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.

Eventually I moved into planning mode as passion subsided and reason began to surface. When my explosive thoughts were exhausted, my mind had cleared, my muscles relaxed, and my gut calmed, I could breath deeply and smile. I gathered the pile of papers and headed to the fireplace, watching with relief as my output went up the chimney in flames.

At the time I told myself I was burning my words to avoid the need to discuss anything. I've since realized those flames were a form of ablution, bringing closure to my siege of mental chaos. They symbolized closure and commitment to positive progress.

I still use writing to sort my thoughts and make sense of the world, though seldom so intensely. It has always felt right and natural and worked for me, and I've often recommended the technique of what I called “writing into the fireplace.”

Since becoming aware of the work of James Pennebaker and all the others who have built on the foundation of his original work, I can do so with more confidence. Pennebaker's research involved writing about traumatic or troubling events over a period of four days. Later projects have found that writing for shorter periods of time or in single sessions yield similar health benefits.

Many journaling experts recommend free-writing such as I describe. In her book Journal to the Self, Kathleen Adams tells of a time she wrote non-stop through the weekend after a lover left her one Friday at midnight. By the end of her writing binge she emerged bored with the whole thing, lover, trauma and all. She did have a few lingering thoughts, but describes this as the fastest healing from a damaged relationship that she ever experienced.

Next time you find yourself in a clutch, give it a try. The hour(s) you invest may be among the most valuable ones of your life. You owe it to yourself to make time for it.

Write now: set aside some time to write about an event you've found puzzling or troubling that you never completely resolved to your satisfaction. This may be something current or a puzzling memory. Start writing, describing what happened, how you felt about it then and now. Vent about it. Express your anger, hurt or sorrow. Then write down as many other ways to look at the situation as you can think about. Explore next steps you could take to turn the situation to advantage or at least strip the thorns from whatever roses you may find.
If you have a great result you feel like sharing, send me an email and I'll post it in this blog.
Image: Jernas Lukasz

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