Let the river take me: Learnings from facilitating an at-risk group

I originally wrote this article for Chrysalis, The Journal of Transformative Language Arts (which is currently under maintenance), April 2016 

 

Let the river take me,  a compilation poem

Let the river take me —

Even when it hurts, it breathes with the joy of laughter, undulating.

I choke on life, I’m really here in the world.

I keep trying. I am a survivor.

Manipulate the truth; truth to be heard.

The road to hell is as slow as molasses.

Sometimes it feels like a web of pointlessness — all shit.

I keep trying. I am a survivor.

Let the river take me, to be free.

I’ve come to acknowledge that… my life has been heavily influenced by broken relationships, terrors of my past bad influences or bad teachings from my childhood. Breaking free of the twisted mold of my childhood is no easy task. Knowing, acknowledging, and a desire for change is a beginning. – Grant, “Write to Recover” participant

I can’t deny it: I’ve lived a sheltered existence. I have seen only glimpses of the tougher sides of life – a couple screaming at each other as they walk down my street, an addict sitting in a car on my corner before the dealer’s house was busted, the child at the street fair asking for more free cotton candy because she’s hasn’t eaten all day. 

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I simply decided to live

This the fifth in a series of poems from the “Write to Recover” group I facilitate. I put them together from phrases that resonate with me while participants read. I add nothing but punctuation and the occasional conjunction. This one is comprised of the words of five participants.

bricks

Sometimes the way is right in front of you.

Dancing fool that I am,

Breaking down a wall

To feel OK with myself;

Scraping away the negative words

I learn my own true vision.

~
I came from another planet named womb,

A learning person

With fear of being whole.

~
But fear can motivate,

And I simply decided to live!

~
Aware of a new life, I’ve been given time

Tick tock…

Constant contact with God,

No stop signs in sight.

I feel whole now, whole when connected.

~
Yes, I can:

Make my world bright and colorful;

Elaborate my need to be on this planet;

Remove the hate.

~
Paint my life in print —

My beautiful creation,

I will see it through.

Respect me in my uniqueness

Because now it is time to rest.


Who ya gonna call?: Your journal, your friend

Originally published in my “All Write!” column in the Rutland Herald, Feb. 22, 2016 under the title, “Your friend at the end of the pen.”

ANTIQUE PHONEI think most would agree that the best kind of friend is the one with whom we can be free to be ourselves — our perfectly imperfect selves. With a friend like this none of the regular rules apply. We can leave the dishes in the sink when they come over, we can be dressed in our hole-iest sweatpants, we can say inappropriate things.

How many of us have that kind of friend? The one we can call any time, at exactly the moment we need them, to listen to our hurts and worries or joys? Who can be completely trusted with deepest secrets and problems?

Even if we do, sometimes there are situations and feelings which we aren’t prepared to discuss with another person (or it’s 2 a.m. and even your best friend wouldn’t appreciate being woken up to hear you gripe about your boss). This is exactly why a journal can be the best friend there is.

Kathleen Adams, author of many books written about the benefits of journaling and expressive writing for the personal writer, the client, the student, and many other populations, wrote in her first book, “Journal to the Self”:

There’s a friend at the end of your pen which you can use to help you solve personal or business problems, get to know all the different parts of yourself, explore your creativity, heal your relationships, develop your intuition…

However, based on what I hear people say to me all the time when I ask them if they write a journal, many are still resistant. Many times that resistance is based on memories of school-age rules — and sometimes rulers on knuckles — when it came to writing. So, let’s look at some of these things.

You shouldn’t write if your handwriting is awful? You can’t spell? You don’t believe you have anything important enough to say? And you have to write every day, right?

Nope.

It is your journal and rules do not apply! You can write whatever, however, whenever you want. In other words, you can be (or discover) exactly who you are and what you really feel and think (as opposed to what you “should” be, feel, and think). Just as you can with that best kind of friend.

Let’s say you are angry with your spouse and you know your words would hurt him/her. Get out your journal and write all those hurtful things on paper. Purge them. And once you are calm(er) you will be able to tell your loved one how you feel minus those hurtful words. This is productive — and loving. You can also use the journal to practice what you will say before you engage in the real conversation.

