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what do i mean?

A few weeks ago, a group of us decided to dive into a writing workshop. Charles, our guide, invited us to tap into thoughts and feelings living just below the surface of our consciousness. “Please put your pen to paper and begin a conversation with yourself. You don’t need to do anything except listen.”

We lit a small candle, took a few deep breaths, and streamed Baroque music through the speaker. Then we began to write.There was a fascinating catch. Rather than writing in stream of consciousness, Charles asked us to pay attention to the words we wrote that made us pause. Then he instructed us to ask ourselves: “What do I mean by [fill in the blank with that word]?”

Then, we wrote the answer to our own question. It felt a bit awkward at first, but then I got the hang of having a dialogue with myself. The surprise of all that emerged from my response over about the next 20 minutes was mind-blowing. This was our first “Write.”

natural roots

Charles explained the research behind this transformative exercise. The work is called Proprioceptive Writing. In the late 1970’s, Linda Trichter Metcalf, a professor at Pratt Institute, noticed thoughts that distracted her from writing her dissertation. Instead of ignoring them, Metcalf began to jot down these thoughts on a piece of paper.  She discovered that these small notes were surprisingly helpful. She came to have a deeper understanding of the materials and, more significantly, herself. And so began Metcalf’s journey, now practiced by thousands across the globe.

In her book, Writing the Mind Alive, Metcalf and her partner, Tobin Simon, explain what happens, “In Proprioceptive Writing, we call it the auditory imagination—the capacity to enter your thoughts in an interested, non-judgmental way and gain awareness of yourself from them.” They contend that this capacity is one of the most valuable you can develop.

Following our “Writes,” each of us decided to read our pieces out loud, which made the words more potent and alive. The more particular and specific our words, the more we learned about our thinking. Words announced themselves, and then we asked ourselves, “What do I mean by __?” Giving attention to our own curiosity is healing and helpful.

hidden treasures

We left the workshop energized, and curious about what our next “Write” would reveal. It felt like we were on a scavenger hunt with an abundance of treasures. I wonder what you might discover in your first Write. If you’re curious, here’s how to start:

Materials you’ll need:

What you do:

  1. Light the candle, take a few deep breaths.

  2. Play baroque music (a 25 minute stream)—simple to find on Spotify.

  3. Begin writing whatever your mind tells you.

  4. When a word makes you pause, ask yourself, “What do I mean by_____?” (and write that phrase down, followed by your answer)

  5. After 25 minutes of writing, read your writing aloud to yourself or a writing partner.

  6. Repeat whenever possible. Once or twice a week is great!

hold still

Charles encouraged us to have a quiet space in our home set up with all the materials, so we have an open invitation whenever we want to dive in. Writing helps the words hold still. What do I mean by hold still? You’ll see.


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