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Writing for Self-Discovery and Healing

A teacher’s lesson on unlocking the past to create your future story

Part of the Artful Aging Special Report

Like many people, I kept a diary as a kid, documenting the minutiae of my everyday life: pj parties with friends, an enduring crush on Jerry H. and my brother’s many annoying habits.

Once started, I never stopped, keeping a diary well into adulthood. It always felt satisfying, but at some point I wanted to do more than just record what happened — a job interview, the trip to British Columbia, a harrowing medical diagnosis. I wanted to understand what happened: Why was I making certain choices? Was I really happy in my career? What was the reason my latest romance failed?

I didn’t just want to answer these questions, as if life were some ongoing pop quiz; I wanted to imagine something different happening, maybe something new or better. This use of the diary, I thought, might make me more aware of the choices I was making and keep me more accountable for where my life was heading.

‘Composing a Life’

I moved from mere diary-keeping to more reflective — and productive — journal writing, a practice that I soon found was helping me “create” my life, literally, as if I were the author of my own story, responsible for how the plot was unfolding.

As a teacher, I wanted to share this use of journal writing with others. So in 1991 I designed the workshop, “Composing a Life,” with specific exercises that helped me and my fellow travelers figure out where we were in our life’s journey and where we wanted to be.

Recently, I customized the workshop for “boomers and beyonders,” recognizing how our sheer numbers are changing the face of aging. In the aggregate, we will live longer, in better health and with many more years of productive life ahead of us than any other generation in human history. So this version of the workshop would focus on how we might spend that time.

What would we be doing? Where and with whom? Who did we want to become? What did we want our legacy to be?

Discovery Through Writing

Last August, nine of us gathered for four weekly sessions for the purpose of composing our lives. We engaged in a handful of writing exercises, each prompting us to revisit the past and pay attention to the present, to better imagine and create our future.

Two of the workshop exercises that proved to be especially popular with the group were Risky Business and Letting Go & Moving On.

In the first, I asked people to write about a particular risk they’d taken — in love, work, finances or travel — and then use that experience as an example of what to do (or not do) for risks they want to take in the future. This helped them see that in many instances they were their own best role models; they already knew a lot about what they needed, in personal resources and outside help, when deciding to embark on some future risky business.

In Letting Go & Moving On, people listed what they wanted to let go of, including relationships; work and hobbies; places lived and stuff accumulated; habits and ways of thinking or behaving that no longer served them; even grudges and hurts. I asked them to pick just one entry and describe how letting go of it would benefit them, and maybe even others.

As with the previous exercise — and all of them, really — people made some interesting discoveries. While no one read what they wrote, we did talk about how the writing exercise made their discoveries possible.

In the end, the most important reason to keep a journal is for the discoveries we make about ourselves — our likes and dislikes; the opportunities and challenges still ahead of us and especially the kind of life we’d like to create, not only in the next 10 years, but on this very day.

Here are three books I recommend on journal writing:

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