10 Ways Writing Helps Develop the New You

by Jerry Waxler

Until my mid-40s, I was so shy, I spent most of my spare time reading and writing. As I grew older, I tried to improve my social skills. The most important step was to go back to school and earn a Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology, where I learned a variety of techniques to relate to people, especially the fine art of listening. I also completed the program at Toastmaster’s International to overcome my fear of public speaking. Then I started teaching workshops, shifting my lifelong passion for learning from the back of the classroom to the front. My efforts to connect with people have turned the years after 50 into some of the most vigorous and interesting of my life.

And yet, even in these years of social involvement I continue to spend time alone, writing. My words create a sort of social currency, allowing me to share myself in surprising ways. In fact, putting words on paper makes the rest of life richer and more fulfilling. It’s not a result I would have expected, but here it is, an exciting discovery, especially in the internet age when we have so many ways to offer our writing to each other. In fact, writing has turned out to be such a valuable self-development tool, I would like to share ten of my observations with you.

1. Improving writing skills is a never ending job (and that’s a good thing)

Writing is a part of life. We fill out applications, and write emails. An employer or teacher may have directed us to write. At times, we write to a larger audience, for example with a letter to the editor, or a newsletter article. Strangers expect interesting, clear phrasing, and so we strive to give them our best sentences, word choices, timing and rhythm. The challenges are infinite, and so are the emotional and intellectual rewards.

2. Learning connects you with energetic peers

Conferences, workshops, and classes invigorate our writing skill as well as our connection with fellow learners. By taking classes, we affirm the importance of knowledge and open the gates to acquire more. Our early education turned us from babies into complete humans, and later education makes us more completely human.

3. Writing about favorite topics creates online micro-communities

The thousands of students and teachers at the University of Wisconsin in the 60’s offered endless opportunities for debate and study. Now the internet restores this stimulation. Without leaving home, we write what’s on our mind, and those who share our interests gather and discuss.

4. Serve causes and community

Information is the lifeblood of a community, motivating us to place our energy where it’s needed, and enabling us to make crucial, complex decisions about social policy. In the television age, newscasters provided information while we sat silently on the sofa. In the internet age, we play a more active role. By writing and publicizing, we weave our perspective into the fabric of culture and community.

5. Develop brain cells

Since the mid-90s scientists have learned the incredibly exciting fact that the human brain can generate new connections at any age. “Use it or lose it” now applies just as much to brain cells as it does to biceps and triceps. Writing forces us to coax words out of storage, to imagine situations, to develop clear sentences. It keeps the language centers alert, sustaining the skills we will appreciate in the years ahead.

6. Explore inner space

Writing, like meditation, familiarizes you with what goes on inside your own mind. Whether you’re trying to ease mental worries or trying to gain some sense of organization or control, writing lets you plumb the depths of your interior.

7. Learn almost anything by writing

If you want to deepen your knowledge about a topic, write about it. As you try to explain your material to a reader, you must develop the logical flow that ties it together. Gradually you increase your expertise in the subject, learning by teaching.

8. Improve self-management skills

When you work for a paycheck, your boss keeps your nose to the grindstone. When you write articles or books, you are your own boss, and so, you must establish your own goals and rules. The self-management skills that get you to the desk will help you accomplish goals in other areas of life, as well.

9. Life review – “I am the person who lived this story”

Who you are today is the sum total of the life you lived so far. To find that sum, write about it. By scanning memory and collecting the story, you find fascinating strengths, connections, and challenges, jewels amidst the refuse pile of old memories, creating a more nuanced appreciation for where you’ve been and who you are.

10. Write the story of who you are going to become

An important turning point in my life came from the practical suggestions in the book “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen Covey. One of his techniques was to write a mission statement. Writing lets me clarify vague images and flesh in details. As I see the story develop, I can hold it up to the light, turn it this way and that, shape it, and use it to help me fulfill my dreams.

Leave a comment:
How has writing helped you find energy, connection, insight, peace, or any other value you would like to share?

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on this blog, click here.

To order my short, step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

“Find meaning through service” or “Making peace with the peasants of Pakistan”

by Jerry Waxler

(You can listen to the podcast version by clicking the player control at the bottom of this post or download it from iTunes.)

In his poem, “Second Coming,” W. B. Yeats made an incredibly discouraging statement. “The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” It seems fair for a European continent ripped apart by war in 1920, but does it foretell the state of the world as it exists today? I hope not, and that’s why I was so encouraged by Greg Mortenson’s memoir “Three Cups of Tea.” In it, Mortenson is the guest of honor at a fund raiser, where he is introduced by Jon Krakauer, the mountain climbing author of “Into Thin Air.” Krakauer said “Yeats may be right that the worst are full of passionate intensity but he was wrong about the best lacking all conviction. As proof, I present Greg Mortenson.”

Greg Mortenson started out his life of public service by narrowly missing the peak of K2. On his way down, he lost his way and was taken in by villagers in the Pakistani mountains. Mortenson fell in love with the poor people who protected him. He loved their deep values, their willingness to care for strangers, their loyalty to each other, and above all, their desire for learning. To the people who cared for him that night, he vowed to return to build a school for their children. Serving these children became his life’s work.

This was in the early 90’s when climbers were the only westerners interested in the villages of Pakistan. In the following years, while Mortenson struggled to raise money to build schools for poor children, radical Islamicists also noticed the poverty in this area. Men with suitcases filled with cash came to fund a different kind of institution, which included curricula in automatic weapons, bombmaking, and the virtues of suicide. While Mortenson was striving on the basis of a few donations to develop their minds, oil money was pouring in to harvest these same kids as soldiers in the coming war against the west.

