A few weeks ago I shared with you how freewriting freed me. The book Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg, played a big part in that during my college years, introducing me to the idea of timed writing as a means to write and discover.
Even though I wasn’t all that interested in Goldberg’s frequent references to Zen Buddhism, I liked her basic approach: “When I teach a class,” she says, “I want the students to be ‘writing down the bones,’ the essential, awake speech of their minds.”1
When I tuned into to my own inner voice and wrote down that “awake speech” of my mind, I began to know myself better. And the better I knew myself, the better and more interesting my writing became.
But when I look back, I realize the practice of self-reflection started even earlier, in high school.
Write to Discover
One afternoon when I was about 14 years old, I was glancing through books on writing at my local library and noticed a title: Write to Discover Yourself, by Ruth Vaughn. I looked both ways and plucked it from the shelf, running my fingers over the green cover with a fuchsia Gerbera daisy poking out of a pencil cup. It seemed a little wacky, but . . .
Writers have a lot to discover, but a way to write true and fresh no matter the project is to start by discovering oneself. I knew that instinctively, even then, and felt affirmed by this title.
I desperately wanted to understand myself, to unearth who I was meant to become. And, I wanted to write.
I took the book home and retreated to my room where I followed instructions to “portrait” the important people in my life, exploring memories, capturing life.
I sat on the hardwood floor of my bedroom and composed a word-portrait of my father, struggling to express the way his resonant voice, rising from deep within his barrel chest, could build and fill—even shake—the house. Or was it just me, shaking?
Page after page, the author encouraged me to continue being specific, to use concrete details and metaphor. I poured out stories from my little world.
Digging into yourself requires a depth of honesty that is painful, the author said, but imperative. She quoted a professor who said a writer “is the person with his skin off.”
That’s how I began to decipher my life. On the pages of a journal, I wrote with my skin off—bare, vulnerable. I tapped into the “awake speech” of my mind, burning through to what Goldberg calls “first thoughts” in order to write down the bones, the hard truths, the core of what and who I had been and was becoming.2
The idea of first thoughts made so much sense to me, because I wanted to express my truest self but I knew I was mostly living in layers of thought, edited thoughts. Goldberg explains:
“First thoughts have tremendous energy. It is the way the mind first flashes on something. The internal censor usually squelches them, so we live in the realm of second and third thoughts, thoughts on thought, twice and three times removed from the direct connection of the first fresh flash.”3
So I used her idea of freewriting when I was in college—timed writing without stopping—hoping to once more get to the bones of thought, experience, memory, feeling; to gain clarity on faded and forgotten memories.
As I practiced this private outpouring of words and deeply personal reflections—first with the help of that stumbled-upon writing book and later with guidance from author Natalie Goldberg—I peeled back layers to stare at my heart and soul. I began, through practice—through pain—the lifelong process of finding myself.
Methods for Using Writing to Discover Yourself
Since then I’ve found other resources that encourage a similar practice, like Proprioceptive Writing, Expressive Writing, and Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages. I encourage you to look into these various methods and learn more.
Whatever approach you try, seek to know yourself better and find insight and freedom by tapping into memory, dreams, images, and emotions—then exploring what you find. Reflect on who you are and what you think by writing through how you were raised and what you’ve survived and who influenced you most and why.
Write to discover yourself.
