Monday, November 14, 2011

Writing It Raw

You’ve probably never heard of raw writing. Neither had I until I coined the phrase. But I should have thought to head over to Google before taking credit for anything new. The results validate the wisdom of Solomon. Three millennia ago there was already “nothing new under the sun.”

I coined the phrase, seen on the site logo graphic in the right sidebar, to describe a catch-all category for any spontaneous writing, whether it's a journal entry, free-writing on scrap paper, Natalie Goldberg-style writing practice, Julia Cameron-style morning pages, pure rants or riffs,  or even quick unedited emails and notes that talk about your day or other experiences. Raw writing forms the roots of the Tree of Life Writing,  converting unprocessed memories into the basic components of more crafted writing forms of story, essay, memoir and more.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Dreaming the Answers

In some dreams, life makes sense. In others it comes apart. Each type of dream has power. Our challenge is to remember those dreams and harness that power.

I often remember dreams, and while most are mundane, some are utterly fascinating. More than twenty years ago I began taking a few minutes soon after waking to write down the most dramatic ones, and until the last few years, I stored them on my computer (now they are hand-written in my paper journal).

Yesterday I found several “dream” files I hadn’t looked at in years. These were all dreams in which I had some sort of breakthrough in understanding. In an especially vivid one, I surprised myself by explaining a bizarrely compelling concept of God to people who held to a belief I had come to consider outmoded. I knew in the dream that they would not understand what I was saying, but I felt better for having a clear and coherent explanation of my position that respected the fact that they still clung to the one I had reevaluated.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

One in a Million

A few days ago I picked this picture for a group writing prompt exercise. When I saw it, I immediately recalled a couple of hours I spent walking around that very beach on South Georgia Island ten years ago. I expected to write about the haunting din of penguin trumpeting, the smell of slimy guano, and the incredible sensation of being one of only a few dozen humans among a hundred thousand denizens of the Shanghai of penguindom.

Not surprisingly, when I looked more closely at the picture and began to write, a different story came out:

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Materials May Shape the Message

Materials we use to write may shape our results. My current journal has soft brown recycled paper pages, slightly crinkled and earthy feeling. My pen has the slightest bit of drag, creating a sense of connection with nature. Perhaps this earthy setting prompted an unusual recent experience.

My hand had stopped moving while my thoughts followed a tangent.  When I noticed this, I resumed writing, picking up in the  middle of my abandoned sentence. After writing a few words, I was visually transported into a forest, walking along a brown, fern-edged path shaded by leafy green boughs. The path stretched ahead only a couple of hundred feet before disappearing around a bend. I had no idea where it led.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Re-vision Your Life

If you aren’t happy with your life as it currently is, do a re-vision and trance-form it. Let your pen rip through the bonds of limiting beliefs, restor(y)ing the magical sense of possibility and wonder you had as a young child.

This idea derived from reviewing several podcasts, interviews and other material relevant to the topic of beliefs and transformation. Through this exercise, several things have become clear:

Sunday, August 28, 2011

When Writing Hurts

The primary focus of this blog is on writing for health, but sometimes writing can damage your body, if not your health. This is a lesson I’ve learned the painful way over the last several weeks, which has a lot to do with the lack of posts recently. Perhaps some of my insights in this matter can spare a few others similar pain.

Many times over the past ten years or so if I spent too much time over a period of days using my mouse intensively, for example becoming engrossed in marathon photo editing sessions, I’ve developed a condition I call “mouse shoulder.” The clinical diagnosis is probably an inflammation or strain of the rotator cuff. The best cure I found was to do something else for a few days to let my shoulder heal. Using a clipboard in my lap is a good preventive measure for mouse shoulder.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Beanie I Never Got

In a previous post, The Write Way to Change Your Brain, I explained how relationships with parents can affect the way we relate to the world at large. I see the truth of this in my own life. I grew up in a family that lacked language for describing any but the most basic emotions, and we didn’t talk much about even those. It’s not that I didn’t feel things — I just didn’t have words to describe, analyze, and discuss those feelings.

It’s hard to fully experience that which you can’t name, and it’s hard to be supportive of that which you aren’t apprised of. Both my parents grew up in similar circumstances. No wonder they were unable to teach me about feelings or be supportive in areas of relationships and emotions.

