Improve your inner monologue, improve your writing

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A November article at Mindful on “the science of our internal monologue” is exactly the kind of link I’m going to click on every time. The intersections of art and science, psychology and behavior, mindfulness and action, hold endless fascination for me—especially if the subject is neuroscience, why and how our brains process experiences and store memories.

As writers, we draw on experiences and memories to make art. They’re our proverbial bread and butter, right? So even though I’m always guiding writers toward sensory noticing (because details make for grounded writing), to essentially get out of their owns heads a bit, the truth is that how we feel about what’s happened to us creates emotional tension. Can we tell a good story without portraying relatable feelings? I don’t believe so. And if we don’t know what we feel because we didn't take the time to examine it thoroughly, can we portray relatable feelings? Again, I don’t believe so. 

What comprises our internal monologue?

The Mindful article references a book by Ethan Kross called Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It. I’m going to start there, but the word voice—a writer’s word—caught my eye, as did the phrase “internal monologue” in the article’s subhead. These are literary terms. Certainly the voice(s) in our heads will affect the “voice” that makes it onto the page. The internal monologue will affect the external—what we say, and what we write.

Maybe the best place to start is with a breakdown of what constitutes “internal monologue.” University of Nevada Las Vegas professor and researcher Russell Hurlburt posited five categories of internal monologue or inner experience that some people experience: “inner speaking (voice), inner seeing (pictures/images), feelings (happy, sad), sensory awareness (carpet beneath our feet), and unsymbolized thinking (which basically includes awareness of a thought but without words or pictures).” I can’t help but see, again, the connection between these categories and literary terms! That’s because the elements of storytelling are the same whether the story exists in our minds or on the pages we fill.

If you get into the weeds of Hurlburt’s research, outlined (and linked out to) later in the article, you’ll learn that the test subjects had difficulty describing what was happening in their minds; specifically, they tended to report back about why they had the thoughts they had (what Hurlburt termed their “presuppositions”), instead of describing the inner experiences themselves.

And there’s the writing lesson for us in all this talk of self-awareness.

Writers, if you’re getting stuck translating your inner monologue to an external story, tell us what you or your characters see, feel, taste, hear, and smell, but don’t impose your own beliefs on the why of it. Notice and describe. If you feel yourself lecturing, pathologizing, postulating, or justifying, you’ve moved out of the moment of the experience and into defending its importance or existence.

From a mindfulness standpoint, from a writer’s standpoint: stay in the moment. You can trim the fat later or add more meat later.

One more lesson: When you talk to yourself, be kind. If your inner experience is self-deprecating and unforgiving, then your noticing is going to be limited. When I sit down to meditate, how effective is my mental letting-go going to be if I berate myself for how long it takes me to settle down because thoughts of an upcoming parent-teacher conference or important work meeting keep creeping in? When I sit down to write, how effective will my storytelling be if I’m berating myself for using a cliché, writing a few clunky sentences, or if I get so frustrated that I stop writing altogether?

Pay attention to what’s happening in your head (journaling is great for this practice), stay in the moment when noticing and when writing, and make sure your self-talk is motivating rather than limiting. Strengthening your inner monologue can make you a stronger writer.

A writing exercise

Put on a song or short video that you love. As you listen or view, jot down some notes on what’s happening in your mind and body as you experience the media. If it helps, make one column each for Hurlburt’s five categories—inner speaking, inner seeing, feelings, sensory awareness, and unsymbolized thinking—and organize your notes under those headings.

What does the voice inside your head tell you as you listen/watch? What images do you see in your mind or on the screen? What feelings arise? What are you sensing around you as you listen/watch? What thoughts are popping up that seem to have no connection to the media? Stay in the moment.

When the song or video ends, finish up your notes and see if you can identify a story there. Resist the urge to tell, i.e, to impose meaning or write about why you think you felt that way (“This song means so much to me because it was the song my daughter and son-in-law first danced to at their wedding”) and focus on showing us images (the drape and twirl of a wedding dress), concrete details (the clink of champagne glasses, the warm summer air of the outdoor venue), and feelings (love, pride, joy, safety and security for your child, hope for the future, excitement for possibilities to come).

See if you can produce a short piece of writing that captures the authentic emotions, or tells the story, of your notes. See if you can make an internal experience an external one.

Will you try this writing exercise? What did you think of the research presented in the Mindful article, and the connections between mindfulness and writing? Share with us in the comments.

Related reading: Achieve writing clarity with meditation basics

Writing is wellness! The process of writing “well”

Be a better writer by doing and noticing more

Writing emotional vs. literal truth

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