Three women, all children of alcoholics, discovered the power of using "loaded words" as writing prompts to trigger and process buried emotions. The result of their discovery is now compiled in a book they've written together, Transforming Memories: Sharing Spontaneous Writing Using Loaded Words.
The three authors are longtime friends who all experienced a meaningful breakthrough using spontaneous writing. Liz Crocker, vice president of the Institute for Patient and Family-Centered Care, Polly Bennell, a life-coach, and Holly Book, who ministers to the homeless and those struggling with addiction on the streets of Atlanta, found that their writings led to new realizations and healing. Through their book, they share the transformative process with others who experienced childhood trauma and who can benefit from this process.
I had the pleasure of talking with Liz Crocker about Transforming Memories and its healing method of spontaneous writing.
How did you come across the process of spontaneous writing as a therapeutic exercise?
For several years, long before Holly, Polly and I started doing the writing that appears in Transforming Memories, I was in a small writing group. As part of our regular gatherings, we would write spontaneously and discovered, through these exercises, that writing without forethought often unlocked memories and emotions we didn't even know we had.
How does spontaneous writing work?
When we practiced spontaneous writing in our writing group, we would either put our finger on a random word in the dictionary, or with our eyes closed, select a photograph from a pile, or use some other technique to prompt our writing exercise. Then, we would just write about it for 10-20 minutes. Our intention was to be spontaneous—to start putting down our thoughts without any pre-determined intention. This approach has become very therapeutic when writing about challenging experiences and difficult memories.
What does it do for people needing to process trauma from their pasts?
There's an expression I love: "When you write it down, the weight is on paper, not on your heart." When we carry painful memories inside, there's a weight that can drag us down, literally or figuratively. Sharing memories of shame, fear, neglect, or abandonment, even just on a piece of paper, can lighten your load. It can lead to all sorts of unexpected results, like allowing you to sleep, giving you perspective and understanding, and helping you make sense of what happened in the past.
When traumatic memories are trapped inside us, we often play the same tape over and over, creating deeper ruts in our emotions. Using what we call "loaded words" as prompts—words like Fear, Gifts, Hope, Humor, Shame, and Surrender, and writing down what comes to mind, allows us to see them in the light of day. In seeing the memories they evoke, we have a chance to honor and love ourselves for what we've lived through and to create a new tape.
What advice do you have for people wanting to explore spontaneous writing, but who haven't done any writing about their inner thoughts before?
Just start! Set aside 10 minutes. Find a pen and paper. Replace any fear you may have with curiosity. If you have an internal critic, ask the critic to leave the room.
Make a list of words you like and close your eyes and put your finger down on one. Or, pick one of the words from our list in Transforming Memories. Then just breathe and let the words flow.
When your writing becomes a daily practice it will become easier and, over time, you'll judge yourself less. The most important thing is to not give up.