Writing stories and journaling has been a huge help in becoming aware of the various facets of this situation and how it developed. Some of the stories, such as the one below (written in 1998) are short, but powerful documentation:

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Digging Deep—Interview With Boyd Lemon, Pt. 2

In his recently published memoir, Digging Deep, Boyd Lemon plumbs the depths of his memory and soul as he seeks to understand what role he may have played in the failure of not one, but three successive marriages. The insights and answers he shares with readers may be helpful to readers of any age and marital status. This post is a continuation of an interview begun on my sister site, The Heart and Craft of Life Writing. In this post Boyd responds to questions about the writing process as it relates to his ex-wives and children.

SL: As I read the aptly named Digging Deep, I'm deeply curious how you handled things with your ex-wives regarding the disclosures in your book. Did you show them what you'd written before the book was published?

BL: I told each of them that I was writing it and intended to publish it. I received a response from only my third wife, who said she was not looking forward to it. I asked them each for input on several specific things related to their perception of specific incidents. My first and third wives both responded constructively. My second wife did not respond to either me or our adult children.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

When Writing Feels Stressful

After all the talk about the health benefits of writing, you  think of it as something much like taking your vitamins or blood pressure meds, but more time-consuming. “I guess I’d better sit down and write now,” you may think, although you have ninety other thing you’d rather be doing and nothing in mind to write about. “But it’s good for me,” you mentally sigh. “It will make me healthier.”

You pick up your pen or sit at the computer. Your stomach knots; your muscles clench. You stare at the blank page or monitor. This is not writer’s block. Perhaps you really are pulled in ninety directions at the moment, or maybe you are experiencing burnout.  You may have built up a huge pile of expectations and allowed writing to become a burden rather than a joy. It’s easy to begin to perceive anything as a burden when you “have” to do it. Burdens can become crushingly heavy and fill our lives with stress.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

From Grief to Hope: My Pathway to Healing Through Journaling

A Guest Post by Kathleen Pooler:

I still have the blue cloth, three-ring notebook that I created for my senior English teacher Miss Philips back in 1964. The page dividers have pictures depicting the section: hopes, beliefs, thoughts, ideas with varied colored plastic tabs where the white labels were inserted. At the time, it seemed like a silly project. What did Miss Philips know? I can still see her, pencil-thin frame, always dressed in some dark colored--grey, navy blue or black-dowdy dress or suit. Standing so straight by her desk, she never smiled or wore makeup. Her brown hair was pulled back in a tight bun and her wire-rimmed glasses dangled at the end of her nose. What in the world would I ever do with that silly notebook?

I packed the journal when I went to nursing school and every once in a while, I’d pull it out to glance through the sections. Sometimes, I’d even jot a few thoughts down. For the most part, it lay dormant. But, as I began my career and started out on my path to contribute to society as an adult, the pages started beckoning me.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Let There Be Peace on Earth

Let there be peace on earth
And let it begin with me.
Let there be peace on earth
The peace that was meant to be.
With God as our father
Brothers all are we.
Let me walk with my brother
In perfect harmony.

This song, written by Sy Miller and his wife Jill Jackson, has been one of my favorites for decades. (View full lyrics here.) Unlike other popular music, I don’t recall when I became aware of it, but I do remember sitting at the piano playing it over and over again in the seventies.

Let peace begin with me ... That was a thrilling thought, even forty years ago, but the only way I knew to bring it about was “turning the other cheek.” My understanding of turning the other cheek was limited conceding and stuffing my rage to achieve a sort of unilateral cease-fire. Quite predictably, this often led to war-like eruptions later, not the peace I sought.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Writing Makes You Feel Better: Counting the Ways

“People write in journals because it makes them feel better,” claims neuro-science researcher Matthew Lieberman. This conclusion comes from personal observation, not specifically from his research, but other research does back him up. The original research documenting specific health benefits of expressive writing was conducted in 1986 by James Pennebaker and his associate Sandra Beall. Pennebaker continued this line of research and his name is inextricably linked with the field of expressive writing research. That original research has been expanded and replicated over two hundred times in the ensuing twenty-five years. Studies by researchers around the world with dozens of diverse types of subjects lend solid credibility to findings.

The list below summarizes benefits that have been documented. Obviously not every person experiences every benefit, and they’ll be stronger for some than others, but knowing the list may help you further appreciate the power of expressive writing.

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Truth of a Man (or Woman)

The truth about a man is, first of all, what it is that he keeps hidden.”
—AndrĂ© Malraux       000000
I owe a big thank you to Kathy Pooler for calling this quotation to my attention in her blog post Writing From Our Soul—Journey into Self. Kathy makes the important point that it can be downright painful to write deeply into your story, but good things can come of it if you persist past the superficial pain elements and explore their deeper meaning.

