Sometimes in the writing field, people are shuffled down two paths of thought: using writing as a means to making money and using writing as a means to making an academic career. The internet can attest to hundreds of programs, gurus, and professional coaches who promise that individual writers can become the next JK Rowling or Dan Brown by writing, marketing, and selling. Writing becomes the means to an end, and that end is advertised as a big house and fast car. Down the other path, writing is a forensic tool to dissecting literature, historical events, and human interaction. Academics hone their writing skills to compete in the world of publish or perish, the land where those who win are those who make discoveries on cutting-edge topics and stay ahead of the pack of fellow academics by writing as quickly as possible.
During my time as a writer, I have walked both of these paths. I have written, published, and marketed with the hopes that one of my books would be of such high interest that ten thousand readers would buy a copy and share it with their friends as a must read. The path from writing to making money is wrapped up in the drive that Americans have with materialism as both of a foundation for a wealthy life but also a personal affirmation of value. When we make money, we have a sense of being valued, and writers can get caught up in the drive to connect writing and making money.
Although writing for money and academic publishing have their merits, both of these paths give a false promise of personal satisfaction. People who are driven to write, regardless of their talent or academic achievements, gain pleasure through the act of writing. The writing itself is therapeutic, relaxing, and supports our need to make sense of the world.
The Therapeutic Value of Storytelling
Writing—the act of organizing words onto the page is an activity that fulfills more than money or notoriety can. The reason is that when we write for money or fame, we are writing for extrinsic factors. We are writing because we expect acknowledgment to come from outside of ourselves. We are hoping for dollars, for spoken appreciation, or for acknowledgment in a professional field, but those forms of recognition are short-lived and leave us with a sense of wanting more. Writing for others does not heal, so we continue to seek rather than feel fulfilled.
By changing our mindset, we can connect to a therapeutic process in writing. When we write without an intended audience, we write for ourselves, and this can change the dynamic of why we write and how we write. When we write for ourselves, we cut away the exterior masks that we normally keep firmly in place to operate in the social world. But when we write for ourselves, we can be totally honest and open. When we write for ourselves, we can be genuine and truthful in our intentions, and this expanded truth allows us to open up mental and emotional pathways that serve us as writers.
Writing to Heal
Through journaling, diary entries, personal reflections, and personal essays, writers seek to connect and develop the self through writing. The process of writing can help us make sense of the world, sort through our complex thoughts and emotions, and create patterns out of chaos. Many writers compose solely for their own purposes, and they are sometimes the most balanced writers as they are accessing a writing format that provides them with an outlet for making sense of life’s complexities. This is the process of writing to heal.
How do we write for ourselves?
There are activities like journaling and diary writing that are open-ended, and many writers enjoy an open format style for personal writing. If that works for you, try to write more in that area.
One of the most effective formats is to write one’s own story. This style of personal writing may feel a little uncomfortable at the beginning but has real, lasting, and even measurable lasting impact. Many writers admit having at least some self-doubt, uncertainty, or question in their lives. Whether those thoughts and feelings come from having a bumpy path through childhood, a partner who questions one’s true value, or a cultural experience that includes shame, blame, or regret over past deeds, writers can sometimes question what we want from life.
When we write and rewrite our personal stories, we engage in writing that is truly therapeutic because it has the power to make changes in us as individuals. Composing your own story as a personal writing exercise might seem a little odd at the beginning, but once you give it a try, you will likely find the exercise to work wonders for your writing practice.
Consider these questions when writing without an audience to jumpstart your personal writing practice:
A backstory focused on phrases: What are the phrases you hear yourself saying regularly? How do these phrases affect you? What different phrases can you use as replacements? Write that story.
A current story focused on needs: What is it that you need or want? What would your life look like, feel like, and operate like if you have that thing right now? Write that story.
A future story focused on desired events: What events would you like to happen? What experiences would you like to be a part of? Write that story.
Humans are naturally attuned to storytelling. When we have a situation that comes up, we create a story around it, and sometimes those stories create negative pathways that limit our productivity later in life. Rewriting our stories reconnects us with our purposes and goals and gives us a writing task that serves our intrinsic needs for our own purposes. Instead of writing for money or publishing, we can write for personal gain.
If you are able to answer a couple of the questions above, then start writing along those ideas with the goal of moving towards writing one’s story. Perhaps a phrase you have used is, “I can’t remember anything.” This is one that I’ve used myself and has impacted me. It affects me in that I’m making an excuse for being occasionally forgetful. So, when I forget my phone at home or leave my scarf behind, I might tell myself, “I can’t remember anything.” I need to get rid of that phrase before it does more damage.
A possible replacement might be, “I am accomplishing a lot.” Sure, I might forget my phone or leave my scarf behind but instead of creating a reason that I am forgetful, I can acknowledge the more accurate truth that I am a busy person trying to accomplish a lot of tasks in a day, and sometimes details fall through the cracks. Instead of telling myself, “I can’t remember anything,” I am going to change that to, “I am accomplishing a lot.”
In my journal, my next step is to rewrite my story. When engaging in this type of writing activity, it is perfectly OK to rewrite the past, the present, or the future—all of it. So, I might write the story of forgetting my phone at home and replace the negative phrase with the more positive one. This activity allows me to reframe my story in a positive light and acknowledge me for what I do accomplish, which is to complete a significant number of tasks in a single day.
As well, I can write my present or future story just as easily. By projecting my intended outcomes and purposes into my present or future story, I harness the power of the narrative to rewrite what I am doing, why I am doing it, and the outcomes that I experience because of my actions.
