David comes to the door all smiles, water bottle and notebooks in hand. He has been writing all week and excited to share some of the experience with me: the a-ha! moments, the times the writing flowed, and when it didn’t. We have only an hour to meet, and these sessions, structured around David’s specified goals and intentions, focus on the process rather than the product of David’s writing stints; the getting started, the digging in, and the slogging on when the telling of his personal story becomes mired in deep and difficult emotion.
We start with a prompt, such as, “My writing week was…” or “Right now, I feel about my writing…” He writes for just a few minutes then shares all or part of his writing sprint—or none, and reflects instead on his physical and/or emotional response to the act of writing in this moment. As he reads or talks I jot down words or phrases that jump out—interesting turns of phrase, fascinating or curious metaphors—or the overall feeling the writing evokes. Sometimes his writing prompts a memory of something recently read or a connection to another idea or concept. Other times it is a mental image that pops into my mind. If it seems appropriate to the situation and to David’s needs, I share my thoughts with him. This either initiates a discussion or another short writing exercise.
Linda’s email arrives in my inbox just before I sit down to dinner. I quickly acknowledge its receipt and go on with my evening. When I open the attachment the next day, I find three, single-spaced pages of stream-of-consciousness writing related to the prompts I sent the previous week. It’s a lot to absorb in one go and usually takes a couple of read-throughs to pinpoint interesting phraseology, rich metaphors, and underlying themes which I place in notes on the side of her piece. Then, in light of her most recent writing and the goals and intentions we had established at the beginning of our coaching relationship, I send her a new set of prompts.
I share these two coaching scenarios—with two unique clients with different writing goals: one to write his life story, the other to become more confident in her writing and its ability to access wisdom—to highlight something I believe is essential to expressive writing: Trusting intuition through spontaneity.
Over the ten years since I was trained through the Center for Journal Therapy, and later earned a Masters concentrating in Transformative Language Arts from Goddard College, I’ve often struggled to brand myself, to have a simple answer to the question, “what do you do?” How does one easily explain an intuition-lead technique which helps create new personal narratives, transform painful memories to heal old wounds, access and process subconscious information, and initiate new mental and emotional connections by tapping into innate wisdom and creativity? Anyone who practices and/or teaches expressive or transformational writing knows that, ironically, putting what we do into words isn’t particularly easy.
Which is why, two years ago, when I attended the annual Power of Words conference held that year near Kansas City, MO, I was excited to hear a new definition of this work. On the second morning of the conference, the ninety or so attendees huddled up into informal “talking circles.” When one woman in our group told us about her Spontaneous Writing Group, my ears perked up. That word resonated with me. While it doesn’t speak to expressive writing’s often almost magical nature, “spontaneous” does define the method, or process, quite succinctly.
What Julia Cameron invites us to do in Morning Pages in order to out-run the Censor, and Anne LaMott implores us to do by writing shitty first drafts, Natalie Goldberg simply calls Writing Practice. It’s writing without stopping, without concerning yourself with what you’re writing or how you’re writing it, allowing the words to pull your pen across the paper. It’s connecting head to heart to hand (to use another Goldberg phrase) to get to the core of it, the kernels of truth, the gems of universal wisdom. It is spontaneous, it is intuitive, and it is the key to any transformative expressive writing.
I have since discovered that this concept works on the other side of the writing desk, so to speak. As a coach and workshop facilitator, I have learned over the past ten years that spontaneity on my part is also key to a beneficial session. As I listen to my clients share their writing, I take notice of what immediately springs to my mind: the images, associations, connections. I also—if the nature of the particular workshop is one in which a response of more than a simple “thank you” is appropriate—react to the phrases and metaphors that startle me in their uniqueness, beauty, or raw truth. I then trust that what has come to mind is worth sharing and will open the door for the client to make new helpful, creative, and healing connections.
Expressive writing, journaling, free-writing, whatever form one’s personal writing takes, is at its core about intuition—and trusting that intuition. Being spontaneous in one’s writing is acting on this trust and going for it by letting whatever words arrive in the mind land on the page. Coaching through these types of writing is no different: I must trust that my intuitive, spontaneous reaction to a client’s words is valid.
This is why I prefer to coach in person. Yes, I can react thoughtfully to a client’s words by reading them in a written document sent via email. But the opportunity to respond isn’t immediate and therefore lacks intuitive spontaneity. The client also misses out on an important aspect of personal writing: reading one’s own words out loud. This is usually when the felt-senses kick in as the client hears, in their own voice and resonating in their own body, the wisdom their subconscious has unearthed. And as the coach, I lose the opportunity to take note of important clues in the client’s body language.
Of course, a way to coach long-distance with the benefits of face-to-face is via Skype or similar video-calling method. Having found video chats awkward and therefore hindering spontaneity, I have yet to experiment with this method in my own coaching.
Whichever format for personal coaching you choose, the most important thing is the client’s safety. It is your obligation to provide the space, literal and spiritual, for your client to feel safe and free enough to write the words they need to write, quickly and spontaneously. This is the only way they will be able to hear, and trust, their intuition. While, of course, a skill-set combining compassion, observation, and discretion is vital to being a successful coach, trusting your own intuition is also essential. Learning to be aware of the thoughts, feelings, and connections which spontaneously spring to mind is to acknowledge them as coming from your own place of wisdom. It also acknowledges that, where there is trust, there can be an energetic connection between you, your client, and—to quote Ira Progoff—“the knowledge that lies beyond understanding.”
Joanna Tebbs Young, MA-TLA is a writer, expressive writing workshop facilitator, presenter, and coach based in Rutland, Vermont. Holding a MA in Transformative Language Arts from Goddard College and trained through the Center for Journal Therapy, she also teaches online for the TLA Network. Joanna writes a regular column for the Rutland Reader and has essays published in Mama Says, Rutland Magazine, and Chrysalis: Journal of Transformative Language Arts. Her first book, “Lilian Baker Carlisle: Vermont Historian, Burlington Treasure; A Scrapbook Memoir,” published in 2017, recently won an award from the Vermont Historical Society. She is currently writing a memoir. Joanna blogs about writing at wisdomwithinink.com and about local history at rutlandwhen.wordpress.com.