Spontaneous writing, a discipline of writing about traumatic events that is done quickly, without forethought or self-censorship, can bring up traumatic events from the past and trigger a healing journey. This approach has proven helpful especially for children of alcoholics who carry a burden of shame and secrets from the past. Spontaneous writing can even benefit health. There is growing evidence that translating stressful events into written language can improve both brain and immune functions.
Here are some guidelines to get you started:
1. Sit down and write.Dorothy Parker once said, “Writing is the art of applying the ass to the seat.” In order to heal through writing you have to do the hardest thing first–sit down to write, without pre-thought or judgment or concern about spelling, punctuation or grammar. Tell yourself you can always re-write and use spellcheck later. No one is asking you to write something that would win a Pulitzer Prize. Remember, you are writing for yourself, not for publication, because writing has the ability to open internal doors and retrieve seemingly forgotten memories.
2. Overcome your need to be perfect.Children of alcoholics often are high achievers because they’re trying to be perfect. This can get in your way when you’re trying to loosen up and let your feelings flow. Don’t be too hard on yourself if nothing comes. If this happens don’t automatically conclude “I’m not a writer.”
3. Write about events you associate with stress or trauma.Write about something that troubles you (past or present). For example, in one story an author wrote about winning a prize in school and coming home to find her mother so drunk she couldn’t celebrate her achievement. She felt that was the day her childhood ended. In another she writes about her fear coming home from school every day, not knowing who she’d find–the kind, friendly mother, or the drunk, raving mother.
4. Write continuously for a short period of time. Ideally, write for 10 to 20 minutes every day. There’s something liberating about writing quickly and without a predetermined plan or an internal (and often critical) editor. Many of us find it hard to live in the moment, but spontaneous writing, with a clock ticking for 10 to 20 minutes, brings us to “right now.”
5. Use loaded words and phrases as writing prompts.Consider these words as opportunities to take out the plug and see what flows: Siblings; fear; hope; humor; abandonment; community/home; spirituality; surrender; resolution; unpredictability; neglect; badge of courage/membership; gifts.
6. Establish a ritual around writing.Somerset Maugham wore a special hat. You might want to establish a special place to write and a predictable time of day or night. You might want background music or complete silence. Read a passage from a book of meditations. Have a hot cup of coffee or tea, a special pen, a favorite notebook, a comfortable chair, a candle to create a contemplative atmosphere, or a timer to tell you when 10 minutes have passed. When you’ve finished, identify a safe place to put your words until you’re ready to share them with others.
When your writing becomes a daily practice it will become easier and over time you will judge yourself less. The most important thing is to NOT give up.
Liz Crocker, Polly Bennell and Holly Book are co-authors of Transforming Memories: Sharing Spontaneous Writing Using Loaded Words (Bull Publishing, April 1, 2017), an inspiring guide to spontaneous writing. Liz Crocker is the author of two children’s books and coauthored Privileged Presence: Personal Stories of Connections in Health Care. She is the vice president of the Institute for Patient and Family-Centered Care. Polly Bennell has a life-coaching practice for writers. Holly Book ministers to the homeless and those struggling with addiction on the streets of Atlanta. Visit www.bullpub.com/catalog/Transforming-Memories.