Most of us remember daily diaries from when we were kids. If we were girls, our diaries may have had pretty pictures on the front and a little locket. But what was outside wasn't really important. It was what was inside that mattered.
Little did many of us know that our journals actually helped keep us healthy--not only emotionally and psychologically but also physically.
James Pennebaker, a social scientist and researcher at the University of Texas, has done groundbreaking work for the last twenty years on the healing power of writing. In his 1997 book Opening Up, he documents the first research he did on the topic. Curious what the effects of writing down one's experiences are, he did a research study to find out. What he discovered surprised even him.
The group of students who wrote just once about difficult experiences and their emotions around those experiences experienced a 50% reduction in doctors visits in the next six months compared to the six months before writing. They reported fewer symptoms for any chronic illnesses they had, greater happiness and even an increase in grades and higher success rates when looking for jobs!
If we think that an activity like writing in a journal is something that we do for ourselves, with no practical benefit, we are wrong: Pennebaker's research has been repeated multiple times and the benefits of writing have been clearly demonstrated.
When we write, we process our life.
We know more and more about how important gut health is to process and digest our food--if we don't have a healthy gut, we can't take n the nutrients of our food. Similarly, we need to be able to process the meanings and feelings of our life to live a healthy, vital and successful life. Writing helps us do that!
Pennebaker's research suggests that when you write in a journal, instead of just writing stream of consciousness, be mindful of your writing process:
Here are some steps for the most effective writing, that can help not only in journal writing but in every other form of writing that you do:
Five simple steps for transformative writing
1)Choose a topic to write about--you may go off topic as you write, but having some intention and direction at first can help you get to what's important and not avoid it
2) Write about the specifics of the event/scene. Include as many details as possible--use all your senses.
3) Make sure to include your feelings. It's not "sentimental" or "corny" to write about feelings. Writing about your emotions is one of the most important qualities for healing--and it makes for more interesting and relatable writing, too.
4)If you hit a block, write through it. Don't worry about the "quality" of your writing or being completely coherent. Write about the block itself--keep your pen moving and come out of judgment mode. You can always revise later.
5) When you are done put your writing away for a little while to let the process digest and come to some closure. Take a short break—perhaps five minutes or a day. Then come back to your writing and re-read what you've written with compassion. Come out of judgment mind, and instead do some deep listening, becoming your own best witness.
Still not sure? Five reasons to get/ stay writing
If you want some writing prompts, explore my earlier blog posts including this post about the power and connection of writing
and this post with helpful writing prompts
And if you want support with your writing, I have just a few spaces left in my Monday writing workshops. You may also enjoy my one day mini-retreat/ workshop on Writing as a Contemplative Practice Friday September 21. Or reach out to me for information about working one-on-one.
As always, please share this with any friends who might be interested, and email me to say hi or ask questions.
Sometimes people ask me what to look for in a creative writing class, so I thought make a list of some of the most important qualities to look for and why.
1) attention to process/emotional support and attention to product/ craft
2) supportive community
3) good readers, and different kinds of readers in the class
4) small class size for individualized attention
5) flexible assignments, so that you can try new things and but also follow your own process and projects
6) carefully selected outside reading so that you can be inspired by and learn from works of other writers, develop your analytical abilities and broaden your vocabulary for thinking and talking about written work
7) ability to experiment, try different genres and forms, and make mistakes
8) freedom to ask for the kinds of feedback you want and not always have to follow the same format—maybe one day you want line by line edits and another day you don’t
9) time to generate writing in class in community—some people love this, some don’t but it’s always fun to get outside of your comfort zone and try something new and surprise yourself with what you can produce in a short amount of time in class
10) fun—after all, a writing class should be something that you look forward to going to each week!
I believe strongly that it is possible to find a class that provides both a truly supportive and encouraging atmosphere for writers at every level and at the same time teaches and supports the craft of writing and has a high standard for the writing and product itself.
In many writing circles, people tend to think of process and product as antithetical, and to assume that if a class is emotionally supportive it won’t also have a strong analytical and craft component.
We tend to think in terms of either/or instead of both/and. But that kind of thinking severely limits us. We get caught in old cultural dichotomies, dividing the head from the heart, the intellect from emotions, the mind from the body.
