Playful Writing

While trying to come up with a subject for my next blog post I was thinking about the book I was currently reading, Playful Parenting by Larry Cohen, and how it had absolutely nothing to do with creative writing

Then I thought about it again, and realise it actually had everything to do with creative writing. Playful Parenting is a book that explains what really goes on in a child’s play. According to the blurb, play is ‘children’s way of exploring the world, communicating deep feelings…working through stressful situations and simply blowing off steam.’

Writing is a way for adults to play. I invent characters who bear resemblances to people I’ve met, and have plots that seem like metaphors for things that have happened in my life. In my private journals, I often say things I don’t believe, exaggerating things out of proportion, without having anyone accusing me of lying.

Freud was one of the early documenters of play in children. He observed a young boy play a game called ‘Gone’ in which he repeatedly made a wooden reel on a string appear and disappear. According to Freud the boy was reenacting the traumatic event of his mother leaving, and that the pleasure he derived from this game was helped him to overcome the upsetting feeling of his mother leaving.

When we write, we can return to our storage houses of upsetting feelings, and let them come out. We do not need to write autobiography in order to access the healing aspects of writing. We do not need to even consciously set out to write to heal ourselves.

Sometimes you may have a strong desire to tell ‘the truth’, what really happened in your life. But fictional stories have a way of running away with themselves, of delving deep into your subconscious, and rewriting some of your hidden stories. Writing like play isn’t really about thinking, all you have to do is set pen to paper and begin.

Write Exercises

All too often, writing becomes serious. Writing block sets in. We worry about what our audience will think. Or we are in a writing workshop and freeze at the thought of people actually hearing what we are going to write. Then there is the painful work of editing, and trying to get published.

If you find yourself getting too serious in your writing, or describing it as ‘work,’ then it might be time to return to it’s origins in play.

1. I love Sark’s Journal and Playbook, a multicolored book with playful writing exercises such as ‘invite someone dangerous to tea’  and ‘eat mangoes naked.’ Try them!

2. Write like no-one’s watching you. like you will just rip it all up when you have finished. Write in big letters without being afraid of taking up too much space, and don’t worry about what direction you write in either. What would you write, if you were just being silly, saying something that you didn’t really mean, or wasn’t true.

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Writing Gratitude : Maya Angelou

For many years I was a foul-weather journaler. I didn’t see the point of writing positive things down. Writing was a way for me to solve problems and feel better. If I felt good there wasn’t really much point in writing anything!

In ‘Letter to My Daughter’ Maya Angelou, tells a story of returning home after traveling on tour with an Opera. At this point in her life she was not yet a writer.  She describes how the reunion with her young son, was so emotional that, ‘I must confess it may have sent me over the edge.’ She started to worry about her son growing up in a racist society, and began to have thoughts about killing him.

She went to visit her singing teacher to tell him she was going crazy. He gave her a pen, and a yellow pad of paper and told her to write down her blessings.

So Angelou wrote them down. Simple things like she had ears to hear a choir, eyes to see a waterfall or a lover’s face. When she had finished writing the feeling of madness was gone.

In ‘Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude can Make you Happier.’ Robert Emmons describes how writing about gratitude can make us happier and healthier. In one study in participants wrote daily about five things they were grateful for. These writers felt better about their lives, had more optimism about the future, and fewer health problems, than those who wrote about five daily hassles or five daily events. In other studies, it was found that writing about gratitude could result in better sleep and even protect from heart attacks.

Nowadays I try to keep a balance in my writing. I write about what I am grateful each day, often at the beginning or end of a writing session. It’s sometimes hard to remember which is why I keep a ‘gratitude pebble’ on my desk. When I look at the pebble I remember to write what I am grateful for.

Writing is a way to go into the darkness, to transform it into something brighter. But its important to remember to visit the places where the light already shines.

Writing Exercise

Simply write down five things you are grateful for each day. It’s also a good exercise to try when you have been focusing on the negative in your writing and need to redress the balance.

Finding stories in our wild minds; Natalie Goldberg,

One of the earliest inspirations for my own writing was the books of Natalie Goldberg. I started writing a diary when I was 13, but Natalie liberated me from the need to write about everything that happened in chronological order. It was freeing to learn that I could simply write my thoughts as they happened and see where they would take me.

My favourite quote from her is ‘feel free to write the worst junk in the world.’ Goldberg explains that by not being afraid to write the junk,  by ignoring the critical voice in our minds that tells us something is ‘rubbish,’ we unlock our creativity and our able to write more freely.  We can also clear our minds out of our junk so we are able to find the gold.

Goldberg is a student of Zen meditation and was once told by her Zen teacher to treat writing as her meditation. I’ve always followed her advice to simply write what I am thinking, and doing so has taken me to some unexpected places.

When I was in 26 the fatigue I’d had while at university returned. I spent many long afternoons, watching film after film lying on my bed unable to move. Then, sometimes, out of desperation I would write my thoughts, and a funny thing happened. My energy returned, in 10 minutes as opposed to resting for hours and hours. Writing was not just making me feel happier, it was giving me physical energy. And this knowledge that writing could effect my physical body, started as a ‘feeling.’ I felt it to be true.

