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.
How do we sort through all the variety and complexity in our lives and in our world? What do we focus on? How do we decide what tone to take?
Sometimes writing can be a wonderful way to make sense of the complexity. The exploratory nature of our writing can be a gift and can guide us to what we really think and believe; as E. M. Forster quipped, “How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?
We can discover ourselves through the writing process.
But too often in that discovery process, we can feel uncomfortably lost and overwhelmed, and we run in circles as a result.
To be honest, sometimes when I sit down to write I can feel caught up in the complexity itself, unable to find my way out. Where to start? What to focus on?
So before I sit down, I like to know what kind of writing I’ll be doing, what my goals are, and the direction I want to be headed in.
This is the case not only if we’re sitting down to write a short piece, but also and especially when we’re in the midst of a longer project:
How do we keep all the different strands going? How do we keep the tone consistent? Should we follow that other question or plot line instead of the one we were following before?
Many people ask me: Should I just start writing and let the writing guide me, or should I have an outline for my project/ book?
I believe that at a certain point 99 percent of writers will benefit greatly from an outline, a clear roadmap to where they are going!
My father worked as an editor and publisher in New York City publishing, and he always said that he could tell from the synopsis and one page of the author’s writing whether the book was a go or not. Even the most talented writer couldn’t write a good book if the synopsis didn't make sense, he’d say.
I used to find this discouraging. But now, the more I work with writers and see the writing process unfold across different genres and for many different writers, the more I see what good advice it is.
I’ve had students and clients come to me after wasting years on incompletely formed book ideas; because they don’t have a clear form or outline to guide them, they made a wrong turn and then headed in a wrong direction, sometimes literally for years.
If you want to stay on track and write with more direction and save time and energy, I encourage you to ask yourself these two simple questions:
1) What is the MAIN idea of the project you are working on. Try to boil it down to one page and then to one paragraph.
2) What HAPPENS in the book—in real time. Go through chapter by chapter and map it out. What is at stake in each chapter?
Often, you need to write your way to these answers.
It can also be immensely helpful to talk these questions out with a friend or coach. We can often hear things differently when we say them aloud to another person. And feedback is invaluable.
Once you really find your way to answer the two questions above, the writing process becomes much easier and more enjoyable. And the work itself becomes much more powerful.
If you’re interested in exploring this process of getting clear on your main idea and structure more, please join me March 2nd for an all day workshop at Grub Street in Boston.
There will be time to write from prompts, to do interactive exercises and to discuss your particular project and get feedback.
If you’re not local or are not free that day, I also have a limited number of spots available for new one-on-one coaching clients. A few sessions can help clarify ideas and save lots of time and energy!
I find this process of coming to and staying with our main idea not only practical, but also a good corrective to the way we often live. Books provide a beautiful depth of attention, knowledge and vision in contrast to the normal distraction and shortness of attention of our contemporary world.
Similarly, the writing process itself cultivates a beautiful clarity, attention and centering vision in an often de-centered world. This process of writing can be a powerful and transformative experience of focusing and clarifying.
We all have stories, but how do we listen to them mindfully so that they lead us to our true purpose and we don't get overly attached to the thorny pieces?
In our complicated world, how can we calm our nervous system so that we are more available to ourselves and others?
I'm so excited to share with you my conversation with Jillian Pransky, a yoga teacher of over 20 years and the author of the newly published book Deep Listening, in which we discuss these questions.
In our conversation, we talk about:
Jillian's also a great storyteller, and she tells some memorable stories that I think you'll enjoy!
(Click above or watch here: https://youtu.be/BywY5dFjCqc)
If you want to listen to the conversation you can listen here:
You can see more about Jillian and her new book Deep Listening at her website www.jillianpransky.com.
As always, I love to hear from you. Let me know your reactions to the conversation and your own experiences with deep listening. And please share with any friends who might be interested.
At the heart of my work is the belief that the stories we tell, about ourselves and about others, matter. They carry weight, and they have real world consequences.
As Trump pulls out of the Paris Agreement, what we see is one story competing, with enormous globe-changing consequences, with another story.
Trump tells a story about America First. He tells a story in which there are winners and losers, a story in which it is possible to roll back the clock to the past, a story in which “success” is measured by accumulating physical things and by economic gain.
But nothing more clearly shows the limit of that story than the global, environmental facts that now face us. These facts tell a different story:
They tell the story of a global reality in which we are all in this together, in which we are inter-dependent and one community’s or one nation’s wellbeing cannot be isolated. They tell a story in which the future is already upon us, in which the icecaps are already melting and in which our own human consciousness is already waking up to the global realities. Similarly, these facts tell a story in which success can no longer be tied to extractive practices of more and more physical things, because we live in a world with finite physical resources.
This second story offers us a new way to measure success: not in hoarding more things for a few, but in recognizing the inherent value of all life and the ways in which we all depend on one another, the very large and the very small, down to the bees and plankton, without which we could not survive.
This moment is a challenge to us all: to take charge of the narrative.
After all, we live by narrative. Narrative arranges how we make sense of our lives and how we organize our days and our societies.
In some indigenous communities in the amazon, for example, it was and still is considered heroic to give everything away and to share with others. Some communities structure their lives around a story of God. Some around stories of seasonal change.
In all our actions and in all our lives, we are living within narratives that have as their center certain assumptions about what matters and how we shape our lives.
I have seen in my work with clients and in the field of narrative medicine that if we don’t listen to and tell aligned stories about ourselves, we may get sick and not be able to heal.
The same is true of the stories we tell about the earth: if we don’t tell the correct story about it, we will all be in trouble.
We each have the power to tell the story that we believe in, the story that rings true for us. And we each have the power to find the places—on the state level, the city level, the local level, in our homes and in our hearts—where that story resonates and can find traction.
After all, stories are amazingly dynamic and democratic; though an authority figure may try to control them, stories can’t be controlled from the top down. We each have power over our own story.
And each of our own stories involves our relationship to the earth and to one another. So when we do this work of coming into our own truth, we do it not only for ourselves, but also for our collective narrative, for our values, and for the earth.
In these weeks and months and years ahead, it is all the more important that we come into our power to speak our truth and bring about real narrative shifts. Because action follows narrative.
As always, please reach out to me with your thoughts, questions, observations!
And check out my upcoming programs. On Friday June 16th, I’ll be leading a three hour workshop at Grub Street “Writing With Courage” where we’ll look at strategies authors use to speak their truth, often despite pressures to do otherwise, and where you’ll have the opportunity to strengthen your own courage and voice as a writer.
And if you’d like a deeply nourishing weekend of yoga, writing and meditation, please consider joining me at the Copper Beech Institute for a full weekend retreat August 18-20.
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.