Transforming Memories: Spontaneous Writing Using Loaded Words

Transforming Memories: Spontaneous Writing Using Loaded Words


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Transforming Memories: Spontaneous Writing Using Loaded Words by Liz Crocker, Polly Bennell, Holly Book

From different families and different childhoods, three women remember and speak out about the secrecy, silence, and shame of having an alcoholic parent. Through spontaneous writing with “loaded words” and person-to-person sharing, the women embarked on a transformative journey in which painful images were brought to light, were accepted, and became less painful. Transforming Memories is a collection of their healing writings and an invitation to others, whatever their past burdens, to use the technique of spontaneous writing to reveal difficult memories more clearly. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781936693924
Publisher: Bull Publishing Company
Publication date: 04/01/2017
Pages: 174
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Author of the award winning Privileged Presence: Personal Stories of Connections in Health Care, Liz Crocker owns Canada’s oldest children’s bookstore and holds leadership positions with a number of healthcare and cultural organizations. Polly Bennell has a life-coaching practice for writers. Holly Book ministers to the homeless and those struggling with addiction on the streets of Atlanta

Read an Excerpt

Transforming Memories

Sharing Spontaneous Writing Using Loaded Words

By Liz Crocker, Polly Bennell, Holly Book

Bull Publishing Company

Copyright © 2017 Bull Publishing Company
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-945188-05-3


Good for Your Health: Writing, Gathering, and Sharing

Write it down, girl. Tell everyone how much it hurts. Sharing will make it easier to bear.

— Terri Jewell

A Healthy Journey

When we decided to get together and give ourselves spontaneous writing exercises to access our memories and our emotions about our alcoholic parents and childhoods, we had no idea how profound and useful this process would be for us. We certainly had no idea that research would lend credence to and understanding about how writing and sharing are good for one's health.

Storytelling was the first significant human technology — fire came later! From the oldest practices of recording thoughts and events in songs and spoken stories to later practices such as diaries, journals, ballads, and letters, and even newer examples of memoirs, blogs, chat rooms, and Facebook postings, personal storytelling is the central way we relate to each other. As humans, we are designed for connecting with one another. We have used stories as the most common vehicle to communicate who we are and to find out who you are. For years, people have used writing, therapeutically, to make sense of their stories of illness, of grief, of abuse and oppression.

In our case, we wrote because we wanted to create a book and writing was something we knew how to do. We got together because we had wanted to generate a collaborative project. We wrote about the scenes and legacies caused by alcoholism in our families because we were willing to break the secrecy and silence of our pasts to try to make sense of our experiences in the safety of our group. And so, we also wanted to share, first with each other and now with you, because we could still feel the powerful hold on us created by alcoholism and we wanted to lighten our burdens.

Writing and sharing can be "course corrections" if one is troubled by the way things are unfolding in one's life. Maya Angelou said, "I write in order to discover myself." We believe the act of sharing our past experiences, first in writing and then with others, helped us discover hidden truths about ourselves, to appreciate and honor our pasts, to recognize our basic goodness, and to begin to let go of the painful memories and self-deprecating assumptions of our long-held stories.

What Is Spontaneous/Expressive Writing?

We referred to our writing exercises with our loaded words as "spontaneous writing" — identifying a word, setting the clock for ten or twenty minutes, and then saying "Go!"

We particularly liked the word "spontaneous" because it reminded us we were to just write and not stress about it. At the time, we didn't know that "expressive writing" and "therapeutic writing" were also accepted terms for essentially the same process. In the research literature, the term "expressive writing" is most commonly used, but the spontaneous part of the practice is very important.

Whatever term is being used, though, the intentions and guidelines are generally the same and very simple: Just write ... without pre-thought or judgment or concern about spelling, punctuation, or grammar.

Write about an event or events you associate with stress or trauma (past or present) or something that troubles you in some way.

Write continuously for a short period of time, ten to twenty minutes.

Write frequently, ideally every day for several days.

There is something quite liberating in writing quickly, without a predetermined plan or an internal (and often critical) editor. Many of us typically find it hard to live in the moment, but spontaneous writing, with a clock ticking for ten to twenty minutes, brings us to "right now."

We hope that you will be inspired to try such spontaneous/ expressive writing yourself. At any point in reading this book, feel free to put it down and take ten minutes to capture something that comes into your head or heart. Start by just writing or at least making some notes to remind you of your spontaneous thoughts or feelings or memories to return to at a later time. We've provided a number of writing prompts later, in chapter 5 — titled "Your Turn" — but you don't have to wait ... you can start now.

For us, our loaded words were like lightning rods, attracting energy that cracked us open, taking us to deeper places in ourselves. We may have thought we didn't remember much from our childhoods, but writing had a way of unlocking our souls' storage units, full of memories, images, and feelings that we had tended to lock away.

What we didn't know during the various times we got together, writing and sharing, is that there is a growing body of evidence that supports the healing power of spontaneous/expressive writing and group process. It has been gratifying to learn that others recommend writing and sharing as a process to enhance one's health; it was what we simply chose to do.

