“When we write we tell the stories of our lives—the dark and light, the struggles and successes, the hopes and fears, the aches and pleasures. We write to learn about ourselves, to enlarge our understanding of ourselves and one another.” Cutler, Monk & Shira, 2014
How can a practice as solitary as journal writing become a catalyst for meaningful conversation, collective empathy and mutual support?
How can writing and reading your stories with and to others help you to love yourself and embrace your wholeness?
A group of writers sigh,
slow down to listen
to their hearts that
want to cry, laugh, shout
Begin with the blank page
and its vastness, a circle
with many beginnings
Put words down bravely,
boldly, catching themselves
again and again in the act
In the Spring of 2007, after 20 years of solitary practice, I began to journal in the company of two other seasoned journal writers. Inspired by a variety of prompts, we put our pens to the page from wherever we were at in the present moment, opening into the free fall of our thoughts, emotions, memories, body sensations. After, the three of us would read our freshly penned words with each other and talk about how it felt to be seen and heard in the sharing. At times we were surprised and uncomfortable with what we had written, having learned to keep our inner thoughts hidden and our feelings to ourselves. However, as we practiced, we experienced the relief from having found a place, not only to air our worries and fears, doubts and anger, despair and other heavy feelings, as we had each been doing for years in our own journals, but to expose our raw expressions and be listened to and accepted for whatever they were.
As the three of us continued to meet, we realized we had uncovered a process for meaningful conversation, authentic self-expression and mutual support. Although the desire to share this process with others emerged soon after we started, it took us seven years of creative labour and incubation to publish our book Writing Alone Together: Journalling in a Circle of Women for Creativity, Compassion and Connection.
Paying attention to what matters
Since 2011, I have been guiding writers through this transformative practice of Writing Alone Together. Whether sitting in an elementary or high school classroom; in a quiet room at the back of a busy café; in a public library meeting room or in a yoga studio with a shiny wood floor, our time together always begins with arriving in the present moment so we can listen for the impulse, whether quiet or loud, to know, feel and tell what is going on inside. Then, guided by a word, phrase, quote, or other prompt, we put our pens to the page and open to the freefall of words.
Have you ever worried about being selfish or indulgent for wanting to focus on and care for yourself?
Or felt scared to speak about your own needs and what really truly matters to you?
In the space of Writing Alone Together we come to recognize how self-care and inward attention is a necessity, not a luxury. We all need time to pay attention to what’s important to us and to get clear on what isn’t. To make space for our feelings and listen closely our truths. And because it’s a practice, if we don’t hear them the first time, we might the second or the third or fourth time we write it. Or we might hear them from another writer in the circle and recognize it then.
Accepting our imperfections
Although many of the writers I work with hesitate at the first mention of the invitation to read their words aloud, after they have tried it they experience it as catharctic, because when we share our spontaneously expressed words, we free ourselves from the chains of perfection. In the Writing Alone Together circle, everything we write is “right,” my coauthor (and IAJW director) Lynda Monk likes to say.
Instead of judging or comparing ourselves to others, which most of us have been encouraged to do (whether as students, mothers, employees…), in the circle we practice curiosity and acceptance. Listening from the heart, we learn to appreciate the unique contribution of each voice and its particular expression. Even when giving feedback, we use supportive phrases and gestures.
Honouring all our voices
Witnessing each others’ truths, we discover how similar we are, and, at times, how different. As we cultivate this empathy between us, we build a safe and supportive space where intimacy and compassion flourish.
We may wonder if our stories matter, or if anyone will care about our feelings, or what we are experiencing. Writing stuff down is powerful. Reading it aloud to others is a game changer. Feeling accepted in our vulnerability, we realize our strength. Writing with others helps us heal ourselves. Know ourselves. We learn to have the utmost respect for our fears. Doubts. Sorrows. And for our dreams. Desires. Delights.
Replenishing the Well
Over the past four years, I have been writing my memoir about growing up with an overburdened mother who carried almost all the responsibility for raising two daughters. Angry at my father for being at work most of the time, it was my mother who fed and clothed and diapered us, cleaned the house, made our lunches and drove us to school. My mother who took us to doctors and sat with us in hospital waiting rooms when both my sister and I had health challenges.
Without the necessary skills to cope with the extent of these tasks and challenges, my mother resorted to screaming, blaming and shaming. It was what she knew. As for me, as a child I too developed unhealthy coping skills which I took with me into adulthood.
When I first started writing in a journal, I had no idea it was to become one of the main resources I would rely on to care for myself as I unwound the stories of my childhood and learned healthier ways of being in relationship. Through writing alone, and then, with others, I learned to give and receive my own loving attention, to sort through the expectations and opinions of others and listen for my own deeper truths.
A writer sighs, slows down to listen
begins with the blank page
and its vastness, a circle
with many beginnings.
Puts words down bravely
catching herself again and again
in the act of loving.
Surrenders to what grows in the
serendipity of moments,
colourful blossoms on the branch.
Guest Author Bio
Ahava Shira, PhD has been facilitating writing workshops and retreats with diverse multigenerational populations on Salt Spring Island and in other communities in the Pacific Northwest for over 20 years. Author of a book of poetry, Weaving of My Being (1998), a spoken word CD Love is Like This (2010) and co-author of Writing Alone Together: Journalling in a Circle of Women for Creativity, Compassion and Connection (2014), Ahava has also published five anthologies of her students’ writing. Passionate about creating safe, supportive spaces for compassionate witnessing, Ahava is currently writing a memoir called Curve: Shape of A Life.
To learn more about her work visit ww.lovinginquiry.com.