Why Writing: 3 Steps You Can Take To Incorporate Writing in Your Life
by: Janet Reynolds
There are lots of reasons to write but the Southern author Flannery O’Connor sums it up best for me: “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”
I started keeping a diary when I was in second grade and have continued off and mostly on ever since. If you flip to any page in one of my many journals, you’ll get a snapshot into what I’m thinking or feeling on any given day. Depending what’s on that page, you might also see how I worked my way through whatever it was that was bothering me.
While I always felt better after I would write in my journal, I had a new appreciation for the benefits of letting my emotions and fears and concerns and worries out on the page while in the midst of our family’s journey through schizophrenia. Our middle son was hospitalized and diagnosed a month after his 26th birthday. While it was a relief of sorts to have some kind of name for his increasingly challenging behavior, we were all still in chaos for years afterward as we worked toward recovery without really knowing what that recovery would be. Writing helped me navigate that trip — for me, for my son, for my family. It gave me a place to release my deepest fears and helped me figure out how to take the next step forward.
Of course, you don’t have to have an “official” diagnosis to incorporate writing into your life. If the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us one thing, it is that we all are on a mental health journey. The degree and the ways in which it manifests in our lives can change daily, even hourly, but we are all trying to navigate a new world order. Some days go better than others.
So let’s assume you want to give writing a chance. Here are a couple of tips to get your writing practice going.
The key word here is practice. We don’t assume we will be expert at playing the cello the first time we pick up the bow and yet for some strange reason we have this misperception that you can only write if you already are “good” at it (whatever good means). This, of course, stops us from ever picking up a pen.
Your writing should be a judgment-free zone. The success comes in the doing of it, not whether you will win a Pulitzer for your memoir.
With that in mind here are some tips to get started:
- Make a realistic commitment: It certainly sounds good to say you’re going to write an hour a day, five days a week. And maybe you’ll even do that once or even twice. But then you’ll miss a day or write for a shorter amount of time, and suddenly you’re a failure in your eyes. Much better to pick 3-5 minutes a few times a week and be a rock star at it.
- Choose a time of day that works: Pick a time when you know you can do it. Maybe you’re a morning person. If so, perhaps picking up your journal first thing is the best way for success. If you’re a night owl, maybe writing right before bed works.
- Forgive yourself: If you miss a day or part or your commitment, that’s not a reason to give up. Tomorrow really is another day.
Once you’ve made a commitment, it’s time to write. Nothing is scarier than a blank page. But instead of looking at it as something that’s empty, think of it as a place just waiting for someone to fill it. It’s not the end of something; it’s the beginning.
A timer is your best friend. You’ve decided how much time you’re going to write. Set the timer and start.
Tips to Help You Stay on Track
- Keep your hand moving. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing gibberish; just keep going until that timer stops.
- Don’t edit.This is not the time to judge the quality of what you’re writing. Don’t worry about punctuation, grammar, or spelling. Don’t worry if it’s making sense or following a specific plan. Just write. Editing is for later.
- Lose control. Just as we can edit our words, worrying about whether or not “angry” is the best word to use at that point in a sentence, so too can we edit our thoughts and emotions and feelings. We can insert other people’s voices–maybe our mother or our friend or our therapist. What would they think of what you’re writing? This isn’t a space for them. This is a space for you to let go as far and as much as you’re able. Say all the horrible things. Say whatever you need to. You can always burn the pages afterward. Doing this will enable you to get to the real heart of what you’re trying to uncover. It will get to the emotion of what you really want to write. You can always rachet it back.
Okay so you’re ready to get writing. Here are a couple of ideas to help you get started. Maybe you already know what you want to write about. Great. But if you don’t or maybe you’re having a day when you’re not feeling inspired but want to make sure you write, here are a few ideas you can always try.
Emotional check-in: Set your timer for your allotted time (remember 3-5 minutes) and then take this sentence and see where it takes you: I feel… It doesn’t matter if you repeat a feeling several days in a row or if you have multiple feelings or whatever. It’s just a way to check in with yourself and let some of your emotions and thoughts out on the page. Do this for a month and you’ll also have something you can look back on to see if any patterns emerge or whatever. Want a variation on this starter sentence? Try I am… This can be a great way to start to see how we regard ourselves.
Write about people you know: Not sure where to go with your writing on any particular day? Start by writing about someone you know. It can be someone you really admire or someone you really hate. Remember this is a judgment-free zone. Remember all the things you’ve done together. Describe what they look like. Write about the things you love/hate about them. Don’t restrict to just what you see; use all five senses. You may be surprised by some of what comes up when you allow yourself to really dig into a relationship.
Ask yourself a question: Maybe it’s something light, such as why don’t I like dill pickles. Or maybe it’s something with deeper potential, like why does my brother’s laugh bug me so much? Or maybe it’s something you’re trying to figure out, such as why does talking to my boss make me so anxious? Whatever it is, asking a question and then exploring — again without judgment or holding back — can be a good way to get the writing juices going and, depending on the question, begin to get some better understanding.
Want to explore writing more?
Visit our new Teachable course “Discovering Your Inner Writer.” This series of six 30-minute videos you can watch on your own schedule will walk you through setting up a writing practice, provide strategies for improving your writing, and include writing prompts and exercises to help keep you motivated and improving. All videos have closed captioning and can be viewed at your own pace. Learn more at https://mhc-write-on.teachable.com/p/discovering-your-inner-writer.