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.
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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