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47 posts categorized "Writing Ideas"

August 13, 2006

Writing and Healing Idea #1: Designing a Healing Retreat

Imagine for a moment that you go to your mailbox.  You find there an envelope—a small white square.  You open the envelope to find this card:


A sheet of paper accompanying the card offers details: 

For six weeks, it has become possible for all of your ordinary routines and responsibilities to be suspended.  Work schedules have been rearranged.  Children will be safe and well-cared for.  Any appointments (or medical treatments) have been rescheduled such that they will not interfere.  In fact, any and all obstacles standing in the way of this retreat have been removed.  In addition, your house or apartment will be cared for in your absence.  Plants will be watered.  Floors swept.  The refrigerator cleaned out.  Your task, now, is simply to design—in writing—or perhaps with drawings—this retreat. 

In order to design this retreat you may find yourself needing to suspend disbelief.  (Someone is really going to clean out my refrigerator for me?)  Go ahead.  Suspend.  Once you’ve done so you may find the following questions useful in designing your retreat:

Where would you like the retreat to take place?
What weather do you like?
What kind of light?
What resources would you like available close by?
Walking trails?
A piano?
A swimming pool?
A lake?
What kind of accommodations do you prefer?
Will the place have a porch? 
A window?
Would you like to be alone in this place?
Or do you prefer company?
And what kind of company?
Do you prefer quiet?
Or noise?
What sounds do you imagine in this place?
What about smells?
What does the sky look like in this place?
How does the air feel?
Where will you sit?
Where will you sleep?
What will you eat?
How will the refrigerator be stocked?
Who will prepare your food?
What would you like to do on the first day?
On a typical day?
Is there anything else that’s important to the design of this retreat?
What else?

[Please note that the seed for this invitation to design a healing retreat comes from a short chapter in Deena Metzger’s book, Writing for Your Life.  The chapter, entitled, “Setting Up a Retreat,” can be found on p. 81. ]

August 16, 2006

Writing and Healing Idea #2: Freewriting

If you’ve ever read Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones or if you’ve ever written morning pages in the style of The Artist’s Way, or if you’ve ever run across freewriting in one of its thousand other permutations, then you may already be quite familiar with the process of freewriting. If not, the gist of the matter is that when you choose freewriting you really do have a free ticket: you can write whatever you like. And you can write in whatever style you like.

Freewriting, at its essence, is about reclaiming permission—permission to write a lot of words and sentences that no one else ever needs to see, and then beginning to notice, gradually, that something is beginning to emerge. Meaning perhaps. Or insight. Surprising words. Surprising sentences. Small nuggets of value. Gold of a sort. Jewels.

You can choose a time when you know you will have fifteen or twenty minutes of uninterrupted time. The first thing in the morning?. The last thing in the evening? You can make a mug of tea, or coffee. You can find a comfortable chair. And then you can, simply, start writing. You can, for instance, write in response to the invitation to design a healing retreat. You can, if you'd like, write in response to this whole notion of writing and healing. What are some of your secret hopes for writing and healing? What are your secret fears? And what in the world is writing and healing anyway?

If you can, as you write, try to keep your pen moving as much as possible. Worry not about spelling or punctuation or grammar, or whether what you are writing makes any sense for that matter. All of this is a part of the permission that freewriting offers.

You can write that you have nothing to write about. That you have no clue where you’d go for a healing retreat. That you wish you’d bought a different pen. You can begin with your secret hopes for writing and healing, and then in the middle you can stop and switch directions and you can write about. . . what? The ants in your kitchen? Your aunts? The street you lived on as a child? The sky’s the limit here. And beyond that—stars, constellations, galaxies. You can make a list of all the constellations you know, and some you’ve never heard of but you wish they existed, and then you can if you like, come back to this notion of writing and healing and you can write about what in the world the stars might have to do with it. You really can’t do this wrong.

August 21, 2006

Writing and Healing Idea #3: The Body as a Healing Place

This idea for writing begins before you ever put a word on the page. It begins by bringing attention, first, to the body. Your hands. Your arms. The arrangement of your limbs and body in space. Notice, for a moment, what you feel when you bring this kind of attention to your body. What do you feel in your hands? What do you feel in your feet? What do you feel in your hips? You can, if you like, write a word, or a few words, that describe this sensation. Next take a moment to notice what you could do, right now, to make your body more comfortable. Take off your shoes? Change into more comfortable clothes? Something else? Write this down too. And then if you’d like, go ahead and do it. Get settled again.

Now take a moment and just invite your feet to relax. And notice what happens. Write a word, or a few words, about what you notice. And then, if you’d like, begin to notice what you are feeling in the rest of your body. Move upward from your feet to your calves. Your thighs. Your hips. Your belly. Consider your back muscles. Your neck muscles. Your shoulders. Pay attention. Notice what happens when you invite each of the different parts of your body to relax. Notice the sensation. Make a few notes about the sensations you are experiencing.

This process of noticing your body is sometimes called a body scan. You are literally scanning each part of your body with your conscious attention. Writing can facilitate this process. It can amplify the experience of noticing. And this kind of noticing can, in turn, facilitate writing.

August 28, 2006

Writing and Healing Idea #4: The Easiest Writing and Healing Exercise Ever

Take a moment before going to bed. One minute or three minutes—five at the most. Make a cup of tea if you like. Then open a notebook. And write a single word that describes the day. Just one word. An adjective perhaps: LOUSY. SWEET. DIFFICULT. A noun that could describe a moment from the day: PURPLE VIOLETS. PANCAKES. NEW SHOES. A verb: SWIMMING. HURTING. RUNNING. Any word at all. Or, if you are too tired to write that word, write down, simply, I am too tired to write tonight. And that can be enough. Just that—that recognition of one’s own fatigue.

September 02, 2006

Writing and Healing Idea #5: A Shopping Spree


You are again invited to suspend disbelief.  In this case you are invited to imagine that you have five thousand dollars to spend solely on something—anything—any combination of things—that will contribute to your healing.  Your task is to prepare a list of how you would spend this five thousand dollars if the sum were handed to you tomorrow.  In addition, you can, if you’d like, include a narrative as to why these particular purchases might be important to your healing.  If, after careful consideration, you decide that you need more than five thousand dollars, then go ahead and write about that. 

September 08, 2006

Writing and Healing Idea #6: Discovering Needs and Desires

Here’s that succinct sentence again by Laura King, researcher in writing and health:

One could stop right here, right now, and write this question at the top of a clean sheet of paper: WHAT DO I NEED?  Or, WHAT DO I WANT?  Or, WHAT DO I LONG FOR?  And one could write pages for an entire month (or a year) in response to this question.  I suspect this would be life-altering.

Or, then again, one could imagine one is an orphan, out on one’s own, and one discovers a boxcar like those children in the book.  How would you set up your boxcar?  What provisions would you lay in?  What do you absolutely need to survive in your boxcar?  And what else do you need?  And then, if you like, you can consider that which you do you not particularly need but you’d really like to have it in your boxcar—because it would make your boxcar more comfortable—or more beautiful—or just because——

September 16, 2006

Writing and Healing Idea #7: Has Writing Ever Changed Your Life?

Consider a time when you wrote something—a letter—a journal entry—a word—a blog entry—that changed something—anything—then begin to write about it—write about what you wrote—and then the change that happened after—or during—no matter how large or small the change—no matter how quiet.

Or, alternatively, consider a time when you read something—a poem—a book—a letter—a blog—and the words you read caused something to shift—something—anything—write about the words—the experience of reading those words—write about the change that happened.

Consider these words from a poem, “The Class,” in a collection entitled, The Crack in Everything, by Alicia Ostriker:

Perhaps it is not the poet who is healed

but someone else, years later.

