There is a post on Facebook floating around about a college course that is having a significant impact on students. They are calling it the Writing Assignment that Changes Lives.
As a writer, I am sure you are familiar with the cathartic exercise of journaling and most likely have a notebook, tablet or mobile app that you use to jot down your daily thoughts. But as I did a little digging into this “life changing writing assignment” I became more intrigued. In an article explaining the writing course, we learn:
Jordan Peterson teaches in the department of psychology at the University of Toronto. For decades, he has been fascinated by the effects of writing on organizing thoughts and emotions.
Recently, researchers have been getting more and more interested in the role that mental motivation plays in academic achievement — sometimes conceptualized as “grit” or “growth mindset” or “executive functioning.”
Peterson wondered whether writing could be shown to affect student motivation. He created an undergraduate course called Maps of Meaning. In it, students complete a set of writing exercises that combine expressive writing with goal-setting.
Students reflect on important moments in their past, identify key personal motivations and create plans for the future, including specific goals and strategies to overcome obstacles. Peterson calls the two parts “past authoring” and “future authoring.”
“It completely turned my life around,” says Christine Brophy, who, as an undergraduate several years ago, was battling drug abuse and health problems and was on the verge of dropping out. After taking Peterson’s course at the University of Toronto, she changed her major. Today she is a doctoral student and one of Peterson’s main research assistants.
Sounds like a powerful writing assignment to have turned Christine’s world around so dramatically. “Curiouser and curiouser,” my inner Alice voice said.
You can visit the Jordan Peterson website and purchase the book, sign up for the college course, or purchase a series of videos. But rather than spend money, I wondered what the assignments were. As writers, I thought we should be able to do some of the preliminary work without making a purchase.
There are two assignments from the Map of Meaning that are cause for reflection; the past and future authoring. Here is a description of the assignments:
Past Authoring is an exercise designed to help you understand your personal history more clearly. Every experience that you have had contains information. If you have fully processed the information in that experience, (1) its recollection will no longer produce negative emotion and (2) you have learned everything you need to know from it, at least for now. Any past experience more than a year old (approximately) that still produces negative emotion still has information embedded in it. Writing about such experiences helps extract that information. Writing helps move the information from vague, emotion-laden and imagistic representation to high resolution conscious narrative form.
Assignment 3: Future Authoring:
Future Authoring is an exercise designed to help you lay out a set of explicit goals for your future. In essence, you will be asked to write your own story. Carl Jung once noted that every person lives a story, or a myth. This means (1) that you know your own story, and are acting it out consciously, (2) that you do not know your own story, and may therefore be unconsciously or implicitly acting out a tragedy, or (3) because of your own lack of direction, you serve as a minor character and, perhaps, a foolish or tragic one in the stories of other people. Obviously, option (1) is preferable to (2) or (3), but it also requires some conscious effort. The Future Authoring Exercise has been designed to aid that effort.
When Louisa May Alcott first began writing she is told, or so we are led to believe if you have read Little Women, to write what she knows and she will be successful.
Participating in one or both of these assignments could, quite possibly, be the inspiration for your next book. When I think of experiences in my past that are over a year old, there are many that still bring up emotion; embarrassment, regret, fear, anger, hurt, just to mention a few.
By examining just one of those experiences more fully we have a chance to reveal the truth for what it is and hopefully take away the sting. Yet, it is the raw emotion that could lead to a powerful short story or novel.
Finding new ways to allow the muse to inspire us is challenging. This writing exercise developed by Dr. Peterson could be a great way to stir the pot of creativity.
Bottom line: As writers we must be constantly writing. Rather than just a laundry list of what we accomplished yesterday, why not experiment with one or both of these writing assignments to see what it uncovers.