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.

The distinguishing features of raw writing are total spontaneity and direction connection to heart. Few of us are able to totally turn off our brains as we write, but the less conscious direction you give your fingers, the more “raw” the writing. The general instructions are to simply begin writing the first thing that comes to mind and go on from there. You don’t concern yourself with sentence structure, spelling, grammar, coherence, or anything like that, and you do give thoughts, feelings, and emotions free reign.

Raw writing forms the basis of the expressive writing exercise James Pennebaker used in his classic research that has been replicated over 200 times. It’s especially valuable for clearing trauma residue from your mind, and significant health benefits have been consistently identified.

It is also helpful in organizing your thoughts. As you jot down one idea or memory, two or three others are likely to latch on and bubble forth. I find connections this way I may never have been aware of before. Some are quite surprising and delightful. This function of raw writing is especially valuable in exploring and organizing memories when writing memoir or personal essays.

Since there is so much overlap between the various terms like freewriting, writing practice and morning pages, I also coined a couple of terms, rants and riffs, for raw writing on loose pages that may or may not be kept, as distinct from writing in an ongoing journal. Rants are paper pits for disposing of anger, frustration and other stressful obsessions. Riffs are shelves for showcasing delight, glee, and general gratitude joy of living. Both serve a powerful purpose and produce health benefits.

Pennebaker advises waiting several days or weeks until your head stops spinning before writing about traumatic events. Some people are unable to write when their emotions are running amok. Others of us instinctively reach for pen and paper to make sense of life in the challenging moment. I find that writing my thoughts down makes them more real. It slows them, anchors them, and gives them substance. It gets them out where I can see them. Writing my wrath or fear allows me to shift brain states and begin mobilizing my resources more quickly and effectively. It also drains the juice from my agitated state. At the very least, it documents the situation. Quite often the resulting pages go into the fireplace, as I have written elsewhere. You might give this form of raw writing a try and see if it works for you.

Riffs serve a slightly different purpose. They also get your thoughts out where you can see them and spark connections. But instead of relieving anxiety and neutralizing stress, they amplify the positive and help cement it in your thoughts and personal story. They strengthen habits of optimism and gratitude.

Whether you write about current events in your life or memories, raw writing has much to recommend it for its health benefits and because it’s the first step in following Anne Lamott’s advice to “write a shitty first draft.” Whether you are mining for insight and new ideas or venting psychic steam, raw writing is a powerful tool.

Write now: open your journal or start a new page (pixels or paper — it’s your call) and do some raw writing about whatever comes to mind. File it, burn it, share it — that’s your call too.

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