September 29, 2006

Writing and Healing Idea #8: Buy a Box

What do you hold your writing in?
A drawer?
A folder on your computer?
A series of folders?
A box with a lid?

Virginia Woolf was right. Writing does thrive in a room of one’s own. But what about when one doesn’t have a whole room for writing? What about a table of one’s own? A file cabinet of one’s own? A portfolio? A box?

If you don’t yet love the container in which you’re holding your writing—consider buying a good box. (Even if you don’t yet have a lot of writing. Even if it’s just a few loose-leaf pages. Or a couple pages printed from your computer. Or a single page. Or a single word) If you’ve started, or restarted, a new writing project—or a new writing habit—consider buying a good box in which to hold it.

A new box or portfolio can serve as a kind of sign—or signal—that a project is a serious one—and deserving of its own container.

October 04, 2006

Writing and Healing Idea #9: The Mystery of Language

In Helen Keller’s memoir, The Story of My Life, she describes a now famous moment that occurred between her and her teacher, Anne Sullivan, when she was seven:

We walked down the path to the well-house, attracted by the fragrance of the honeysuckle with which it was covered. Someone was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten--a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me.

Helen Keller made a connection: between the cool stream gushing over one hand and the shapes of the letters traced upon the other:


Do you remember the first connections you made between letters and words and things?

Do you remember, for instance, your first phonics book?  The pictures in that phonics book?  Or any of your early readers?

What about the way the ABC’s looked in your first-grade classroom?  What about the shapes of those letters?  Or the way it felt to hold a pencil and write those letters?  What about that paper with the dotted lines?

Do you remember what you felt when you first discovered letters?  Or what you felt when you first discovered that words and letters were connected to actual things?

Choose one particular moment of remembering.  Perhaps a moment in a classroom.  Or perhaps you were riding in a car and you were able to read a sign for the first time.  Or maybe you remember one particular book from childhood.  Pick one moment or thing.  And then conjure the details of it.  What do you see?  What do you hear?  What do you feel?  Write the words that conjure the details.  Make the words into sentences if you want.

October 16, 2006

Writing and Healing Idea #10: Conjuring New Images and Metaphors for Healing

Try this:
Look at the word: HEALING
Write the word: HEALING
Write the word in large letters on a blank sheet of paper: HEALING
Say the word aloud: HEALING

Then close your eyes and say the word again—HEALING—and notice what comes into your mind. Say the word over slowly until some thing or place or person or creature comes into your mind. What you’re looking for here is a concrete something—a something or someone you can see in your mind. Write down this first thing that comes to your mind, even if it seems silly at first, or surprising, or irrelevant. Then write to describe the image in as much detail as possible. What colors do you see? What textures do you notice? What are its details? If you find it helpful, you can pause in your writing, close your eyes again, and try once more to see or feel this something in order to write about it. Summon as much detail as you can. If more than one something or someone comes, feel free to write about these too, but try, first, to write in detail about the first image that comes.

Many people see places when they try this. A canyon for instance. A place next to a river. An island. A ship. Some people see creatures. Horses. Their cat. A particular dog. Some see an activity. Gardening. Skiing. Some see a particular person--or they might see themselves with this particular person. A grandmother. A teacher. A character from a book. Some people see a color.

What do you see? Try it. And no matter what you see when you conjure the word HEALING—you simply cannot do it wrong. By the way, if you see nothing at all this can be a beginning. A nothing can be a something. A blank slate can be the beginning of a something. A blank slate can be waiting for something to be written upon it.

October 24, 2006

Writing and Healing Idea #11: A Scavenger Hunt

YOU ARE INVITED What: A Scavenger Hunt What to bring: Books, catalogues, journals What to hunt for: Images The goal of this scavenger hunt is simple: to hunt for images. But what’s an image? Here’s one way to think about it: in the early part of the twentieth century there was a group of poets in England, France and America who called themselves imagists. Ezra Pound was one such poet. Also, William Carlos Williams, who once said, “No ideas but in things.” An often-cited example of an imagist poem is a poem by Williams, "The Red Wheelbarrow," that centers around the visual image of a red wheelbarrow glistening with rain water next to some white chickens. The imagists often concentrated primarily on visual images, but an image does not have to be limited to the sense of sight. An image can be more broadly defined as a word or group of words that appeals to one or more of the senses. An image is tangible. It’s a word you can see or hear or taste or touch or smell. A red wheelbarrow. Cinnamon coffeecake. Fresh orange juice. Hot black coffee. A yellow goldfinch. A cricket. A pumpkin. An acorn squash. Geese. The goal then of this particular scavenger hunt is to hunt for images—or things that appeal to your senses. Images that strike you. That surprise you. That please you. Images you want to remember. Or, simply, images you like. In your hunt, feel free to look through books of poetry, novels, children’s books, seed catalogues, field guides, magazines, any printed material including your own written material in the form of journals or pages. If you’ve ever written down any of your dreams, these can be an excellent source of images. Your memory can also be a source of images. Songs. Movies. Overheard conversation. The possibilities are endless. Make a list of images that appeal to you. Save the list.

November 02, 2006

Writing and Healing Idea #12

What: To let something fall apart
Where: In a healing place

You can start small. You can wait until you are ready. You can wait until it is the right time. You can choose one small thing in your life that has already fallen apart. You can choose one concrete thing—a favorite sweater, a cracked coffee mug. You can choose something larger. Your car. Your roof. Your marriage. Your heart. You can choose anything at all. You can write the words FALLING APART at the top of the page. Or write BREAKING. Or write BROKEN. Then begin. Write physical and concrete detail. Exaggerate. Exaggeration can be a way to make the falling apart more vivid. It can also be a way to get at a kind of truth. Write verbs. Break. Fracture. Collapse. Disintegrate. Crumble. Write sensory details. Write how the breaking feels. Write how it feels in your body. Write where you feel it in your body. If at any point this becomes too uncomfortable, take a respite. Step outside if you can. Look at the sky. Remember that at any moment you can, if you like, return to a healing place—in the actual world or in your imagination.

November 05, 2006

Writing and Healing Idea #13: Making a List of Lifelines

I wrote a few days back about having a few lifelines in place if and when you decide to do any writing about breaking. You can now, if you want, and if you haven’t already done so, formalize that. You can make a list of your own personal lifelines. Here are some questions that might help you in putting together your own list:

Are there places you can go when you feel like something is falling apart?
Are there places where you’ve been in the past that are safe and comforting?
Can you imagine these places when you need to?
Are there resources that make you feel safe and nurtured?
Certain foods?
Certain objects?
Particular songs?
Particular music?
Is there someone you can call when you feel like something is falling apart?
A friend?
A counselor?
Is there someone you can call to mind?
(This can be a person, living or dead, who you know well—or perhaps someone you have never met.)
Is there something or someone or even some words that you can remember—and call to mind—when you feel like something is falling apart?

Make your list as short or as long as you like.
Save your list.

November 12, 2006

Writing and Healing Idea #14: Considering a Package

Imagine for a moment that a package comes in the mail. And imagine that inside this package are tokens of something—or of many things—that you have lost. Fragments perhaps of something that has broken. And imagine now that you can do anything with this package that you like. You can open the package—or not. You can carry it somewhere and place it there. You can use it as a door stop—or a paper weight—or an extra table. You can mail the package to someone and ask them to hold it for a while.

Imagine the package in as much detail as possible.

And then, when you’re ready, write about it. Write about the package itself. Write about how it looks. Write about its color—its texture—its weight. Write about how you feel when you look at the package—or when you hold it. Then take a moment and consider what you’d like to do with it. Not what you think you should do. But what you really want to do. Whether you want to open the package. Or whether you’d like to keep it closed for a while. Write about that. Write the details of it. Write about what you want to do. And then write about what happens next.

