Cognitive Therapy for Writers: Behave Your Way Into Writing

Cognitive Therapy for Writers: Behave Your Way Into Writing

When it comes to writing, we so often undermine our efforts by thinking that we are not disciplined enough, educated enough, smart enough, skilled enough, or wise enough to call ourselves writers. We must find ways to change that thinking if we are to allow writing an important place in our lives. It matters that we write; it matters that we defeat the enemy of not writing.

Here are four strategies to help develop the kind of thinking and attitudes that are healthy for writers:

Strategy #1 — Treat Your Writing as You Would One You Love and Appreciate

I have read about people who called their journals a cri de coeur, a confidante, a listener, a therapist, a dream catcher, a bridge to self, and a skylight.

Years ago, I heard Jorie Graham read a love poem in which she addresses her lover as, “my love, my archive.” It is not hard to think that our writing can be our archive. And it is not hard to add more descriptors: soul-mate, mirror, chair, track to run, mountain to climb, tree to sit under, ocean to dive into, cove to snorkel, sky to fly in, telephone to call myself.

Whether you start drafts in a journal or using computer files, think about a pet name or phrase you might use for your collection of observations, beginnings, confessions, ideas and explorations.

Write a poem of appreciation and love to your writing using a strategy borrowed from Pablo Neruda. He wrote “I Name You Queen,” a lyric poem in which he addresses his love saying there are lovelier, there are taller, and there are purer than she. He says no one else sees her crown and the carpet of gold at her feet when she walks by. But when he sees her, he is stirred and the world is filled with hymns and bells. He ends his poem with three short lines:

Only you and I,
Only you and I my love,
Listen to me.

Try this:

  • At the top of a page in your journal or as a first line in a paragraph, write, “I name you ____________ (fill in the term you chose).”
  • Tell your journal all the ways she is not the most superlative among any called by the name you have given her.
  • Next tell your journal all the things you see in her that bespeak the name you have given her.
  • And finally continue with a description of what happens inside you as a consequence of her existence.

Here is what one writer wrote to a new journal about “her” name:

I Name You
by Amy Jo Greene

Today I name you JoMama. JoMama’s Journal.
There are more creatively catchy titles to give you.
There are easier names to call you.
There are no lesser pages of value in my house than you.
There are thousands of collections of my words lost without titles.
And there are journals with more wholeness of Amy or Jo.

But you are the new journal in the family of my writing life.
JoMama just seems to fit.

No one else sees the calm breeze you will cast across my hands.
No one else hears the words bounce like vivid multicolor
Hizzy tizzy fits on these blue college ruled lines.

No one else touches the voids of emptiness like you will
with your pages spilling over with me. My world.

And whenever I write in you, I will find the me who is lost
In days filled with the unexpected. Whenever I touch you, I will
Feel relaxed as I smooth the wrinkles from your pages,
Never worrying of your judgment. Whenever I pick you up,
I will fill you with me and ecstatically come back to you again.

Strategy #2 — Redefine the Relationship Between Money and Writing

We stumble when we think that our writing has to earn us money. It may, and we’d like that, but earning money isn’t why we are drawn to creative writing. By reflecting on a particular coin or bill, we can remember that the joy of unleashing our creativity is important all by itself.

Dimes: When I went out on my first dates, my mother always made sure I had a dime with me, mad money she called it. A dime bought you a phone call at the nearest telephone booth and that’s all it took, she said, if I felt uncomfortable with my date and needed a ride home. However, I always wanted the term mad money to mean I could do something really crazy if I wanted. I taped a penny into one of my early journals so I would remember the desire to do (write) something crazy.

Put some kind of money in the front of your journal or as an image on your computer. Then write about why you chose the particular money you did. You will find your choice has meaning for the journey ahead. Here are some examples:

A woman in one of my classes pasted a dollar to the cover of her journal. She told us a story about how when she was 8, she wanted to be an artist. Her uncle said if she could draw a picture of a cow that looked like a cow, he would pay her one dollar. She worked really hard at the drawing and when she was done, she presented the drawing to her uncle. “That doesn’t look like a cow,” he said. “You don’t deserve this dollar.” And he didn’t give it to her. “Now,” she said, “I’m paying myself in advance because everything I enter in my journal will be good enough and worthy.”

Another student put foreign currency from Spain, Holland, and Bulgaria in her journal. “I have worked so long in international finance, that I know how to convert these currencies into the currency of many countries. In my journal, though, I want to write what I don’t know yet. I am willing to enter into the mystery.”

Someone else also found foreign currency for her journal and taped it into the inside cover because foreign currency makes her feel as if she is traveling.

Another person taped a penny into her journal. This journal keeper remembered how in early grade school she and her friends would pick up pennies they found on the ground and be delighted with the treasure until older kids made fun of them. “Oh, you still stoop for pennies. What a baby.” It was no longer a pleasure to find this simple treasure. You either had to walk by pretending you didn’t care or hope no one saw you pick the penny up. Either way the fun and excitement went out of the sudden discovery of a penny lying by your feet. This journal keeper didn’t want to outgrow the innocence of being delighted.