She mentions a specific individual and her thoughts on writing about that relationship bring a similar one to my mind. The thought of writing about that person, that relationship, is daunting because of its complexity. My mind skids around like a dachshund on ice as I ponder where to begin.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Writing About Our Differences

Who hasn’t felt “different” at some time or other? For much of my life I thought I was the “different” one, the one who didn’t fit in. As time has passed, and especially as I’ve become hooked on reading memoir and teaching hundreds of people to write their own, I’ve discovered that this feeling is widespread, if not quite universal, and that it is not inherently bad.

I felt different from the day I began first grade and realized that all the other children knew somebody. In fact, most of them knew at least half the class. I had just moved to town and didn’t know a soul. I felt like I’d been dumped on a different planet. They played with each other at recess. Not only did I not know any of them, I had grown up in a neighborhood lacking other children and had no idea how to play with other kids, so I stood on the sidelines, watching and trying to figure out how recess worked. The differences continued to compound until in high school I became the 1960s equivalent of a Geek Girl. Ultimately I realized that these differences became the quirks that make me Me.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Writing Makes Thinking Visible

A flash of light darted past me and lit on a leaf. Following its path, I saw a dragonfly, bright, shiny, and luminous as a brand new car!

Dragonflies take my breath away. I moved cautiously toward the leaf for a closer look. As soon as I drew near, it flitted off, darting across the clearing. Time stood still as that dragonfly flitted through the woods, teasing me with a game of “Catch Me if You Can.” It refused to show off its ephemeral beauty for more than brief seconds.

Finally it tired and posed for a picture, allowing me to capture it with my handy pocket Panasonic. I must confess that like many life stories, my picture was adequate for my purposes, but not publication-worthy. This picture, taken by Sean Morgan, turned out  far better.

Only after I downloaded my photo onto my computer was I able to study the dragonfly in detail. The picture stays still, and it sticks around as long as I want to peer and ponder it. It fits nicely with my growing collection of bug pictures, including ladybugs, grasshoppers, butterflies and some gorgeous spiders. (Yes, I know. I have certifiably weird fascinations.)

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Which Wolf Do You Feed?

In a recent interview with Doug Parks, host of the Conscious Activist teleseminar series, Bruce Lipton told a short story from Spontaneous Evolution, a book he co-authored with Steve Bhaerman:

A Cherokee elder was talking to some kids and giving them lessons. He said, “Within me right now is a terrible fight.”

“What are you talking about?” asked the kids.

“Within me I have two wolves fighting. One is the wolf of love and peace and the other is the wolf of anger and war.” And he said, “It’s not just in me. It’s in every one of us.”

The children thought about this for a minute and one child asked, “Tell us Grandfather, which wolf will win?”

“Whichever one I feed,” he replied.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Beyond the Finger Pointing

“It was all your fault.”

“Yeah, right, you were such an angel!”

“Both of you always ganged up on me!”

“Well, you were always asking for it.”

“Mom always …“

“Dad never …”

Stressful conversations like this are common in many families, and even more families would have them if it weren’t for all the elephants in the room. Despite — or perhaps because o­f — their obvious potential for escalating stress, these conversations offer rich opportunities for reaping healthful benefits from expressive writing.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Roots of Story

“Sarah, you draw a tree here.”

“Okay. Now you draw a cloud.”

This was the substance of the discussion as my four- and five-year-old granddaughters collaborated on a drawing during lunch at a recent family reunion. I was especially intrigued with the final phase of this art project.

“Now let’s make a story about our picture,” said Marley.

The story began much earlier as they drew their respective avatars, Princess Sarah and Princess Marley, and talked about the rain coming from the clouds. They discussed which words to write on the picture. Now it was time to summarize their narrative. I have no doubt they would have written the entire story down if they’d known how. For now the few words they could manage sufficed.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Is It True?

The deceptively simple question: Is this TRUE? may be the single most important expressive writing or journaling tool around. This question may never occur to you on your own. We tend to take the truth of our thoughts for granted. How else could we make sense of things? We forget that we may not have (or be taking into account) all the relevant information, and that we tend to get stuck in a single way of viewing things.