November 21, 2006

Writing and Healing Idea #15: Listing What Remains

This writing idea springs directly from the passage by Andre Dubus that I posted above. Because it occurs to me that before embracing what remains it might sometimes be helpful, simply, to list it.

You can make a list of what remains. And then you can, if you like, take this list and carry it with you. You could carry it with you through the holidays. You could carry it in a wallet—or in a purse—or in your pocket. You could, I suppose, write it in tiny print and fold it and place it in a locket. And then you would always have it there with you—like a reminder—what remains.

December 01, 2006

Writing and Healing Idea #16: A Walk on a Strange Street

In a visionary and rather brilliant book, Becoming a Writer, this first published in 1934, Dorothea Brande, offers this advice for writing:

It will be worth your while to walk on strange streets, to visit exhibitions, to hunt up a movie in a strange part of town in order to give yourself the experience of fresh seeing once or twice a week.

I think this fresh seeing can be of particular benefit when thinking about forms—whenever we begin (again?) to think, about what kind of form(s) we might like our writing to take. A journal? A list? A conversation? A series of poems? A tale of quest? And I would suggest, in light of Ms. Brande’s advice, that one way to foster this process of discovering form is to take a walk on a strange street—or to visit a place where you do not ordinarily go. A place if possible that has visual interest. A museum? A garden? A wood? A downtown landscape? And while you are taking this walk—or drive—you can draw your attention toward forms.

You can, if you like, bring a camera with you. This can, sometimes, be a way to frame particular forms—a way, perhaps, to pay heightened attention.

After your walk—you can write about what you saw. You can write this as a list or in paragraph form. You can write, in particular, about forms and patterns that you like. What forms and patterns do you find pleasing? What forms in nature? What forms in architecture? Or gardens? Do you like soft rounded forms or sharp clean edges? Do you like formal gardens? Wild gardens? The appeal of particular forms can change over time, so as you write, you may want to focus, in particular, on that which appeals right now.

With what forms right now do you feel a particular resonance?

December 04, 2006

Writing and Healing Idea #17: Steps for Making a Written Collage or Mosaic

[steps adapted from instructions in the text, A Community of Writers, by Peter Elbow and Pat Belanoff]

1. Write on only one side of the paper.

2. Choose a point from which to start. Like a word. December. Snow. Wind. Or an image. Broken plate. Fractured bone. Mirror. The more a word or image resonates for you—calls to you—and the more it calls up emotion inside you—the more fruitful and deeper the writing is likely to be. But you don't have to start with the deepest or most fruitful word. You can start with any word or image that feels promising.

3. Write first thoughts about this word or image—whatever comes into your mind. Write for five minutes or ten minutes or twenty minutes at a time.

4. Find lines of poetry or song lyrics that speak to this word. Or newspaper headlines.

5. Write moments and stories and portraits. Notice if a particular moment comes into your mind. Or a person or a landscape. Describe these as if you were describing them to a person who does not know you at all. Describe a moment or a scene as if you were trying to recreate it for a movie.

6. Write dialogue. Between two characters. Between two images. Between you and a friend. Between you and an adversary. Between you and a broken plate. The possibilities are endless.

7. Try exaggeration. Write in superlatives. The plate doesn’t just break—it shatters. It was the most important plate. It was a singular plate. It can never ever be repaired. And there will never ever be another like it.

8. Collect all the fragments that you’ve written. If you’ve written on a computer, print the pieces and gather them together. Print or cut them so that each piece is separate and not connected to another.

9. Choose the pieces you like best. You can also choose a part of a piece. You can choose three sentences that you like—or three words.

10. Take several days in which you don’t look at the pieces at all.

11. Then come back to the pieces. Lay them out on a table or on the floor. Move among them and try to sense a kind of order. Try different things.

12. Consider a title.

13. If you like, write one or two more short pieces. Linking pieces. One way to do this is to ask the question, “So what?” or “What does this all mean?” and then write to try and answer the question. A title can also help guide these linking pieces.

14. Put the final pieces together in the order you choose, and with spaces between and around them.

15. Save your work.

December 17, 2006

Writing and Healing Idea # 18: The Things We Carry

A list can be a kind of form. A list can be a way at getting at something that might be hard to get at in another way. Consider this list from Tim O’Brien’s story about Vietnam, “The Things They Carried,” from his incomparable collection by the same name. Perhaps you are already familiar with the story.

Here’s the second paragraph. Page 4. A list of the tangible things that the men carried:

The things they carried were largely determined by necessity. Among the necessities or near-necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military Payment Certificates, C rations, and two or three canteens of water. Together, these items weighed between 15 and 20 pounds, depending on a man’s habits or rate of metabolism. Henry Dobbins, who was a big man, carried extra rations; he was especially fond of canned peaches in heavy syrup over pound cake. Dave Jensen, who practiced field hygiene, carried a toothbrush, dental floss, and several hotel-sized bars of soap he’d stolen on R&R in Sydney.

Here’s a paragraph from later in the story. Page 20.

They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing—these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight. They carried shameful memories. They carried the common secret of cowardice barely restrained, the instinct to run or freeze or hide, and in many respects this was the heaviest burden of all, for it could never be put down, it required perfect balance and perfect posture.

You can make a list of the things you carry or that you have carried. You can write about the balance and posture required to carry them.

January 05, 2007

Writing and Healing Idea #19: The Good Part in Other People’s Stories

When I was in graduate school, taking a writing workshop, one of my teachers told us that we would probably learn more in the workshop from looking at other people’s stories than we would learn from our own. The notion, I think, is that sometimes we can become too close—too attached—to our own stories, and that sometimes it’s easier to see other people’s stories because we can see them from a fresh perspective.

So---the writing idea:

Consider a story, any story as long as it is not your own story. It could be from a book, a newspaper, a movie. It could be from a recent conversation with a friend. Now consider the good part. What was the good part of the story?

Of course it may happen that you might not know at first what the good part is—in fact I think that might be the best way to begin. I have no clue what the best part of this story is. . . But then say you keep writing—say you keep writing I don’t know. . . I don’t have a clue. . . And then maybe you write, I don’t know but I wonder if maybe. . . Or, I don’t know but I’m beginning to think. . . Say you keep writing like this. Then—it could happen—something could jump off the page—your own words—and they could surprise you. (I didn’t know I thought this. I had no idea. . . )

There’s a writing teacher, Donald Murray, author of A Writer Teaches Writing, who says that we become writers when we are surprised for the first time by our own writing—that that in fact is the kind of thrill that can bring us back to writing again and again.

January 11, 2007

Writing and Healing Idea #20: Finding a Benefit in Adversity

For this writing idea I’m going to set down, first, the instructions that Annette Stanton and Sharon Danoff-Burg used in the study that I wrote about earlier this week. These instructions are specifically written for a woman with breast cancer. Following these instructions, I’m including a slight revision, a set of instructions that might be applied in the wake of any adversity. An adversity I’m going to call X.

What is your X? An illness? A loss? A setback? X can be whatever you would like for X to be. And you can, if you like, choose the first X that comes to mind. You really can’t do this wrong.

(And of course if it’s too soon to find a benefit in X feel free to skip this writing exercise—to save it for next year—or for your next life for that matter. If you would prefer to deal with the part of X that hasn’t been so beneficial you may want to look at Writing and Healing Idea #12 or Writing and Healing Idea #14)

1. The Stanton-Danoff-Burg Instructions: Writing About Breast Cancer
[from The Writing Cure]

What I would like you to write about for these four sessions [of twenty minutes each] are any POSITIVE thoughts and feelings about your experience with breast cancer. I realize that women with breast cancer experience a full range of emotions that often includes some positive emotions, thoughts, and changes, and in this writing exercise I want you to focus only on the positive thoughts and feelings that you have experienced over the course of your cancer. Ideally, I would like you to focus on positive thoughts or feelings that you have not discussed in great detail with others. You might also tie your positive thoughts and feelings about your experiences with cancer to other parts of your life—your childhood, people you love, who you are, or who you want to be. Again, the most important part of your writing is that you really focus on your positive thoughts and feelings. The only rule is that you write continuously for the entire time. If you run out of things to say, just repeat what you have already written. Don’t worry about grammar, spelling or sentence structure. Don’t worry about erasing or crossing things out. Just write.

