The Story of You: Writing as a Tool for Self-Discovery
How do you get started on this journey of writing for self-discovery? Word by word.
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” —Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Why do we write? To tell stories, to organize our world, to communicate with loved ones, to capture what we might otherwise forget. But writing can also be a direct line to our deepest self, a path to understanding who and why we are. It can reveal what we didn’t know we knew, and open doors to a wider awareness of all that lies within and around us. It can heal our past and enrich our present, comfort and inspire us. In the words of Anne Frank, “I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.”
Writing personal narrative “is a fantastic way to get clarity, to be present in your life and also be a witness in your life,” says Nancy Slonim Aronie, author of Writing from the Heart. She coaches people to dive right in, without pausing to overthink it. “You just start writing and you stop that overactive brain thing,” she says.
One way to get started is by filling in the blanks: Nancy suggests beginning with an incomplete sentence such as “What I should have known…” or “The hardest thing…” or “What I didn’t tell you then…” and seeing what comes next. “Everybody has an unresolved conversation, what we would have loved to say 20 years or two weeks ago,” she says. “When you get it down on the page, you get it out of your body.”
“Writers are the exorcists of their own demons.” — Mario Vargas Llosa
Part of what makes writing a powerful tool for self-discovery is its ability to focus the mind: The act of shaping words functions like a mantra or counting the breath—a point of awareness around which to structure a meditative experience. “The writing process demands a certain quietness that the rest of the day often doesn’t allow for,” says Eric Maisel, founder of both creative coaching and natural psychology, which focuses on the nature of meaning.
“We typically don’t get quiet enough to get our own answers, except when we get into the trance of writing.”
Eric’s Deep Writing process, which can be applied to any format, from journaling to novels, is based on building a safe environment in which the creative juices can flow freely. “The main idea is that there’s no critiquing or sharing—you don’t have to worry about writing something and having it ripped apart as soon as you share it,” Eric says.
He also teaches what he calls “focused journal writing,” in which you learn more about your writing process—and your life priorities—through answering a specific set of questions. “It’s often not until we get it down on paper that we identify those experiences that we think of as meaningful,” Eric says. “Often those experiences coalesce into categories, like creativity, being of service, activism, or relationships.”
“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” — Joan Didion
Madelyn Kent’s Sense Writing uses a unique combination of writing and Feldenkrais-inspired movement to help people investigate their inner experience. “Once we start to discover the connection between movement, thought, and emotions, we find new parts of the story that we didn’t know were there—like when your eyes get used to the dark,” she says. “The stories we thought started and ended at a certain place begin to shift and change.” Madelyn has worked with trauma survivors and refugees to help them let go of old narratives that have defined them and move into new, healthier ones.
“We construct our reality around stories,” Eric says—but we also get to change those stories. “We get to decide who we want to be, what values we want to stand behind.”
In her book Still Writing, Dani Shapiro speaks eloquently about the power of writing to redefine experience and uncover meaning: “Writing has been my window—flung wide open to this magnificent, chaotic existence—my way of interpreting everything within my grasp. Writing has extended that grasp by pushing me beyond comfort, beyond safety, past my self-perceived limits. … It has allowed me not only to withstand the losses in my life but to alter those losses—to chip away at my own bewilderment until I find the pattern in it.”
How do you get started on this journey? Word by word. Nancy recommends making writing a regular practice: Start with just 10 minutes a day, and see if it becomes a habit. In the words of yet one more master of the craft, Natalie Goldberg, “Write what disturbs you, what you fear, what you have not been willing to speak about. Be willing to be split open.”
©2015 Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. Reprinted with permission.