I’ve been thinking a lot about reflective writing, I think because I want more time and structure for reflection in my own life and work. I have my morning pages, which are a momentary core dump of sorts, but not a specifically reflective time. In the morning, I’m still stum-numbly with sleep and dreams, and I’m trying to capture that emotional energy on the page, I want those dreams, I want those images and words before they split and slip away. I want the thickest heaviest emotion, those blocky truths — but at this hour, I’m not always, or I haven’t been, deeply reflective, at least not directively so.
At my day job at the UCSF School of Medicine, I learned about reflective writing as a way to further a medical student’s education, to deepen and broaden their empathetic learning, to encourage the student to engage deeply in a particular incident or interaction (particularly a situation in which they learned something, or one that went especially well, or one that didn’t go well) with a patient, and to go deep into what happened: how the student felt when it happened, what they noticed, how they felt changed afterward, how things might have gone differently. In asking these questions over time in a reflective writing practice, students integrate their experiences differently, and connect emotion to their learning and patient interactions. Of course, these practices aren’t limited to medical students — everyone (I believe!) can benefit from this reflective writing. There are lots of good resources around Reflective Writing; I just finished reading Gillie Bolton’s Reflective Practice: Writing and Professional Development, which I had to check out several times from the UCSF library, because I just wasn’t ready to let it go.
(I’m not accustomed to writing so linearly in the morning. This is new work!)
So there’s this thing called reflective writing practice, and then there’s also proprioceptive writing, which was developed by Linda Trichter Metcalf in the 1970s. I first heard about this practice from a co-worker at a Battered Women’s shelter where I was working in Maine, the same co-worker who introduced me to Amherst Writers and Artists & Pat Schneider’s work. The way I understood proprioceptive writing, you sit in a quiet room, someone lights a candle and puts on some Bach, and you write deeply for 30 minutes. But there’s more to it than that, as I understand it now: while writing, you listen deeply to yourself and begin to ask questions of the writing: what do I mean by that? What do I mean by deeply, for instance, in the above sentence? What an excellent question! This would, I think, encourage my writing open, and take me into some surprising places. (Read more about proprioceptive writing in Writing the Mind Alive by Linda Trichter Metcalf and Tobin Simon.) I’m looking into proprioceptive writing classes/workshops now, to learn more about how to embody this practice.
(I think one reason I haven’t yet is that I get weirdly jealous or loyal to a practice or method or teacher, and for the last 10 years, I’ve only wanted AWA to be the “thing I do.” AWA, of course, is my workshop home, and I have to assure my inside self, the way maybe a parent would have to reassure a child, that AWA won’t be hurt and my practice won’t be harmed if I learn about other methods and practices, other ways of writing deeply in community. Whew, that loyalty stuff runs deep!)
At the very beginning of my work with the writing workshops, when I was leading a workshop as a part of my MA practicum, I was quite reflective on the work. I had to write for school about what I was doing, what happened in the workshops, how exercises worked or didn’t, and more, for my advisor. This didn’t develop into a habit that I carried with me into the work, however — I would get up at the end of the night, chat with the writers as I was packing up materials and such, and take the bus home, looking out into the dark San Francisco evening, turning over what had gone on that night, but also drifting back into my ‘regular’ life. It was as though, somehow, there was a different me that sat in the workshops and facilitated. Compartmentalization can be a gift as a survival strategy, it’s true, and it can also be a struggle when that strategy stops being as useful and you want to begin letting all those separate cells of self come together again.
So, as I got pretty overloaded over the last couple of years, I began to think that taking time after the workshops for reflection would be very helpful — not only would I open myself up to integrating what we’d just all done together, but I could pay attention to what had gone well, what hadn’t gone as well, I could question my nerves and struggles, I could let them come out on the page, I could look at interactions from different angles. This is all great! But I haven’t done it yet — for most of my time as a workshop facilitator, I have led my workshops away from home, so when they’re done at 9, I’m packing up and preparing for a good 45-minutes to an hour of transit; then, when I get home, maybe I watch a little tv to ‘come down,’ maybe I read for a while, to transition; it’s not about integrating, though, is it? It’s about compartmentalizing. So the workshops, they get heavier and heavier, because I’m getting heavier and heavier. What we do together in the workshops is big, as survivors of sexual trauma writing together, as folks writing gorgeous and powerful desire, and sometimes these groups come together, survivors writing complicated, gorgeous longings and lust. Every time I walk into the room, I’m carrying unintegrated stuff from every other workshop, I’m carrying fears and excitements and uncertainty, and I don’t take the time to play with the questions that I’m living with: what’s working well? Why is it working well? what’s not working well? how do I feel about that? How could these situations go differently? How do I feel changed after each workshop? And, each time, to go deeper: what do I mean by that?
This feels not just like a powerful ‘professional development’ practice (if you want to get technical about it) but also a radical self care practice. It’s about opening time for questioning, which means, too, thinking about how and when workshops happen, so that I allow this time to happen, so that I allow myself and the workshops this time.
Want to try this practice? Take 10 minutes and think on a recent situation that surprised you, or when you learned something, or when you were frustrated; just notice what comes up as you read these questions. Let yourself begin writing what happened, and ask yourself these questions as you write (maybe have them written on a separate piece of paper so you can see them): What did I see around me? How did I feel? What could I have done differently? Write from a place of unknowing and curiosity, as much as possible — this isn’t about self-indictment, but self-wondering and maybe self-discovery!
(or, if you want, this morning, you might also write about how the trees smell today — whatever you choose!)
Thanks for the ways you let the different parts of yourself/selves begin to commingle. Thanks for the creative possibilities you allow for your own growth and opening and safety. Thanks for the delicious power of your words.