2. The Stanton-Danoff-Burg Instructions Revised: Writing About X

What I would like you to write about for these four sessions [of twenty minutes each] are any POSITIVE thoughts and feelings about your experience with X. I realize that people who have undergone X experience a full range of emotions that often includes some positive emotions, thoughts, and changes, and in this writing exercise I want you to focus only on the positive thoughts and feelings that you have experienced over the course of X. Ideally, I would like you to focus on positive thoughts or feelings that you have not discussed in great detail with others. You might also tie your positive thoughts and feelings about your experiences with X to other parts of your life—your childhood, people you love, who you are, or who you want to be. Again, the most important part of your writing is that you really focus on your positive thoughts and feelings. The only rule is that you write continuously for the entire time. If you run out of things to say, just repeat what you have already written. Don’t worry about grammar, spelling or sentence structure. Don’t worry about erasing or crossing things out. Just write.

January 16, 2007

Writing and Healing Idea #21: Meanwhile

What I like best about Mary Oliver’s poem, "The Wild Geese,” is the way it manages to hold two such vastly different things in such an apparently simple poem. Despair and the wild geese heading home. Not just one or the other. Both. She manages the juxtaposition of these two things—the leap from the one to the other—with that single word: meanwhile. And, in so doing, the poem itself becomes a kind of invitation.

First a literal invitation: “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.”
And, then, an invitation to consider what else might be happening meanwhile.

So, the writing idea----
Write for ten or fifteen minutes about a moment of despair—it can be your own despair, or someone else’s, or it can be a fictional moment—a character, perhaps, experiencing a moment of despair.

And then—stop—and skip down a line or two and write about some of the things that might be happening meanwhile----

January 25, 2007

Writing and Healing Idea #22: Once Upon a Time

There are perhaps a million ways to enter or re-enter the writing of fiction.  Here is one: Begin with “Once upon a time.”

This particular idea springs from one in Dee Metzger’s 1992 book, Writing for Your Life.  The book contains a wide range of exercises.  One of my favorite of these is an exercise entitled “Entering the Tale”.  In this exercise, one is instructed to simply choose a fairy tale—any one at all—and then shift the point of view so that one is writing it in the first person from the protagonist’s point of view.  You write from the main character's point of view as if the story is happening to you right now. 

For instance, if you were to choose to write—or rewrite—the tale of Cinderella, you might begin: Once upon a time, when I was a girl, and after my mother had died, my father decided to marry a woman who was not only cruel but who had two cruel daughters. . .

Or, you could write in the present tense, in a more immediate style: My father has decided to marry again.  I am devastated. . .

You have a number of options here.  You can include as many of the original details of the story as you like.  You can also alter the details as needed.  The fairy tale is at the core of your story—it’s the seed of your story—but you can take this seed, and shift perspective, and carry it wherever you like. 

Simply begin at the beginning—Once upon a time--------

February 13, 2007

Writing and Healing Idea #23: What If the Moon’s a Balloon?

There’s a poem by e.e.cummings—“who knows if the moon’s a balloon”
It begins like this:

who knows if the moon's
a balloon, coming out of a keen city
in the sky--

The poem can serve as a kind of springboard for making a list of questions that begin by asking: WHAT IF?
For instance------
What if the moon’s a balloon?
What if the balloon pops?
What if the moon is a hot-air balloon and the Wizard of Oz gets into the balloon and floats away, and all of this before you can get into the balloon with him, and you have to find your way back home on your own?

What if. . . what?

Consider making your own list of questions. Write as fast as you can without thinking. Begin with a single question—with e.e. cumming’s question if you like—and then just keep going. Don’t worry about the questions making sense—or the questions being clever—or even interesting. Just write them. Try to write fast without thinking too much.

When you have come to the end of something—a pause—look back over the questions you’ve written. Circle the ones that you like--or that surprise you in some way. Save the questions—especially the circled ones. Who knows? One of them could become the beginning to a poem—or to some other whole new piece.

February 22, 2007

Writing and Healing Idea #24: Deciding Who to Bring on the Train

A patient helped me discover this writing idea. She uses imagery to help manage chronic pain. And one of the images she’s found helpful recently is to imagine that she’s falling asleep on a train and as she’s falling asleep she can hear the sound of the wheels on the tracks and the sound is very soothing and she’s lying very still—on a clean soft pillow—clean sheets--and she can look outside the window at the landscape if she wants—or not—and all the time she’s being carried to a place where the pain is becoming less and less and less.

One of the things she’s discovered as this train imagery has developed is that she can decide who to bring on the train. She can decide who to have outside her compartment, riding on the train with her—and she can decide who to invite inside her compartment—and when. She can decide who she’d like to have for company. She can decide who she might want to have available if something should happen—say if the pain becomes worse.

She can bring a person along on the train, for instance, who knows about massage. She can bring a friend—or a nurse. She can bring someone who plays music. She can bring someone who knows how to listen. She can bring someone who is simply good company. She can bring along a dozen people—or one—or none. But in any case she gets to decide, in this imagery, who to bring on the train.

And it occurred to me that this image could be translated as an idea for writing.

Say that you are beginning to write. Say that you have decided to do a year of writing and healing—or a month of writing and healing—or fifteen minutes of writing and healing. Say that you imagine that as you begin this writing—this writing project—say that you are boarding a train. And say then that you get to decide who will be riding this train with you. And say that it can be anyone at all—persons living or dead—persons real or imagined—some persons perhaps that you’ve only read about in books or some persons perhaps that you’ve conjured in your imagination.

Who would you like to bring on the train?

February 27, 2007

Writing and Healing Idea #25: A Memo at Your Breakfast Plate

It occurs to me that it might be okay to borrow Salinger’s Seymour for an idea for writing and healing. You could imagine that you write some piece of your story, and you could imagine that Seymour reads it while you are sleeping. You could imagine that when you wake in the morning there is an envelope at your breakfast plate. You open the envelope. Inside is a memo. Inside he has written—what? That he can see the leaps in your story? That he’s seen how all your stars have come out? That he’s seen---what? What would you most long for him to say?

You could write this down--what you most long for him to say--or for someone to say. You could write this on a piece of notepaper, or on a shirt cardboard, or on a piece of hotel stationery. You could write it at night perhaps and place it on the table where you eat your breakfast. You could write it early in the morning and place it in an envelope beneath a half of a grapefruit.

And then you could read this memo with your breakfast as a way to begin your day.

March 13, 2007

Writing and Healing Idea #26: Figuring Out Where One is on the Map

Imagine, for a moment, that there’s a map and imagine that there are three kinds of roads one can follow on this map. There are probably a million or so roads but say, for the sake of argument, that there are three main kinds of roads. And say that they each of the roads has a name. Maybe on your map the roads have catchier names than these—you can rename them if you like—but, nonetheless, here are three types of roads you can use as a kind of starting point:

Draw the roads if you like—or begin to draw them inside your mind.
Then write about what the roads look like on your map.
Write about which ones you’ve taken.
Write about which ones you wish you could take.
Write about the signs on these roads.
Write about where each of the roads might lead.
Write about where on the map you are right now, at this moment.

