Gleason score 9. He was told he had just five years of reasonable health left, but seven years on, at 57, he’s still surfing, writing, and enjoying being a dad. His latest book, Patting The Shark, also documents his cancer journey and will be published in August. Tim will be sharing weekly insights into his journey to help other men who have also been impacted by prostate cancer.