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Writing Your Way to Health and Creativity -- By Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, PhD

I started writing as a teen to make sense of a very messy life and dysfunctional family, and in the process, I found that just putting pen to paper helped me find meaning, possibilities, and joy from the sheer act of making something on the page. Since then, I've explored how writing can help us heal, connect with our callings and life's work, and discover what we have to say to ourselves and the world.

Along the way, I also discovered how much writing enhances our health, and no wonder: in the last two decades many researchers, particularly Dr. James Pennebaker, have thoroughly documented the value of short (just 15 minutes a day) writing stints to boost the immune system, lower blood pressure, increase circulation, and mitigate stress (You can see more at Cambridge University Press and the Harvard Medical School) What's more, such writing helps us transform trauma or at least loosen its hold on us.

At the same time, just diving into writing about life's hard stuff -- what massive grief or abuse we experienced, for example -- can, if not done with care at the right time for us, leave us spinning our emotional wheels in the mud. For this reason, I often coach and teach people ways we can bring ourselves more light and freedom through short, focused writing prompts that allow us to see ourselves and our stories with new eyes.

How to Get Started

First, find a time and place to write each day for 10-15 minutes (truly, you'll be amazed at how much you can write in short bursts) that fit into your schedule and energy ebbs and flows. For me, writing shortly after breakfast is a great way to bring a fresher take on life to my writing than what I would access in the late afternoon, but we all have our own rhythms.

It's also important to have a good set of ground rules that keep you from falling off the cliff of self-judgment. Here's the ones I use, which you're free to try out or you can create your own rules of the road.

Tell yourself that such writing is a practice -- like meditating or practicing the piano -- and some days, you'll be more in the groove than others. I still reply on what I used to tell my KU students in English 101: "Expect nothing. Pay attention. Keep your hand moving."

What to Write

There's endless writing prompts in this world, and you may have plenty of your own already, but here's some to consider. Please feel free to change these as needed to fit what the writing wants to be.

  1. Write about an emotion as a person or animal, such as worry as an old brown dog pacing all night or happiness as a woman singing as she kneads bread. Describe this personified emotion thoroughly.

  2. From where you're sitting, look around and write down 7 things you can see, such as a flashlight, aspirin, sleeping cat, clogs, rain falling outside, and purple scarf (what I can see at the moment). Then make up a story about that includes these things.

  3. Pause to consider where you were 10 (or 20 or....) years ago and what was likely causing you the most anxiety, sadness, or fear. Then write about how you found your way from that challenge to who and where you are now.

  4. Make a list of the most peaceful, beautiful, miraculous or lovely things you've experienced or witnessed, then pluck something off the list and write about it.

  5. Write a love letter to yourself from the one who loves you best, real or imagined, human or spirit or animal.

  6. Use a sentence stem, the start of a phrase that you fill in, such as, "I used to be......but now I'm....." or "What makes me feel most at home is....." When you run out of things to say for one sentence, repeat the phrase and see what other words come out to play.

  7. Try any of the writing prompts here, or search for your own best writing prompts.

For more information, please visit the sources page of my website.


Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg is the blog editor for Atma Clinic as well as the past Kansas Poet Laureate, author of 24 books of poetry and prose, and a transformative language artist who offers workshops, coaching, and consulting.

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