(And if you'd like some company as you're writing and imagining you can look at The Road Not Taken, Robert Frost's preeminent poem about roads. Press play at the website page if you'd like to hear Frost himself reading the poem.)

March 20, 2007

Writing Exercise #27: What Am I Here For? (Part 1 of 2)

When I trained in healing imagery in San Rafael, with the Academy for Guided Imagery, I learned, on the last day of my training, an imagery exercise that can be used for the discovery of deep purpose. To be honest, when we were first introduced to the exercise, I, along with a friend who I was there with, thought the exercise seemed, well—almost silly. Too simple to be useful, I thought. Or too something. I was wrong. This exercise, which we proceeded to practice in small groups, proved to be surprisingly powerful.

Since then, I’ve introduced this exercise to a number of patients. And I’ve begun to see that, at least some of the time, this exercise can point a person toward something. It has the potential to get at something deeper than short-term goals, deeper than the job at which we work, deeper than any salary or accolades we might receive for that work. It has the potential to move a person toward certain core kinds of questions—questions particularly relevant if and when a person finds themselves facing a life-threatening or life-altering illness, or when a person finds themselves facing a life-altering loss.
(And one of the things an examination of these questions can do, I’ve noticed, is help a person feel calmer and more at peace—get a glimpse of the bigger picture as it were—and this itself can mitigate a stress response and, in the process, augment healing. Lawrence LeShan, who has been called the father of mind-body medicine, proposes in his book, Cancer As a Turning Point, that getting in touch with one’s purpose—or what he calls zest—can have a significant and salutary effect on the immune and healing system.)

What really matters? What will matter when it’s all said and done?

I attended a Jesuit college. One of my professors at that college, Father Nesbitt, a Jesuit priest and a the teacher of my first theology class as a freshman, once told us that the question to ask ourselves when we wake in the morning and first look in the mirror to wash our face is this: What am I here for?

This is an exercise that looks at that question.

So---the exercise, which I've translated into a writing exercise:

  • You begin by folding a plain piece of paper in half and then half again, so that when you re-open the piece of paper you have four rectangles. At the top of the first rectangle you write the first heading: WHAT I LIKE/ WHAT I LOVE
    Then beneath this heading you make a list of all the things that you like and love. These can be small things or big things. Chocolate? Rain? The color periwinkle?

  • At the top of the second rectangle you write the second heading: GIFTS AND TALENTS
    Here you make a list of all those things that you happen to be good at. These can be concrete things like fixing cars or gardening. These can also include more abstract things like kindness or listening or seeing patterns.

[to be continued]

March 21, 2007

Writing Exercise #27: What Am I Here For (Part 2 of 2)

If you haven’t already looked at the first part of the exercise you can find it here. This second part of the exercise, presented below, will lead you to fill in the third and fourth rectangles on the sheet of paper—and then invite you to take a next step—and perhaps a next one.

  • At the top of the third rectangle write: WHAT’S IMPORTANT TO ME Here you list any and all things that are important to you, moving again, if you like between the concrete and the more abstract.

  • In the final rectangle you write: WHAT I FEEL I MUST DO BEFORE I DIE
    I’ve seen people write everything in this rectangle from visiting a certain country to reconciling with a particular person to finally getting their hair right. Make this list as long or as short as you like.

When you’ve finished filling in the four rectangles, take out another sheet of paper and fold it into four rectangles like before. On this new sheet of paper you are going to record four images, one in each rectangle, each image corresponding to one of your lists.

In order to discover these images, you may want to give yourself a block of uninterrupted and quiet time—say, twenty to thirty minutes if possible. Then, beginning with the first list—What Do I Like? / What Do I Love?—read the list, either silently or aloud, over and over, noticing what image begins to arise from the list. This image can be anything that you can see or hear or touch. It can be a shape or an object—a color—an activity—a creature—a person—a vegetable—anything that seems to fit somehow with the list that you’ve created. The idea is to find a single image that resonates with the entire list. If you find it difficult to choose one best image—just pick an image—any image that appeals—knowing that you can always come back and change the image—revise it—amend it—if you want to later. You can write a word for this image—or you can draw it. Either.

Then move on and do the same with the second list, and the third, and the fourth. You can, if you like, do this over a period of days.

When you finish you will have a piece of paper with four images that can all be considered aspects or facets of your purpose.

You can carry these four images around with you—in your pocket—or in your pocketbook—or in the back of your mind. You can hold them lightly. It may happen that the four images seem to want to come together into a single image. If so, you can draw or write this single image at the center of a new sheet of paper.

When you finish you will have a single image or a series of images—either.

This image—or series of images—can become, if you like, a kind of touchstone. It can become your own North Star. It can become something you write about now and then—or something you hold in the back of your mind. It can become something you can steer by when it seems like the wind is blowing this way and that.

March 23, 2007

Writing and Healing Idea #28: Consulting with the Wizard of Oz

I had a dream the other night that a patient came to me and she asked me if I thought that it would be a good idea to bring her illness to the Wizard of Oz and ask him what to do. Inside the dream I thought about it for a while, and then I said, yes, I do think that’s a good idea, but I need you to tell me more about what that would be like for you.

What would it be like?

Say, that you were the one caught up in the tornado, landing in an entirely new and strange place, and you told a good witch in a lovely dress that you had just been diagnosed with an illness—or another problem had befallen you—stress—loss—some new and thorny problem—or an old and thorny problem—any one of these will do—and say that you told her that what you really wanted was to get back home (as if maybe you suspected that if you only got home you could deal with this—you could figure out what to do next) and the good witch said, well, the smartest one in these parts is the wizard---and I would suggest you follow this road here. . .

What would happen next?

(And, let’s say, for the sake of the argument, that if this were an illness of some sort you’d already done the usual things—consulted a doctor, seen a specialist perhaps, started some sort of treatment. Say that you were looking for a little more help—not so much with medical care at this point but with the process of healing—figuring out what else you could do, in addition to medical treatment, that might augment the healing inside your body, that might make a difference. As if medical treatment were only the beginning of the quest—say, the crossing of the first threshold—and not its end.)

What might the road be like on the way? Would there be helpers? Someone as kind and bumbly as that scarecrow? As innocent as the tin man? And say you made it to the Emerald City? What would you find when you got there? What would you ask? (Would you want to ask something about purpose? Your quest? Your next task? Or maybe just something about getting back home?) What would you hear in response? And then what would happen next?

March 29, 2007

Writing and Healing Idea #29: A Title for Your Quest

Imagine for a moment that someone approaches you and tells you that they want to write a book about your life. But they need some help. They need a title for one thing. Perhaps they invite you to call out the first title that comes to mind. Then the second title. The third. Perhaps they tell you they need you to make a list of all the titles that come to mind and when you’re finished they offer to help you choose the best one. And perhaps it might help while you’re thinking about your own list of possible titles to consider other titles.

You may want to look around your own bookshelf for ideas. Or a trip to the bookstore might provide inspiration. Or a trip to the library. Memoirs especially can be a good source of titles that embody a sense of quest. Here are four (five actually), drawn from my own bookshelves, and offered along with a brief summary of what each title depicts:

  • Meditations from a Movable Chair. Andre Dubus’ collection of autobiographical pieces, written after Broken Vessels (that searing memoir published after he lost his legs in an accident) and describing life as he sees it now from the vantage point of his wheelchair.

  • Holy Hunger. Margaret Bullit-Jonas' memoir about healing from an eating disorder and, in the process, reframing her hunger as a spiritual hunger.

  • Breaking Clean. Judy Blunt’s memoir of leaving the flats of Montana and her life as a rancher’s wife to pursue her own dreams.

  • Stronger than Dirt. A husband and wife’s memoir by Chris Losee and Kim Schaye about leaving Brooklyn to start a flower farm in upstate New York.