We also tend to think in strangely hierarchical and misogynist terms. Almost whenever people start making false divisions between the head and the heart, the assumption is that the head is superior and that the realm of the heart, emotions or “sentiment” is less serious and the space of “women.” Or conversely, we think that doing intellectual work prevents us from doing deep emotional work.
So it’s time to bring light to those silly biases and move beyond them!
I believe that a good writing class assumes that the emotional support is part of the analytical and craft support that is offered; after all, we’re only able to do our best work on the page, if we can listen deeply to ourselves and trust our own process.And we’re able to listen more deeply to ourselves and grow more if we also attend closely to what is happening on the page. Bringing the head and the heart together in the creative process creates a generative feedback loop in which we grow into our own authentic voice, understanding and vision.
In my classes, everything is designed to help people get to this integration of process and form.The supportive community; small class size; freedom to experiment with assignments and with form; encouragement to try new things and risk making mistakes; ability to ask for and receive different kinds of feedback, depending on the project and day; the carefully selected outside reading assignments and careful analysis of those outside texts that encourage you to expand your own limits; the generative in-class exercises and the fun we have together in class —all support you to create your very best, most daring, most honest and powerful work. These conditions encourage both emotional depth and technical brilliance.
Unlike other writing classes, my workshops are open to people writing both poetry and/or prose. And they are also open to writers with a very wide range of writing experience, from complete beginners to published and professional writers.
I find that mixing up the class leads to more exciting results for the students: rather than keep people caught in rigid categories, it allows writers to think more expansively of their work, to be explicit and honest about why they are writing, and who their readers are—and aren’t.
I have had students who have started as complete beginners in my class and gone on to publish books; I have had students who are very clear that they never intend to publish anything but are writing for their own enjoyment and growth; I have had students working on finding the shape of their first book; students finishing their third books; and students who, having recently finished a book want the freedom to play and explore again without needing to worry about publication.
Most students are writing either poetry and/or creative prose (memoir and personal essays) but the classes are also open to students working in long or short fiction.
If you’re in the Boston area and are interested in joining one of my classes, I have just a few more spaces left in each and would love to hear from you. Classes will start September 17thin my home in North Cambridge and each run for ten Mondays (excluding holidays). My morning class starts 10:00 and my afternoon class at 12:30. You can see more about the classes here.
Because the classes are small (capped at 9 people each), I like to talk to each person briefly before they join, so just reach out and contact me by replying to this email!
If you live elsewhere or if the Monday classes don’t fit your schedule, you might be interested in my online class. I also encourage you to look for other in-person classes and to ask questions before joining a class. Joining an unsupportive writing class, or a lax writing class that doesn’t take writing seriously, can set you back in your own life as a writer for years. I’ve had students join my class after having stopped writing literally for years because of a bad writing workshop experience. So before you join a class, look at this list of questions and talk to the teacher and see if it will be a good fit.
Many years ago, my therapist asked me, “do you see the glass half full or half empty?” I generally liked and respected and was helped by this therapist, but her question really bothered me.
I went home and wrote a poem about that question—I imagined a mountain pass where two different girls walked. One girl walked over the pass unscathed, and the other girl stepped on a landmine. Would the correct question to ask those two girls be, do you see the world half full or half empty? How do we get to tell our story in the terms that work for us? In my poem, I wrote about the ways in which the same world includes both great suffering and great joy. Then I put the poem away, but recently I went back and thought about that experience again.
A lot of psychology and self help suggest that what is most important is our mindset, our perception of the world around us. But this emphasis on mindset often comes too soon—we need to first explore what happened, feel what we feel about that experience fully, without judgment, and then be open to whatever shifts in mindset may come.
I think that the question "do you see the glass half full or half empty" keeps us stuck in a dualistic mindset. I prefer Buddhist teaching of non-duality and emptiness, in which we step out of our small frame of mind and enter into a larger more multidimensional perspective.
Both spiritual teaching and writing allow us to re-frame the story—we just need to be mindful of how we are doing that reframing.
These thoughts and experiences—spanning many years—were all swarming in me, so one day I sat down and wrote an essay about it. That writing process was clarifying for me, and I'm delighted that the essay was recently published in the Buddhist magazine Lion’s Roar.
