Write to Unclutter Your Brain

When not working with clients, The Practical Sort has been out and about meeting the most fascinating people.  Occasionally when I come across women-owned businesses offering complementary services that I believe could benefit my clients in some fashion, they will be featured in "What's On My Mind Today."  Feel free to drop me a note at sherri@thepracticalsort.com to let me know if you find this series helpful.  Let's see who is on deck this month.


Savor your beverage of choice and allow your hand and brain to experience an uninhibited rendezvous

Savor your beverage of choice and allow your hand and brain to experience an uninhibited rendezvous

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Universally clutter begins in one location, the brain.  The causes vary, the outcomes are typically the same.  If clutter begins in the brain what can we do sort it out.  Here is one option to shed the sh*t that could be weighing you down.

I meet the coolest people.  It's even cooler when the universe intervenes to arrange the encounter.  Earlier in the year I hosted a booth at an event to showcase The Practical Sort.  I raffled off a gift certificate.  The winner was Alyse Sweeney.  From there a coffee date to get acquainted has led to another tool for my self-improvement journey and another asset for my clients.  Alyse has published over 30 books, was an Editorial Director with Scholastic Books, and has worked her free-flow writing technique magic with organizations such as Zappos, Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, The Embracing Project (for teenage victims of sex-trafficking), and The Caring Place (for those affected by Cancer).  She is also founder of Write to Glow.

Writing has never been my strong suit, well to be honest, it has been more of a stress-inducing bane for most of my school years and adult life.  Non-fiction was much easier for me.  Find the facts, and massage them into a format that supports or refutes my position.  Fiction or emotional-based prose, NEVER!  Share my drivel with others, heck NO!  When inspired, my blogs and weekly practical tips fly out of my fingers because this is my game.  Then I met Alyse.

She invited me to experience her Write to Glow circle (you have got to be kidding).  Directionless writing or worse yet, responding to a nebulous prompt sent my knees quivering.  Then comes the kicker, she believes in community sharing, translation I will have to reveal the inner workings of my brain to a dozen strangers (and one dear friend who agreed to chaperone me as I knew this was something she would totally dig). 

The key element Alyse neglected to mention is that she is really offering a weight loss plan.  After my initial session, my head was 10 lbs. lighter.  So much garbled stuff swirled and clogged my thinking during the day.  That evening she popped the cork and out poured text.  No keyboards, no voice response, simply hard core pen and paper.  At first worried about how I would fill her time allocations, I found myself rushing to finish after the timer dinged throughout the 2 hours.  No wonder I felt lighter afterwards.  I'll allow her to explain the brain science which differentiates the benefits of handwriting vs. typing for self-expression.

As I sat in the room of women, some who knew each other and embraced the process, the rest of us were initiates, I was enamored by their poetic scribbles.  Despite my fears, I was light years beyond "See Dick Run, Run Dick Run!"  And I turned off my Monkey Mind, a mindfulness term Alyse refers to, and let my hand run wild and related my sometimes illegible thoughts as if I was sharing them with a dozen of my besties.

We all deal with stuff, physical or emotional or both.  Processing that stuff, fights with spouses, screw-ups on jobs, irritable children, piles of paper and detritus clogging our workspace frees us mentally and physically.  If you have never tried free-flow writing, set aside the inner critic and give it a whirl.  If you have never encountered Alyse, get ready to meet one of the neatest people you will ever encounter.  Read on...


The Practical Sort (PS):   Alyse, please explain free flow writing and why it is beneficial.

Alyse Sweeney (AS):  Free-flow writing, as I teach it, is a mindfulness practice.  Like yoga and meditation, it’s about noticing what arises in the moment, without judgement.  Simple, though not always easy, which is why it’s a practice!

You write briskly to a prompt and timer, ignore spelling, neat handwriting, conventions of writing, and essentially take dictation to the thoughts, feelings, and images that arise.

The benefits are you slow down and tune-in.  You empty your busy, distracted mind and create spaciousness.  You quiet your inner-critic voice, which allows you to hear your inner-wisdom voice.  You heighten your moment-to-moment awareness.  You enter states of flow which feed your creativity, problem solving, relationships, and self-understanding.  In a nutshell, you connect more intimately to yourself and your life.

PS:   For many people, writing is scary.  Coaxing those first words out can feel like removing a gem encased deep within cement.  When immobilized, how do you motivate someone to set aside the time and give oneself permission to embark on a modality that is frightfully uncomfortable or not in their wheelhouse? 

AS:  “I’m not a writer” or “I’m not creative” is what I hear most often when I share what I do.  Writing is scary, on some level, for ALL of us, because every person on the planet has an inner critic, whose job it is to keep us safe, small, and unexposed.  To free-flow write is to be vulnerable.  To be seen.  To self-express.  To say what you honestly see and feel in the moment.