Writing and Healing Idea #30: Choosing Chapter Titles

This writing idea is offered as a companion to Writing Idea #29: Choosing a Title for Your Quest, which appears below. Say that this same person who needs you to generate a title for your book—your quest—also needs you to generate chapter titles—a structure for getting started. What might you name the chapters of your memoir?

As with book titles, other people’s chapter titles can spark ideas.

Here are some archetypal chapter titles from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces:

  • The Call to Adventure
  • Refusal of the Call
  • Supernatural Aid
  • The Crossing of the First Threshold
  • The Belly of the Whale
  • The Road of Trials

And here are some chapters from Judy Blunt’s Breaking Clean:

  • A Place of One’s Own
  • Salvage
  • Lessons in Silence
  • The Year of the Horse
  • The Reckoning

What might your own chapter titles be?

April 10, 2007

Writing and Healing Idea #31: Writing a Letter of Resignation

I wonder if many of us, if not most of us, at one time or another, in the teeth of resistance, much like the woman carrying her notebooks to the curb for the trash truck—I wonder if we don’t at least have to entertain the question: Is it time to quit?

(Well, maybe not entertain this question for weeks—maybe not feed it a series of meals, put it up in the guest room—but still, however briefly, entertain the question.)

Thus, as a kind of exercise in entertaining the question: the letter of resignation.

You are invited to write a letter of resignation to whomever you like and in regard to any activity or relationship to which you feel resistance. You would like to resign from your job? A particularly thorny relationship? The care of your house? The mowing of your lawn? The elliptical machine? Broccoli? What about resigning from writing? Or healing? You are invited to write a letter resigning from whatever and whomever you feel you most need to resign from. Include, if possible, your reasons for resignation. And, if you’d like, go ahead and set a date on which the resignation will become effective.

You may also write, in lieu of a letter of resignation, a letter outlining the terms under which you would consider staying.

[Please note: If you decide to write either of these letters, it’s probably prudent not to send it right away, if at all. Unless, of course, you are sending a letter to yourself, in which case you may go ahead and send it at any time.]

April 15, 2007

Writing and Healing Idea #32: Keeping a Process Journal: A Long-Term Solution to Writer’s Block

Peter Elbow and Pat Belanoff, in their text, A Community of Writers, suggest that each writer keep something they call a process journal. It’s a way of learning from the ups and downs of one’s own process. It’s a way of learning more about what works for you as an individual—and what doesn’t.

In a sense you are beginning to write your own very personalized, and individualized, textbook of writing.

Elbow and Belanoff suggest, for instance, writing for a few minutes about the writing process itself whenever you have completed a significant piece of writing. What facilitated flow? What impeded it? “The goal,” they write, “is to find out what really happens—the facts of what occurred on that particular occasion. Don’t struggle for conclusions; trust that they’ll come.”

Another way to use a process journal is to turn to it before you finish a piece of writing—when you’re right in the middle. This can be of particular benefit if you’re stuck. Sometimes what is happening when we get stuck is that our thoughts are too complex and convoluted to write the next line. In a process journal it becomes possible to hit this problem head on—to write about it. For instance: I have too much to say. . . It’s too complicated. . . And then, having said this, you can begin the process of untangling the complicated threads. It’s too complicated because. . .

You can begin a process journal any time, including any time that you are stuck. You can begin it on a new sheet of paper or you can create a new document on your computer and begin there. You can begin a process journal by writing, I have too much to say. . . Or, I have nothing to say. . . Or, I wish I had something to say. . . Or, I wish that I wish I had something to say. . . Or I wish someone would bring me a sandwich because more than anything else right now I am hungry. . .

And then you can keep going. I am hungry because. . . I have too much too say because. . . It’s too complicated because. . .

April 22, 2007

Writing and Healing Idea #33: Imagining Refuge

Imagine for a moment that you are at a point in the arc of healing when momentum is carrying you forward. There are positive signs, whatever those might be. There’s a feeling of hope. Of possibility. Of forward movement. And then imagine that just as you are beginning to consider it’s possible—healing is possible—imagine that you receive news of a reversal. Perhaps the reversal is felt in your body—pain, as bad as before, or worse. The fatigue has returned, and you’re mired in it. Or perhaps the reversal comes by way of a lab test or an x-ray. The tumor has grown. Or perhaps you encounter a rejection of some sort.

Or perhaps, like Stephen Dixon, in his poem, "Sweetness," that I wrote about here in February--perhaps you can't bear "one more friend waking with a tumor", or "one more maniac with a perfect reason"----

Perhaps you are discouraged by the violence and heartache in the world----

Or perhaps you simply have one of those no-good awful terrible hopeless days. Perhaps it’s raining, hard, and you find yourself without an umbrella, the car parked another three blocks away, and maybe you’re carrying a paper bag, filled with groceries, and it’s wet, it breaks, the contents spilling down the sidewalk. . . .

Imagine now—at this very moment—in the wake of a sharp, and potentially devastating reversal—imagine that a figure appears. Perhaps an old woman? She has a kindness about her, and, also, she's been through some things, she seems to know things—there's something about her eyes. She can see, for one thing, the obvious—that you are cold and wet and tired. But she can also see that you have come to an abyss. A place of frustration. A dashing of hope. She knows that this is a particularly difficult juncture for you. And she also knows that the first step out needs to be of the most basic kind.

She invites you to come back with her to her cottage. She leads you back, ushers you inside. She shows you where you can take a hot bath. She lays out towels. A clean robe. When you come out of the bath she’s laid a place at the table for you—a bowl of soup, a basket of bread, a pitcher of water. You eat and drink, and, after you have done so, she shows you to a bedroom with a clean soft bed. You sleep and sleep, and she lets you sleep. When you wake you find her out in the kitchen. She offers you a cup of tea, or perhaps a mug of coffee. She asks you to sit at the table. And it’s only then, after you are warm and fed and rested, that she asks you to tell her all about it. About all that has happened and what your hopes were at the beginning and how, at least in some ways, those hopes have been dashed. She has, she tells you, plenty of time. She has all the time in the world.

What would you tell her?

April 24, 2007

Writing and Healing Idea #34: The Next Step

This idea is a continuation of Writing and Healing Idea #33: Imagining Refuge. It picks up at a moment after the old woman in the cottage has invited you to tell her your story. It picks up after you have talked and talked—and she has listened.

She is, as it turns out, a good listener. And, it turns out that nothing in your story seems to rattle her. She’s interested—and concerned—but not rattled. She’s seen a lot. She’s no stranger to reversal. There is also a kindness in her. Her face is very very kind as she asks you: Did you think it was going to be like a rose garden? That it would be easy? That it would be possible to move forward on a matter of such significance without any danger? Have you not read the books? Seen the movies? The Lord of the Rings? The Harry Potter series? When you were young, she asks, were you not told the fairy tales? She smiles. It’s a rueful smile. It’s all right, she says. She knows it can be terribly terribly difficult at times. But she also tells you that she doesn’t want for you to remain too long in a place of such difficulty. She sits with you and begins to talk about a plan.

The first step and then the next and the next. She tells you that one step in the right direction can often be enough—and then one devises the next one, and the one after. She reminds you that, as with the story of the handless maiden, the baby is not ugly, that the baby was never ugly. She explains about the messenger falling asleep and about the twisted messages getting through. Then, after enough time has passed—when it is just the right time—when you are rested—and well-fed—and perhaps a bit clearer—she rises from the table and begins to pack you a satchel.

What do you imagine that she might pack for you?
What would you like her to pack for you?
Where does she think might be a good place for you to go next?
(Does she, for instance, think it best to stay with her a bit longer? Or does she suggest some other companion? Or a group of companions? Or does she suggest that it may be time now to go on for a while alone?)

What does she think might be a next step?
What do you think?

