Secret sauce: the unexpected ingredient
9. James W. Pennebaker’s Expressive Writing technique
Can writing heal you? Pennebaker, a social psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin, conducted studies on expressive writing. His research concluded that writing about a traumatic event in your life – 20 minutes a day for four consecutive days – has measurable health benefits that last for days, weeks, even months. After teaching this technique but never trying it myself, I did so half a year ago, and yes – it really works.
10. The newspaper obituary section
Who are you and what defines you? Moving beyond the labels placed on us by family, career, and community, I give students a stack of obituaries and ask them, “For each individual, what’s the memorable detail that stays with you?” Consistently they cite unique, intimate aspects: She was the county dairy princess, he was a collector of Beatles memorabilia. Then they write their own obituaries with an eye toward descriptors that are personal, evocative, and unforgettable. This exercise helps them grasp those elements that animate characters and resonate with readers.
These tools are meant as aids, not crutches. Your determination is the muscle that powers them, your experience the material they shape into narrative. Either with or without them, persist in giving your all to your writing. It’s the work, not the tools, that counts.
Linda Lowen teaches craft workshops at writing conferences and festivals and is the founder of AlwaysWantedToWrite.com, a writing studio in Syracuse, NY.