I’m glad to share it with you and, as always, would love to hear your thoughts.
I also created some journal prompts below so that you can think about what metaphors work for you to frame and re-frame your world and tell your story in your own words.
Do you see the glass as half full or ultimately empty?
In the monastery dining room no one speaks. Chairs scrape across the floor; a serving spoon hits the inside of a pot. Someone coughs.
I’m already seated at the table with Simone while Eric and Gabriel stand in line waiting to take their food. Suddenly there is a big clank, a cluttering, falling sound, and then the rattle of a dish upon the floor. There are some whispers, some swishing sounds as whatever has fallen is cleaned up.
When Gabriel and Eric emerge from the kitchen, they come sit with us. Soon a nun stands up and strikes a large singing bowl, inviting us to eat.
We do not talk until we have mostly finished our meal and the nun again stands and again strikes the large singing bowl. But it is not until later, after the kids are asleep that night, that Eric tells me it was Gabriel’s plate, already full of food, that had fallen and split in two on the kitchen floor.
A young monk had come to Gabriel and reassured him. “Don’t worry,” he had said, “the plate was already broken.” Gabriel, thirteen, unsure what he was doing at a Buddhist monastery with his parents for the weekend, ears flushed from making a racket amidst the silence, had seemed to genuinely understand that the plate was, in a sense, already broken. Later, as he and Eric brushed their teeth in the men’s bathroom, Gabriel said, raising the toothbrush to his mouth, “the toothbrush is already broken,” and grinned.
Learning to see the plate—or the glass—empty and broken has been an invaluable teaching for me.
There is a popular metaphor that some of us see the glass half full and some of us see the glass half empty, but that metaphor has never quite worked for me.
In my first therapy experience with a good therapist who understood, listened, and taught me ways to listen to myself, my therapist asked me, “Do you see the glass half full or half empty?”
She was trying to suggest that how we interpret and react to what happens to and around us is as important as what happens. But her question annoyed me. Did she mean to imply that my anger and pain and sense of injustice were not justified, were simply a matter of my own subjective experience?
The question is not is the glass half full or half empty? Rather, can you see the glass as both empty and full at the same time?I remember going home and writing a poem in response to her question. I called it “Half full/half empty;” it was about the different experiences two girls had along the same mountain pass. One girl enjoys the beautiful day, bringing flowers home to her mother, while another girl, walking down the same pass just hours later, steps on a landmine and gets her leg blown off.
Was the difference between these two girls that one saw the glass half full and the other half empty? Was it a matter of perception or of experience?
What I needed was to acknowledge that pieces of me had been exploded, shattered. There were troubling experiences in my past—among them an early experience of sexual assault—that I had to witness, acknowledge, and mourn. Over years in therapy, I learned to listen to myself so I could do that.
The danger with the image of the glass half full or half empty implies that our experience is primarily subjective; it not only blames the victim, but also nullifies her experience.
We live in a world that often prefers not to see suffering and that often looks the other way. Looking the other way does not mitigate the suffering, but perpetuates the cycle.
The activist in me, the empath in me, the person committed to social justice and to deep listening, resists the metaphor of the glass half empty and the glass half full. The limitation of this metaphor is not that our subjective experience and our response to what happens is unimportant, but that the metaphor implies an inherent judgment, dualism, and over-simplicity: Will the viewer see the glass the “right” way and thus “right” her experiences and her life?
By contrast, the metaphor of the empty glass—or the broken plate—works powerfully for me.
I first heard the Buddha’s teaching on emptiness several years after I started working with my therapist. By then, I was able to acknowledge the pain and confusion I had felt as a child but had not been able to name. I had developed tools to listen to and care for myself. But I wanted a different level of healing.
I began to study with a Tibetan Lama. The first night I went to his teaching group, he lectured on the Diamond Sutra. He spoke for an hour about the Buddha’s insight that the glass of tea was empty—not just of liquid, but of form, of self.
The world in which the girl walks through the landscape and comes home unscathed, and the world in which the girl gets her leg blown off are the same world.By looking deeply at his own experience, Buddha was able to have insights that modern-day physicists would have millennia later: that this world of solid things is an illusion of our own perception. We now know that matter is full of almost infinite, empty space between moving electrons. Everything is always moving, impermanent, changing.
