Writing Your Way Out of the Dungeon of Despair

I shiver with cold dread at the sight of this picture. I took it myself four years ago, inside O’Brien’s Tower near the tip of the Cliffs of Moher in western Ireland. This day, our first full one on the Emerald Isle, was suitably dreary and gray, utterly mystical. Along with a sizable contingent from the much larger crowd of visitors staying within the official viewing area, we dared the “Beware of Bull” and “No Trespassing” signs to walk the mile or so out to the tip.

Since we had no guide, I could only speculate that the tower had been used as a dungeon. I felt trapped, claustrophobic and helpless in those confining walls, even knowing I could turn around and leave whenever I wanted. I felt frozen in place.

Recently a fellow writing group member mentioned that she was feeling stuck with her memoir project, and this picture came to mind. When she saw it, she immediately replied, “Yes! That’s it! That’s just how I feel — surrounded by dark stone walls on every side.”

Nearly anyone who takes writing seriously comes to such a point sooner or later. The five steps below outline a suggested map for finding your way out of the dungeon:

  • Put your project on pause. You won’t make any progress until you resolve the underlying issues.
  • Use freewriting or journaling to explore what’s holding you back. Begin with lists of whatever comes to mind when you ask yourself the question “What is keeping me from writing about (whatever)?”
  • Use Dr. James Pennebaker’s method for exploring each item on the list.
  • Continue journaling and writing until you find the “story” behind each obstacle. That story should result in a new perspective that sets your mind and heart at ease.
  • Seek professional counseling if you can’t get unstuck by yourself within a reasonable time.
You don’t have to be stuck on a writing project to benefit from this process. I intuitively stumbled on it over thirty years ago and have been using it sporadically ever since. What a delight to discover that over 200 scientific studies have validated its power to bring improved physical health along with serenity and happiness.

My friend is exploring her blocks, but she claims she’s making progress. Although her current writing is private, she reports that she’s finding piles of new material to write openly about soon.

By the way, the process above result in a fascinating change of view such as I just experienced when I did some research on the Cliffs of Moher and O’Brien’s castle. I learned that it was built for the entertainment of friends, complete with a marble table, parties and pipers. Who knew? I can see it differently now, and the dread is gone.

Write now: make a secret list of things that may be keeping you from writing important stories from your life. These are the stories that can have the most impact in advancing insight and personal growth, even if you never show them to a single person. Simply making the list and shredding it can be a hugely liberating act.


Amber Lea Starfire said...

Sharon, great post about writing through the dark, stuck places of our lives. I'm featuring it on this week's BlogTalk article, which will post on Friday the 17th (It's titled "Writing About Photographs and Obstacles"). Oh, and I put your Life Writing Tips in my sidebar. Thanks!

Sharon Lippincott said...

Thanks Amber. I hope everyone clicks on your name to visit your stellar journaling tips!

Bhaswati said...

What a compelling photo--in itself a great writing prompt. I loved how your perception of it changed when you found new information on the place. Thanks for sharing.

Sandra said...

Terrific post. Nice to be reminded that there's always a way out. It sure feels dark and dank when we're stuck in the writing dungeon. I will remember this photo, and the next time I feel trapped, I will recall that what may seem like a place of punishment can in fact be a party palace. It just takes a tiny (and massive) shift in perception.

Anonymous said...

Sharon, I love the image and the feeling it conjures. The fact that once you knew the history behind it, changing your perception, is interesting. It reminds me that when I fully investigate whatever is bothering me, I often find out it is not nearly so foreboding as I first thought. Thanks for a great post!

Sharon Lippincott said...

Thanks for all the appreciation. I don't know who gains more from writing that's shared, the author or the readers. Whatever the case, I love the way expressive writing lifts the water level and thus all the boats floating upon it.

JoAnn M said...

I'm fairly sure you referred to this in earlier notes, but the timing of having it come into range at this time is a gift. While I've always connected writing with being a therapeutic exercise, having the time frame of 'only' four days is an assignment that seems doable. The conversations that I have with myself at odd moments relates to the Byron Katie phrases you mentioned in a recent post also. Librans have an innate ability to see all sides of most issues and argue them equally successfully - making us fairly good members of a debate team, but horrible subjects when arguing our own beliefs or problems. My issue is frequently finding - no MAKING - the time to devote to the practice. I suspect it is fear - fear of finding the answers I have been avoiding perhaps akin to Marianne Williamson's line made more famous by Nelson Mandela in his famed address quoting her words from "The Return to Love" ... “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
I feel tremendously blessed to have the Internet to provide so much wisdom that I would likely not be motivated to locate if I had to do the physical labor of finding the repository. This moment is a stellar example of that for me.