It’s well known that journaling can be therapeutic, a way to liberate trapped memories and emotions. In Transforming Memories: Sharing Spontaneous Writing Using Loaded Words (Bull Publishing, April 2017), the authors — Liz Crocker, Polly Bennell, and Holly Book — take it further. Together they have developed a structured, safe, and inspiring approach to delving into the worst we hold inside and use it as a springboard to healing and growth. All three authors are professionals from the intersecting worlds of writing, publishing, therapy, education, and coaching. They also happen to be children of alcoholics, who came to grips with their own traumatic memories through the act of spontaneous writing, then found peace of mind by sharing their work with each other.
Spontaneous writing, as the authors call it, has a quietly transformative power: using words to trigger thoughts and emotions, it shakes off the chains of silence and gives us a means to express ourselves. The act of sharing and listening with trusted friends brings the darkness into the light. The book’s “loaded words” were carefully selected from a long list of some 68 terms that the authors then winnowed down to 14. Among them: fear, neglect, gifts, hope, humor, resolution, shame, siblings, spirituality, surrender, and unpredictability. Each is accompanied by definitions and commentaries, acting as a thought-provoking starting point for a reader.
This is a book for anyone who needs to soothe old wounds that cut deep. The method here is writing, but it’s not writing for the sake of executing a piece of fine prose. Without judgment or standards to hew to, the writer is free to tell her story and reclaim her past. Still, the honesty that comes out of these techniques is bound to be startling and reassuring as well — and may indeed form the foundation for some kind of larger work.
The profoundest memoirs have been started on less. Chapter by chapter, as the authors reveal their own memories, candidly sharing how the process of writing to prompts helped them soothe old pain, the reader is brought into a kind of literary safe space. It is intensely personal, intimate, and yet open-hearted. The pieces in these pages are shared as an act of faith — that readers will feel inspired to write their own and, in turn, share them with others.
Within individual experiences, too, the authors show that there’s plenty of universal: old memories of being abandoned, isolated, unloved, or scared lie within so many of us. For instance, one of the authors wrote a response to the loaded word fear. As she writes, “I have a deeply entrenched fear that if I am not good enough, or don’t try hard enough, or don’t control everyone and everything in my life, that I will be abandoned and then I will die. Just when I think I have successfully quieted that fear, it rears its ugly head again …”
Another piece of writing in the book deals with a terrible memory from childhood — of one of the authors as a girl, coming home from school to show off a prize she’s won for an art project. Instead, as she remembers, she finds her mother too drunk to appreciate it. As the author recalls, her childhood ended that day. And in sharing this writing within the safety of the group, she was able to break through the sense of shame and secrecy that had lived inside her for too long.
The book contains a number of suggested exercises and an easy process to get started: find a word that resonates, set the clock for ten or twenty minutes, and then start writing. What comes out — a single memory or several — may be painful, but by bringing the past into the light, those bad experiences lose their hold. There’s remarkable energy in the act of writing spontaneously, a sense of rejuvenation and justice as well.
Sharing what’s been written among a group of sympathetic, like-minded friends helps diminish that sadness of the child locked within. Trauma is always stressful; deep-seated, it can take a tremendous toll. As the research studies cited in the back of the book point out, spontaneous writing is good for our minds and bodies — including our immune systems and our brains.
Transforming Memories gives the reader potent tools to face the past that haunts us, and enables us to make vital course corrections to our present lives as a result. As its three authors show, healing is a journey that can be started at any time. This book is a perfect road map.
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