Are YOU Haunted by the Past?

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We all have those ghosts. The secret you cringe to think of anyone finding out. The memories that surface in the middle of the night when you can’t get to sleep and you can’t stop thinking. The flashes of things that happened years ago that strike like lightning at the most random times.

Every one of us has something from our past that haunts us.

And the reason we tie words like “ghost” and “haunting” to things like our past and our memories is because they share the same properties. Both are imprints of leftover energy, a residue that leaves faint glowing trails around the rooms locked up in our mind that we try never to enter. And, also like ghosts and haunting, much of the time we feel that we have no say in where or when these things crop up. A certain smell or situation has the power to trigger a flood of painful impressions that can feel like an avalanche.

It’s not healthy for your mind, or your body, to keep this kind of stuff bottled up. But if you’re a writer, you already have an incredibly powerful tool at your disposal to deal with the ghosts of the past.

Writing.

Most writers keep a journal, whether they want to record snippets of inspiration or lists of books to read. However, a specific type of journal writing can give you unexpected health benefits. Studies have suggested that writing down painful parts of our past helps us process events, and that regular journaling can even increase our production of immune cells (known as T-lymphocytes). In my personal experience, I’ve found that journaling helps me release old feelings, conflicts, and assumptions much more effectively than using logic to turn the problem over and over in my mind.

Journaling on a regular basis is good for anyone, but creative writers benefit from the exercise twofold. We get to let go of some of our old baggage, and in the process we gain a different view of our own emotional terrain. By navigating our own choppy waters, we can apply our newfound emotional knowledge to our characters and storylines. If we dig down deep, getting to the bottom of what makes us tick, we can then turn around and use that skill to layer and build the emotional complexities of any piece of fiction we choose to write.

Therapeutic journaling can be done in two ways. You can choose one particular memory or situation from your past that has always troubled you and set about committing it to paper, or you can go with stream-of-consciousness, letting whatever wants to flow out of you flow freely. But whichever choice you make, I strongly recommend you handwrite this kind of journal instead of typing it. The handwritten method of writing is more tactile and raw. Your hand feels the words pouring out of you and your eyes see the utterly individual form the letters take, a form that can only come from you.

After journaling in this way you might find that older or more obscure memories surface suddenly as well. You may experience intense and difficult emotions erupting within you, like anger, fear or sadness. That’s your mind’s way of flushing out some of that old crusty gunk that’s been sitting around for years and years. It’s like you’re cleaning out your energetic pipes. Don’t be alarmed if you see something slimy and gross crawl out.

It’s also likely that after journaling about your past for a while you’ll be able to revisit some of your current fictional characters with an enhanced perspective toward apparent motivations, and hidden agendas. Most writers feel that each of their characters is a reflection of themselves in some way. If this is true of you and your writing, you’ll now have an additional tool to pry open your characters’ secret depths.

Writing down your emotions is hard. Unearthing and examining unpleasant areas of your past is even harder. But growing as an artist is a full-throttle spiritual and psychological journey. It takes courage to know yourself, and every writer needs courage to do what we do at all.

Make a plan to spend the night in the haunted mansion of your memory, and don’t run screaming from the first thing you hear go bump in the night. Instead, keep writing. Conquer the ghosts of your past.

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14 Comments

  • Reply Kimberly Hill 21 October, 2013 at 10:07 am

    One journaling technique I have been playing with lately is to write stream of consciousness from my character’s point of view. It’s harder than it sounds but yields interesting results.
    Thanks for the mental picture of gross slimy things crawling out into my journal. It made me laugh. I sincerely hope my relatives burn my journals unread when I die! If read, the contents may inspire them to desecrate my grave in some way.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 21 October, 2013 at 10:25 am

      Hahahaha! You are awesome Kimberly! So funny.

  • Reply Kay Anderson 21 October, 2013 at 11:01 am

    I keep a journal and write in it every now and then. It helps me express myself in a reality perspective as well as my characters in the “fictional world.”

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 21 October, 2013 at 11:30 am

      I wrote this post as a kind of reminder to myself as well, because I do keep a journal but I’m not always a frequent keeper of it. Your comment is another little nudge to me that I need to revisit it. Thank you!

  • Reply Erica 21 October, 2013 at 11:10 am

    You’re right, Laura. I’ve kept a journal for most of my life and it’s not only therapeutic for me, but it’s an excellent writing exercise. It’s as you say, there is something “tactile and raw” about handwriting in your journal, especially when handling bad memories–you put more energy into forming your thoughts. Sometimes I think the “clicking” and “tapping” from our keyboards drums out our thought process, or maybe it’s because when we see our thoughts so pristine and typed on white screen that it removes us, from what thoughts are, messy, or as you best put it, “slimy.” Our memories and thoughts are not packaged so cleanly like a typed page. Thank you for posting this! Really enjoyed reading it.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 21 October, 2013 at 11:28 am

      I’m so glad this resonated with you 🙂 And yes, I agree about the “clicking” and “tapping” drumming out our thought processes, although I never had the words to put it that way before. I actually handwrite all of the first drafts of my fictional work and I think that messiness really contributes to the meatiness of the story.

      Thanks so much for this comment, I really like the way you think!

  • Reply Setsu 21 October, 2013 at 1:17 pm

    This ties in with writing the same cycles again and again. There are certain types of characters or relationships that keep appearing in my writing, and I feel like I’m being redundant. I’m not. It’s the ghost-voice piping up and saying, “there’s still something you can get out of this.”

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 21 October, 2013 at 3:03 pm

      ME. TOO. I have totally noticed that same type of character appears over and over again in my writing. I’m still squeezing something from her I guess!

  • Reply Aussa Lorens 21 October, 2013 at 1:39 pm

    I absolutely love journaling and have been doing so since I was 17 or so. Journaling helps me to say on track with my mind, if that makes sense. If I am ever caught up in a series of stupid decisions or just a chaotic time of life where I’m not being proactive I often stop journaling– as though I can keep myself a secret from myself. It’s never a good sign!

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 21 October, 2013 at 3:03 pm

      Haha, I’ve done that too. It’s like, “Look! Look! Over there! Don’t look at this self-destructive thing I’m doing right here…” I think we all try to keep secrets from ourselves on some level. Now there’s a story idea…

  • Reply Rebecca Vance 21 October, 2013 at 5:12 pm

    Great post! This could be speaking directly to me! I have just recently returned to writing after many years. Back then it was before the internet, so I think I was afraid to submit anything for fear of being rejected. That was my thought anyway until I read your post. Then I realized that I had many different ghosts of the past that have left emotions, buried deep, that I think I’ve been afraid to unearth. Now, I am realizing that this is what I need to do..Wow, I might just have a lot of neurotic characters coming out in my debut novel it that’s the case! 🙂 Thanks for helping me realize what I have been denying to myself!!

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 22 October, 2013 at 8:17 am

      Neurotic characters are the most interesting 🙂 Good luck with submitting and writing on strong Rebecca!

  • Reply Glynis Jolly 22 October, 2013 at 5:48 am

    It’s funny (odd) that you should mention journaling about the negative events of a person’s life. I’ve been pondering on this very subject for several weeks now trying to decide how much this would help me clear out the cobwebs so that I can continue with my writing project, and if so, should I make it part of my blog or should I make something like this completely private.

    All the pondering could just be procrastination. Taking the leap can be mind-boggling at times.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 22 October, 2013 at 8:16 am

      I think taking the leap is always mind-boggling. Taking a leap of faith asks us to move through fear and into a different, more uncertain space of hope and beauty. I have a feeling you’re going to take that leap though, it sure sounds like it from your comment.

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