A Writing Coach Weighs In on Writing to Connect with Oneself During a Time of Isolation

OKAY. THIS IS W-A-Y MORE THAN I SIGNED UP FOR! But here we are. Isolated. And spooked. (Or is that just me?) But that doesn’t mean we can’t connect. I sing the praises of my iPhone every day. It allows me to participate in online yoga classes, chat with friends while I walk (carefully maintaining a six-foot distance from all whom I pass), and feverishly check the latest updates from Italy to get a glimpse of our potential three-weeks-out future.

All of which is fine. Helpful, even. But I’ve noticed that—even during those virtual yoga classes—my attention is fragmented. Although I’m in regular communication with friends, I’m not sustaining much of a connection with myself.

Time, then, to get off my blessed cell phone and return to the simple practice of writing—in ways that have nothing to do with craft or publication and everything to do with creating that much-needed inner connection.

Writing to discover and connect

Many writers say they write to understand themselves better, to connect more deeply with their own thoughts and feelings. For instance, historian Daniel J. Boorstin said, “I write to discover what I think.

Natalie Goldberg also talks about understanding herself through the practice of writing. In the introduction to her first book on writing process, WRITING DOWN THE BONES, she says she made a pact with herself, “… to write what I knew and to trust my own thoughts and feelings and to not look outside myself.”

Writing prompts for inner connection

Because I turn to Natalie’s books time and again to remind me how to reforge my inner connection, I want to share a few of her exercises here with you. Any one of them might help you find your way in—into memory, into stories you’ve carried for a very long time, into the idea of a home that lives inside you. May writing provide you some measure of comfort and steadiness in these uncertain times.

I REMEMBER: In this exercise, Natalie Goldberg suggests we simply start writing from the phrase “I remember,” allowing it to trigger memories of a years-past event or one from just moments ago. The trick, as with all of Goldberg’s exercises, is to keep your pen (or fingers) moving for a full ten minutes—rewriting the phrase “I remember” any time you get stuck and allowing it to send you off in whatever new direction occurs to you.

OBSESSIONS: Writers,” Natalie says, “end up writing about their obsessions. Things that haunt them; things they can’t forget; stories they carry in their bodies waiting to be released.” Acknowledging the power our obsessions have—and the power we gain from accepting these aspects of ourselves—she invites us to list our current (or longest-lasting) obsessions. Name them. Bring them to light. Then, pick one and set out on the path it beckons you down. Tell all the truth you’re ready to tell—and not one word more.

WRITING ABOUT HOME: In this prompt from WILD MIND, Goldberg invites us to write about home—certainly an evocative topic and one that’s likely to bring us close to our own bone, which is exactly what we may be hungry for just now. Of course, we might want to write about our current home or one from childhood. But we could write about it “slant,” as Emily Dickinson would say. Or, as Natalie herself says, we could “Write about home and [don’t] write about any street, town, or city. Find another home.”

* * *

It’s funny, when I tried Natalie’s slant version, I easily found a home with no street address to write about. But, in sharing it here, I see I inadvertently dived into what she would call obsession—haunting stories I’ve carried—as well.

I want to write about the orange groves when I was a kid—all the young years I lived in Florida, but especially when I was fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, riding horses along dusty rows of cabbages, then slipping back into the shadowed orange groves, the aisles between the trees strung with citrus spider webs, the huge spinners swaying at the center of their webs, invisible to us, waiting for us to gallop through and forget to duck, and shriek and swat and swipe at our heads when their sticky webs got tangled in our long, teenage hair.

Looking back, all that memory is dim, less than a shadow, just a cataract over the present. But still, I wonder about those other kids. Ali and her brothers, Jake and Lyle—Jake, on whom I had such a crush.

And Pammy, round and always red-faced among all the narrow, jodphured adolescent girls; Pammy, who was too big for her small, light-boned Thoroughbred. Such a pretty little horse. And Pammy, so kind. She asked me once to hop on her small horse and take him over a jump he’d refused because she knew I’d be gentle with him.

(Oddly, although so much of my barn years is faded, disintegrating into dust even as I lift it to the sunshine of my attention, I can still hear Pammy’s nervous laugh. She, I imagine, became a lawyer, though I’m not sure why I think so. Still, I hope she’s happy.)

And the girl who took me home for sandwiches, and whose mom served us potato chips out of a brown Charles Chips drum. And the brother and sister who shared a horse—a big, bony chestnut. They were only a year or two older than me, but seemed so sophisticated. It was they who taught us, out behind the back barn, to hold our breath until we saw stars. That was their game. And smoking cigarettes.

And the steaming manure pile we feared would catch fire during the fierce white-heat of July. And the three-pronged metal hook that hung in the tack room, meant for cleaning straps—and the story: that one of its prongs tore through the white flesh of Jake’s upper arm, leaving a raw red scar. And the farrier—who noticed all the girls’ breasts and whistled softly at us while he trimmed our horses’ feet.

There was a bit of savagery at the barn. A bit of every kid for themselves—adolescent savagery and a hierarchy of adult alcoholics. And at the top of the heap was Mr. Reeves, with his huge gut and his rangy gray open jumper Storm Trooper, who left Mrs. Reeves and ran off with a stable hand and eventually broke his neck riding to the hounds in New Jersey.

A place like all the others in my world, where you had to look both ways before crossing—and it wasn’t the spiders that bit.

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