To see things as empty is not the same as to see the glass as half empty. When we see the glass as half empty—or half full—we still live in a world where there is a solid glass. But Buddha taught that all things are empty. He takes the solid ground out from beneath all things, and all of us.
Emptiness in Buddhism is sometimes seen as depressive, but I find it quite the opposite. Seeing the emptiness in all things paradoxically allows me to experience fullness. The question is not is the glass half full or half empty? Rather, can you see the glass as both empty and full at the same time? Can you see past duality?
If we start with the expectation of fullness, the world will again and again seem to be working against us. We will not just be disappointed, but we will be living in a delusion.
But if we can see the emptiness of all things—if we can see the limitation of our perception of solidity and of self—suddenly that emptiness is teaming with life and with excitement. Because the plate is already broken, we do not get attached to it when it falls and breaks. Because the plate is already broken, we do not take personal responsibility for a world in which gravity and fragile objects co-exist.
The world in which the girl walks through the landscape and comes home unscathed, and the world in which the girl gets her leg blown off are the same world. It is a world that includes both flowers and landmines, a world that has both joy and pain, a world of infinite multiplicity and potential.
Today’s news cycle emphasizes the landmines. Many people are experiencing a sense of horror and disillusionment. They thought the glass was half full, but now they are wondering if perhaps the glass is half empty. If it is only half empty, they wonder whether it makes sense to have hope. And if they don’t have hope, they wonder what is the point of action.
If we believe that the world is a vessel that we can perceive as empty or full, it is hard to see the magnitude of the changes that we are living through. It is hard to see the impact of climate change, that ice caps are melting at extraordinary rates and Antarctic ice shelves are falling into the ocean. Emptiness allows us to see the world as it really is and the rapid changes we are living through.
Similarly, emptiness can make us more aware of how much actually works. The other day as I was biking, I was suddenly able to see that all the cars, buses, bikes, pedestrians, children on scooters, mothers with carriages were all interacting in peace. A group of kids, maybe eleven years old, walked down the street laughing, safe.
How can I prepare my children to live in a world that includes both flowers and landmines? How can I help them prepare for the future and for the future’s radical uncertainty? Gabriel is now 17 and Simone is 13. My hope is that their sense of self is grounded enough that they can experience the freedom of non-self. I hope that they have had a childhood secure and full enough that they can acknowledge and embrace the radical emptiness of the world.
First published in Lion's Roar: https://www.lionsroar.com/the-glass-might-be-half-full-but-its-already-broken/
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This week, I've taken out my journal again.
My son, Gabriel, graduated from high school last week, and is now traveling in Argentina with a friend. And I am very emotional.
I find it hard to even understand all the things I'm feeling: there are things that I need to process for myself about who I am, time, who I was, who I want to become, what I miss about the past (as hard as it was, I loved having little kids), changing relationship, hopes, fears, dreams.
Going back to my journal helps me process all of these competing voices.
When Gabriel and Simone were babies and toddlers, I kept good journals about what they were doing and how it was to be a mother of young kids.
As a young mother, I was both writing for myself in the moment and writing for my future self and the future self of my kids, who would look back on our writing.
Now when I read those early journals, we both are and are not the same people we were.
What is the self? In some ways, that is what writing is all about, at least for me: it's an invitation and dialogue with the self, a way to explore what selfhood is, in its many aspects, and then, when we are ready, a way share that interior life with others.
But first, before we share our writing, writing is about discovery. the novelist EM Forester famously quipped, "how do I know what I think until I see what I say?" Often the best way to understand what we think and feel is to write it down.
A journal allows you to tell your story, and in doing so you come to understand yourself and live more comfortably within yourself.
Over the past weeks, I've had a number of students ask me about how to keep a journal, so I created six journal prompts.
Whether you always keep a journal or never keep a journal, you might have a good time exploring these prompts.
Six Journal prompts for adults
Emotional Healing & Mindful Writing Blog | Nadia Colburn
I blog about creativity, writing, yoga, meditation, justice, women, the environment and integrated well being for the individual and society.