Your journal can take anything you say, whether it is angry, hurtful, illogical, or downright depressing, and keep it safe. Your journal is a place where you can purge your feelings and thoughts with no fear of judgment or retaliation. Swear, yell, cry, complain… whatever you need to.

Suppressing emotions or keeping them unexpressed is damaging to your health, and alternatively, expressing them in any extreme fashion can be detrimental to your relationships (and maybe yourself). The most helpful and healthful solution is to vent within the safety of your journal.

Writing in a journal is a gift of friendship to yourself, a friendship where you can be yourself completely, without judgment. The journal is a friend to lean on, rely on, and trust, where the rules don’t apply. Especially at 2 a.m.

Prompt: What I can’t tell anyone else is…

More than you know: Why and how to start journaling

treasure chestThis is an edited version of my “All Write!” column in the Rutland Herald, published January 29, 2016

The most compelling reason to write as far I’m concerned is the ability to access a great wealth of knowledge about yourself.

Dr. Ira Progoff, who is considered the grandfather of personal journaling due to his development of the Intensive Journal method in the 1950s which he introduced to the world in the book, “At a Journal Workshop,” in 1975, wrote:

(Wo)Man does indeed know more than (s)he rationally understands. … (journaling) is a way to connect with the knowledge beyond understanding.

In other words, we’re smarter than we may think! Any artist, writer, designer, inventor, entrepreneur or anyone who has ever had an idea, an inspired thought, an intuition or a gut feeling float or jump into their consciousness from seemingly nowhere knows there are deeper depths than our intellect — knowledge that is beyond what we knew we knew.

prompt bookmark single_Page_2Journaling, or free-flow writing, that is not focused on a perfectly structured sentence, nice handwriting, or even “nice” language, allows the writer to access creativity and intuitive knowledge that thinking too much — i.e. self-censoring — can block.

I believe, as Dr. Progoff did, that we have all the answers inside us and writing is a way to access those answers. When you start writing from a prompt, such as “I am feeling…” things will come out that may be unexpected. Journal workshop attendees invariably say, “I didn’t know I was going to write that,” or “I don’t know where that came from!”

In our technological, left-brained, prove-it-to-me society, intuition and connection with our inner self has been lost. We are not taught to trust self. However, writing (as well as other creative activities such as drawing, dancing, etc.) allows us to discover our inner workings. Through “thoughtless” writing (quickly without thinking) we can write down things we did not know that we knew.

Kay Adams, founder of Center for Journal Therapy, writes that her journal is the “.79 cent therapist” in which you can “scream, whimper, thrash, wail, rage, exult, foam, celebrate.” And if that isn’t enough, in a study by Dr. J.W. Pennebaker it was proven through blood tests that writing for only 20 minutes a day for four consecutive days increases your immunity for six weeks! The writers also reported fewer visits to the doctor for stress-related illnesses. Now that’s impressive!

So you want to start a journal? But you’re not sure how to begin? Or what you would write? Or afraid it will become just another unchecked item on your to-do list?

You don’t have to be a “writer” to journal. This isn’t the writing you learned in school — no one will be grading or judging you. Spelling, handwriting and grammar have nothing to do with it. It is purely the action of putting pen to paper and letting your subconscious flow.

Writing a journal need not be a huge time commitment. You can write for as little as five minutes (your gratitude, for example) once a day, week, month, year.

Journaling does not have to be one particular style of writing; it can be anything from lists to doodles to mind-maps to poems to stream-of-consciousness flow writing. There are no rules on what constitutes a journal.

“But what do I write?” you ask. Start with who you are. That should be easy! Here’s your prompt to get started:

I am…

So, if you want to begin expressing your private thoughts and accessing your internal dialogue, do not be afraid of the page. Just let your pen go — don’t think, just write. For five minutes. That’s all it takes to get you started. Find yourself a new notebook, blank book, even a cocktail napkin, and a smooth flowing pen and a comfy place to sit (your car in the carpool line?) and just begin.

