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How to Write Where it Hurts Your Heart

The other day I surprised myself and wrote a poem. My heart was egging me on and I try to listen to that squishy, beating organ in my chest whenever I can.

Many of us have to write for our work, yet being hounded by a yearning that slips into your consciousness and won’t let go until you put pen to paper or fingertips to keyboard, is quite different from writing emails or financial reports.

When personal or world events shake our foundation writing can help us make sense of what we’re experiencing. Or, even if nothing makes sense about it at the time, at least it can connect us to that part that’s questioning, and in pain. We realize that, in the midst of confusion and sadness, and in spite of feeling broken into a million tiny pieces, there's a part of us yearning for wholeness. Canadian singer, songwriter, poet, novelist, and painter Leonard Cohen who died on November 7 once described poetry as polishing parts of ourselves. Writing where it hurts your heart can have that effect as well if we open up to it.

The tendency for most humans when dealing with difficult feelings is to push them away. We don’t wish to face unpleasantness and sometimes the hurt feels like too much to bear, yet getting our hands dirty is exactly what we need to come into closer relationship with our emotions.

When you feel a nudge, a low ache, a tickle, a scratching to express, communicate, bring forth, sing, emit, transmit, let rise, that means something wants to be released. So why not just let it?

My uncle, a writer, playwright, and retired English teacher pens a poem a day and has for years. The other day I read his poem, Dad was a Drunk. In it, he uses words and phrases, such as Hack out tongues lest they ignite and fists on ears, eyes wired shut. The language brings to bear the pain that he (and presumably his sister; my mother) experienced at the hands of a father whose life revolved around the bottle. In a few lines the poem revealed what years of me asking my mother questions couldn’t. All that in a little poem! Poetry or more broadly language can do that—for writers and for readers, too. It gives us the strength to not only face the pain but also to acknowledge it and recognize our vulnerability and humanness.

I don’t want to build a wall between myself and my anger and sadness. I want to tear down any walls—fictional or real, and surrender to the power of language that can let light into those dark places so I may see them, walk with them, come to know them.

The world pours into us its sorrows, and every once in a while we need to open the lid and be free of them. Sometimes that’s through poetry or fiction, and sometimes it’s through song.

A few years ago Leonard Cohen received the Prince of Asturias Award for Literature. While thanking Spain for that honour he told them that he owed everything to Spain because the six chords he learned as a young man from a Spanish flamenco guitarist visiting Montreal when he was first starting out, had formed the basis for all his songs. Every single glorious one of them! Sadly, when he sought the man out for a follow up lesson, he was told that he’d taken his own life.

In my writing course called Memoir: Go Deep and Write Your Story we tune in to the parts of ourselves that long to tell their stories. The earache, headache, cramps in the belly, sore back—all of these places contain clues to the deeper psychic pains we carry around inside us. Writing stories from the heart and tuning in to your embodied narratives—the stories that your body carries within you—will help you create living, breathing accounts that align you more deeply to your emotions and also connect you to others.

Yet studies show that simply bringing sad or traumatic events to our awareness isn't enough to help with healing and could actually be detrimental to our wellness.

Health psychology researcher Susan Lutgendorf, PhD, of the University of Iowa says the nature of an individual’s writing is key to whether it helps to make us better. A journaling study (in press, Annals of Behavioral Medicine) she conducted recently suggests people who relive upsetting events without focusing on meaning report poorer health than those who make meaning from their writing. Those who focus on what the events signify to them can develop greater insights into the positive aspects of a stressful event.

"You need focused thought as well as emotions," says Lutgendorf. "An individual needs to find meaning in a traumatic memory as well as to feel the related emotions to reap positive benefits from the writing exercise."

Writing exercise

Take your hand and place it on your heart. Feel the warmth generated by having your hand there. You may even sense your heart beating. Now pick up your pen and write from that place. As you’re writing, focus on that warm spot where you have your hand. Write whatever comes to you. Whatever words, fragments, ideas, impressions surface, just write them down and keep going. Write for 10 minutes or more, then stop and put down the pen.

Take time over the course of your week to check back in with your heart. What sadness, grief, longing is happening in there that needs to be released? Take some time to listen to what it has to say and to maybe use this time to grow ideas for stories. A poem or short story, perhaps. Or an idea for a book. There's no pressure of course to do any of this, the most important thing really is just to show up. And listen.

Photo: Ashim D'Silva

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