The Benefits of Spontaneous/Expressive Writing

Writing enables people to create order out of the chaos of memories, to lighten the load of situations that cause stress, and to apply a healing balm to emotional pain. The products of writing are valuable, not just for the writer but also for those who love the writer. Through the writer's words, loved ones can often learn and understand more about their friend/family member and become better able to offer empathy and compassion.

Writing is used as a therapeutic approach in mental health programs and in hospitals with patients dealing with physical and/ or mental illnesses. In university departments, writing programs enhance students' self- awareness and self-development. People who have experienced any form of trauma often create narratives of their stories to help them see their experiences more clearly.

A 2005 article in Advances in Psychiatric Treatment by Karen Baikie and Kay Wilhelm, titled "Emotional and Physical Health Benefits of Expressive Writing," summarized the benefits, which include the following:

Fewer stress-related visits to the doctor and fewer days in the hospital

Improved immune system functioning

Reduced blood pressure

Improved lung and liver function

Improved mood, reduced symptoms, and decreased worries in depressed individuals

Reduced absenteeism from work and quicker reemployment after job loss

Improved memory

More recent studies have identified additional benefits of expressive writing, including the following:

Wounds heal faster

Reduced viral load and increased level of virus-fighting immune cells in HIV-positive patients

Reduced levels of stress hormones

Improved satisfaction among soldiers returning home from war zones

An article in the New York Times on January, 19, 2015, titled "Writing Your Way to Happiness," talked about the vast array of scientific research studies on the benefits of expressive writing. The article specifically talks about the positive effects of writing to improve mood disorders, reduce symptoms in cancer patients, improve health after a heart attack, and boost memory.

Details of these and other selected studies about the benefits of writing are included in appendix A.

How or Why Does Spontaneous/Expressive Writing Work?

Why is spontaneous/expressive writing potentially so beneficial? One theory, first voiced by Dr. James Pennebaker from the University of Texas, is that actively inhibiting thoughts and feelings about trauma requires significant effort and leads to cumulative stress. The effort of not dealing with traumatic events can stress the body and lower defenses, thereby leading to physical symptoms of illness or intrusive and worrisome thoughts.

Writing about trauma can relieve emotional pressure and, therefore, reduce overall stress on the body. One particular by-product of reducing stress is that one's ability to sleep is improved, and it has been shown that people who sleep at least seven hours a night heal faster than those who get less sleep.

Writing can help us make sense of past experiences and confused or painful emotions. As we write, we often remember missing details of clouded events and begin to integrate these new details into old memories, helping us make sense of what happened in the past and providing revised understanding of old wounds.

Traumatic memories are often jumbled and incoherent and just sit inside of us, trembling with confusion and circular repetition. Putting words on paper is like putting a brake on a series of endlessly repeating storylines, troubled thoughts, or near-obsessive ruminations — which frequently happen in the wee hours of the night.

Henriette Anne Klauser, author of With Pen in Hand: The Healing Power of Writing, says, "The act of consigning the hurricane inside your head to paper quiets the agitated spirit, shifts the brain waves, brings peace. It takes what can be toxic and decontaminates it. It makes it safe. Writing makes sense of confusion and gives voice to the wisdom within."

Spontaneous/expressive writing can get us out of our heads and into our hearts and help us visit our "emotional habit cage" with a fresh perspective. This can lead to a revised, integrated, and coherent story about previously experienced events. It is not so much that this kind of writing is cathartic as it is likely to be integrative, to bring order and increased perspective to memories.

Louise DeSalvo, in her book Writing as a Way of Healing, says:

We receive a shock or a blow or experience a trauma in our lives. In exploring it, examining it, and putting it into words, we stop seeing it as a random, unexplained event. We begin to see the order behind appearances.

Expressing it in language robs the event of its power to hurt us; it also assuages our pain. And by expressing ourselves in language, by examining these shocks, we paradoxically experience delight — pleasure even — which comes from the discoveries we make as we write, from the order we create from seeming randomness or chaos.

Ultimately then, writing about difficulties enables us to discover the wholeness of things, the connectedness of human experience. We understand that our greatest shocks do not separate us from humankind. Instead, through expressing ourselves, we establish our connection with others and with the world.

Writing may not solve every problem one has, but writing has the potential to lead the writer to different perspectives. Putting your words on paper doesn't mean you will forget what happened or how you felt — but new views of long-held interpretations may make more sense and may feel less heavy. Writing helped us understand many experiences anew. We hope you will take up our invitation to try similar writing and sharing and will experience the same benefits.

Beyond Writing — Sharing and Listening

Many of the studies about the benefits of spontaneous/expressive writing are specific about writing, as opposed to just talking. This does not mean that telling our stories to others does not have value — in fact, telling stories to each other creates a sense of community and helps us transcend isolation that separates us from each other, often leaving us feeling less lonely and alienated. Research shows that people who feel lonely or isolated have three to five times the risk of premature death from all causes when compared to those who have a sense of connection and community.

Through our original writings and our loaded words, we wrote about our memories before we spoke them. The act of writing was personal and private, touching places in our brains and heart, without judgment. It is possible that we were able to reveal and contemplate deeper truths by first writing.