Writing a personal mission statement

This post is an edited version of my 1/9/16 Rutland Herald column, “All Write!”
IMG_4018Last week I offered some ideas and prompts for envisioning and planning your future. In this post I will continue on the theme of setting intentions through personal writing methods, this time by discussing personal mission statements.
I have found, as many others have, that writing something down gives it more power (or in some cases, as with fears and anxieties, less — but that’s another topic for another post). Writing down plans, goals and steps forward (as in a weight-loss regimen) makes them more real, concrete and provides written evidence of progress which, if only small steps, deserves recognition and celebration.
(This reminds me of two helpful and proven-for-well-being daily practices: writing gratitudes and acknowledging what you did accomplish on your to-do, not what was left undone. This helps keeps the motivation going.)
This is why businesses and organizations write mission statements: to determine and make concrete their intentions, their purpose, their raison d’etre. A mission statement also lays a metaphorical path, maps a route and provides an itinerary. Without a clear idea of why and where you are going, you can get completely lost. Yes, it is fine to wander a little, but as long as you keep your sense of direction you will have a more successful journey.
This is true for individuals as well as businesses. To identify and clarify personal values, wants, needs and dreams, writing a mission statement can help give life direction. And once it is written down and placed where it can seen regularly, when life “happens” and you get distracted or discouraged, it can serve as a reminder of what you truly want out of your life, prompting you to do your best to get back on track.
There are various approaches to writing a mission statement; one is to assess the various ways humans inhabit this world:
  • Physical (physical body and health)
  • Mental (thoughts and learning)
  • Social/Emotional (connection with others and our own feelings)
  • Spiritual (connection with a higher power or inner wisdom)
For each area determine your values and wishes. Spend some time thinking through what you want out of your life and the direction you intend to go. If you are having a difficult time with any particular area, use your journal to free write — that is, writing without judgment or self-editing — about it first.
Ask yourself where you are currently regarding your physical self, for example, and what you’d like to be making progress toward. (Focusing on steps made forward, i.e. enjoying the journey as opposed to fixating on some far-off destination, is very important to feelings of overall contentment, or in new-age terminology, staying the in Now.) Or start with a prompt such as, “Right now, emotionally/physically/etc. I am …” From these written explorations you will discover your own thoughts and feelings about each area of your life. Alternatively, the mission can be also divided by the various life roles: wife, employee, father, board member, business owner, etc. “In my professional life, I would like to work toward … .”
A statement can be long or short or in any format wished: A sentence, paragraph, bullet points, even a collage of pictures. A family can have a statement also. Gather around the table, and as a committee, co-write the family’s purpose and intent for a meaningful life. Determining and writing a mission for your business, organization, your family and/or yourself, will help clarify your values and intentions for the future, thus increasing your ability to make successful decisions and be open to opportunities that are in line with those intentions.
Prompts:
  • In this (____) area of my life, I am …
  • This is what I would like to work toward …

P.S. This week I was informed, and I am honored and excited to say, that my workshop proposal has been accepted by The Center for Journal Therapy conference. I am humbly asking for support to enable me to go. All donors over $10 will receive a copy of my workshop, “Mother’s Song: Nurturing Body-Voice through Expressive Writing.” For more details and if you are willing to help, please visit gofund.me/8sj8v7k4. With much appreciation, I thank you.

Envisioning a Write New Year

This post is an edited version of the first posting of my newest column in the Rutland Herald called “All Write!” which ran January 2, 2016.

 
pen journalWriting isn’t only my career (something for which I am extremely grateful), but also has been my lifeline since I was a teenager. I started writing a diary at age 12 and began what I now call expressive writing, or journaling, a decade later while reading Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way.” The benefits I have personally experienced I now share with others.

In the spirit of the New Year, I offer a slight twist on typical resolution-setting: writing to help you envision your hopes and intentions for the future. There is something magical about dreaming and envisioning what you want out of your life. But it is also

Buy it now

as necessary and practical as a map (or GPS) on a long road trip.