April 30, 2007

Writing and Healing Idea #35: My Favorite Piece of Writing Advice from Natalie Goldberg

In her book, Writing Down the Bones (published in 1986), Natalie Goldberg includes a wonderfully direct piece about how hard it is to get the conditions just right for work to flow. What she says here is true of writing, and it can be true of healing, and it can be true, I suppose, of any serious work. And sometimes, she suggests, the antidote may simply be to acknowledge this—that the conditions are not perfect, never perfect, that the world is filled with competing demands and distractions.

So----her advice:

Okay. Your kids are climbing into the cereal box. You have $1.25 left in your checking account. Your husband can’t find his shoes, your car won’t start, you know you have lived a life of unfulfilled dreams. There is the threat of a nuclear holocaust, there is apartheid in South Africa, it is twenty degrees below zero outside, your nose itches, and you don’t have even three plates that match to serve dinner on. Your feet are swollen, you need to make a dentist appointment, the dog needs to be let out, you have to defrost the chicken and make a phone call to your cousin in Boston, you’re worried about your mother’s glaucoma, you forgot to put film in the camera, Safeway has a sale on solid white tuna, you are waiting for a job offer, you just bought a computer and you have to unpack it. You have to start eating sprouts and stop eating doughnuts, you lost your favorite pen, and the cat peed on your current notebook.

Take out another notebook, pick up another pen, and just write, just write, just write. In the middle of the world, make one positive step. In the center of chaos, make one definitive act. Just write. Say yes, stay alive, be awake. Just write. Just write. Just write.

There it is. Just write. For ten minutes or fifteen minutes or twenty minutes. About anything at all. About, if you like, the dog that needs to be let out, that solid white tuna on sale, your mother’s glaucoma. . .

In the teeth of resistance, make one definitive act. Just write.

Writing and Healing Idea #36: A Letter for Breaking Through Resistance

If you want to write and you can’t write, and when all else has failed, you can always write a letter—a letter perhaps something like this:

To Whom it May Concern:

I have not written a word in six weeks. Please send any advice or encouragement that you can muster.


And then, if you like, you can write yourself a letter back. And you can, if you like, go ahead and mail either of these letters to yourself. There’s something about getting a letter in the mailbox that can give it that certain extra punch.

May 10, 2007

Writing and Healing Idea #37: A Conversation with a Companion

Imagine that you receive an invitation: You and a companion of your choosing are invited to spend a day together—in a place of your choosing.

Because this is an imagined invitation the sky is the limit. You may choose any companion. A person living or dead. A person whom you know well or a person you’ve never had an opportunity to meet but have always wished that you could. A poet? A musician? Martin Luther King? For that matter, you may choose to bring a character who exists only in the world of the imagination.

The old woman in the cottage?
A chef?
A woman who wants to know your favorite shampoo?

Or what about the faun from Narnia?
Or Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings?

You may choose any companion at all.
You may choose any place.
You may choose any activity, or any series of activities.

And then at some point during the day, allow it to happen that the two of you engage in a conversation—the kind of conversation you have always longed to have, and realize that you now can have with this companion.

Close your eyes. Listen closely. You and your companion are beginning a conversation. Perhaps your companion speaks first. Or perhaps you speak first and then your companion speaks. What is it that your companion says? And how do you respond? And then what happens next?

You can, if you like, write the conversation down---

This is also the kind of conversation that you can come back to again. You can come back to it on different days. This can become, if you like, a series of conversations over time.

May 13, 2007

Writing and Healing Idea #38: I’ve Always Meant to Tell You: A Different Kind of Mother’s Day Greeting

The inspiration for this writing idea comes from an anthology of letters edited by Constance Warloe, entitled From Daughters to Mothers: I’ve Always Meant to Tell You. In the introduction to the letters, Ms. Warloe writes that the initial idea for the anthology came from her literary agent but that she soon found herself “hooked”.

She writes:

I thought immediately of the disappointing sentiments expressed in Mother’s Day cards. So often the verses begin, I know I don’t tell you very often . . . and then go on to express less than we want to say, not as well as we want to say it, but we buy the cards anyway. We find the cards stored in drawers and boxes at our mothers’ homes, and, as we have our own children, our own collections begin to accumulate. Maybe this book could be a different Mother’s Day greeting, I thought. Maybe this book could get things said that usually remain unspoken.

This then is at the heart of this writing idea—to get something said that usually remains unspoken. To write it in the form of a letter—imagining that one will be sending it—and imagining that it will be read—but knowing at the same time that one may no longer be able to send it—or that one may choose not to send it—

Please note that this kind of letter may not be an easy one to write—and that it may take some time—time to be ready to write it—and time, once ready, to do the actual writing. Many of the writers who contributed to Ms. Warloe’s anthology are accomplished and professional writers. And many still found the task difficult. Whether women wrote about “the lowest sorrow or the highest joy,” Ms. Warloe tells how many of the letters for the anthology came to her along with handwritten notes: “This was so much harder than I thought it would be.”

She writes, for instance, of Natalie Goldberg’s contribution:

Natalie Goldberg, the most famous of writing coaches, called me one afternoon to say she could not write the letter and would have to withdraw from the anthology. I said if it wasn’t meant to be, it wasn’t meant to be, and accepted her withdrawal. She called three hours later and said she had written the letter, she just needed to know she didn’t have to!

So—a reminder then—you don’t have to write the letter—of course—but if you want to write the letter you can go ahead—and begin---just one line at first—I always meant to tell you—---------------(what?)

June 05, 2007

Writing and Healing Idea #39: Changing the Plot

This idea springs out of the previous post and from E.M. Forster’s distinction between story and plot.
Story: The king dies and then the queen dies.
Plot: The king dies, and then the queen dies of grief.

You can begin by choosing five moments—from your life—from someone else’s life—or you can make them up. Or you can, if you like, write about the king and the queen.

Draw the moments as plot points on a piece of paper.
For instance:

Then, begin to play with connecting the points—and reconnecting them—in new ways.
Write about the connections.
Write different plots. Different ways that the dots get connected.
If possible, make the plot mildly ludicrous, improbable—this itself a way of stretching the mind to imagine new possibilities.

Write new points.

Here, for instance, is one way—an alternative way—of connecting the two plot points about the king and the queen.
• The king dies.
• The queen dies, under mysterious circumstances.
• The prince, their son, wants to believe his mother died of grief. (It’s so much harder to accept, sometimes, that death---it just happens---accidents and illness---mysteries----)
• The queen returns in her next life as a fish.
• The prince meets this fish one day when he’s out on a boat and she jumps up out of the water next to his boat.
• The fish speaks.
• And she tells him-----

What? What does she tell him?

June 10, 2007

Writing and Healing Idea #40: A Clean Copy

In order to practice revision—looking again—it’s necessary, first, to have something to look at. And a good way, I think, to practice this, is to have something written down—some clean unmarked pages of writing.

Thus, I propose, a first step to revision: a clean copy of 10 pages or so of writing.

What kinds of pages? Anything. It can be pages from a journal. Pages you wrote in response to a writing idea. It can be a story. It can be pages of freewriting. Anything. Anything you feel like you’d like to look at again. Really. And if you don’t have any pages you want to look at again-----you can create some new pages.

You can, if you like, begin by freewriting. You can look at the list of writing ideas here. You can choose one or two or three by clicking on the permalink tab at the bottom of the writing idea. You can print the writing ideas. You can take a trip to a bookstore. Or a café. Or you can simply sit down, here, now, and fill 10 pages of writing---not concerned with spelling or grammar or whether the pages or good enough---simply 10 pages of your thoughts and feelings and perhaps what you’ve always wanted to say but haven’t yet said.