Personal Writing as a Warm-Up for Professional Projects
Some writers do these private, reflective sessions before they proceed with their work in progress intended for sharing with the public. In Writing the Mind Alive (book incorrectly cited as Proprioceptive Writing in podcast recording) Linda Trichter Metcalf and Tobin Simon explain their method, which produces what they call a daily “Write”:
Many writers report that by doing Proprioceptive Writing on a regular basis, they’re able to enter their terrifying feelings about writing and bring them down to size. And they do this on the spot, at their desk, without losing a day or a week or a month of work. Whether they are experiencing anxiety or not, some writers begin each workday with a Write, then segue into the formal writing project at hand. They use Proprioceptive Writing in a nuts-and-bolts way, as a warm-up, a problem-solving tool, a technique for working through issues their text raises. They use it as a way of figuring out the answer to that unnerving question, “Just what am I writing about here?4
They describe a playwright they’ve worked with who says of this practice, “By playing with the material of the intellect—words and meanings, ideas and memories—the raw gets exposed, allowing new circuits to form and to connect. It is a perfect warm-up to my work on my formal writing projects.”5
Go Deep to Find Healing
In the book Writing as an Act of Healing, Louise DeSalvo says, “Safe writing—writing what we already know or understand, writing that is superficial—won’t help us grow, either as people or as writers. For our writing to be healing, we must encounter something that puzzles, confuses, troubles, or pains us.”6
Why stick with safe writing that doesn’t help us or our readers? Why not risk greater health in ourselves and a greater impact on our readers by digging a little deeper? This happens through writing about hard parts of ourselves.
DeSalvo invites readers use Expressive Writing “[t]o accept pain, fear, uncertainty, strife. But to find, too, a place of safety, security, serenity, and joyfulness. To claim your voice, to tell your story. And to share the gift of your words with others and, so, enrich and deepen our understanding of the human condition.”7
Can expressive writing really offer all that? She cites research by James Pennebaker that indicates, yes, writing about traumatic experiences using their recommended steps can indeed lead to greater healing and health—both psychological and physical health.
Pennebaker and DeSalvo both warn, however, that writing about deeply traumatic events (especially for people with mental illness) should be handled under the supervision of a trained counselor.
Write to Discover Your Fun and Playful Side
On the other hand, although Pennebaker’s research does indicate that diving into trauma as opposed to sticking with lighter topics will result in the greatest healing effects, not all of this timed writing needs to tackle the deepest scars and struggles.
That’s one thing that sets apart Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages and Natalie Goldberg’s freewriting—they welcome you to entertain playful discoveries like oddball dreams as readily as a deep dive into the scarred psyche.
As you write to discover, start with yourself. Discover more about you, the writer, and bring your wiser and more grounded self to every project, inserting fresh insight and honesty into everything you share with readers. And walk away with greater health.
- Featured image and hosta image with Goldberg quote both by Sophie Marie Creative, used with permission.
- Ep 180: Write to Discover – Start with Yourself
- Ep 181: Write to Discover the Courage You Need to Confront Your Fears
- Ep 182: Write to Discover Your Reason for Writing
- Ep 183: Write to Discover Your Top Themes and Topics
- On Being a Writer: 12 Simple Habits for a Writing Life That Lasts, by Charity Singleton Craig and Ann Kroeker (affiliate link)
- Ep 178: The Writer at Work: Use Freewriting to Give It Some Thought
- Ep 52: Open Your Heart and Invite Your Reader In
- Writing the Mind Alive: The Proprioceptive Method for Finding Your Authentic Voice, by Linda Trichter Metcalf and Tobin Simon (affiliate link)
- Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg (affiliate link)
- Morning Pages explanation with video embedded of Julia Cameron explaining the concept
- Writing as a Way of Healing, by Louise DeSalvo (affiliate link)
- The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron (affiliate link)
- Opening Up by Writing It Down, Third Edition: How Expressive Writing Improves Health and Eases Emotional Pain, by James Pennebaker and Joshua Smyth (affiliate link)
- Write to Discover Yourself, by Ruth Vaughn, is out of print and only available used
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- Goldberg, Natalie. Writing Down the Bones. Shambhala, 2010. Print. (4)
- Excerpt from Chapter 8, On Being a Writer: 12 Simple Habits for a Writing Life That Lasts, by Charity Singleton Craig and Ann Kroeker. Print.
- Goldberg, (8)
- Metcalf, Linda Trichter., and Tobin Simon. Writing the Mind Alive: the Proprioceptive Method for Finding Your Authentic Voice. Ballantine Books, 2002. (52-53)
- ibid (xxix)
- DeSalvo, Louise A. Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives. Beacon Press, 2000. (93)
- ibid (9)