In “Life’s Companion: Journal Writing as a Spiritual Quest,” Christina Baldwin writes:
Before we can do something significant with our lives, we have to do three things: imagine it clearly so we know what we want, be willing to want it very, very much and take action that moves us to attainment … focused vision, focused longing and focused action.
To begin this process, you must first know where you are now, here in the present. Writing about your current situation and emotional state — what’s going on at home, work, with family, in the world — helps you to get a clear picture of your life and hopefully clarifies what things are working for you and what may not.
jtts
To then look forward to how you may want to make some changes, you can write about a currently unknown future. “Journal to the Self” author Kathleen Adams recommends a journaling technique called “Perspectives,” which is to write as if it is already a future date.
Writing from a different perspective can … hurtle you forward in time, allowing you to create a visionary picture of what you want your life to be like. This can be a very important factor in aligning your will with your unconscious desire, thus helping to ‘create your own reality.’
Allow those “impossible” dreams to have their say. This is your road map to the future. The trip may not take the exact route you thought it would, and you may end up somewhere slightly different than you imagined, but just be open to the journey.
Once you know where you are starting and you have decided on your destination, you can plan your first steps, or your action items. And think baby steps. Don’t overwhelm yourself with huge goals. Start with making one phone call or getting your resume in shape or buying a new set of paints. Just start the ball rolling, get the car started, put the walking shoes on. Starting is always the hardest part, but just do something, anything, no matter how small. And then celebrate each step.
New Year Writing Prompts:
  • “Where I am now in my life is …”

  • “It is January 1, 2017, and …”

  • “The first steps towards this future are …”

Happy New Year! Here’s to a 2016 that’s just write!

When writing makes you feel crappy

In a couple of weeks I will be presenting “De-Stress, the Write Way” at my local hospital for the second year. This blog post was written in response to my experience there and was originally posted at tlan.org with the title, “When Writing To Relieve Stress Makes You Anxious.”

pen journalI made a mistake.

I recently presented a workshop at a local hospital about using writing as a stress reliever. The small  room was half full. While I am fairly comfortable speaking or facilitating with a larger group, this was a new experience for me in that I was being videoed. Unfortunately, this didn’t allow for audience participation other than quick comments or questions. My usual preference after a writing session is to give the opportunity for sharing (with no obligation) so that the participants warm up to each other and become more of a cohesive group rather than silent students being “lectured at.” This allows them to get more out of the session – to learn from each other and themselves, and not just me.

This particular group never really relaxed. I’m not sure if it was the presence of the video camera or the time of night or the starkness of the room or the lecture-setting (I usually facilitate with the participants arranged in a circle), but there weren’t many questions or comments. In my experience, this was unusual. I could tell by the smiles and head-nodding that most participants were interested in what I was saying, and during the writing prompt times almost everyone wrote until time was called. But there were a couple of women I couldn’t read.

On the anonymous evaluation forms I later received, the comments were all positive. Except for this: “I got more stressed… I left with a knot in my stomach.” Our first prompt had been “What’s going on?” This is one of Kay Adams’ prompts (author of Journal to the Self and founder for the Center for Journal Therapy), and one which I actually had the opportunity to write on in a training with her. And this is where I had messed up in my presentation.

I had forgotten to tell my story.

I had been so excited to take Kay’s class and I sat there in my seat almost busting with anticipation about what I was about to learn. She opened as I did, with the prompt “What’s going on?” I wrote frantically for the timed five minutes. But when she called time I realized I didn’t feel so good. My stomach was doing flip-flops and I was kind of shaky. When Kay asked if anyone wanted to share their feedback of the writing exercise I raised my hand and admitted I felt awful, that the writing had drastically changed my emotional state from happy to downright anxious.

“Hold on to that feeling,” she said. “We’ll work with it later.”

Later, we did another exercise where she invited us to find a word or phrase that had jumped out at us during the first writing. Using another journaling technique I was able to dig deeper into what had actually made me anxious. As a result I made an amazing discovery, which, long story short, prompted me to quit my job in a life-move that was a major steppingstone towards where I am today. The words I wrote in that second write still resonate with me today.

So, I want to say to the woman who left upset: I am sorry. I wish I had explained what Dr. Pennebaker tells us in his book Opening Up and his other works, that writing expressively can cause you to feel worse initially but in the long-run, it will help. I wish that I had been able to tell you that feeling that knot is a good thing! It means you were experiencing your body’s felt-sense (to use Eugene Gendlin’s term from his book Focusing). It meant that you had touched something, made it come alive, got it moving, so that you could move past it. This was a first step towards healing.

I made a mistake which I won’t make again. Lesson learned.

For a video of my workshop go HERE

Updated Journaling Technique Article Index

JTTS_Instructor_LogoI don’t write much about journaling techniques here at Wisdom Within, Ink. Although this blog is indirectly about journaling, it isn’t a “how-to” kind of place. Here, and in my workshops, I’m more story-teller than “just the facts, ma’am” kind of teacher.

