Finding Your Voice

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When people feel “stuck” in life, many turn to traditional counseling, yoga, or meditation as a way to work through their issues.

For Anne Bright, the solution lay in a less obvious, and much lesser known, choice: proprioceptive writing.

Bright is the director of the Proprioceptive Writing Center Southeast, located in a cozy, second floor office on Cowart Street in Southside. According to Anne, the term “proprioceptive” has actually been around since the late nineteenth century.

“It’s a physiological term, meaning how we know where we are in relation to space,” Bright says. In proprioceptive writing the process is about “sorting through your thoughts, hearing them and then getting to the roots of those thoughts.”

After completing a B.A. in English Lit- erature from Kenyon College and a M.F.A. in Fiction Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts, Bright, ironically, felt she had nothing to write. “I couldn’t event hear my own thoughts,” Bright says, “I was a mess of internal conflict.” She tried a variety of more “traditional” methods of working through her issues, but nothing seemed to work.

Fate intervened when she stumbled on a flyer for a proprioceptive writing seminar being held at Split Tree Farm Arts Center in north Georgia. Bright knew it was something she wanted to try. The instant she began the practice she felt like the floodgates opened and everything she had been feeling poured out onto the page.

“In proprioceptive writing you listen to your thoughts, express them through writing and reflect on what you’ve written without judgement,” Bright says. She stresses that proprioceptive writing is not a form of therapy, but it is therapeutic. Many of her students consider it a spiritual or meditative practice.

“You’re not trying to get anywhere, you’re not trying to fix anything; you’re just trying to be with yourself. And this can be very disorienting at first to most people who come from a traditional educational background.”

The practice was founded in the mid- 1970s by Dr. Linda Metcalf and Dr. Toby Simon, who were both English professors at the Pratt Institute in New York at the time. The method was received so well by their students the pair began teaching pro-prioceptive writing workshops across the country. Forty years later, they have trained thousands of people on the proprioceptive method, including secondary and elementary school students and now have a permanent center in Oakland, California. Their book, “Writing with the Mind Alive: the Proprioceptive Method for Finding Your Authentic Voice,” details the process through which people can practice the method on their own.

Students at a recent workshop listen to their thoughts, express them and then reflect without judgement.

Students at a recent workshop listen to their thoughts, express them and then reflect without judgement.

During a proprioceptive writing session, participants are asked to hear their thoughts, reflect on those thoughts and to write them down without any preconceived ideas or purpose. This process is repeated in 25-minute intervals while listening to relaxing music in a soothing environment.

Many of Bright’s students have an interest in writing on some level, but being a “writer” is not a prerequisite for participating in the practice. “It’s not about writing. It’s about using writing as a tool for thinking,” she says. “It’s the creative impulse to understand something about the human experience.” The practice can be very helpful for those in creative fields like artists, writers, or musicians.

With continual advancements in technology, practicing this type of method–that promotes slowing down one’s thoughts at the core–is more vital, and challenging, than ever. According to Bright, proprioceptive writing helps with our society’s ever-decreasing attention spans. “We’re living in the age of information, but none of it means anything anymore. We don’t know how to sort through it; we don’t have the tools to find out what’s relevant to us,” she says. “As a culture, we don’t know how to slow down; we don’t know how to be with ourselves.”

This isn’t to say Anne doesn’t have tech-savvy millennials participate in her classes. She recently held a workshop at the Chattery, a local nonprofit that hosts classes on everything from flower arranging to conflict resolution. “I was so excited to see all of these young people and to hear what they had to say.”

She has taught students from every walk of life, from attorneys and entrepreneurs to retirees and mothers with young children. Although, Bright admits, the majority of her students in Chattanooga are women in or approaching middle age. “That’s when you finally have time to slow down long enough to begin to reflect on everything you’ve lived through up to that point in your life.”

Bright realizes one of the biggest obstacles of attending a proprioceptive workshop is fear of feeling the emotions brought out through the writing process. “We’ve been taught not to show emotion. In our culture, crying is a show of weakness.” She emphasizes the workshop’s atmosphere and process is a very safe place. “No one comments on what you write; you are writing only to hear yourself. Students are allowed to hear their own thoughts and to hear other students’ thoughts without anyone interrupting or judging.”

Although this may seem like a foreign concept initially, she observes that humans have a long history of being an oral, storytelling culture long before we became a literate species. “This is why we read literature. This is why we go to movies. We’re a storytelling animal; that’s what we do—we tell stories.

“It’s rare that we have the opportunity to relive our own stories in our imaginations. Proprioceptive writing is a chance to get inside of your own life and wonder about it and make sense of it for yourself.”

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