For some people the write and burn process is another powerful tool within the expressive writing arsenal, but for others it is something far more esoteric, such as a pyrotechnic exorcism performed on the eve of a full moon or on New Year’s Eve. If you want to go down the full-moon exorcism route, that’s cool, but for this article we’ll be focusing very much on the expressive writing version of this powerful, and potentially life-changing tool.
Before we dive into the mechanics, and more granular details of the write and burn tool, let’s look at the situations where this tool has the potential to hit a home run.
“The purpose of the writing is to release your repressed negative energy, the negative emotions, self-pity, repetitive anger, blame, forgiveness, whining, and all the petty stuff that you can think of that is bottled up inside of you.” — Diana Rinkoff
A typical example would be releasing the negative energy left by adverse childhood experiences (ACE) such as:
• domestic violence
• substance misuse by a member of the household
• divorce or separation of parents or caregivers
• mental illness of a member of the household
• having a member of the household go to prison
But it isn’t just childhood experiences, or even events from the dim and distant past, that Write and Burn can help with. It can also be amazingly useful for current life events.
Sally is in the middle of a nasty divorce. Each day she sees a new injustice piled on top of injustices from previous days. On a scale of one to ten, her ex-husband is a ten on the hatred scale, and his obnoxious divorce lawyer is only a few points behind. This hatred is building up like the steam in a pressure cooker. At the end of every day she arrives home and just wants to scream, smash plates and pottery, or maybe thump a hole in a door or throw a brick through her ex’s window. This is the kind of repressed negative energy we are talking about.
What Sally is feeling is a very in-your-face version of this negative energy, but for many the suffering and repressed feelings can be much more subtle.
Mark works in an accountancy office. Each day he turns up for work a few minutes early as he hates to let anyone down. His boss tends to drift in half an hour to an hour late. This niggles Mark a little, but he tries to not let it spoil his day. What annoys him more is his how his boss blames him for things he is clearly not responsible for. For example, if a set of books is delivered to the client late, the boss will question why Mark didn’t get his bit done sooner, even though Mark did his part of the work to the agreed timescales, and that it was the boss who left the draft accounts in his inbox for several days too long. Over the years these frequent little niggles have chipped away at Mark’s passion for the job, and he is now seriously considering resigning.
Some people might look at Mark’s situation and wonder what the big deal is, and even Mark might agree that taken individually none of the issues are that big a deal, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that each little comment or dig from his boss adds up and over the years these molehills have piled on top of each other to make the proverbial mountain.
It doesn’t matter whether you are working with an adverse childhood experience, in the middle of a major life trauma like Sally, or just experiencing the trials and tribulations of everyday life, Write and Burn can usually help in some way if you give it a shot.
The primary benefit of the write and burn exercise is to clear blocked negative energy, and in so doing build new neural connections in our brain.
Experts on this topic have differing views on exactly what this blocked energy is and how it presents itself. The three most popular views are:
- Physical - A negative energy that is stuck in the physical body itself. This often manifests itself as bodily tension such as backache, stiff neck, or migraine.
- Mental - A mind related blockage that shows up as anxiety, depression, etc.
- Spiritual - A negative energy that manifests as a spiritual blockage that affects the person’s overall wellbeing.
Over the last two decades there has been a lot of research and many books written on the topic of mind-body illnesses. This would bring the first two of the above groups of thought together, which makes a sense.
The blocked negative energy in our body can result from a single incident or trauma, or it can be something that has built up slowly over many years, or it can be a combination of the two.
The Write and Burn writing exercise allows you to observe your emotions, feelings and tensions. This observer perspective helps you to see things more clearly for what they really are, or indeed, what they are not.
When starting with this kind of writing exercise, it is easy just to see whatever happened in very generic terms. We may feel that what happened to us was bad, hurtful or wrong.
It is important to recognize that in the above paragraph we used the word feel.
“We may FEEL that whatever happened to us was bad, hurtful or wrong.”
This word is important because it is these feelings that we are trying to focus in on during this writing exercise. It is these feelings that get stuck in our body. This is the negative energy we need to uncover and release.
