shadows journal

One of the greatest gifts that you can bring to your journal writing is your own inward permission to write freely.~Stephanie Dowrick

As I sit here and start to write these words, I feel a knot of tension in my solar plexus, and nudges of anxiety in my lower belly. Tuning my attention to the contents of the mind, I notice that I have certain expectations for this writing:

  1. That it be beautiful, inspiring and wise.
  2. That it be relevant and meaningful to others.
  3. That it not be too teacherly nor preacherly.
  4. That it not take me too long to write.

A few years ago, I attended a month-long meditation retreat, where one of the many things I learned was to notice how the body and mind reflect each other. When seen with kindness and compassion, this phenomenon (called by the Indian Pali name namarupa) offers us an opportunity to shift our experience.

Noticing the sensations in my body and the thoughts and beliefs in my mind, both point to a feeling of nervous anticipation. In becoming aware of how I am feeling right now, I also create the possibility for opening to something else. With awareness, I  have a choice.

So how would I like to feel as I write this? That’s easy!! I would like to feel peaceful and relaxed!

Fortunately, through many years of writing practice I have learned how to create the conditions to side-step the pressure-full expectations that often come into play when I am writing. I do that by reminding myself to write as I would with a blank page in my journal.

Setting an intention to come to the page with a fresh and open mind, I put my fingers to the keyboard and let it flow, following my mind and heart wherever they take me.

The first of the four practices of Writing Alone Together,

the essence of writing freely is to follow one’s own impulses and put down whatever comes. We start with a word, phrase, memory, image, question, quote, feeling or body sensation. There are hundreds of ways to come to the page. The point is to start writing and keep writing, returning to the page again and again.

When we write with this kind of openness and freedom, the writing “writes” itself. You just keep putting one word after the other, like you would do in a verbal conversation, except that this conversation is happening with yourself. And in this self-to-self conversation, you get to follow the contours and nuances of your mind, making connections between words, sounds, thoughts, memories and sensations.

I know, you’re thinking, great, this is a good idea for a short period of writing, but can this help me write the short story I have been working on for weeks or that ending to the poem that keeps eluding me?

I cannot say for sure. However, I can tell you that this is how I wrote my entire doctoral dissertation, one free-write at a time.

Every single poem and narrative in the 200 page thesis was written like this. I couldn’t have managed any other way. I had so many anxieties and expectations for how I was supposed to write and what I was supposed to say, that I needed a way to tackle it as joyfully and relaxedly as possible.

Okay so you still don’t believe me…

Well, here’s an an example of what happens when I write freely:

Here there is a wave of joy and nostalgia, how many years have I written like this without pause or agenda or knowing what will happen next. How many hours spent in the consuming passion of this obsession with following one word after another to wherever it leads. Like the dance of tango, I don’t care where I am going. Why? Because it feels so darn good to surrender, to let the openness to no outcome save these words and these hands on the keyboard that do their own dance, a lovely waltz that has been their joy for a long time. Time seems to melt away or disappear or move into another dimension when I do this. Of course I am losing letters, which I will later replace, or mend. However in this way of wording I am already mending enough. It does something, this way of letting things come. It opens me to possibility, it returns me to an intimacy with the present, to the rustle of poplar and the buzz of the bees in the lavender just off the deck and of course the far off sound of other leaves and other bees. Everything conspires here, so I need not worry that there will be nothing to say. There is everything here, the bees, the leaves and their shushing voices, my partner’s mug beyond the open door of my studio. “I need 8 more minutes before I can talk to you” I tell him, now it is more like 5 or 4. I have lost track and yet the tracks of these words have found me more deeply, located me here in the garden with the trees and the other beings. They deliver me here, take me out of the obsession with rightness and properness and goodness and into fullness and wholeness. There they go again, the leaves and their whooshing, the sheep and their hoarse bleeting, the dragonfly and its whizzing trajectory and the apples in their silent witnessing of this ritual of aliveness. Only with the pounding of these letters, all of it and the bark, the honk of geese or sheep or whatever makes that sound and the coolness now that the sun has departed from the deck, up my legs and beneath my dress. And there is more, always more but I don’t have to chase it. I can sit here and let it come because it will , as everything does, comes and goes and I receive it, welcome and let it pass, not able to notice everything, the whizz the distant bark and impulse to not repeat them. Besides how many the’s, how many how’s or where’s? I can’t count at this speed, don’t care as there are other things at stake, the few minutes left and the dashing these fingers are doing and the rub of wrist on laptop and ever the shushing shooshing leaves. I haven’t looked up, I haven’t stopped punching these keys and the time must have come and gone now.

(*a free-write for 10 minutes with only the correction of letters, spaces, commas for easier legibility, capitals and periods and respelling of words misspelled).

Now it’s your turn…

Set the timer on your iPhone for 10 minutes and give yourself permission to write whatever wants to be written. Do not worry about how it sounds, nor who is going to read it. That comes later. For now, write what you want to write. And let yourself be surprised, amazed, even disappointed. Better yet, don’t judge your words at all. 

And then, do it again tomorrow and the day after that. And see what happens. I have been doing this practice for over 25 years and I am always astonished by what emerges. Truth, beauty, passion, healing. It’s all there, waiting for you to turn toward it and say yes!

Writing freely gives us a window into the authentic human condition. We see what is going on inside us.

So go ahead, write now, for the next 10 minutes, without expectation. Let yourself express whatever needs to be expressed. And if you do choose to judge it, and find it lacking, then the good news is that you can always write another piece, and another. That is why it’s called a practice.