To write with less fear requires telling our inner-critics to take a hike when we put pen to paper.  There are many tricks and techniques to work with your inner critic, which I share in my free guide, 12 Ways to Quiet Your Busy Mind with Free-Flow Writing! (click to access).

Another tip to write with more freedom and ease is to realize that free-flow writing is not really about writing!!  And it’s certainly not about writing well or writing creatively (though free-flow writing is one of the best ways to tap into your creative flow and voice!)

Free-flow writing is really about noticing what’s alive in you – in your mind, your emotions, your body, and your immediate environment through your senses.  Whatever you notice, jot it down, like a stenographer!  No writing experience or special skills needed.  When my inner-critic is particularly loud and nasty, I remember, “Oh yeah, I’m just taking dictation right now.”

PS:  My daughter is a creative.  In her younger years, she loved writing until as she claims, her school teachers “beat it out of her” bogging her down with process and formats robbing her of her imagination and desire.  She realizes there is a place for the formalities.  When I told her about the circle, she immediately shunned it stating that street is closed.  How do you reconcile writing within the lines and soul-crushing restrictions?  Remind me to tell you someday about “squirrels have no friends”.

AS:  Your daughter’s story is so common!  Damn those red pens scribbled all over our school papers!!  In Write to Glow, I stress that we’re looking to write what’s real and true for us, not what’s “correct” – and this includes conventional-writing correctness, spiritually-correctness, and politically-correctness. It’s all part of quieting our inner critic, who is going to have something to say about our spelling or grammar or the fact that we’re not writing in complete sentences, unless we lay down the rules.  And the rules of free-flow writing are: there are no rules, except one, and that is to follow the thoughts, images, feelings, and sensations to discover what’s real for you in the moment (and to not care what others think!)

PS:  I mentioned in the intro that to me it feels like you are offering an emotional weight loss experience.  I don’t imagine I am alone in that contention.  I do a variety of mindfulness techniques, why is releasing thoughts onto paper such a cathartic evolution?

AS:  I love how you describe what I refer to as “emptying on the page.”  It DOES feel like emotional weight loss when you put pen to paper.  And we ALL carry around some degree of emotional weight, whether from fear and worry, busyness and overwhelm, and/or a loud inner-critic.  Free-flow writing acts as an antidote and sweet balm.

A few days ago, I listened to an On Being interview with French philosopher and writer, Alain de Botton.  He said, “I’m one of those people who, as a child, emotions perturbed me, and for many of us out there, when something goes wrong, what’s the first thing they want to do?  They want to be alone.  Probably with a piece of paper and a pen and write stuff down.  And they may not even have aspirations to publish, it’s just the most soothing, calming, redeeming thing you can do.  And that for me was the origin of writing, long before there was a book or a publisher, there was a need to write because writing was consoling, calming.  By interpreting emotions, I got a handle on them and they seemed less threatening, less alienating, less hurtful.”

What amazes me about free-flow writing is how quick and easy it is to shift our energy from contraction to openness.  When I simply name the angsty emotion (In this moment, I feel ____ hurt /overwhelmed /exhausted /resentful) and honestly describe the experience, I feel lighter. Clear-er. Free-er.  The angsty feeling quiets down.

Conversely, when the emotion is a note at the other end of the scale, (In this moment, I feel ____ grateful / proud / energized / loved) – those emotions actually amplify.  How cool is that!!

PS: Is there truly a difference to the brain between handwriting our thoughts vs. typing or verbally expressing?

AS:  So I’ve read. Apparently different parts of the brain light up when we write longhand than when our fingers hit computer keys.

For me, longhand feels more embodied. It’s the feel of the pen in my hand, the movement of my hand across the page and the feel of the paper on my skin. It’s the thoughts, feelings, images, and sensations moving through me, passing through my center – my heart – then down my arm, into my hand, and onto the page.

I also like the idea of writing in the way our ancestors wrote!

That being said, typing works, too. It’s a personal preference. But in my Write to Glow circles, we’re old-school -- pen to paper.

PS:  The uninitiated breaks through the initial deer in headlights, but then you go for the introvert’s proverbial jugular.  Community sharing vulnerabilities, struggles, even successes nearly stopped me dead in my tracks, but I made a commitment to myself to push beyond my security boundaries.  Why and how is this important, oopsI just felt a hot flash surge obviously it still stokes anxiousness at some level.

AS:  A solo free-flow writing practice is great.  It’s powerful.  I write most every day for my eyes only.  But communal writing is a wholly (and holy) different experience.