This style of personal writing has the power to create both immediate and lasting impact on any writer. Regardless if you have a high IQ and academic degrees or a high-power profession with significant income and professional fame or if you are a more average person who values friends and family, personal writing can create an immediate impact. It allows writers to reframe the events of the past, correct the viewpoint of the present, and design a future that fits your true intentions and desired outcomes.
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If you read Stephen King’s On Writing or Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing, then you have run across the recommendation that writers spend time reading and writing every single day. Both King and Bradbury suggest that one of the keys to building a successful writing career is to practice, practice, and practice some more.
I do understand the viewpoint, and if I lived under different circumstances, their suggestion of daily writing might work out for me. Personally, I have engaged in a daily writing practice for short periods of time but never longer than a year at a time. In my own writing practice, I go through phases of having a lot to communicate, when the words come faster than I can type. Then there are the dry time when I feel like the writing is forced because the ideas dried up.
A couple of months ago, I was preparing to start a new job, the kids were in fight club mode, and I had a zillion tasks to complete each day. I kept trying to write, trying to put just a few words on the page each day, but the whole process was forced and empty. Really, all that I accomplished was going through the motions.
Perhaps Bradbury and King never experienced this scenario, though I tend to doubt it. My guess is that they created their daily expectation because that practice genuinely worked best for them as individuals. For every writer, we put pen to paper for reasons other than to complete a piece of literature. We write to make sense of the world, to put words to our emotions or thoughts, to collect our thoughts, to communicate what cannot be said aloud, and for a thousand other reasons. Writing’s purpose is not limited to the production of literary products.
When I am not writing, I am reading, learning, and creating in other ways
For me, there is a time when there is nothing to write. I think of this as the inhale period and the act of writing as the exhale period. When I am writing, I am exhaling, because I am releasing that which I have held inside, processed, and rearranged for sharing. But this inhalation time period is necessary too.
Every year, I take a few months off of writing. That downtime provides me the opportunity to inhale, to build, and to store up the energy to write again. When not writing, I find that I need to bring in as much depth, breadth, and detail as I possibly can. Typically during these down times, I increase my reading significantly, and I will increase watching quality programs too. A friend of mine does an amazing job of finding the artistic films, so I reach out to her for suggested titles. I read books, I watch films, and I have conversations. When I am not writing, I need to observe, to take in what the world has to offer, to hear the voices of other writers, and to digest narratives, philosophy, history, and mythology.
That down time from writing magically reengages the drive to write
That down time from writing magically reengages my inner drive to write. Slowly, ideas will come to me. At the grocery store, I’ll think of a few lines of dialogue that would be great for a character. While I’m walking to dog, a plot structure will come to mind that may work for a story. And while I’m chopping vegetables for soup, I’ll think of the 30 different ways a knife can be used—cutting kite string, gutting a fish, jimmy-wriggling a car window, forcing open a lock, etc.
Once that creativity begins flowing, I am ready to begin writing again. Typically, I don’t start writing immediately, because it takes a few weeks for the buildup of creative energy to drive me forward into a state where I insist that I must write. Just like falling in love. At the beginning, we can stay away from a beau for an extended period of time, but after the connection has grown, we have no choice but to eat, sleep, and drink in the presence of our beloved. Connection becomes consistency which creates a foundation for productivity.
Use a writer's journal to jumpstart your writing practice
The best first step to restart a writing routine is to start a writer’s journal. The writer’s journal is a catch-all collection plate for anything and everything having to do with creativity, observations, ideas, and notes.
In my current writer’s journal, I have sketches of a garden plot, a list of short story ideas all related to the theme of waking up (common in dystopic novels), a brainstorm for 4 Norse goddesses—Sif, Frigga, Hel, and Sjofn including their attributes and symbols, and a bucket list of things to accomplish in the next year.
The writer’s journal may not seem like it would support getting into a writing habit, but for me it makes a huge difference. There, I am able to write anything that I want to, from ransom letters to treasure maps to grocery lists to drawings of cabin plans, it is all valid. A sketch of a garden plot may not seem like it would be connected to a piece of fiction, but if I were to write a scene that included a character walking through a horticulturalist’s back yard, my description will be richer and more accurate because of the time I spent working on a garden plot for my own yard.
Any activity that a writer engages in that is creative, whether that be playing music, gardening, arranging flowers, drawing or painting, sculpting with clay, it all adds to the creative material that a writer can manipulate to share in pieces of writing.
The same is true for inflow. The kinds of activities that a writer chooses to engage in, whether they are reading, watching films, attending poetry readings, walking or hiking, attending educational events like lectures or courses, or viewing art shows and hearing plays, all add to the content the writer can use to create new material.
If writing 365 days a year works for you as a writer, go for it. If you are the type of writer who writes in bursts then needs a break before returning to a writing routine, then taking non-writing time to take in information may be a better recipe for success. When you return to your writing, consider bringing your content to the pages of a writer’s journal to jump start your new writing routine.
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Many professional writers recommend using a writer’s journal as a tool to encourage a daily writing practice. Writers who write on a daily basis, even if for just ten minutes a day, tend to be more productive overall. When people write every day, they don’t spend time sitting at the desk wondering What should I write?
Instead, the writer’s journal allows for continuous brainstorming, planning, processing, experimenting, and writing to occur. There are no rules to a writer’s journal, so people can be as creative as inspired and can jump all around the writing process and across writing styles. The most important part about the writer’s journal is that it is an outlet for anything and everything creative.
Establishing a Journal Writing Practice
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