Our aim is to go to the source of the negative emotions and look for emotions and feelings such as:
• Unwillingness to forgive
• Lack of empathy
The purpose of looking for these emotions and feelings is because we can’t release something and let it go until we can find it. Once we can find it, we can offer it kindness, understanding and compassion and we can release it once and for all.
This might sound woo-woo, but if you think about it, it makes a lot of sense.
We have all experienced times where we feel upset about something, but can’t always put our finger on why. On a generic level we may be able to simply say that it was because something ‘bad’ happened, but that is just like the first layer of the onion. We need to peel that layer away and find out what is underneath that, and often we will need to peel away the second, third and fourth layers to dig even deeper.
The important thing here is that we are NOT trying to do any of the following:
• Obtain an answer
• Forgive someone
• Get revenge
This is important. If we go down the root of trying to find answers, forgive people, or get some kind of revenge, we are playing by completely the wrong rules. These are most definitely not the aim of the Write and Burn exercise.
There are other writing exercises that can help with some of these things, particularly with forgiveness, but it is crucial to remember that this writing exercise is the wrong one for that purpose.
And this is good news.
Write and Burn doesn’t require you to do a major psychological excavation and then put everything back together differently. Instead, it asks you to go hunting for those emotions (see the above list) and when you find them to observe them for a while, and then simply let them go with your blessings.
What to write about
Before we look at the step-by-step process, let’s first tackle the important topic of what to write about.
The crucial thing is to recognize that the writing part of the write and burn exercise is not linear or constrained. What do we mean by that?
You might start off writing about what you think is the most important issue in your life and end up pouring your innermost thoughts out about a childhood incident. Or maybe you are going through a divorce and so start off writing about how you hate your spouse, but at some point you transition into a major diatribe on why your parents are to blame for everything that has ever gone wrong in your life.
Good news! This is not a problem at all. In fact, veering off on a random path that takes you from A to Z for no logical reason should be welcomed with open arms, and not suppressed.
A willingness to go with the flow is of paramount importance, but it is also essential to have a starting point, otherwise you can suffer from blank page syndrome.
Lao Tzu said, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step”. The same is true of the write and burn exercise, but in this case everything starts with a title. That title will set you off on your journey, and who knows where it will lead. The only way to find out is to put pen to paper and get writing.
Here are a few ideas for starting destinations.
• What have I said that I regret?
• What have I done that I regret?
• What situations do I wish I had never been in?
• Who do I need to forgive?
• Why I need to forgive myself?
• What negative thoughts do I have and why do I have them?
• Why am I feeling so sad?
• Why do I feel angry?
• Why am I frightened?
• What I would do differently if I had another chance, and why?
• What mistakes have I made?
• Why do I keep making the same mistakes?
Remember that these are nothing more than starting points - first steps along the writing journey. You might start off writing about what frightens you and end up scribbling away about how you hate your boss. It doesn’t matter. The only rule is that there are no rules.
The 7-Step Write and Burn Process
We’ve looked at the benefits and purpose of the Write and Burn exercise. Now let’s take a look at the process itself.
Many old-schoolers insist that this has to be done with a pen and paper, and others argue that you should use whatever works best for you.
I have tried using pen and paper. However, as someone who has barely held a pen for the last twenty-five years, my hand muscles just are not up to writing anything more than a few lines before they’re aching and even going into cramp.
As the process is a cerebral one, rather than one relating to the hand, it would be reasonable to suggest that whether you use pen and paper, chalk and a blackboard, a dry-wipe marker and a whiteboard, or a keyboard on a laptop really doesn’t matter anywhere near as much as the exercise itself.
In my experience, it is best to choose the method of writing that works best for you. There are pros and cons to all methods so don't feel obliged to go with any particular method just because you once read somewhere that the only way you could do it was with a fountain pen, etc. The best method for you is the one that you actually do, as what’s most important is actually doing the writing and not the instrument you used to do it.
In the instructions below we will cater for both pen and paper and keyboard and computer screen or laptop, as these are the two most popular methods for most people.