However, I do know lots of techniques, exercises, and prompts to help you get writing, introspecting, organizing, and healing. Over the past six years I have written many how-tos and where-fors of journaling over at Examiner.com and I just — finally — updated the index page. Check it out! There are many, many short articles to take a peek at, all organized by category. Yay!

Click here: http://www.examiner.com/article/list-of-journaling-techniques-categorized-by-function to find a list of categories. Each topic heading will take you to a list of articles based on that theme.

If you have questions about a journaling technique or a particular issue you’d like to journal on but aren’t sure what might be the best technique to use, please let me know (click the Contact tab and send me a message).

On a mission (statement)

Recently I met with a career coach. My intention was to see how my (rather unorthodox) skills and experience might translate into the “real” world and a “real” job. Well, you know that saying, “Physician, heal thyself”? My session with her was a clear example of how we can be blind to our own needs even while helping others.

Although she used different terminology and visual examples, the ways she suggested I figure out what I wanted to do when I grow up was practically the same as what I have my clients do with journaling techniques. In one word: visualization.

After our session I went home and go out my journal and wrote what was, in Journal to the Self parlance, a Perspective. That is, I wrote about my ideal day, my ideal life — I visualized myself already living the life I wanted. When you give yourself permission to imagine in this way, you allow for things not probable, but possible.

First, after you have acknowledged the things about your current life and career that are not what you want, you can dream about how those things would look different. You can ignore the realities of your present life and the supposed inevitabilities of future bills and car break downs and frozen pipes, and, if one is of an artistic bent like me, the “starving artist” syndrome must also be pushed aside.

This wasn’t a difficult exercise for me; I know exactly what my ideal life looks like. On paper I’m great at ignoring “realities” and “probabilities.” (I say “on paper” because in my real life, the one in which I am married to an idealist dreamer-type, I have to be the realist, you know the one who considers that we might actually need plates to eat off when we go camping or that moving across the country requires careful planning and lots of boxes, not just a truck in which to throw all your belongings in a big pile… )

Yup, on paper and in my head my perfect life trips along happily without toothaches or empty oil tanks or kids home from school due to snow for the fourth time in two weeks, bored and fighting and apathetic of my looming deadlines.

And it was on this paper that it became clear the “real” job I’ve been pursuing isn’t what I really want, but rather a desperate attempt to squeeze myself into a box, the only box I could see as a potential paycheck-producing one. On paper, the grim realization dawned that my most passion-driven, authentic life has no (immediate) guaranteed financial advantage. Crap.

However, one other thing rang out loud and clear as my words flowed across the paper: I had a mission.

Now, I thought I already had established this a long time ago. I knew that I wanted to help others find their authentic life through writing (see, it says that in the header of this blog). What I didn’t realize was that I was being too vague and that I hadn’t yet established a niche or focused in on what I know best.

I have presented journaling and expressive writing workshops and talks to business women, teen moms, tween girls, teachers, guidance counselors, stressed people, spiritual-seekers, and aspiring writers. I have written thousands upon thousands of words for my local paper about my city’s people, events, and businesses. But my personal life, my experiences, my graduate research, and above all, my own wounds all point to my greatest strength and deepest passion: Finding Voice through Writing.

I knew this but yet I have skirted around it, creating workshops of a more general nature, pursuing work that I thought I “should,” and landing myself a freelance job writing about things I care about but aren’t my expertise or passion, and for which I do a lot of brain-wearying head-writing instead of my beloved heart-writing.

The upshot of all this is, while I still don’t know my next exact step(s), I know I must keep writing, researching, and facilitating. And now I can focus — focus on the exact path I want to be on. When an opportunity arises I can ask myself if it fits my personal mission and as time and finances allow I will be able to let those things go which don’t.

And as coaches and inspirational speakers love to tell us, it is when, and only when, we focus on what we are called to do — which is usually, painfully where our own deepest wounds lie — that the people who need us and the money will find us.

So, here, dear readers, is my personal mission (most likely to get tweaked as time goes on):

To help the silenced heal their voice through story, creating new narratives to live by.

Now to stay open to the opportunities wherein I can be the most helpful and find the most meaning and fulfillment… and money; can’t ignore that very basic necessity of life!

