In addition to helping you work through emotions, writing can also give you a way to visualize the life you want.
“Who likes to write?”
Twenty-four faces look back at me as if I just asked them if they wanted to cut off a limb or crawl through a desert. A few brave hands go up.
For the last 17 years, I have started my Composition class this way. It’s a dangerous question. I know the odds are stacked against me. For the most part, my students don’t come to me liking to write.
Chances are, you don’t like to write either. But stay with me, because as you heal from a divorce or as you move through any other challenging time in your life, writing can be an important tool for healing and self-discovery. It can help you gain more clarity about the stories you tell yourself, about who you are and the events you have experienced. And it can help you create new stories about the life you want, too.
You don’t have to love writing or be good at it for it to help, and the research is clear that it does. I don’t necessarily love running – my muscles burn; I’m out of breath; it’s sweltering hot – but I do love the feeling I have when I am done. The sense of accomplishment. The clarity of mind. The ability to eat pizza. (Just kidding. Not really.) Writing is like that. If you keep at it, if you strengthen that muscle, it will allow you to start seeing patterns, to work through issues you didn’t even know were weighing on you, and to change your story if you want to change your path.
Writing doesn’t require any pricey equipment or memberships. All you need is a pen and a notebook or your hands and a keyboard, if that’s more your style. You don’t need other people to do it. It can be done in complete silence or in the midst of three kids playing Power Rangers (trust me). You don’t need to be flexible or in good shape. Writing is accessible to everyone. You just need to get over your fear.
So, if you’ve tried yoga and wine and running and tea and therapy and are still feeling stuck, give writing a try. Why? Because it works. Here are 3 ways that it can help.
1. Writing is cathartic.
The first time I realized what a release writing could be I was 21 and getting over what, at the time, was “the most traumatic break up ever.” I was in a new city, freshly single and alone in my apartment, as my roommate had moved in with her boyfriend. Journaling was something I had previously done sporadically, but with a lot of alone time and a broken heart, I started to write more. After a while, it turned into a nightly practice. I’d work out (Tae-Bo. Hello, 1999!), then light my peach candle and curl up on the couch with my notebook. I didn’t write with a purpose; instead, I just put into words whatever came to mind. Head, hand, paper. Repeat. Sometimes I wrote for only a few minutes; other times, I wrote for an hour.
But regardless of the duration, the feeling at the end was always the same – lighter. It was like putting down something I had been carrying around all day. Once I had written about it, I could give myself a break from thinking about it.
Since then, writing has become the way I work through most experiences. I’ve seen it work for my students, too, as they write about serving in Iraq, overcoming addiction, ending abusive relationships and recovering from failure.
What you write about isn’t important. You could write about your day. You could jot down the first word that comes to mind and do a stream of consciousness entry. You could make a list of things that are going well, or of things you’re grateful for or angry about. Don’t worry about having a clear direction or focus. What ultimately matters is giving a voice to your thoughts. This is what helps. Think of journal writing like having a conversation with an endlessly supportive friend who never grows tired of hearing the same story a million times.
You might find yourself crying, laughing or screaming while you put the ideas swirling around in your head onto paper. This is OK. Getting your emotions out and putting your feelings into words will allow you to work through them. Feel them, write them down, and free yourself from thinking about them. Don’t get caught up in worrying about whether your writing is good or not, either. This is just for you.
Some people even like to burn their pages, but I don’t suggest it, because going back over what you’ve written can be helpful. Which brings me to the second way writing can help.
2. Writing can help you see patterns.
We all have patterns – with our words, our mannerisms, our choices. But we’re not always able to see them ourselves in the real time. This is where a regular writing practice can help. After a while, you will be able to read back over the pages you wrote last week or last month or even a few years before and start to notice themes. It might be something as simple as a phrase you commonly use when you are upset, which could clue you into patterns you have with your word choice. Or maybe you find that you write a lot about feeling overwhelmed, about not having enough time in the day or enough hands to help everyone at once. Is there a way to reach out for help? Or maybe you notice that you are often writing about being alone or feeling lonely. It might be time to focus on ways to broaden your circle, either virtually or in-person. And, if you’re divorced, there’s a good chance that you have vented about your ex. Do you notice things that he or she does that trigger you? Maybe he’s never on time for pick up or she doesn’t keep track of important dates for your kids. Is there a way to address this so that it’s not a constant source of frustration for you? (The answer to this might be “no”, but at least you know what triggers you, so you can work on reacting differently.)
You might also find that your patterns are more about who you are in relationships and what you want for the future. Recently, I came across an old journal that covered a few years in college, the aforementioned grad-school-end-of-the-world breakup, and the year leading up to meeting my ex-husband. At first, it was fun to read through my life in the late nineties, but nothing was notable. It was just a collection of ramblings about my days, about what I was thinking and feeling. But the more I read, the more I realized that I had essentially been writing about the same thing for the last twenty years. The people changed, the cities changed, but when it came to relationships, what I wanted was to be chosen. It was what my entries centered on then and what they came down to now. I wanted someone who was all in, who chose me without reservation. Talk about an “aha moment”.
To get this benefit of writing, you do have to have a semi-regular practice, even if that means only writing for a few minutes twice a week. But the results are valuable. Anything that helps us to be more self-aware is. For some of us, our patterns are what led us to a life that didn’t end up working out and taking a good look at them is what will allow us to grow.
3. Writing can help you create a vision for the life you want.
In addition to helping you work through emotions, writing can also give you a way to visualize the life you want. It can help you to move forward, no matter how stuck you currently feel, and give you hope.
Instead of writing about what happened to you today, try describing a typical day in your life in five years or even in five months, if that’s more manageable. Be as specific as you can. Make it real. What are you wearing? Where are you living? Who is sitting next to you? What food are you eating? What makes you smile? Be there as you write, because someday you actually will be.
Imagining what my life would be like in few years and making it concrete through writing was one of the things that helped me when it seemed like my divorce was endless. I would sometimes create bulleted lists of the things I wanted in six months. Other times, I would imagine a typical day when everything was calmer, describing it from the time I woke up until the time I went to bed.
Future-writing like this is helpful because it can jolt us out of our current circumstances. And while spending time exploring our emotions is important, being reminded that it will pass is equally as valuable. Why? Because it shifts our focus. It shows us that we are not limited to what we are experiencing in the moment. Sometimes, we get so caught up in today’s fears and issues that it limits our perspective. And we can end up getting stuck there, with each day just being a repeat of the day before. Feeling what it’s like to be in a different place, emotionally, physically or both, helps us to start to move in that direction. And writing a new story is the first step.
So, even if you are convinced that writing is “not your thing”, it’s worth a try. It will take time; stick with it. You don’t decide to go for a jog one day and run a marathon the next, right? But if you give it a chance, writing might just help make sense of your current experience and create a life that you love.
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