If you are a journaler or diarist, you likely already know that there's something about getting thoughts out of your head and onto a piece of paper that clarifies, cleanses, soothes, and calms.
Catharsis is the purging of emotions or relieving of emotional tensions, often through certain kinds of art, like a movie, play, or music (story). It’s origins are in the Greek kátharsis; a cleansing.
I have said and written many times — Writing From the Heart is not about good writing. It doesn’t matter what you write because it is the perfect reflection of where you are at that moment in time. I believe however, that our journal entries hold seeds of brilliance for what ails us. They contain access points for healing loss and finding joy. We change from the inside out. Through acceptance, we heal.
WRITING THE SHITTY FIRST DRAFT
I love that Brené Brown, in her latest book Rising Strong, calls our first telling of a hurtful event that trigger us, the Shitty First Draft (she borrowed this term from Anne Lamott’s book amazing book on writing, Bird By Bird).
According to Dr. Brown, Shitty First Drafts are the unconscious stories we tell because we want to protect ourselves and create certainty from confusing situations. When we don’t take our Shitty First Drafts any further, we start weaving these half-truths into our lives and repeatedly tripping over the same issues — reliving the same stories in different scenarios.
Everyone has a go-to emotion when confronted with something that makes us uncomfortable. When I feel that someone is blaming me (either justly or unjustly and whether they are or not), my first reaction is to lash out in anger. Depending on whether this person has authority over me, I can become sullen and unresponsive, or I may push my feelings back onto the person. I put the blame on them, often creating a ridiculous, tenuously-related scenario of what that person did, which caused me to I do what I did or say what I said.
I do all this so I don’t have to look deeper, at the parts of myself that I don’t like very much, or how my role played a part in the resulting event gone awry.
Sometimes I can’t face writing about it right away. I have to soak myself in the stew of my self-loathing, my anger, and my shame for it to get really raunchy first. But, when I can’t stand it any longer and finally put pen to paper, my heart releases and expresses all the emotion onto the page — the raw aching, sadness, irritation, anguish, anger, sorrow and grief — and I find relief in the releasing.
This is my shitty first draft. The story I made up.
IT TAKES MORE THAN ONE DRAFT
In her essay “Memory and Imagination,” from her book, I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memory, Patricia Hampl writes:
“Our capacity to move forward as developing beings rests on a healthy relationship with the past… If we learn not only to tell our stories but to listen to what our stories tell us — to write the first draft and then return for the second draft — we are doing the work of memory.”
RUMINATION IS THE MOTHER OF ALL REWRITES
After getting the shitty first draft into my journal, I ruminate. If the hurt was bad enough, this can go on for some time (or, it can also last for years, surprising me again as I dig through another layer of my crap). When I’m not doing something to distract myself (working, eating, watching TV) the hurt suddenly pounces on me; my solar plexus does a flip-flop as I relive the shame again. Sometimes it wakes me up, in what I call my 5:00 a.m. Freakout. And since five in the morning thoughts looping endlessly can drive me battty, I get up, pick up the pen, and write to let the thoughts out and to calm my mind.
Writing focuses our rumination in a way that organizes these looping, complex thoughts and channels them into order and story. By taking these feelings and forcing them to make sense on the page, we are also identifying, describing, and understanding the things that are causing us pain.
WHEN JOURNALING BECOMES HEALING
In April 1999, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a study that linked writing about stressful life experiences to improved health. But, as cathartic as writing out our hurt and angers may be, what makes us feel better and what has the power to improve our mental and physical health, is something called cognitive restructuring. Cognitive restructuring (or reframing) is learning to think about problems we encounter by challenging the (usually) negative “automatic beliefs” that lie behind them. Doing so helps to reduce the levels of stress and anxiety we feel around a situation.
So, while the initial journal writing — the Shitty First Draft — may provide relief, the lasting benefit comes from seeing the problem in a new light.
I’ve talked before about turning the prism on how we view hurts from our past as I revisit something painful again and again. This isn’t rumination, this is finding the story that I made up about it, so I can move on. These are rewrites of my Shitty First Drafts. Sometimes these rewrites are simply acceptance of the way things were, instead of wanting a different ending to the story.
Looking at old events from childhood with adult eyes, has allowed me to look at painful events from different perspectives. Adult Kathy is helping l’il kath to let go of the hurt, anger, and shame about what happened by giving her back her power. She, in turn, allows me that oh so brief moment of pause before she lashes out. Sometimes it’s just enough to keep me calm enough not to spiral or become angry.
TURNING OUR HURTS INTO TRIUMPHS AND OUR STORIES INTO MEMOIR
The truly great memoirs (Angela’s Ashes, The Glass Castle, and Eat, Pray, Love — some of my personal faves) are by writers who understand that the writing of the work is an art form and only a certain amount of distance to the subject material can create that necessary objectivity so that the story can be crafted. Because that’s what memoirs are — the crafting of actual events into a really good story about what dramatic events have taught us.
I’m working with a small group of writers who are at a point in their lives where they’re looking back at what they’ve learned. They feel the need to leave something of themselves behind for their children and grandchildren to understand them in a different way than as parent or grandparent.
I've seen incredible improvement in how they craft their stories in the 12 weeks we've worked together. They are not writing memoirs per se, but legacies. However, as they discover the threads that have woven through the fabric of their lives, they are seeing themselves in a new light as they share their stories with us.
Writers, no matter our genre, find inspiration in writing from experiences that have stayed with us. We can’t stop reflecting; we must investigate. Journal writing is simply another form of problem solving. Like psychology or medicine, it’s a drive to understand our experiences. A drive that’s led by emotion and instinct.
kathy mercure is a promotional storyteller and storytelling workshop teacher. She helps businesses and people to tell their stories. Writing From the Heart is a journey to unlocking, unblocking and healing your stories so that you can let go of the old, write new stories, and live the life you were meant to live.