The next time your thoughts begin to whirl or you tense up at a memory or anticipated event, give this question a try. Break the situation down into as many component pieces a you can think of and use this question to evaluate each element. For example, consider this hypothetical journal excerpt:

Nobody cares what I think. They always ignore me and do their own thing anyway. They don’t care if I’m there or not! If these were your words, you could ask IS IT TRUE that nobody cares what I think? IS IT TRUE e that they always ignore me? IS IT TRUE that they don’t care if I’m there?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Harness the Power of Questions

Questions have paved the path to wisdom, enlightenment, and solutions in cultures throughout history. You may recall that the Socratic Method was based on the use of questions between tutor and pupil. Jesus often posed questions to his followers. Zen roshis challenge disciples with koans (enigmatic riddles like what is the sound of one hand clapping?).

Fortunately you don’t need a time travel machine or a guru to tap into the transformative power of questions. Every person on earth is born naturally curious, and mining the depths of our own curiosity can lead to a wealth of wisdom. Journaling and freewriting are powerful ways to harness that power for any purpose you wish, whether that's solving a perplexing problem, finding your way through the maze of life, or untangling your thoughts as you write a memoir.

As you write, you may often find yourself wondering some version of, “Why does this keep happening?” or “What’s really going on?” or “How else could I go about this?” Listen to that small inner voice, and write down the question, then without further thought, start writing the answer. For example, you might ask yourself the question, “Why am I so stuck?” You might be startled to watch an intuitively obvious answer emerge from your pen or fingers: “Because I don’t really want to be doing this in the first place. I’m only doing it because Grunterman will have a fit if I don’t and . . . .”

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Writer's Hell: Myth #1

Anyone who reads self-help books and articles for writers has come across instructions for freewriting, writing practice, journaling or any of several other topics that urge you to simply start writing and keep that hand moving. If you run out of things to say, doodle, repeat a word or phrase, do whatever it takes to keep that hand moving because … what? You’ll go to the proverbial Writer’s Hell where you sit and stare at a blank page for all of Eternity if you don’t? Or maybe the motor in your brain is driven by the inertia of your hand and you’ll stare at a perpetually blank screen?

The advice to keep your hand moving is good advice if you suffer from serious writer’s block, and it can unclog fascinating ideas that may otherwise never emerge. But here’s some great news: You will NOT be sentenced to Writer’s Hell for failing to keep your fingers moving. In fact, it’s often quite a healthy option to lapse into a motionless trance during a writing session. Especially when that writing takes the form of journaling.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Find that Silver Lining

One key to unlocking health benefits from writing is to explore multiple points of view to find hidden benefits in upsetting or dismal circumstances. While this may seem intuitively true, as is increasingly the case, empirical evidence backs up common sense. A 2003 study by Campbell and Pennebaker found a correlation between the use of pronouns and subsequent frequency of doctor visits by research subjects. Pronoun use is an indicator of varying points of view, and subjects who explored more points of view had fewer doctor visits.

These are not isolated results. The Internet is rife with references to a connection between an optimistic point of view and improved health. Martin Seligman wrote a whole book, Learned Optimism to help people learn to adopt an optimistic point of view. While he wasn’t specifically studying the effect of writing, his recommendations can certainly be put to good use in expressive writing.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Why Write?

Why write about troubling things? Wouldn’t it do just as well to talk about them — or just forget them? After all, you can’t change the past. It’s the future that matters!

This is a common question, and an important one. The short answer is that talking can be as good as writing, ideally even better, but there is a caveat. First let’s back up and look at the reason it’s important to address troubling things in the past:

Although a few psychotherapists had begun using journaling in their practices by 1970, systematic research on the healthful benefits of writing did not begin until 1986 when James Pennebaker and Sandra Beall published results of a ground-breaking research study intended to discover whether writing about traumatic experiences for twenty minutes on each of four days could bring about catharsis as effectively as talking about it. Indeed it did, and among the measures they used were physical and emotional health indicators. Over time this became one of the most commonly replicated studies around. More than two hundred variations have been conducted since then to support and amplify the initial findings.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Message from Niigata

Today’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette printed a touching letter from Bob Mueller. For 13 year’s Bob’s daughter, Bethany Iyobe, has lived with her husband and two children in Niigata, Japan, 130 miles from Sendai. She emailed her family on Thursday, nearly a week after the March 11 earthquake, with a description of the situation in her area. I was moved to tears by her account, and Bob gave me permission to repeat her words as an example of the power of sharing positive emotions.

“It is totally inspiring to see how the people around me are responding… I can’t even begin to describe the mood. It is like rallying around a cause or rooting for your team or donating an organ or risking your life to save someone or all of these together and you can practically taste it in the air… .