Once I got a taste of communal writing at a week-long Natalie Goldberg retreat in Santa Fe (she’s considered the queen of writing practice), I was hooked and wanted to experience it with others when I got home.  When I didn’t find a similar writing circle, I decided to share the communal practice with others and create writing circles.

The reason writing and sharing with others is transformative in a way that writing alone is not is embedded in Brene Brown’s research on vulnerability.  Our power and deep sense of wellness and wholeness lies in our ability to be vulnerable – to be authentic and seen by those around us – and similarly, to witness others with open hearts in their vulnerability.  Write to Glow, then, is as much a vulnerability practice as it is a writing practice – which is also a creative practice, a spiritual practice, and a mindfulness practice.  Essentially, we are writing to know and experience ourselves in all the ways that matter and allowing ourselves to be witnessed in the process.  It’s truly a unique, (and addictive!), way to connect to yourself, the moment, and others.

PS:  Have any of your participants deep in their writing trance excavated a traumatic event and if so, how do you respond when the devastation resurfaces? 

AS:  Hmmm… I don’t think of emotional content that arises as ‘trauma’ and ‘devastation.’ I do see emotional content arise, and often by surprise, which is the beauty of the prompts. They take us through the side-door into our psyche’s and we really don’t know what wants to be expressed, known, or released.

Tears are always a sign of tapping into emotional content that wants to be witnessed.  Though some people feel ashamed or embarrassed to cry, from the group’s perspective, tears are a welcome part of that “emotional weight loss experience” you mentioned earlier.

Part of the beauty of a WTG Circle is feeling safe to show up fully human, just as we are, in the moment, just as it is.  All sharing is voluntary.  And we listen without comment.  So, if a woman shares something deeply emotional, I encourage her to read through the tears and get to the other side, where she’ll discover that being witnessed is quite healing.  Though our details are all different, at the end of the day, we are more the same than different.

PS:  Will you please share some examples of transformative occurrences from your circles and how that made you feel? 

AS:  I’ll share yours!  You expressed your discomfort in the circle about reading aloud.  And yet you did it.  What we all saw, I believe, was you conquering a fear, and experiencing the power of that on the other side.  You shared yourself, and you not only survived, but if you were like me my first time sharing, and countless others who attest to this, you thrived from feeling seen in this unique, intimate way.  I see this again and again.

The other thing I notice is how the group collectively routes for, and supports with their presence, anyone who’s inner-critic is excessively beating them up and filling them with self-doubt.  We can all relate, and we’re all in this life-long practice of managing our fear and self-doubt – both in the notebook, and in all aspects of our life.  I see a WTG Circle as a laboratory for being just a bit braver when we walk out than when we walked in – and using that bravery to feel more free and more alive elsewhere in our lives.

PS:  How do you avoid succumbing to the weight of shed emotional baggage?  I imagine your pen is ready as soon as the attendees depart.

AS:   Ha! Not at all!  I feel incredibly nourished by the sharing, the listening, and the female energy.  Plus, there’s generally a gorgeous balance of lightness, humor, and tears.  It’s the highs and the lows and all the notes in-between that makes for an intoxicating circle.

PS:  For full benefit, how often, how long, and prompt or no prompt?

AS:  When I write on my own, I use a timer when my mind is particularly spazzy and distracted.  Otherwise, I drop into the prompt ‘In this moment…’ and let it roll.  I may write for a few minutes, or 10, or 20.

PS:  Final question, as an organizer, many of my clients have stacks of papers, notebooks, etc.  Do you encourage saving the writings to occasionally revisit or is it ok once the thought stream is undammed to let it cascade away?

AS:  It’s a personal preference, but what you just described, write and release, that’s me 100%.  Plus, I can’t read my writing, so it’s incredibly frustrating to go back to see what I wrote.

PS: Thank you Alyse for sharing your gifts, free-flow writing technique, and wisdom with us.


Remember to check out Alyse's website here and consider trying her WTG Portland Circle if you have even an inkling of curiosity.  She serves wine and truffle popcorn to the intimate circle of 12, and the first circle is always free!  If you’re not in the Portland, Oregon metro area, you can join Alyse’s monthly WTG Zoom-Room, an online writing circle held first Thursdays at 9:00 a.m.  Also, feel free to reach out to Alyse for guidance on free-flow writing, privates, and customized writing circles.  And… she offers rejuvenating retreats where you can meet and learn from her in person even if you live across the miles.

If you suspect that your brain is bogging down your organizing efforts, free flow writing may be the key snuff the sabotage.

If you need assistance organizing all those papers, notebooks, journals, diaries, please contact me at ThePracticalSort.com to schedule your free phone consultation to get your physical space sorted too.

# AlyseSweeney, #WritetoGlow, #WritingCircles #BreneBrown, #NatalieGoldberg, #alaindebotton