One of the exercises I teach in my BodyWrites! class is all about familiar sensations. We encourage students to take few moments alone, in silence to think about what has served as touchstones for them, particularly from childhood. When my husband Hawk and I wrote the exercise, we were thinking purely of the familiar as a positive, and this is the example we wrote together for this:
Last year, we went to see Sharon Olds read in the Seattle Arts and Lectures Poetry Series. She read this marvelous poem about seeing the alphabet for the first time above the chalk board at school. She had thought it was one long word she needed to learn, and the poem was a positive one about those letters being a touchstone for her.
What I didn't realize until we got into working with people one on one, until reading through John Fox's Poetic Medicine, is that some of these familiar sensations are forgotten for good reason. They often have a more painful association and much of the emotion surrounding the familiar has been repressed because as children we were unable to handle the pain.
So now, as we are getting older, more ready to handle whatever comes up, these exercises in the forgotten familiar can be very helpful for healing wounds that we have unconsciously brought with us into present day. In the same way that I encourage students to take silent time alone to start the process, Fox suggests much the same in Poetic Medicine. He goes on to encourage some spontaneous writing. Just write whatever comes to mind, as quickly as you can, without edit, just letting the feeling and sensation roll over you and onto the paper.
Maybe the spontaneous writing is about one particular item or memory. Maybe this writing is a list of items or memories coming up from many different years of your childhood. This writing needs not look like one form or another. It just is whatever roll out of the end of your fingertips as you ponder familiar things from childhood.
Once you have this writing done, give yourself some time and space to consider it. Maybe put it aside for a day or a couple of hours. Go back to it and see what's there. If it's a list or covers many memories, then consider which ones you'd like to look at first. If it is about one item or one particular memory, look what the details are.
For example, look again at what Hawk and I wrote above for the BodyWrites! class. In that writing, we mention the hands and feet of many different people who have climbed those stairs. A possible point for the exploration of this familiar touchstone memory would be to consider our relationships with each of the different people who have used that stairway. Not all of that exploration would be joyous and positive. There are some difficult relationships that have formed out of the trips up and down those stairs. But it is possible that by exploring those relationships, we might come to better terms with how the relationships are today or we might find ways to heal those hurts that have been almost forgotten-- or more likely repressed.
And spontaneous writings can help us find comfort and joy in memories, too. Was there a particular toy or item of clothing that was just the "end-all-be-all" for you? Where is that toy today? Where did you wear that fancy dress? Are there any photos of these items? Did you have a grandparent or nanny who really took good care of you? Was there someone whose love made all the difference in the world? Are there any photos of them? Who were they to you? What do you remember most about them? What did you do with them-- go to the zoo, learn how to garden, swing on the front porch? When you think about them today, what questions do you have?
Whether positive or painful, writing about the familiar can be a way to jump start your writing if you've been in a dry spell. It can help you to fill out a piece of writing that doesn't quite seem finished yet. It can be the entry way into a longer series of works. And it can serve to heal and restore memories that have been almost forgotten for whatever reason.
One last note: There is another step to this kind of work if one is interested in sharing. This kind of solo writing often produces works about the intense and immediate experiences in our lives. The sharing of these works with our families, friends, and other writers can be the path we take in order to cross back out into the world at large. It can be a very scary path to take, but it's often very rewarding, too.
Miracles to you!