I  began to spontaneously include more meditative aspects into my writing. I focused on relaxing my body, and noticing my breathing. I would try to relax my muscles, to sink down into my body, and ‘ground’ myself, in ways I had learnt through practising tai chi and yoga. This was a way to hone the effect that writing seemed to have on my body, to draw something out of the silence under my skin, and make words out of it. Once I’d expressed the words, I felt better, it seemed so simple!

As I continued to write, sometimes, for as long as two hours, my mind became clearer and clearer. My thoughts slowed down, from the hurried frenzy that I began with. Insights appeared on the page, as if from some deeper wisdom than myself.

And all of this happened, simply by paying attention to the first thought in my head, and then following it to the next one.

Natalie Goldberg’s books are amazing, and I love the fact that they make writer’s block impossible. Just as we are never free of thoughts, we always have something to write on the page. Unless we have reached enlightenment, our minds our never empty!

A Stone in My Head

There’s a stone in my head. A problem unsolved. A tangled knot I can’t think clearly. Words unspoken, no-one is listening. Thoughts diverted into my body, a stoop in my shoulder, tightness in my hips. My body has absorbed stories, buried them deep down in the flesh. My body tells each and every one of my silences.

            I am dancing, and moving, twisting like a contortionist. There are a million different positions to twist the body into. A million tiny corners in which the words are hiding, cling onto blood and bone and flesh, wishing to hide until death.

            If silence is death then words are life. I will shake the words out of my body and write them on this page. And that will be the end of the stone in my head. 

For a long time in my mid twenties I lived as if there was a stone in my head, something I was trying to say but could not express in words, something that got in the way of living. My head was getting crowded, and I was suffering from insomnia. As I tried to write this stone, I discovered a book called ‘Why do People get ill?’ written by psychoanalysts Darian Leader and David Corfield. The book explores the idea that there is always a psychological factor that contributes to illness, and that we cannot fully understand what makes us ill unless we take it into account.

The book changed the way I saw illnesses I’d had while at university, a backache, that made exam study difficult, and chronic fatigue syndrome that caused me to repeat my second year. I began to see these illnesses as the manifestation of something I couldn’t express in words.

Becoming well again, meant learning how to articulate myself better, and to write about everything that had happened to me. Nothing was taboo. I tried to ignore the voice that told me not to write about certain subjects, (I would worry about whether I’d publish it later). It took years to write until I felt happy again. There had been a lot of silence in my life, and it took a long time to unravel my feelings, to soften anger and numbness into sadness, and understand what I had been through. It was a difficult journey and there were many tears, but I have left my sadness behind on the pages of my notebook. Now my thoughts are much clearer, I no longer live with a stone in my head.

Writing Exercise : ‘Things I have been Silent about’

I love the title of Azar Nafisi’s book, about growing up in Iran, and her family’s secrets, set against the backdrop of the country’s revolution.

For this writing exercise simply write the words ‘Things I have been silent about’ and write whatever comes to mind. Try not to ‘choose’ writing topics or censor yourself. As writing teacher Natalie Goldberg says, ‘if something feels scary dive right into it!’

Writing for Wellbeing Workshop, July 11th 9-11.30 Centrepoint Basel

Writing for Wellbeing; exploring your past, present and future in words

Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those, who do not write, compose, or paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear, which is inherent in a human condition” Graham Greene.

We are all writers just as we are all talkers – Pat Schneider

In this workshop we’ll discuss research about how creative writing can contribute to physical health, emotional well-being, and help you make life-changes. Through three writing exercises you will explore your past, present and future. We’ll share friendly and supportive feedback together, and you will also learn techniques to make journal writing a regular part of your life. Space is limited to 6 people. Please book in advance.

Contact kate_orson@hotmail.com, 0764256516

The desire to write

Imagine the desire to write as a physical force flowing through you. Leave behind the circling of your mind, and enter into the body. Learn how to listen to the silent language under the skin and translate it into words.

Writing is about desire. It often stems from a time of suffering, when there is something in life we cannot have, a frustration that gives way to creativity.

I’ve noticed in my own writing, that my ideas for fiction often come when I’ve reached a dead end, when there’s a pain or sadness, that I can find no solution to. This feeling dissipates when I get an idea for a short story or a novel. The writing becomes a way of transforming the pain into something positive.

Sometimes fiction does not come easily to me, and I need to work through my feelings in a journal. This writing is almost always about desires, for transforming pain and suffering, for finding happiness.

When I was 17 I noticed that writing short stories filled with so much physical energy I felt like dancing around the room. Later I used journal writing to overcome depression and chronic fatigue syndrome. I noticed that writing seemed to give me physical energy. But I assumed that writing was an activity done with the mind, not the body.

Then I discovered, James Pennebaker’s book ‘Opening up’ and read with amazement, about how writing about significant life experiences leads to improved physical as well as mental health. In his study participants wrote about ‘the most upsetting event in their lives’ for fifteen minutes on four consecutive occasions. In the following six months participants went to the doctor 50% less than those who had written about mundane subjects.

In his book Writing From the Body, John Lee explains how the desire to write is a physical force. This idea is what informs my writing and teaching. That writing is not an act of thinking divorced from the body, but one of feeling. When I write in my journal I try to bring my awareness to the present moment, to sink and ground myself in my body, to become aware of my breathing. That way I can feel the desire to write in my body. I can listen to this feeling, switch off my mind and write what it tells me.