Where Your Pen Lands

I teach writing to clarify, deepen, and expand thinking. The demands and goals of this kind of writing are very different from those connected to writing for publication. Writing in the service of thinking is at the other end of the writing spectrum—artless, not artful. Spontaneous, not deliberated. As-is, not composed or revised. Not offered to the world as a cultural artifact. For the writer and the writer alone. To me, the motivation to deepen and expand your thoughts through writing is as noble as writing for publication. This rewarding practice brings you into intimate relationship with yourself and the world—and leaves you with a creative record of your fleeting reflections.

The writing method I teach is called Proprioceptive Writing (PW for short). Easy enough for anyone to learn, PW is practiced to music in 25-minute sessions, under stress-free conditions, alone or in groups. Through a process we call “Inner Hearing,” PW teaches you to listen to your thoughts with empathy and curiosity and reflect on them imaginatively.

Inner Hearing 
Hearing is the sense we usually use to get information from our own thoughts. When you are thinking, you are listening to your thoughts. This is Inner Hearing. If you can’t hear them, you can’t think—as a camp counselor may say to a gaggle of kids, “Quiet! I can’t hear myself think.” Although thoughts are always in your mind, you can’t always sense them. The sound of your thinking can grow dim. It can get to a point (no one else even needs to be around) where you can’t hear them at all.

In PW, you write one thought and then the next and then the next. As you write, you silently vocalize your thoughts. (Without silently sounding them as you write them, you’re more likely to be unaware of their existence or dismiss them as trivial or irrelevant.) When you make this shift from experiencing thought as mere chatter in your head to a living voice in your ear, you begin to hear your thinking. Then your relationship to it changes. You develop the capacity to enter your thoughts imaginatively, in an interested, nonjudgmental way, and gain awareness of yourself from them. For your psychological and spiritual well-being, this capacity is one of the most valuable you’ll ever develop.

Hearing yourself think can turn your life around. One of my students wanted to write about his childhood in Nazi-occupied Poland but couldn’t recall details. The thoughts that occurred to him in his workshop writing sessions seemed empty to him. For example, he had written, “What will they think?” He presumed this question was a reaction to the people in the room, and as he considered it a weakness to be so concerned about other’s opinions of him, he closed his mind to it. Then, further down the page, the same question came up again, and this time he decided to listen to it. It had caught his interest. What did he mean by “they”? Who were those others with such power over him? With real curiosity, he wrote these thoughts, and as he did images of 13-year old bullies flooded his mind. His concern was no vanity when he was trying to pass as a non-Jew with his mates. In 1942, for him, “what will they think?” was a matter of life and death. After hearing his own thought in this new way, his childhood stories began to flow.

Private and Personal
When you’re doing PW, it’s of absolute importance to control your environment. In this process, control means freedom to keep your attention on the thoughts you’re writing. Only then can learning follow. If you’re interrupted, and your attention is diverted away from your thoughts (by the phone or the door or another person demanding something of you), you stop hearing them. Writing these thoughts privately, released from responsibility for them and the need to perform them publicly, you’re positioned to think about them honestly, with imagination, and without fear of judgment.

Thinking deeply about your own thoughts through writing brings you into intimate relationship with many different aspects of yourself, each yearning to be understood. You’ll write thoughts you wouldn’t dream of writing or even thinking for an audience. You’ll think lovingly and hatefully. Your thoughts will interest and bore you. They’ll reveal details you didn’t know you knew. They’ll feel confusing to you, they’ll feel good to you, they’ll contradict each other—and they’ll enable you to create new syntheses. With practice, you’ll come to appreciate your creative mind and value its native intelligence.

Where your pen lands—there goes your attention. Writing focuses your attention, enabling you to slow down your thoughts, follow them where they lead, question them, ponder them, observe their connections. To be receptive to your own thoughts and question them in such a way that they expand and deepen, your powers of attention must be sharp and focused. Otherwise, your thoughts will resemble chatter and not be available to you.

A lovely woman participating in a recent workshop became so perturbed each time she wrote, she had to put down her pen and cry. Images of an impoverished childhood haunted her imagination—a situation she dismissed as her psychological default position. Her daughter had died of a drug overdose. Her husband was noncommunicative. She was grief stricken, angry, guilty, fed up, and stoic all at once. Because her attention never landed, her thoughts felt jumbled. She often felt they could drive her mad. But each thought is the center of a worldview, wrought from your own experience, leading you back to yourself if you give it time. To become imaginative about your own thoughts, you must be a still target. In effect, your attention has to settle—not jump from thought to thought. By slowing down her thoughts through writing, this woman gained some control over her power of attention and directed it. In this way, her thinking clarified, and she was able to examine her experience constructively until she started to feel like herself again.

No matter what you make of the life you’re living, however ordinary or dramatic it may seem to you, your own thoughts are always worth thinking deeply about in writing. Assume your thoughts matter and take them seriously. That is the attitude required for deep thinking. You are the one your thoughts affect most. (Some may rule you.) You need to know your thoughts. It is your right to have them. That’s a human entitlement. Writing these thoughts privately, released from responsibility for them or any fantasy of performing them publicly, you’re positioned to think about them honestly, with imagination, and without fear of judgment.

Learning about your own thinking is one of the high pleasures of life. Like the practice of yoga, meditation, a musical instrument, or art form, a PW practice can bring you to the center of your experience, where your sense of self is rooted and a creatively expressive life rightly belongs, and from there expand your connection with the world. As a bonus, every practice session leaves you with a gift: a tangible record of your thinking in writing.

© Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. To request permission to reprint, please e-mail editor@kripalu.org.

Linda Trichter Metcalf, PhD, author and teacher, created the practice of Proprioceptive Writing® in the mid-1970s and is coauthor of Writing the Mind Alive.

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