Step 1 Find a quiet place
You need to choose a place where you can write uninterrupted for at least ten minutes. It is crucial that it is not somewhere that you will be worried that someone might burst into at a moment’s notice.
If you live in a house with other people, you might want to tell them you are doing some kind of writing exercise (you don’t need to go into any detail) and ask them if they can respect your privacy for the next ten to twenty minutes.
Step 2 - Prepare your writing space
Gather the resources that you will need such as a pen and paper, a laptop, etc.
If you are going with the pen and paper option, make sure that you have sufficient to allow you to write confidently without you worrying about running out of paper. The best option is loose sheets so that you can use as few, or as many as you need to. If you are using a bound notebook of some kind, make sure it is one that allows you to tear out the sheets you have used. This is important.
If you are going to use a laptop, use a tool that doesn’t autosave your work, as you want to be confident that by the end of this process there will be absolutely no trace left anywhere of your writing.
COMPLETELY OPTIONAL: For the more esoteric amongst you who fancy the idea of a pyrotechnic exorcism make sure to have a lighter or matches, a suitable container in which to burn your writing, and check your calendar to see when the next full moon or New Year’s Eve is.
Step 3 - Set a timer
You will need a timer to ensure that you write for long enough to uncover and purge that negative energy. This could be something as simple as a watch or clock, or you can use a timer app on your phone. Whatever works best for you.
Set the timer for somewhere between 10 minutes and 20 minutes. Less than 10 minutes tends to be too short to dig deep enough to home in on any of the feelings and emotions that we are seeking to uncover. More than 20 minutes can be quite draining if you are not experienced with this kind of writing.
Many people start off with 10 minutes and see how that goes. Once they get used to non-stop writing for that period of time, they can look at stepping it up to maybe 15 minutes, 20 minutes, or even longer.
Step 4 - Write without stopping
This is where the catharsis comes in.
There are five things you need to keep in mind as you write.
- Write like you are possessed.
- No censorship
- No editing
- Listen out for the inner-critic
- Look for the erroneous thinking
Let's look at each of these in a little more detail.
You are likely to find the 'writing like you are possessed' comes easy once you get over that initial hurdle of staring at a blank page. Revisit the section above on what you are going to write about and then start pouring out your thoughts onto the page. To start with it might seem a little forced, but before you know it your subconscious will start to throw up all sorts of random thoughts and you'll struggle to keep up.
Censorship and editing go hand in hand and both are crucial. Self-censorship and editing your work in real-time will ruin the process. Nobody is going to see your writing, so it doesn’t matter how many expletives you throw in, or how strong those expletives are. Feel free to use words that you wouldn’t dream of using at any other time.
Preventing yourself from editing can be a genuine struggle for many people, particularly those with perfectionist tendencies. Do everything in your power to hit that back arrow to correct some innocent typo. It really doesn’t matter one bit.
Remember, nobody will ever read what you are writing, including yourself. So be totally honest, hold absolutely nothing back and give your inner-critic a well-earned rest.
As you write, you will start to recognize your inner-critic. This is the part of you that has an opinion on everything you do, and usually that opinion will be negative.
You can often recognize when the inner-critic appears because you’ll use words such as:
“You should have done …”
“You shouldn’t have done …”
“Why are you so stupid?”
“Why didn’t you see what was happening”
And there are many more variations upon these.
When you recognize your inner critic, don’t hold back. Let them have center stage. By doing this, you are allowing all the inner critics lies to come to the surface and be exposed for what they are. For once laid bare, the nonsense that your inner critic has been telling you day-after-day, becomes nothing more than a mere perception, a story that isn’t true.
This is where you want to be looking at the emotion or feeling that hides behind the lies of your inner critic. It is like the layers of an onion. Peel off the first layer and you will find another below it … and another … and another.
As emotions and feelings arise, consider what is behind that emotion or feeling. Is the sadness masking anger? Is the moaning and whining masking anger?
You can remind yourself of these emotions and feelings by checking out the list under ‘Purpose’ above.
As you continue to write, these erroneous thinking patterns will weaken and the truth will start to shine through.
It is rather like a vampire exposed to the light. The vampire is a powerful and scary phenomenon when it is dark, but once they are exposed to the light of day they are powerless, and whither away and die.
