by Rachel Kobin
There are many factors that play into keeping the brain healthy, including regular physical and mental exercise, a nutritious diet, positive social engagement, and stress management. The sixth factor is keeping your mind engaged throughout your lifetime. The mental stimulation of activities like reading books and magazines, learning a foreign language, doing crossword puzzles, and writing can play an important role in preventing memory loss, dementia, and even Alzheimer’s. The focus of this newsletter is how anyone—writers and non-writers—can use writing for fun and brain health.
Writing for Non-writers
You don’t have to have any talent, understand grammar, or even have a large vocabulary to write for your brain’s health. Below, I’ve included a few of the many easy ways to expand on writing you may not even realize you’re already doing that could help you continue to experience the joys of what your healthy brain can do.
Using Lists to Write Regularly
Many of us keep to-do lists or shopping lists, but list-making can be a fun way to challenge yourself to do a bit of writing every day. Lists can evolve into journal entries and even become what’s called a “list poem.”
All of these list-making exercises can be done on paper, in a notebook, on your computer or laptop, or on your phone. You can even email yourself while you’re commuting on SEPTA. The “right way” is the one that works for you. Keep in mind that these are exercises for your brain. No one else ever has to read what you write, and you’re not trying to get published or even impress yourself, so withhold judgment and let it rip!
The Gratitude List
Reminding ourselves what is going well is a reliable way to boost your mood at times when money is tight or you’re feeling blue. Every day for one month, write down at least seven things for which you’re grateful. You might feel the only good thing that day is your cup of tea or coffee. That’s okay. Start there and look around. What or who else do you have in your life? If you’re having health problems, you may have to write down the parts of your body that are working rather than the ones that aren’t. What is going right rather than wrong? Keep going beyond seven if you can, and if you find it helpful, keep this up beyond a month. It’s perfectly okay to repeat items from day to day.
The Gratitude Poem
A sub-category of The Gratitude List, The Gratitude Poem uses the same first few words for each line of your list. For each thing you feel grateful, begin the line with “I love the way…” or “I have…” or start with a few words of your choice. Here’s an example (Okay, I’m going to just switch the last word of the last line to give it a tiny bit of pizazz, but I promise, I didn’t dwell on this!):
I love the way the breeze wafts over me.
I love the way my sheets feel after a long day of work.
I love the way my housemate laughs so loud at TV shows.
I love the way the cherries wait at the bottom of my yogurt.
I love the way my glasses make these letters bigger.
I love the way the children laugh on their trampoline.
Today, I love the way the sun shines.
The Daily Life List
Take a three-hour period of your list and jot down a list of what you did with no embellishment. Then, think back, and add details. If the first thing you wrote down was “1. Woke up,” try to remember if you were dreaming before you woke up. Do you remember what the dream was about? What did the room look like when you opened your eyes? Did you feel warm or cold? Could you smell food or coffee from the kitchen or did you have to do the cooking? How were you feeling about the day to come at that point? This can easily become a daily practice. Keep asking yourself to include more and more details about how things sounded, tasted, looked, felt, or smelled, and write down how you felt about as much as you can.
The People List
Keep a list of observations about the people you encounter as you go about your life, perhaps a school crosswalk guard or the supermarket checkout person. What do you notice? What details show up when you start paying more attention to those around you? Does your checkout person have thick glasses or move a bit slowly? Write about what that person’s life might be like because of something you observe. This exercise might even increase our compassion for others.
Writing Letters and E-mails
Another way to incorporate writing into your life is to write yourself a letter or email regularly or every day if you can. What do you want your older self to be able to look back on and remember? What words of kindness do you have for yourself?
Might there be a friend or loved one who would start an e-mail correspondence with you, one that doesn’t demand an instant response, but would include more of an in-depth interaction than what we get from Facebook, messaging, or texting? Before the advent of e-mail, we wrote letters to our friends and family who lived far away. It was expected that some time would pass between our responses. In fact, enough time elapsed between letters to allow for more to happen in each correspondents’ lives, which allowed for more surprises. You could use e-mail similarly to snail mail and promise not to expect an instant response, or you could even write letters on paper and send them through the mail. Imagine how nice it would be to receive a personal letter rather than a bill!
A Word About Writing Exercises and Prompts
You are in charge of your writing, so never feel penned in, pun intended, by a prompt or writing exercise; change it to suit your needs. You can change the wording or simplify it, using only one part at a time, and if it’s simply not working for you, try freewriting. Freewriting is the act of letting whatever is on your mind spill onto the page. Keep scribbling for as long as you can. In her famous book, The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron recommends writing like this for three pages by hand on paper, if you are physically able to do so. Writing by hand has been found to free us from criticizing our writing. This form of writing has a long-standing history of helping people get started with their day or get to sleep because it helps to clear our minds. No matter how you choose to integrate writing into your life, have fun with it!
Rachel Kobin has over twenty years of experience writing in a variety of professional settings. This July she attended a twelve-day writers’ conference where she attended a TV writing workshop, panel discussions and lectures about fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and publishing. As the founder and director of The Philadelphia Writers Workshop, she leads creative writing workshops at The Resiliency Center, and works with authors privately as an editor to help them make what’s on the page as brilliant as the ideas originally in their minds. To learn more, visit www.phillywriters.com or email her at Rachel@phillywriters.com.