If your pages are handwritten pages, it’s probably best to enter them into your computer and print them out. It’s easier, I think, to see words and sentences when they’re typed and have spaces between and around them.

The goal is (at least) 10 freshly printed, unmarked pages of your own writing.

And then find a folder for the pages and put them away for a while—for a week at least---

June 12, 2007

A House with No Door: An Image for Writing and Healing

For the past week or so I’ve been looking for a poem that would speak somehow to revision—and I couldn’t quite find what I was looking for. And then I found this poem by Rumi. It’s not what I thought I was looking for—it does something slightly different. But at the same time it feels like the right next image for revision. For looking again. For looking at the big picture.

And what was it again that I wanted to write? What did I hope would come of this? What can I do with the pages I've written? What do I hope will come of this?

Not infrequently, I find that when people come up against a serious illness or a serious loss--or any kind of significant transition—they may find themselves, eventually, asking certain kinds of questions: And what is it that I'm here for? What is my piece? What is my gift? What do I want to leave behind?

Rumi’s poem, Every Craftsman, speaks to these questions.
Here are the first 17 lines:

I’ve said before that every craftsman
searches for what’s not there
to practice his craft.

A builder looks for the rotten hole
where the roof caved in. A water-carrier
picks the empty pot. A carpenter
stops at the house with no door.

Workers rush toward some hint
of emptiness, which they then
start to fill. Their hope, though,
is for emptiness, so don’t think
you must avoid it. It contains
what you need!
Dear soul, if you were not friends
with the vast nothing inside,
why would you always be casting your net
into it, and waiting so patiently?

Rumi’s poem is another way of asking: What is the one piece of writing that you, and only you, can write?

What emptiness is waiting to be filled?

Orhan Pamuk, a Turkish writer, said (among other things) in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “I write because I want others, the whole world, to know what sort of life we lived, and continue to live, in Istanbul, in Turkey.”

What sort of life is it that you—and only you—can write about?

What gap is waiting?

June 14, 2007

Writing and Healing Idea #41: Reading to Discover What You Most Want to Write

Find a piece of writing that you love----a poem or a children’s book or a story or a novel---or a something.

Look at it again---or look at part of it again---- a page---a passage------beginning to get that sense again of how and why you love it.
Write about it.

Write about the way it feels in your body to read this piece of writing that you love.
Write about how and why this piece of writing touches you.

Or you can, if you like, begin a letter to the writer of the piece.
In the letter, consider writing to her or him about what touched you in particular about their writing. Consider writing about the piece of writing that you still want to write but haven’t yet-----

June 17, 2007

Writing a Revision in Ten Steps

I started earlier this month by writing about a couple of early possible steps to revision—gathering a clean copy of your work----and figuring out what you really want to write. I thought it might be helpful now to offer an overview—a kind of template for revision. This template could work, I suppose, for revising any piece of written work, but I’m thinking of it here, and in particular, for some pages you may have done in the context of writing and healing.

You may want to try the steps in the order in which I’ve outlined them. You may want to do a step a day—or a step a week. You may also want to rearrange the steps a bit, revise them. Of course, feel free.

So, A Template for Revision----Ten Steps:
1. Create a clean copy of your work. Put it away. And wait. At least a week.

2. Read something you love.

3. Figure out what you long to write.

4. Gather supplies for revision: the clean, printed copy of your work; a pencil; a few pens in different colors; a pad of paper.

5. Go for a walk. Become, if possible, a stranger in the streets.

6. Become a stranger to your own pages. In order to do this, schedule for yourself at least thirty minutes of quiet, uninterrupted time. Sixty minutes would be even better. Begin to read your pages as if you are a stranger to them—preferably a kind stranger. And, this first time through, read the pages straight through without making any marks. Read for the big picture—the forest rather than the trees. Or, to use a slightly different metaphor, think of this stage like doing landscape design before you begin to fuss with any individual plant. Try, if possible, to resist the urge to edit. If you do find a need to make notes or marks of any sort, make them on a separate sheet of paper.

7. Read for words that resonate. This second time reading through your pages, begin to make boxes around words and lines that resonate with you now for some reason. Use different colors if you like. Draw boxes around words and lines that surprise you—or that hit the right note—or that seem to you now to be of some importance.

8. Write a response to your pages. Take out a clean sheet of paper and write in response to what you’ve just read, responding in particular to those words that are now inside the boxes. Write as if you are that kind stranger--or perhaps a kind teacher.

Dear ---------, I have just finished reading the pages you gave me, and I find that I am moved (—puzzled—delighted—) by several parts of this . . . . There is one line in particular, out of all of them, that strikes me now . . . . And too, one of the things I began to notice as I read was a certain pattern in what you’re doing. It’s as if . . .

9. Decide on a form that feels right for expressing some or much of what you’ve written. You may find it helpful at this point to go back and look again at step 3: What is it that you long to write? And what might be a good form for doing so? A poem? A short story? A journal? A letter? An essay? A dialogue? A fairy tale? A list? A written collage?

10. Write something new that emerges out of the pages that you’ve written.

June 19, 2007

Writing and Healing Idea #42: Making Peace with the Body

Sparked by Sara Yates’ Call for Submissions, which appears below, I thought I'd offer some ways to begin writing about making peace with the body. It also occurs to me that there may be a way to tie this in to the practice of revision.

Here then are some questions that might spark writing on Making Peace with the Body

Question 1: When you hear the phrase, Making Peace with the Body, what image pops into your head? What word? What picture? What scene? What body?

Question 2: Is there anything you’ve already written—ever—that touches, even remotely, on making peace with the body? Can you find it? Would it be worth digging up and looking at again? Might it provide the clean copy of pages that you could look at again and use to practice revision?

Question 3: Have you written anything—ever—that touches, even remotely, on the topic of someone or something making war with the body? Would this piece be worth digging up and looking at again? Could it become a springboard for writing about making peace with the body?

Question 4: Might one of these lines offer a springboard to writing?

I remember a moment when I made peace with my body-----

I remember a moment when I felt at peace with my body------

I remember a moment when I really needed to feel at peace with my body-----

I have never made peace with my body------

A person I know who has really made peace with her/his body is-----------

I started to make peace with my body when------

The next step to making more peace with my body would be---------

July 01, 2007

Writing and Healing Idea #43: Imagining the Future

Imagine for a moment that you’ve been handed a ticket. And imagine that this ticket grants you admittance aboard a vehicle which can then carry you to any point in your future that you desire. Six months from now? One year? Five years? The vehicle is navigated by a kind and skilled conductor. You simply need to tell him to which period of time you would like to travel. Then close your eyes. And let yourself begin to go there.

Imagine that upon your arrival at this moment in the future, you discover that everything has gone as well for you as it possibly could. Imagine that things have gone the way that in your deepest heart you have most wished for them to go. Imagine the details.

You may find that a particular scene emerges in your mind’s eye. Notice yourself in this scene. What are you doing? Who and/or what is around you? What does a typical day look like? What else do you notice? And what else?

July 12, 2007

Writing and Healing Idea #44: Rest Hour

When I was at summer camp as a girl we were required every day after lunch to go back to our cabins and take a rest hour. I didn’t like rest hour then as much as I would probably like it now, but I did like it that before rest hour was Store, and this meant that you could prepare for rest hour by lining up at the small store window and buying one of those long flat striped pieces of taffy, and then, if you wanted, you could make the taffy last most of the hour.

For this particular writing idea, consider giving yourself a respite---a reprieve—a break---from writing----or from healing—or from something. Consider a Rest Hour. Or a Rest Day—or a Rest Week—you get the idea. You can launch this rest time by first writing about it—what you would most like for it to be. Or you can launch this by going to the store and laying in a few key supplies. Taffy? A good book? Lemon-ade?

Or you can launch this time of rest by, well, resting.