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How journal writing can help you ‘Keep Moving’ through loss and uncertainty

By Jessica DuLong, CNN

No one was more surprised than poet Maggie Smith that writing herself a daily pep talk during the unraveling of her 18-year marriage actually helped her feel better.

Those little missives, notes-to-self tweeted out daily, resonated deeply with readers, who printed them, made them into screen savers, pinned them up on corkboards and refrigerators, and even stitched them into needlepoint.

That groundswell of response from people who wanted to hold onto Smith’s meditations led her to publish “Keep Moving: Notes on Loss, Creativity and Change.” The book’s success drove her to release the follow-up “Keep Moving: The Journal,” a 52-exercise workbook for cultivating hope and renewal, on October 26. With passages, prompts and blank pages, her latest publication is the formal incarnation of the DIY approach that some of Smith’s followers had already been practicing — using her words to spur them to write through their own challenges.

“It hadn’t occurred to me that a drowning person could throw anyone else a rope,” Smith explained, until readers convinced her otherwise. The proof shows on the page.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

CNN: A core part of your message is that even difficult times bring opportunities. How can we open our awareness to the good that so often accompanies the bad?

Maggie Smith: I want to recognize that it’s not easy or intuitive to be grateful for the good parts of the difficulty you’re going through. Sometimes, it can feel like an injury when well-meaning people call upon you to look on the bright side. You don’t have to snap straight into positive thinking from bad news, pain or grief. We all deserve a little time to wallow. But then what?

Writing is one way that I am able to get at those good bits. If I sit down to write a list of all the things I’m disappointed, enraged and frustrated about, it will be a long list. But then I also have to hold myself accountable to writing the other list — the “yes, and …” list that reveals the opportunities presented by the difficulty.

CNN: Writing has been your vehicle since long before your divorce and the pandemic. You say you don’t have a daily writing practice yet still you’ve managed to create the space to write your way through turmoil. What might encourage others to engage with the questions in this journal, some of which are hard?

Smith: I say in the introduction, “You do you.” I built this journal with 52 prompts. You could set a goal to answer one per week for a year. Pick which day and make it a self-care ritual. You might just throw this in your work bag, so you can open it and flip to any page whenever you have little downtime.

Or, if you want to immerse yourself and tear through it, you could work through this whole book in a week. The goal is open-ended. My hope is that the journal helps people crack something open in their brain.

I think one of the keys to both productivity and self-care is giving ourselves permission to do it the way that we want without harboring any guilt. Beating yourself up about not doing the journal defeats the purpose of having a journal to help you work through challenges.

CNN: One of my favorite lines in the journal is, “You deserve the compassion you extend to others.” What do you mean by that?

Smith: Sometimes we have an aversion to what we perceive as self-pity. But self-compassion is about treating yourself with the same care you’d give a friend — or even your enemy — if they came to you burdened with what you’re carrying.

If someone said, “I’m going through a terrible divorce,” or “I’ve lost my job,” or “I’m so depressed I can’t even shower,” I would not say: “What’s wrong with you?” Or “If you were a different kind of person, this wouldn’t have happened to you.” Or “Get it together. Look at your beautiful life.” But we sure say that to ourselves.

So much of “Keep Moving,” both the book and the journal, is about taking time and treating ourselves more kindly. After all, no amount of external positive reinforcement can overcome an inner voice that, frankly, lies to you. It is critical to examine that inner voice and call it out when it’s not being honest.

Sometimes it’s easier to grasp how terribly hard you’ve been on yourself when you see it in ink on paper. Imagine saying to a friend or a neighbor that withering thing you wrote down. You would never. So why are you saying it to yourself?

CNN: You write that repetition rewires the brain. What’s been your experience of writing as a vehicle for healing?

Smith: Sometimes we think of the mind as this floating thing, but the brain is a physical entity that we can rewire with our habits. You can literally change the way you think through committing to positive rituals every day, whether that’s meditating, taking a long walk, or writing.

CNN: Studies have shown writing about emotions can not only help heal stress and trauma but also boost the immune system. Research says taking notes in longhand is more effective than computer note-taking for storing information because typing “results in shallower processing.” Does any of that ring true for your experience?

Smith: That science makes so much sense to me. Because I don’t know how to type, the urge to write comes as the impulse to grab a pen and paper. There is power in seeing words in my handwriting. Even from a distance, I know they are mine.

Even the sound of my instrument on the page is part of my process. That little scribble-scribble sound as you’re furiously pressing your pen into the page is palpable, sensory, something real and not just in the ether. I’m drawn to that.

I didn’t use to consider myself a “journal-er,” but we’re all having to find different paths to self-care these days.

CNN: People dealing with all different destabilizing changes — death, divorce, job loss, chronic illness, sobriety struggles — have reached out to you to say they have found solace in your words. Why do the concepts in “Keep Moving” resonate with so many different life experiences?

Smith: We can all benefit from reframing difficulties to see the possibilities. If we only tell ourselves a negative story about what we’re going through, big or small, it is easy to get stuck in that story and wedged in other areas of life.

Life involves constant reassessment and recalibration. Even “capital C” changes like death, divorce or certain diagnoses involve smaller changes nested inside the larger ones. “Do I stay in the house?” “What do we do about the kids?”

Change is constant. The goal becomes finding ways to move forward through difficulties with a sense of positivity or hope, teaching ourselves to see even unwelcome changes not as wholly destructive but also as sites of creativity.

™ & © 2021 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.

Jessica DuLong is a Brooklyn-based journalist, book collaborator, writing coach and the author of “Saved at the Seawall: Stories from the September 11 Boat Lift” and “My River Chronicles: Rediscovering the Work that Built America.”

Article Topic Follows: CNN - Health

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