“Three Cups of Tea” is a book about the struggle of one man, and also a passion play about the struggle of civilization in the twenty first century. The great powers square off. One side attacks villages in hopes of killing villains, while the other side harvests the sons and brothers of the dead, anointing their revenge with the seductive promise of martyrdom. Meanwhile, Greg Mortenson pours his life into educating the children, seeking to convert them from human fodder into citizens of the world.

Inspirational – Uphill, against all odds
After returning to the States, he earned a living as a nurse in Berkeley, California, while writing hundreds of letters to philanthropists, one by one on a typewriter. Pakistan was literally on the other side of the world and it would be easy to imagine him becoming discouraged and forgetting his promise. But his tenacity turned into obsession, and he continued to fight to achieve not what was easy but what was right.

Growing up in Africa, with a father who started a hospital and a mother who started a school, Greg accepted in his bones the value of devoting his life to serving others. His hero was Mother Theresa whose mission was to care for the poorest of the poor. Greg Mortenson seems to have found his stride in fulfilling that ideal. While he didn’t reach the top of K2, his journey comes close to the pinnacle of what one human can achieve, and renews my faith in the potential goodness of humanity.

War stinks, “collateral damage” equals human tragedy
In his book “Achilles in Vietnam,” about the trauma of war, author Jonathan Shay said, “Demonize the enemy at your peril. It’s bad for your strategy, and bad for your own moral fiber.” Forty years after the Vietnam war, we are demonizing the enemy once again, portraying terrorists as dupes and soulless fools. Mortenson’s book is filled with deeper insights into the culture wars of the 21st century. When we look at the villagers of Pakistan and Afghanistan through Mortenson’s eyes we see multi-dimensional human beings with hearts, families, and dreams.

When he stumbled into the village the day he was lost, he was a stranger in a strange world. Perhaps because of his childhood in Africa, his first instinct was to meet them on their own terms. There is a saying in those mountains. “The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger. The second time, you are an honored guest. The third time you become family.” Greg Mortenson shared far more than three cups of tea with these people.

Mortenson’s situation was not without danger. He asked his tailor to teach him how to pray to Mecca. Later, in a village mosque he discovered the tailor had taught him the Sunni way and these were Shiites. He thought, “people have been killed for less.” But these villagers knew him, and their friendship gave him all the protection he needed.

Things were riskier when he ventured into a remote area of the country without an introduction from an insider. He was kidnapped for 8 days by a local warlord, until they verified that he was indeed the infidel who built schools for Pakistani children. When they released him, they gave him money towards his building fund.

On two occasions, he was the target of a fatwa issued by a local mullah, making it a blessing to assassinate him. The only apparent way to reverse the ruling would be to pay a substantial sum of money. Instead of surrendering to this extortion, he appealed for protection from the top clerics of the Shiite religion. With the help of several village leaders, he asked these Iranian religious authorities to sanction his effort. After investigating his work, they sent back a ruling that said there was nothing in Muslim law that forbade an infidel from helping Muslim children. The top Shiite leaders formally gave him their blessing.

When terrorists attacked the World Trade Center, Mortenson was in Pakistan. He was swarmed by village women who offered tearful condolences for the loss of American lives, and was surrounded by men who offered to protect him. According to Mortenson the local villagers expressed disgust for bin Laden, seeing him as a troublemaker who had no interest in their welfare, and only cared about his own twisted agenda.

Mortenson, feeling more urgency then ever, decided to stay in Pakistan long enough to oversee details of his charity work. But when he went to the American embassy about a passport problem, he was ushered into a room and interrogated by the CIA. Their insinuating line of questioning made me wonder how easy it might be for them to lock him up with the other detainees in Guantanamo. He really did look like he was consorting with “terrorist types” if by “terrorist” you mean “Muslim peasant.” When the interrogators realized Mortenson knew the Pakistani mountains, they asked him where bin Laden was hiding. I guess it didn’t hurt to ask, but to a reader of “Three Cups of Tea,” their inquiry seemed desperately out of touch with the possibilities Mortenson was offering.

I thought how sad that the CIA operatives interrogating him could not see the whole picture. The man in front of them, full of passionate intensity, had developed and was carrying out a plan for world peace, at least one of the best potentials for it that I’ve heard. Instead of asking him to teach them what he knew, they asked him where they should drop a bomb. I guess this might be what W. B. Yeats wrote about in his poem. Now I wonder, as we move into the twenty first century, which side will win.

Writing Prompt
List peak experiences of your life, such as joy, accomplishment, or overcoming fear. Portray your approach to these peaks as if you were climbing a mountain, and recount the journey to the top. Were there moments when it seemed you would never make it, or you wanted to give up? Consider times when a positive outcome seemed impossible. Such moments add depth and texture to the story, and create a more meaningful experience for your readers.

Writing prompt
Consider the goal of writing your memoir. Like a long mountain road, that winds and climbs upward, look at the journey now as a step along the way to your final outcome. Imagine you just published your memoir. Get into it. Read the acceptance letter. Go to the bank and deposit the check. Attend your first book signing. What would you tell the audience member who asked you how you overcame the obstacles and completed your book.

Writing Prompt
When did you visit some other neighborhood or country and feel like a foreigner? What was it like? What did you do to try to feel more included?

To listen to the podcast version click the player control below: [display_podcast]