But we were also a group, and we met together and shared our writing, often reading aloud. This act of speaking and giving literal voice to experiences and feelings that had been largely unexpressed was often emotional in and of itself. But we had created a safe container for ourselves. We trusted that each of us would listen openly and with compassion and that we would be fully heard.

Sometimes, as we read something we'd written or shared reactions to people or events, we didn't necessarily see how we were repeating old patterns, but the others did. Through simple comments and questions such as "What you've said feels so familiar — you've mentioned this before," "Can you tell me more about ...?", or "Does this remind you of anything?" we were further revealed to ourselves. And every time we listened to each other, we listened somewhat into ourselves. What a gift!

Henry David Thoreau said, "It takes two to speak the truth — one to speak and one to hear." However, not everyone is a good listener. Some people appear to be listening but are really in their heads, not listening but getting ready to make their own point. Being a good listener takes curiosity and discipline — to not interrupt and to be fully present, listening not only with both ears, but also with your eyes to observe the speaker's body language, facial expressions, breathing patterns. Listening takes us beyond spoken words, listening for what is not said. For us, listening deeply was a sign of unconditional respect and was an important and key ingredient of our creating a context of safety.

We learned that we needed not only to listen to each other, but also to ourselves. Through our writing, through using the gift of words, we were doing important work of accessing memories and feelings. It was important to learn to quiet the voices in our own heads and listen to our physical and emotional responses. This is what one person meant when she said, "I've learned the difference between the questions 'Can you talk about it?' and 'Can you feel about it?'"

How to Begin?

Perhaps for you, such sharing may feel scary, like walking on emotional quicksand. Our recommendation is to start as we did — by just telling your own story to yourself through your own writing. See what happens when you decant significant memories. The simple act of writing may be enough, as a start, and the research would tell you that the act of writing is good for your health.

As a next step, if you feel ready, identify someone with whom you are comfortable — a dear friend, a wise colleague, someone from a group you belong to that is based on shared experiences or values — and ask if she or he would be willing to read what you've written, to be a witness to something about you that is important. While you might feel nervous, the person you reach out to will likely feel honored. Your request may well be perceived as a gift.

Our experience of sharing with others was positive, right from the very beginning. We felt less alone, and that was comforting. Consider this reflection from our very first gathering: "We instinctively understood one another — our stories were different, but the impacts tended towards being universal. We saw and heard ourselves in the lives of others. We may have come from different places, but we all knew about bumpy rides, uncertain destinations, and what it feels like to be left on the side of the road. But it was about more than just recognizing the similarity of our scars; it was the acknowledgement of our goodness, our triumph over adversity. And we've done more than just survive — we have emerged as good people, caring professionals and parents, and contributing community members."

The three of us shared a common bond of mutuality, of both sympathy and empathy, based on our knowledge that each of us had had an alcoholic parent. This initial foundation of common experience created enough trust for us to write and then share our original stories. Over many months, as we continued to write, gather together, and share, we were able to get the best of all possible worlds. Our process, described in the next chapter, was as rich and profound as it was because we wrote and we talked and we listened.

To write about what is painful is to begin the work of healing.

— Pat Schneider


Our Process Sparks from a Common Bond

And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk to bloom.

— Anaïs Nin

How does a book like this come together? How can we capture the players, the substance, the process? How can we distill such a profound, shared journey into a few pages?

A journalistic tool, in conveying elements of a story, is to examine the who, what, when, where, and why. So here's what we would say if this were a news story.

Who? ... Three Women with a Common Bond

The three of us — Liz and Polly and Holly — met some time ago, when we all had young children. As we got to know each other, we learned we had something in common: that each of us had grown up with an alcoholic parent. We met others with alcoholic parents and a group of seven of us went away for a weekend retreat to talk about our memories as children of alcoholics and to consider writing a book together of shared experiences.

Over time, four people from this group dropped out for different reasons, including time, the difficulty of examining one's own pain, not wanting to invade family privacy, and not wanting to risk criticizing or hurting parents who were still alive. Although we missed their involvement, if we had learned anything as children of alcoholics, we knew we had to honor and respect their choices.


Excerpted from Transforming Memories by Liz Crocker, Polly Bennell, Holly Book. Copyright © 2017 Bull Publishing Company. Excerpted by permission of Bull Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction 1

Chapter 1 Good for Your Health: Writing, Gathering, and Sharing 11

Chapter 2 Our Process: Sparks from a Common Bond 23

Chapter 3 Childhood Snapshots: Original Writings 29

Chapter 4 The List-Our Loaded Words 53

Abandonment 57

Badge of Courage/Membership 62

Community/Home 71

Fear 75

Gifts 85

Hope 89

Humor 92

Neglect 96

Resolution 102

Shame 105

Siblings 109

Spirituality 114

Surrender 122

Unpredictability 126

Chapter 5 Your Turn 131

Chapter 6 Living Our Legacies-Who We've Become 141

Chapter 7 Reflecting 155

Appendix A The Benefits of Spontaneous/Expressive Writing-Selected Research Studies 159

Appendix B A Selected Bibliography 165

About the Authors 173

Index 175

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