I first came to know about free writing as an undergraduate psychology student. Having read the fascinating works of Professor James Pennebaker and his colleagues about how free writing worked to alleviate emotional distress even amongst those who have been traumatized. However, it was only recently, after having attended an Art Therapy 101 course that I started to experience the impact of free writing for myself in my life.
We were introduced in the art therapy course to an Artist and creativity trainer called Julia Cameron and in her book, one of the fundamental exercises to liberate our minds and get out of the way of our own innate creativity was something she called “morning pages” – essentially free writing about everything and anything that pops up in our mindscape.
The instructions are stunningly simple:
1. Write about whatever comes to mind, or if there is an issue that is bugging you, write about that. Write freely without censoring yourself, without care for grammar, spelling or punctuation. The aim is to capture verbatim whatever is happening in your mind as it occurs moment-to-moment.
2. It is important to have a limit to prevent the emotions that come from writing to overwhelm you. Write for either a fixed time (e.g., 20 mins) or a fixed number of pages (e.g., 3 pages). This also helps to train our minds to become disciplined and express emotions and thoughts in a paradoxically structured-yet-free manner.
And so I committed to trying free writing every morning a week after the end of the art therapy class. The writing was at first difficult, because I felt a strong reluctance to write and my mind appeared to be blank whenever I turned my attention to it. So I wrote freely about the reluctance and the blankness. Then issues that had been bugging me for some years started to surface and I wrote about them freely, allowing my mind to remember whatever it remembered, allowing my body to feel what it felt as I wrote.
Initially it just felt cathartic and liberating to write freely without censoring myself, but as I wrote, I started to experience emotional shifts. New insights about old issues arose, new memories or neglected memories arose and changes in perspective occurred. Sometimes the issues started to loop and I felt that there was no way out and as I pressed on with the writing, new ideas about what to do came forth. Some days the writing was energetic and invigorating and my fingers felt that they could not type fast enough to capture my experiences. Other days, writing was wrought with lethargy and nothing of note came up. Still I persisted in writing freely.
After a few months, I started to notice significant transformations in my personality – I was more relaxed with others and with myself. I was a lot more open with others and with myself. My emotions no longer summoned a knee-jerk reaction and the initially unclear emotional senses that I sometimes got became clearer quicker. Most importantly for me, the old emotional baggages and issues started to resolve and the nagging feeling in the middle of my chest dissolved and there was a sense of freedom. Occasionally, as I wrote on, there was a sense of mindful detachment and a sense of spiritual transcendence away from the self (Now, I’m not saying that I’m enlightened in anyway!). In short, many new experiences and many new transformations occurred for me from the persistent free writing.
For me, ultimately, free writing became (and still is) therapy for myself by myself and it is also an act of self compassion because I am making space and time deliberate for me to be me. Give this a try but not the caveat! If you have been traumatized before or if you are easily overwhelmed by your emotions, DO NOT try this exercise without support from a psychologist.