How expressive writing can keep you afloat

How expressive writing can keep you afloat
Date Posted:
5/12/2020

For the last eight years, I have instructed various students in my courses and retreats on how to use expressive writing for release and recovery. In my teaching practice, writers most frequently come to me with the question of how to get the words out. 

Like me, these writers are survivors of violence, grief, or other trauma. They have experienced what is often stigmatized to share. Perhaps they have even been conditioned or instructed to maintain silence. Perhaps the idea of writing is akin to drowning, and these survivors feel stuffed so full of their own stories they are choking; or their stories slip away as soon as they have the ability to reach for them. 

At this time, the world is experiencing a collective trauma in the form of the coronavirus pandemic. We all share in the sense of chaos that permeates our daily life. We are all in the process of surviving. What was once easily accessible to many—personal and financial stability, for example—is now out of reach. Not having ready access to food, hygiene products, or medical care probably feels terrifying.

But through this crisis, we have the opportunity to forge new paths of care for all classes of people, as long as we process our experiences instead of compartmentalizing them. A relatively safe way to process is by writing.

Expressive writing is a great tool for easing stories out. An article by John F Evans on Psychology Today defines it as a practice which “pays more attention to feelings than the events, memories, objects, or people in the contents of a narrative.” In my experience, expressive writing allows you to keep your head above water. 

Here is my three-step method for guiding stuck writers to the lifeboat of expressive writing so they might swim in their flow instead of slipping down into silence:

Write.

No, seriously. The greatest barrier is getting yourself to the page. The second greatest barrier is using the page. With expressive writing, it doesn’t matter what you write. Your word strings can be nonsense. There is no need for the application of grammar. All of that comes later. 

For now, just write. Write that you don’t know what to write and that it feels really weird to be writing and you don’t know why you’re making yourself do this. Set a timer for 10-20 minutes and write until it rings. If it feels like work, like you’re reaching and kicking for every word, take a breath or 10...and keep writing.

Emotionally engage with what you wrote.

Take a few minutes after your timed writing to jot down a few notes on how that process or any thoughts that arose made you feel. This is a phenomenal self-care practice. Hard feelings can come up when you take away the writing boundaries. Or maybe the process of writing every thought in your head has you gasping for air. That’s okay. Make notes of what you felt when and where. Let writing be a lifeline in rough waters by noting what felt good about the process and returning to it when you need help getting through the day.

Make note of any stories you became aware you were holding.

Fiction, nonfiction, poetry, even children’s stories—all stem from life. The best writing is that which holds poignant grains of truth which are universally relatable. The great news is you don’t have to force these to come out. Expressive writing pulls them out of you because it allows you to pay attention to the thoughts swarming your mind and give them space on the page, rather than trying (and feeling like you’re failing) to focus on just one at the onset of a writing session. Look at what spills out! What stories surprised you? Which ones do you want to follow further out to sea?

Consider being in the throes of holiday decompression. Either you were reunited with friends and family, or you were not. Either this was good for you, or it was not. Memories and emotions flood you. You are at risk of being carried away. Using these tips will support you in stepping back into your creative flow so you can move with the current by aiding you in releasing your thoughts and helping you discover what stories you need to tell while keeping your head above water. Instead of being submerged by holiday memories, you can release the memories as they come and eventually focus on those that buoy your spirit.

Will you try expressive writing as a self-care tool for grounding and processing, and a creative tool for generating story ideas? Share with us in the comments!

Related reading: 4 ways to write yourself out of isolation

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