I just did an interview about my write to heal workshops for the terrific publication, Bottom Line/Women’s Health, so I thought I’d put a few exercises here, in case anyone reading the article is looking for more. Studies by Dr. James Pennebaker at the University of Texas and many others have definitively shown that writing about trauma enhances physical, emotional and mental well being. My own personal and professional experience bears this out. The process of writing “Saving Elijah” saved me after my son’s death, I think. Creating narrative (and/or meaningful image or metaphor) helps us gain distance from and understand our trauma (including serious bereavement) by transferring and integrating emotional memories, which are primarily stored in the right brian, into the more logical left brain. Here’s a quote from B. S. Van der Kolk, a leading trauma researcher, “Traumatic memory is are primarily imprinted in sensory and emotional modes principally stored in the right hemisphere of the brain, as opposed to the left hemisphere, which mediates verbal communication and organizes problem solving tasks into a well ordered set of operations and process information in a sequential fashion.” More about all that in a later post.
By the way, I’ve decided to change the basic name of my workshops from “Write to Heal,” to “Writing for Wellness and Healing,” to broaden their appeal, and because you don’t have to have experienced major trauma to benefit. Anyone who has experienced emotional upheaval can benefit from writing. (Or from any creative endeavor, for that matter.) And who hasn’t experienced emotional upheaval in life?
Here are some exercises to get you started. Remember, with all deference to those who think our every waking thought and feeling must be laid out there for all to see, you don’t have to share what you write with anyone. So tell the truth.
1. DIG WIDE, DIG DEEP EXERCISE
Part 1. Begin with “I remember.” Write lots of small memories, and begin each with the words “I Remember.” Don’t be concerned if the memories happened five seconds ago or five years ago, or if they are memories about your lost child or your grandmother, a vacation you once took, or a kid from school. Don’t worry if they are happy memories or sad ones, big memories or small ones, important memories or fleeting ones. Be in the moment as you remember them and write them as quickly as you can without stopping. Try this for seven minutes.
Part 2: Now read over your list and choose one memory that speaks to you and write about it as a scene and/or in great depth, with sensory details (what did you see, smell, touch, feel). Really dig in. Seven minutes.
Part 3: Now write that memory as if it didn’t happen to you, but rather as if it happened to someone else. The easiest and most effective way to do this is to put it in the third person, instead of the first person. (Actually, this is a good alternate for many of the exercises in this list—write it in the third person.) Seven minutes.
2. DIALOGUE WITH GOD EXERCISE
For this exercise, imagine you’re walking down the road one fine day. Or you could be in your kitchen and there’s a knock at the door, or at your desk, or on the bleachers watching your child’s hockey game, or sitting down at your desk. You choose the setting, which I hope you will describe with as many sensory details as you can. And suddenly a person comes up to you whom you somehow recognize as God. What does God look like? Describe God’s appearance. I’m not necessarily looking for flowing robes, white beards and symbols of religion here, because presumably God can take any form. Choose one that has meaning to you: someone you know or don’t know, someone from your past or future, your dead child or sister, Morgan Freeman, George Burns, your long lost Aunt, a Buddhist monk. What is he wearing? What does he look like? You get to have a conversation with God. Don’t hold back. God can take whatever you dish out.
And you say to God, “Why me?” And God says, “Why not you?”
Write the scene complete with dialogue from there. Try to get past any nervousness you have about talking to God, and even consider challenging God. For example, if you don’t like God’s answer, say so. As always, feel free to write this from someone else’s point of view, either in the first person or third. Do this for seven minutes.
3.RIGHT NOW EXERCISE (MINDFULNESS)
Write about what you’re thinking and feeling right this minute. Start a list: My jeans are too tight. I drank too much coffee this morning. I feel jittery. The sunlight is pouring in the window. My arm hurts. I feel nervous. Something smells in here. ….Do this for five minutes.
4. FOUR SQUARE EXERCISE
One of the ways we can discover our writing selves is to discover unexpected ways of observing everyday objects. Think of an object. Perhaps it’s something you’re wearing, a bracelet, or a belt. Or maybe it’s a lock of hair, or a stuffed animal. Or maybe it’s something you see in the room. Divide a piece of paper into four squares. In the top left square, describe the object as specifically as you can, with as many specific details as you can. In the top right square, list all the feelings the object evokes. In the lower left, create similies of what the object is like or what it reminds you of. And finally in the lower right, put yourself in place of the object, take the voice of the object and write from the object’s perspective.
Once you’ve done that, see if you can use some of what you’ve written to create a poem.
5. WRITING PROMPTS
- How satisfied are you with your life right now?
- What thrills you?
- What do you need?
- What are you afraid of?
- Where do you feel stuck?
- What activities or practices help you in difficult times?
- What do you long for?
- What are the great sadnesses in your life?
- What are you jealous of
- What forces surround your life or work that are out of your control?
- What fight or burden are you ready to give up for now?
- What do you regret?
- Write about a time you felt joy?
- In what ways are you good at taking care of yourself? What ways are you bad at it?
- Write about a dream you’ve had. What do you think the message is?
- What do you hope for?