“You wouldn't believe how much joy and courage people find when they write about what really matters to them,” my friend Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg told me. We were talking about the writing workshop she had just led for people with serious illness, which included participants living with late-stage cancer, M.S., Parkinson's, and other life-changing diagnoses.
Caryn is no stranger to the challenges that the workshop participants faced. Her book about her own struggle with breast cancer, The Sky Begins At My Feet, is written with all the raw honesty that I love about Caryn. The past Kansas poet laureate, and a widely published author, Caryn calls herself a transformative language artist, which means that she uses writing, storytelling, and performance for facilitating health, growth, and community-building. When she writes and speaks on the power of our words, she really means it.
“The page is a great mirror of who we are beyond who we think we are. Writing helps us connect with greater freedom and a life worth living. The simple act of making something meaningful out of words can bring us joy.”
Even if you're don’t think of yourself as a writer, Caryn suggests just sitting down for 10-15 minutes each day to write yourself toward happiness and courage. Start by picking one challenge from her list of five below.
1. Writing Can Help You to Fire the Critics in Your Head: Caryn suggests writing about the judges in your life getting on a bus and leaving town for a week or more. Round them all up, like that seventh -grade teacher who said you weren't creative, or that family member who suggested that you lose those extra pounds. Describe them climbing aboard, arguing with each other, and telling you how much you need them. Write how the bus pulls out of the parking lot and out of sight, leaving you lighter and freer.
2. Writing Helps You Reclaim Your Happiness and Courage: Joy and courage are linked, Caryn, reminds us. She has seen many people recover some measure of happiness by taking artistic risks. Make a list of two or three times in your life that you experienced great joy and/or great courage, then write the story. Describe a specific incident in the third person (using “he” or “she” or your name, rather than “I”) to gain more distance and perspective. Remember that acts of courage and risk may not look heroic from the outside, but trying out that new recipe, or speaking out when it was hard for you, may have required enormous courage. To quote Winnie-the-Pooh, “You're braver than you think.”
3. Writing Interrupts Pointless Habits: Writing can help you see your habitual patterns and change them. When you get emotionally triggered you may automatically fight or blame, get pushy or withdraw, or finish the stash of potato chips that you hid under your desk. Write about something that pushes your buttons. Note how you usually react, and how you might react differently, to familiarize yourself with new options for the future. Not reacting in the usual ways is a good step in cultivating greater courage and better solutions.
4. Writing Can Help You See Yourself as Beloved: Often, when we think about ourselves, we focus on what we did wrong or failed to do at all. Caryn says to write yourself a love letter from the one -- real or imagined -- who loves you best, someone who really “gets” who you are. Include in the letter what you do well, even if it seems mundane (“You load the dishwasher perfectly”), and don’t hold back with all the genuine praise you can think of.
5. Writing Helps You Envision and Enact True Happiness and Bravery: “If I were happier and braver, I would....” is a sentence that is worth thinking and writing about. If you woke up tomorrow and magically found yourself being the happiest and bravest person you can imagine, what would be different? Would you dress differently? Take a language or dance class? Walk or talk differently? Invite someone to lunch? Have a different kind of feeling about yourself in the world? Write the specifics of what you would do differently, and then do one or two of these things now, rather than wait for happiness and courage to find you. Acting now, as if you were the person you would like to be in the future, will make your life more courageous and joyful.
You don't have to be facing down a health crisis to use writing to shine your light a little brighter. You can practice happiness and bravery in your journal or on your laptop anytime, letting your words show you where you want to go, and how you can get there.