And one more journal keeper put a quarter in her journal because that is how much a phone call was to stay in touch with others in her rural community when she was growing up.

Strategy #3 — Epigraphs Are Motivating

It is good to have on hand an epigraph (a short quotation or saying at the beginning of a book or chapter, intended to suggest its theme) that inspires your commitment to writing. A saying, a line from a song, a prayer, a poem, a quote from an author, actor or someone you know, or the fortune from a Chinese fortune cookie make good epigraphs because they set the stage for writing as inquiry. An epigraph is not an answer; it is an observation or question or logic that intrigues us and makes us want to find out more, through our writing, about our worlds, inner and outer.

Including an epigraph on the inside cover of your writer’s journal or on your computer’s screen saver is like christening a boat by hitting the neck of a bottle of champagne against the bow. It’s a congratulations and wish for a safe journey. It’s an emotional and philosophical jumping off place. Don’t worry about finding the perfect quote; there is probably one that has already come into your life.

Here’s a sentence I read in Dorothy Randall Gray’s Soul Between the Lines: Freeing Your Creative Spirit Through Writing that I have used as an epigraph: “There is a trickling of time in my life, a cascading mountain stream of moments that connect each spring and fall, each blossoming and harvest.” — Daneen Perry

Here are more lines I’ve liked as epigraphs:

“If you can’t decide on only one quote for an epigraph, put in several. Here are some more I’m fond of:

“How do islands float? Who invented shoes? Were shoes invented before cars?” — Austin Killien, Second Grade

“…if the poet’s subject be judiciously chosen, it will naturally, and upon fit occasion, lead him to passions the language of which, if selected truly and judiciously must necessarily be dignified and variegated, and alive with metaphors and figures.” –William Wordsworth

“I get to recall where the romance of rock collecting had lain: the symbolic sense that underneath the dreary highways, underneath Pittsburgh, were canyons of crystals–that you could find treasure by prying open the landscape.” — Annie Dillard

Strategy #4 — Exploring Issues of Commitment

Most important is your commitment to writing. Commitment means, according to Webster’s II New Riverside University Dictionary, “The state of being bound emotionally or intellectually to an ideal or course of action.” Emotionally and intellectually are good words for the writer to fuse. Keeping up one’s writing requires both an emotional and cognitive desire. A writer believes in the emotional pleasure they experience from words. A writer feels compelled to use writing as a way of thinking.

Commitment requires an engagement that restricts freedom of action. But the restriction of freedom is one we chose and are therefore willing to accept. If we are committed to our writing, we won’t choose to ignore it or drive it away or squelch it’s desire to live. We will bring it along into our days.

You can write journal entries or short pieces during a bicycle trip by stopping to write along the route or being sure to write just after you have completed the ride. This also holds true for those who take long walks. Or maybe you like to park your car by the ocean or a lake or a favorite park and watch the people or the birds. Write right there. Combine your writing time with other pleasurable time and you may have an easier time keeping your commitment to a writing life.

When we feel we are doing well at a task it is easier to stay committed to doing that task. It is not that the task is easy, but that we are capable of facing its difficulties and continuing in the hopes of improving. Anyone writing is likely at times to feel unhappy with their results. But that unhappiness doesn’t have to linger. We can change the feeling into one that will keep us writing.

You can do this now by writing two lists of words. First the list of descriptions you might be using to put yourself and your writing down:

  • procrastinator
  • boring
  • unimaginative
  • superficial
  • unsophisticated

Then replace those words with a call to action you can take to change the tone of your relationship to your writing:

  • I will check in on my writing every day, some days by rereading it, some by gathering memories and images and ideas, others by knitting that material into the whole.
  • I will replace dull sentences with observations that come in through my senses until I am one with the experience I am writing about.
  • I will trust my stories to lead me to new insights, though I have no idea yet what they are.
  • I will trust that what I want to write about will draw me below the surface if I keep writing.
  • I will remember that there is no need to be fancy to come to wisdom; there is no need to make myself sound important for my writing to be important.

Do this exercise whenever you find yourself allowing a negative word into your mind while you are writing or are thinking about writing or have written.

We believe that in relationship with someone we love, we develop into better human beings because our development feeds theirs and theirs feeds ours. It is possible to develop such a relationship with your writing.


If you adopt strategies like these four, I believe your writing will find a way to be written and that you will have become a non-judgmental listener to your words as you are writing them; in turn, your writing will grow rich in recorded experience. You will see that you really are a writer, because writers are those who write.

Sheila Bender

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One Comment
  1. Jon Olson:

    This is helpful. I especially like the strategy of naming your journal and writing to it, not just in it.