When I write, I discover what I really think and feel. I can re-visit difficult past experiences and find meaning in them. I can give voice to my younger self, letting her energy and wisdom guide me. I can call upon my wiser self to help me through tough times. I can speak to my younger self with love and compassion, helping untie knots of self-blame and confusion.
Since the 1980s when psychologist/researcher James Pennebaker pioneered expressive writing, there have been many studies confirming the remarkable power of writing openly, honestly and in our own voice. It improves physical and mental health, promotes well-being, and strengthens resilience. (Pennebaker & Smyth, 2016)
Writing for Resilience
Resilience is a quality that enables people subjected to difficulties to thrive despite them.
~Louise DeSalvo, Writing as a Way of Healing
Resilience is about coping successfully with life’s challenges. We build resilience not by pushing ourselves ever harder but by allowing ourselves opportunities to renew and recharge. Spending just a little time writing, whether each day or each week, creates such opportunities.
Writing about disruptive past events allows us to put them to rest, freeing up energy for the present.
Writing for ourselves, in our own voice, honestly and openly lets us discover our true thoughts and feelings. It helps us make meaning of our experiences. Writing can help us find our most deeply held values and beliefs, helping us figure out the difference we want to make with our lives.
Knowing all this is great, but, as my clients note, it can be hard to get started. I agree! Let’s see if I can help with that.
1. Getting Started
Turn off Your Inner Boss, Editor, Teacher and Critic
This is writing for you, not for an audience. It doesn’t matter if at first you’re just writing crap, keep going! Give yourself permission to just write, and trust that it will lead somewhere.
Allow yourself to just write. You don’t have to meet your high school teacher’s or college professor’s grammar, spelling or composition rules. No one else is going to read this.
You can start out with a specific prompt. Allow your writing to go where it will. You might be “off topic” but the path you’re exploring is likely to yield important discoveries.
2. Create a Pleasing Environment
Having a favorite spot in which to write might help. It might be a comfortable corner of your home, a coffee shop or library, or your office at the beginning or end of the day when few people are around.
Some people like to play background music, light a candle or burn incense, something to signify that this is writing time.
3. Warm Up
Staring at a blank page or screen can shut us down despite our best intentions.
Instead of struggling to get started, try one of these ideas:
- Free write, whatever comes to mind, for 3-5 minutes.
- Make a list. It can be related to the topic you want to write about, or it can just be a list of anything. Your family members, your favorite meals, the movies you watched last year – anything to get pen on paper and and your attention shifted to your writing.
- Holding your writing prompt or topic in mind, draw, doodle, paint, or make a collage.
- Play some music and move around the room to it.
- Take three deep, slow breaths.
John Evans, my teacher and mentor in leading others in writing to heal, practices Tai Chi and yoga. He draws on these practices prior to starting his writing. Feel free to experiment and find what works for you.
4. Write About What’s Got you Stuck
Suppose you sit down to write a letter of compassion to your younger self, but the words just won’t come. Before you try to write the letter, write about what is making it hard to get started. Very likely you’ll find, as I do, that writing about why you can’t write flows naturally into the writing you’d like to do.
5. Schedule Writing Time
If you’re feeling way too busy to write, I have good news for you. It doesn’t have to take a lot of time. Writing for 5 -20 minutes a day (or a week) is fine. Did that surprise you? It’s true that if you’re a professional author, or want to be you’ll need to spend more time on your work. Writing for well-being is better done in shorter spells.
Spending more than about 20 minutes at a time on it can be exhausting. If you’ve got way more to say than you can finish in 20 minutes, jot down the key points you want to come back to later in the day, or on another day.
Anne, one of my clients, comments that the things she puts in her calendar are the things that get done. She enters time for writing into her scheduler and treats that time the same as she does a scheduled meeting or appointment. “This,” she says, “is my appointment with myself. It’s an important one, and if I write it into my schedule, I will keep it.”
If you decide to try Anne’s idea, you can pick a favorite time of day. You can write at the same time each day, or vary your writing time to suit your schedule.
6. What Not to Do!
Ruminating, or telling the same story over and over in the same words, without moving forward isn’t helpful, and in fact can make things worse! If you find yourself doing that, stop writing, or purposely shift your perspective. You can do that by shifting from first person to second or third person; by writing from another person’s viewpoint, or by purposely incorporating as many realistic positive emotion words into your writing.
If you’re writing about something that’s particularly tough to resolve, you don’t have to go it alone. There are certainly times when any one of us might need some additional help with a difficult issue. Seek out a supportive friend who’s a good listener. Get the name of a coach or therapist who can guide you.
It’s natural to feel some sadness or have other negative emotions for a while when writing about difficult experiences, just as we do sometimes when we see a powerful movie. If these feelings are getting overwhelming you should bring your writing to a close. If such feelings aren’t going away in a short time, that’s strong indication that professional help is called for.
What to Write About
I get why my Writing for Resilience workshop participants say they love having someone else craft the prompt and help them get started. That way they’re freed up from figuring out what to write about. They can focus on the writing. Plus they get the benefit of topic-focused conversation with and support from peers. They get to write privately, in the company of others. You’re welcome to join us for these monthly, online workshops.
Here are some previous blog posts with writing prompts for you to try on your own.
Check out my e-book, Writing for Well-Being: Guide and Workbook, where you’ll find more guidance for getting started, and writing prompts to help you with expressive writing, transactional writing, poetic writing, affirmative writing, legacy writing, and writing for resilience.
And see the References and Resources below for other sources of prompts. Happy writing!
References and Resources
Cutler, W.J., Monk, L., Shira, A. (2014). Writing alone together. Salt Spring Island, BC: Butterfly Press.
DeSalvo, L. (1999). Writing as a way of healing. Boston MA: Beacon Press
Pennebaker, J.W. & Smyth (2016). Opening up by writing it down. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Pennebaker, J.W. & Evans, J.F. (2014). Expressive writing: Words that heal.Enumclaw, WA: Idyll Arbor.
Seligman, L. (2015). A pocket book of prompts. Peterborough, NH: Bauhan Publishing