You’ve no doubt heard the advice to regularly try your hand at word puzzles, Sudoku, and other games to keep your memory and cognitive skills sharp as you age. There’s some evidence to support that, and if it’s something you enjoy, all the better. But if you’re looking for an alternate way to flex your brain, you might want to consider establishing a writing practice.
That can sound a bit intimidating, especially if memories of big research papers in high school or college English classes make you cringe. Writing as an adult — with no pressure and no grades — is an entirely different ball game, however. It’s simple, low-key, and doesn’t require a big time commitment. Once you get started, in fact, you might even find yourself looking forward to your new regimen.
Janet Lohman, the 54-year-old dean for student affairs at Bowdoin College in Maine, first started a free writing practice while working on her dissertation years ago. In need of an outlet from her academic writing, she began writing poetry on the side.
“It slowly morphed into essays and journaling and it has always served as a way for me to put my ideas together,” she says. “My writing helps me think about how I communicate in a number of areas beyond my professional life.”
Today, much of how Lohman approaches her writing practice is loose and free, along the lines of writing instructor Natalie Goldberg, who encourages starting with a prompt. “It takes me places I don’t expect,” says Lohman, “and makes me pay attention to things I otherwise wouldn’t.”
This is just one of the benefits you can expect from regular writing. Jena Schwartz, a writing coach based in Massachusetts, says that another is slowing down, something we can all use these days. “Writing allows you to see what you’re carrying around,” she says, “something you wouldn’t notice at the regular pace of life.”
Writing can be a check in with yourself too. “We don’t really ever greet ourselves,” Schwartz explains. “This is a way to do that, to tune in and see what’s dominating our thoughts.”
Schwartz likens free writing to turning on an old faucet that hasn’t been used in a long time. “It takes a while for it to get going — you have to first get the old gunk out before things get flowing,” she says.
Once things are moving, however, you have a chance to pick up on emotions and issues beneath the surface, and flex creative muscles that might be falling dormant. “Writing makes room for the unexpected and that translates from the page to the day,” Schwartz says. “You’ll find ideas you didn’t know were there.”
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Ready to write?
Setting up a writing practice doesn’t require much beyond dedication, but starting is usually the hardest part. “People struggle with this — they have big expectations and that can be counter-productive,” Schwartz says. “Don’t get caught up in what you write, but rather on making it a habit.”
She suggests setting a 10-minute timer and letting go. Prompts can be useful jumping off points, and Schwartz says these can originate from a number of places. “You can open a book, pick a line from it, and go from there,” she says. “Or you can have a single, simple prompt that you work from every day.”
Start with “in this moment,” for instance, or “the truth is,” says Schwartz, who has a soon-to-be-released book of prompts in the works. “It’s nice to have a handful of these to work with,” she says. “You can even look out your window and see what inspires you.”
There’s also the option of working with a list, if you’re struggling to get started. “I like using a list of 11 things,” Schwartz says. “There’s something about numbering that creates structure.”
Lohman is a fan of prompts, and works from several she picked up at a writing retreat, as well as a Goldberg book. She works with pen and paper instead of a computer, and keeps her hand moving. “I also carry a small journal in my purse so that if something piques my interest, I can write immediately,” she says. “It might be short and quick and full of random things, but it creates small opportunities to practice.”
Schwartz says that writing by hand versus writing by computer offer different experiences, but either is fine. “Some people can’t physically write by hand,” she says, “but if you can, it’s good to experience both.”
When working on a computer, you might be tempted to edit as you go because it’s so easy. That’s where pen and paper work well. That physical handwriting also provides a different mind/body connection, which many people find beneficial.
No matter how you approach it, establishing a writing practice will enhance your life and keep your creative juices flowing. “Write without an agenda,” recommends Schwartz, “and see where it takes you.”