Writing even when it burns

Originally written for Writing From The Centre on May 27th, 2013

writing when it burnsThere is a wonderful writing practice outlined in Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way called “morning pages:” Every morning, when you get up, you free-write (the graphic equivalent of free-association) until you have filled three pages in your notebook. The content does not matter. What matters is that you don’t censor yourself, you keep your pen moving and you unload whatever is going on in your heart/mind. You don’t even read it when you’re finished.

I was introduced to this practice by my psychotherapist, just after my marriage broke up. I found it was a magnificent outlet, partly because it allowed me to pour out all of my grief and anger, and partly because it was a safe way to express rage, hatred, doubt, self-loathing, jealousy and all of those other emotions that nobody wants to hear about unless you are paying them plenty of money for the privilege.  Writing it all down, over and over, eventually allowed me to step away from the pain. It certainly helped me to see the places where I was stuck and the factors in my life that were contributing to my problems.

At a WCYR workshop on memoir writing, Sue Reynolds mentioned James Pennebaker’s research, which demonstrated that people who had suffered through highly stressful events benefited both physically and psychologically from writing about them. His early research results have been replicated numerous times, and writing has been used as a therapeutic technique very successfully with sufferers of post-traumatic stress. Benefits have included reduced blood pressure, reduced pain, improved immunity and better mood. A daily practice of writing can be a powerful tool in coping with stress, worry, low moods and uncomfortable situations.  Writing gives us the opportunity to be exposed to our stress in a manageable manner, and to work out ways to re-frame  events in a different or more meaningful context.

For morning pages to be safe, though, it is important that this kind of hot tamale writing does not get shared. Also, writing is not necessarily a substitute for therapy. There are certain situations where a counselor or therapist really is required.  It is important that your privacy is protected and you keep your journal safe from any prying friends or jokers who think it would be fun to post the contents on facebook.

But, you ask, what if you’ve been writing about a specific event over and over and you’re really clear about it, and now you feel the need to share what you’ve been writing with the persons involved.  I have two tests that I like to use in this situation. One: show it to a friend who is neutral and has absolutely no stake in the situation. Ask them how they would feel about receiving this piece of communication.  Second,  I like to use the Buddhist rules of right speech before I share anything that is based on real experience. I find them useful as guideposts even if I decide to contravene them. The rules state that before you share something you should ask yourself:

  1. Is it true?
  2. Is it useful?
  3. Is it kind?
  4. Can the person/audience it is directed to accept or hear what is being shared?

If the criteria for right speech can’t be met then it may be best to simply keep that piece of writing to yourself. (I’m actually hoping that someone would build an app for this, so that it prompts me before I press the send button on my email). I offer this advice based on the sorry times in my past when I shared or said things that in retrospect would have been better left unsaid.

So what to do with all your morning pages? I have two things that I do. Some of the journals I have kept have been very amusing to read about five years later. Many of them are just diaries, filled with mundane or neutral content. I have, however, instructed my partner that they are to be destroyed if anything ever happens to me. And the nasty, volatile emotional stuff I usually tear up or burn, usually not long after I’ve written it. Destroying it feels just as therapeutic as writing it; there is something very cleansing about a good fire. Just make sure before you light it that you plan ahead. My roommate once put a match to a picture of herself and her ex-boyfriend in the middle of our residence room. It was very entertaining until it got really hot and she realized she didn’t have a plan for disposing of it— and the garbage pail was full of paper. I went dashing to the bathroom and came running with a wet facecloth, a fairly useless item given the situation. She got a little singed, and so did the carpet. We both had a good laugh but you get the picture…safety first.






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Yoga and meditation teacher, writer, reader, cat-momma, environmental warrior, friend


  1. As always, Elaine, I hang off your every word!
    No, I mean that. Such a wise soul for one so (relatively) young. xx


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