Recently I got the chance to chat with Liz Crocker about the powerful new self-help guide she wrote with co-authors Polly Bennell and Holly Book. Their book, Transforming Memories: Sharing Spontaneous Writing Using Loaded Words, is the culmination of a shared healing process. All three authors are the daughters of alcoholics, and they have created a heartfelt, effective technique for working through painful memories and old wounds.
What is spontaneous writing — and why is it therapeutic?
I first learned about it in a writing group. We’d open the dictionary at random, putting a finger on the page, and then write from whatever word appeared below our finger. We’d set the timer for ten minutes, then write something about that word. These spontaneous catalysts took our minds and memories to places we couldn’t have planned. Often, without forethought, we created writing gems.
Then, when my coauthors and I began to talk about writing a book on recollections of living with alcoholism, we thought we’d try the same technique. It isn’t terribly demanding in terms of time, and it’s something that might take us where we couldn’t have imagined, triggering images rather than long, sequential narratives. The technique is therapeutic because it unlocks the mind. It takes one quickly to mental images, and from there to feelings. The words and memories flow onto the page. Then, as someone said, “The weight is on paper, not on your heart.”
How does this book differ from books about writing memoirs or journaling?
This book shows that one can capture memories without having to write a whole memoir. It also offers a writing tool that’s focused, time-limited and targeted, as opposed to journaling, which is open-ended and often lacks a specific catalyst. Our book describes how the combination of writing short pieces about difficult memories and then sharing them leads to a deeper and better understanding of ourselves and others.
Did you see any positive changes in yourself and your coauthors from spontaneous writing?
We all benefited. We were able to move from the facts of our lives to the feelings about our lives. Making that leap enabled us to embrace our feelings and work with them. By sharing our writing with each other, we were able to have others bear witness and offer compassion, support and perspective.
Before we used the technique of spontaneous writing, we all felt as if we couldn’t remember much about our childhoods. Spontaneous writing seemed to unlock the closed doors in our minds and hearts. I think we would all say that we have a more compassionate understanding of ourselves and of our alcoholic parents. We’re more at peace.
What are some of the “loaded words” you recommend as writing prompts?
We generated a list of over sixty words in response to the question, “What words spark memories for you?” We called them “loaded” as they were heavy with meaning. But it was also a deliberate play on words: too much alcohol makes one loaded. We designed our list to contain words that could work for almost anyone, but we also suggest people make a list of the words relevant to their own circumstances.
Why is spontaneous writing so helpful, particularly to children of alcoholics, and survivors of childhood trauma?
Because one is writing quickly, there’s no time for one’s inner judge to get in the way and tell you that your writing is no good. And because the technique asks you to write for only ten minutes. It works so effectively to bring forth memories, so it’s especially helpful for those who think they can’t remember. And also, because the technique doesn’t force a form. One can write a poem, a story, a letter, a list of other words, or a create a cast of characters — people the word evokes. Spontaneous writing is simple, flexible, and relevant no matter what the trauma may have been.
Do you have any tips for people who want to start their own writing practice?
Some helpful tips we share in the book include using a notebook and a favorite pencil or pen; setting a regular time of day for your ten minute writing bursts; finding a friend or small group of people you trust to share your writing with; using the writing prompts in Chapter 5, or making a list of words or scenes to use as prompts; and, when sitting down to write, closing your eyes and putting your finger down on a random “loaded word” selection. Once you begin your practice, do it again and again and again.