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

My Inner Critic Questions Writing for Health

Despite their reputations as stone walls for writers, inner critics are not inherently evil and don’t deserve a death sentence. When we learn how to listen to them, they can give us valuable guidance. As I sat with my journal, recording thoughts about this blog, the book on this topic I’m refining, and the whole subject of writing for the health of it, I was assailed by burning questions: “Why am I doing this? Why am I working so hard? What on earth difference does it really make?”

Even though these questions were phrased in first person, I recognized the voice of my Inner Critic, aka Gretchen. My first thought as I heard these questions was dismay. Why would these questions plague me? I strongly believe in what I’m doing and the importance of this message. Why would doubts arise? Then I recognized another aspect of the questions. These are questions readers will have, a form of “What’s In This for Me?” I partly answered this question in the first post I wrote, “Four Benefits of Expressive Writing.” But that’s just one angle.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Writing After Shocks

(AP Photo/Yasushi Kanno, The Yomiuri Shimbun) JAPAN
People the world over are horrified at the devastation wreaked upon Japan. Haiti and the double-whammy in Christchurch shook us up. Fukushima  trumps them all with the basic destruction compounded by tsunamis rushing halfway across the planet and savaged nuclear plants. How will we ever feel safe again after what's beginning to seem like an ever-escalating assault by Mother Nature.

Obviously Japanese citizens are under the most severe sort of trauma as they deal with the current emergencies and contemplate the impact on their nation of recovery efforts. But to some extent this string of events, coupled with continuing concern about our economy, rising gas prices, and other stressful conditions traumatizes all of us, escalating stress levels for many.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Writing into the Fireplace

My thoughts swirled like a kaleidoscope on a blender motor. My tummy felt queasy, and my shoulders were massive knots of pain. This familiar condition struck me often over the course of the two years I spent in classes working on my masters degree in counseling. My inner mean girl, scaredy-cat and cheerleader got into brawling melees on a regular basis.

Desperate to still those swirling thoughts, I intuitively turned to writing — a strategy that had helped me through many teenage crises a dozen years earlier. I sat with a huge pad of paper and wrote, without any attempt to structure what flowed out of my fingers. I asked questions, whined, and groaned. I flamed idiots, blamed aggressors, and defended myself against real and imagined detractors. I licked wounds and reveled in self-pity.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Gut Connection

I felt my toe catch on a slight unevenness and my body hurtled forward toward the ground. My only thought was to protect my tender wrist. Next thing I knew, I was surrounded by a cluster of people as I lay face down on the sidewalk trying to move my throbbing head. Through a fog of pain I heard someone ask, "Did anyone call an ambulance?"

As I struggled to rise, to protest I'd be okay, I became aware of blood gushing from my nose and mouth ...

— Pat Cook

Each time I read this passage, I'm affected on a deeply visceral level. I literally feel the pain of smashing into the sidewalk. I experience the terror of hurtling forward. I taste the blood in my mouth. That would not be surprising if those were my words and I had personally tripped and fallen. But I've never fallen that way in my life, and I fervently pray I never do. So what's going on?

According to an article Richard Restak wrote in the Huffington Post, "Our brains were built for feeling each other's pain." He explains, "When we watch another person move, our observations of their movement activates in our own brain same areas that are involved when we make that movement." This effect generalizes to emotion, and based on my experience reading the lines above, it also generalizes to sharing sensations of pain, and we don't even have to witness the event first hand. Simply reading about it bonds us.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Four Benefits of Expressive Writing

Any experienced journal keeper will tell you that writing makes life better. Now we know that it can also make you healthier. Here are four expressive writing outcomes that serve to reduce stress and produce other life-enhancing benefits.

A calmer mind. We’ve all had times when the same chain of thoughts runs through our head, distracting us from business at hand and more productive considerations. Zen practitioners often refer to this condition as “monkey mind.” The thoughts run on, and on, looping endlessly without much change, causing stress, unhappiness and other ill effects. One of the classic cures for monkey mind is meditation. That could take decades of practice. A simple alternative is to write down the emotions associated with the looping thoughts and images. The combination of labeling and writing will activate the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain associated with voluntary control.

Defuse strong emotions. Many people find great relief in writing when feelings of rage, fear, grief, or confusion threaten to overwhelm them. Conscious awareness of feelings and emotions defuses much of the obsessive thinking and allows the opportunity to make deliberate decisions about how to interpret them and respond.