When the time is up, you can either stop writing immediately, or if you are well and truly in the flow, continue until you have released everything that wanted to be released.
Step 5 - Relax
After a write and burn session you will often find your body has tensed up so it is important that you spend a few moments releasing that tension. This can be as simple as the following three step process.
- Take three long, deep breaths.
- Let your shoulders relax
- Release the tension in your jaw and face
If you want to do a short meditation that is fine too, but for many people this simple act of pausing and breathing slowly for just 30 seconds provides a sufficient break before moving on to the important next step.
Step 6 - The Ritual Burning
Don’t be tempted to keep hold of your writing for posterity, or even analyze it for meaning. This isn’t that kind of expressive writing exercise and isn’t necessary or desirable.
Gather all the pages you have written and take them outside to a BBQ grill if you have one, or maybe a fire pit or a metal trash can. If none of those are available to you, take them to the kitchen sink.
Set fire to the paper in the way that appeals to you the most. For some people this might be setting fire to one page at a time, and for others it is ripping up the sheets into small pieces and making a small bonfire. Go with whatever works for you.
As you set fire to the sheets, keep repeating the following:
“I release these words and any negative energies they contain. I release them from the page, from my mind and from my body. In their place I welcome peace, acceptance, and happiness”.
Keep repeating these words for as long as you are burning the pages. As you say the words, imagine the negative energies being sucked up along with the smoke, and slowly dispersing forever. Gone!
Spend a moment mourning what has gone, but don’t dwell on it. Release it, and let it go on its way. It is in the past. It has gone.
Focus on what you want to bring into the void that is left by the writing:
• Forgiveness of others
• Forgiveness of self
• Compassion for yourself
• Compassion for others
If you used a computer rather than a pen and paper, you have two options.
Option #1: Print your writing onto sheets of paper so you can follow the same process as above.
Option #2: Go through the same process as above, but instead of burning you work, make a ritual out of deleting your work. For example, you can highlight all the text and replace it with words such as ‘Burn Baby Burn’ or ‘Be gone’. Use which ever words work for you.
If you are using a laptop there is one final step you must take and that is to delete the document on your computer. You can make this part of the ritual and repeat the “I release these words …” phrase as you hit the delete button and confirm the deletion.
Step 7 - Analyze how you feel
For some people a single write and burn session can be enough to rid them of all their inner negative energies, but for most people it will take multiple sessions.
As soon as the ritual burning is over, ask yourself how you feel. Do you feel elated, sad, negative, positive, hopeful, etc?
If you feel positive after this writing exercise that is great, but don’t worry if you feel down or negative as that is perfectly normal. You have just emptied your inner closet of some of the junk it has been storing possibly for years so feeling sad or a little down is almost to be expected. The great news is that this feeling won’t last. In the days ahead you are likely to feel calmer, more optimistic, more content, as though a weight has been lifted off your shoulders.
Embrace this feeling.
Then, when you are ready, dive back in and complete another round of the write and burn exercise and clear out some more junk from your inner closet, and continue to do this as long as you feel there is any negativity left.
The write and burn process is an amazingly powerful tool to help release the negative energies that build up in your mind and body.
It doesn’t matter whether you are working with childhood bullying, the death of a loved one, a major live trauma such as a divorce, or just experiencing the trials and tribulations of everyday life, Write and Burn can usually help in some way if you give it a shot.
It isn’t a magic pill that will ease all of life’s ills, or transform all the negatives in your life into positive, but it can be a valuable tool that can work wonders when it comes to both mental and physical catharsis.
Write and Burn helps you to silence your inner-critic so you can better see things for what they really are. It isn’t a tool for obtaining an answer, forgiving someone or getting revenge. There are other writing tools that are better suited to those kinds of issues, but write and burn can help you release the negativity and tension surrounding those unanswered questions, forgiveness, or desire for revenge.
To find out if the Write and Burn technique will work for you, simply follow the 7-step process. Most people get a recognizable benefit the first time, and the more times you do it, the more benefit you are likely to get.
Give it a go. What do you have to lose?