For more information on writing mission statements, please read my Examiner article.

Prompts: In my ideal day I would be…

It is my mission in life to…

Writing Practice: The roles my journal plays

(I originally wrote this post, with the title, “Writing Practice: How I learned to use my words,” for the Transformative Language Arts blog’s series highlighting TLA practices.)

journal-with-lockWriting is my life. Day in, day out, I am writing—four weekly columns, magazine articles, and my journal—or I am helping others get their own words down. And I am living this life today because I began practicing at twelve years old.

At twelve I started recording my life in a turquoise diary with a lock. At 22, I became addicted to writing stream-of-consciousness style thanks to Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages. At 32, I began passing onto others through workshops the incredible benefits of writing I had experienced. At 42, I am a published writer.

And it was in my journal that I set a path for this future. I envisioned a life filled with words and using words I laid a road in that direction.

I remember sitting in my cubicle at the bank where I was a Trust Account Assistant or scribbling in my journal at the coffee shop during my lunch break imagining the day I’d be sitting at my own desk, writing in front of a big sunny window. I didn’t know what I’d be writing; I just knew my fingers and my heart ached to churn out words, not crunch numbers.

In my twenties, I tapped out the beginnings of an historical fiction novel and a mind-numbing autobiography on a dinosaur of a word-processor whose sheer size overwhelmed my small antique desk. Meanwhile, each morning I was turning out pages upon pages of handwritten drivel.

Back then, if anyone asked, I would say I was a writer. To the inevitable next question of “Oh, what?,” I’d respond sheepishly, “Mostly just a journal right now.”

What I didn’t realize then, as I penned on its pages my fears, excitements, dreams, it wasn’t just a journal, it was a journey. A journey towards my future.

Or as Natalie Goldberg would say, I was practicing. Writing practice. I was learning to write—and, more importantly, to become myself. Having no audience but myself, I was learning to write and be from a place of intuition and inner truth.

Like meditation, prayer, yoga, running, etc., it was a practice of self-care that helped calm, heal, and energize, so that with greater confidence and understanding I might face the world knowing who I am and what I wanted for myself. By practicing to see and accept my own foibles and paradoxes, I was learning to interact with others with more empathy and emotional maturity. I was learning the need for safe and sacred space in which to write one’s own truth. I was learning how to help others write theirs.

Checking in with myself on an almost daily basis—How am I feeling? What do I want to be doing? What could that dream have meant?—I was also learning to be observant. Then, by honing the skill of observing the personal, the minutiae of my life, my experiences, my feelings, and weaving them into a more universal story, I was learning to become a better public writer.

Today, whether it’s to write an article, help a client get writing, navigate the hills and valleys of everyday life, or envision my next future dream, I always feel more capable when I have practiced and processed my life and emotions through the free-flowing, free-of-judgment words of my journal.

***

Here are a few of the specific roles my journal practices:

Best Friend. It is always there to lend an ear to my concerns and hopes regardless of whether I require its services at 6AM before the kids get up looking for breakfast and a lost sock, at 10:30PM when I need to process the day before I call it a night, or at 3AM after waking from a bad dream.

Therapist. More than even a best friend could, my journal helps me through difficult situations—helping me be more self-aware and accepting. I ask myself hard questions about how I’m feeling, why I might be reacting a certain way; the paradoxes, the biases, the conflicting emotions. I try to always be truthful with myself and accept the answers that flow onto the page. I dig deep and unpeel the onion that is the emotional body: the memories, the triggers, the yearnings.

Personal Secretary. Being self-employed and working from home I am constantly juggling my schedule and brain space. When the inside of my head resembles the starting line of a marathon, my journal helps me sort through it all, to see what needs to split from the pack and take the lead, and what needs to sit it out for a while.

Creative Partner. When I was writing my memoir and thesis during graduate school, many essays and vignettes began in my journal, where, without the pressure of “perfection,” the words (and memories) would start to flow. When I couldn’t quite see the connection between some concepts I would take them to my journal, write through my confusion, ask myself questions until it clicked. Or, when faced with a particularly difficult memory, I would write it out first, let the tears, anger, hurt flow into the safe pages of my journal before I wrote the more emotionally-controlled piece for school. These days I use the journal to generate ideas for new workshops or consider themes and threads for my articles and blog posts.