Write Mind: Prompts

It would not be an exaggeration to say that words saved my life on more than one occasion. A poem, a song lyric, a story or essay reflected back a truth to me about myself or drew me, blessedly, outside myself. It took me years to realize their necessity...How words could help me dig my way out of a cave or forge an intimate bond with a perfect stranger. writing is expression, and expression is connection, and through these simple tools we can swap stories about what it means to be alive, with our fellow travelers.

I was not surprised to learn, as an adult, that writing could measurably (scientifically) enhance mental and physical health. Expressive writing –the kind that unearths and shapes meaning from the human experience--deeply impacts the lives (and healing) of people enduring all kinds of suffering. Check out the work of Professor James Pennebaker at the University of Texas at Austin, who has studied the impact of written expression on patients for over 20 years (https://pennebaker.socialpsychology.org/publications) or Professor Joshua Smyth of Syracuse University (https://www.indiebound.org/book/9781557989109), to learn more.

I know writing and healing go together because I’ve seen and felt it first-hand. As an educator, social worker, and writer, I’ve been granted the privilege of leading writing and healing groups for years. If you're living in Silicon Valley and dealing with cancer, check out the group I currently facilitate at the Stanford cancer center: https://stanfordhealthcare.org/events/writing-your-cancer-journey.html

Below, you’ll find a series of prompts: invitations to write on various topics. I’ve developed these prompts from themes tied to illness, but if you've survived anything, you can relate. Swap out your joy, trauma, or fill-in-the-blank with the topic of “illness”, and you'll find an entry point. You can use these to springboard a regular writing practice, or use them at random when the spirit moves you. Write for 10 minutes or write for an hour. Write in your pajamas or in your business casual attire.

Just remember,  it’s generative writing—in the moment, spontaneous, fresh. That means you have permission to rebel against the normal structures of polished writing: break the grammar code, spell with flagrant disregard for conventions, don’t criticize or ask questions. Simply let the pen move…or the keyboard tap, listen to what comes and honor it.

1.      "This might be the most difficult task for us…not to look away from what is actually happening.  To put down the iPod and the e-mail and the phone.  To look long enough so that we can look through it—like a window." -Marie Howe

What do you see when you look through the window? This could be the literal pane of glass that is closest to you now, or it could be the experience of putting down the gadgets and busyness of your life to experience a singular moment that is available to you right now.  What lives there? What is actually happening?

2.      James Altucher, author and entrepreneur, describes how our deeply clung-to labels can be little more than vanities, in the face of losing them: “You were a doctor? You were Ivy League? You had millions? You had a family? Nobody cares. You lost everything. You’re a zero. Don’t try to say you’re anything else.”   

Finding ourselves at "zero" can be humbling, devastating, or perhaps--liberating. Here begins the process of self-reinvention.  Write about losing everything--or coming close to it. Set the clock for 15 minutes and go. Then, for another 15 minutes (or longer) write about reinventing yourself. Where does one start? What does it look like? What does it mean to build a new self, after great personal loss?

3.       “Faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase.”  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Illness can challenge our deepest reservoirs of faith. Maybe we have faith, or maybe we don’t. When we’re called upon to consider our mortality in the immediacy that illness provokes, faith can be our greatest comfort…or our biggest challenge. Write about faith.  Faith in outcomes, faith in doctors, faith in treatment, faith in a higher power or faith in yourself.  How has your faith been bolstered or challenged in the face of illness?  What, if anything, have you come to understand about “taking the first step even when you can’t see the whole staircase?

4.      Author Tom Robbins reveres the mockingbird’s ability to create, to “rearrange reality”, which I find pretty marvelous too. Consider this passage from his book, Skinny Legs and All: “Mockingbirds are the true artists of the bird kingdom. Which is to say, although they’re born with a song of their own, an innate riff that happens to be one of the most versatile of all ornithological expressions, mocking birds aren’t content to merely play the hand that is dealt them.  Like all artists, they are out to rearrange reality. Innovative, willful, daring… the mockingbird… recreates the world from the world.”  

Illness rearranges our reality without our consent.  Yet the new reality doesn’t have to be bleak or bitter. Maybe we can be like mockingbirds—not content to simply play the hand dealt us. During and after illness, we might choose to recreate the world from what it was before. Even if we cannot physically rearrange our lives or circumstances necessarily, there may be an internal shift: radical or subtle, invisible, inventive.  Write about ways in which you recreate the world for yourself—from small to big “rearrangements of life”, with illness in the picture (or in the rear–view mirror).

5.      Major life events churn our emotions. At times, it might seem like there's a giant, moving corkscrew inside. A feeling comes, and it if it's hard to bear, we might expend a lot of energy pushing it down, out, away. Maybe we've been told to "stay positive" or "be strong" so many times, that sadness, anger, or fear seem like some kind of defeat. But they are not. They are authentic messages from inside, and when we try to deny them, suffering comes.  Author Alan Cohen sums it up nicely: “You empower what you fight. You withdraw power from what you release.”

Write about emotions churning inside you now. Or write about what you're fighting...and what you can release, to get some power and energy back today.

6.      I remember the final meeting with my oncologist after treatment ended. He sat patiently, listening to my concerns, answering my many questions. We looked at my latest round of scans and blood work. He told me what to expect.  I waited to hear the magical word, but he never said it.  Before leaving, I turned to him and asked, “So—am I CURED?” The word hung in the air like a firework, waiting to ignite. I wanted the celebration; the dazzling colors. “We don’t really use that word anymore,” he answered...then added meekly, “there is no evidence of disease at this time.” I didn't get my firework, but I felt eternally grateful to locate myself in this new category.  He explained that because of the small chance, even after 5 years, of a recurrence—doctors are reluctant to use the language of “cure”. 

Uncertainty is the bane of cancer...and life. Prognosis is based on statistics, and no one can truly tell us—as individuals—what’s in store for our particular journey.  We are mortal. Write about living with uncertainty—how have you come to terms with this aspect of your reality?  What helps get you through --not knowing what will be—as you awaken each morning to a new day?