Look deeper — write — the wonders of writing | Nicoletta Demetriou | TEDxUniversityofNicosia


Translator: Tanya Cushman
Reviewer: Peter van de Ven Every morning, I set my alarm 15 minutes
before the time I actually have to get up. I sit up in bed,
take my notebook and pencil, which I always leave
on my bedside table the night before, and start writing. In that zone of being
half awake and half asleep, I write for 15 minutes. I write before I get up, before I’ve had a chance
to talk to anyone, before I’ve had a chance to wash my face. Most of the time, I don’t even know
what I’m writing about, and it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is not
the content of what I write, but the very fact of putting pen to paper. I’m involved in two disciplines
that have fancy names: ethnomusicology and life writing. As an ethnomusicologist,
I study people playing music. I meet musicians, I interview them, I learn about their music, and then I write about them. As a life-writer,
I write about people’s lives. Sometimes they’re musicians,
sometimes they’re not. Sometimes I write
about other people’s lives, sometimes I write about my own. The thing that binds my two seemingly
non-agreeing disciplines together is writing. Before turning to writing, I studied music in Thessaloniki,
Vienna and London. As part of my PhD in ethnomusicology, I had to come to Cyprus
for a year of fieldwork. I spent a year here
interviewing musicians, talking to them about their lives, playing and singing with them, and learning how they thought
about the music that they played and sang. After that year was over, I went back to London
to write up the results of my research. There were all these stories
that I wanted to share, all these experiences
that I wanted to write about, but I didn’t know how. The problem was not that I couldn’t write; the problem was that I didn’t really know
what my own voice sounded like. That’s when I first came across the idea
that I’d like to share with you today. The idea of writing that teaches you
to hear and trust your own voice. So, reflecting on the theme
of this conference, what I’d like to talk about today is whether writing
can make us look deeper. Can writing make us reach
feelings, thoughts and desires that perhaps we didn’t even know we had? Can it connect us with what it is
that we’ve always wanted to do in life but were somehow too scared to admit? When I ask people this question, the answer I very often get
is “I find writing scary.” But what is it about writing
that people find scary? On the face of it,
writing is just a simple act. You take a piece of paper, you take a pen or a pencil
or you switch your computer on, and you write. Yet most of us here today have
experienced the fear of the blank page, the fear of not knowing what to write. So, what exactly is so scary? It’s not the simple act of writing
that’s scary, of course, but what lies behind it: expectation and hearing – and I mean really hearing – your own voice. Expectation is a great vice. When I ask people whether they think
that writing could change their lives, another version of the answer
I get is “I don’t write.” So, when I ask back: “Okay,
so what do you mean, you don’t write?” The answer I get then
is “I’m not a writer.” But remember, the question here wasn’t whether you could write
the next great European novel, nor whether you could win
the Nobel Prize in Literature. The question here was whether the simple – though, I admit, not easy – act of writing can make us look deeper. So, there’s a feeling
of expectation lurking about when we talk about writing, in ways that it doesn’t exist
when we talk about other things. If I ask you, for example, “Do you cook?” you won’t necessarily think
that what I’m implying is whether you’ve won
a Michelin star for your cooking. By contrast though,
in my question about writing, what people seem to assume
is that I want to know whether they’ve won the equivalent
of a Michelin star for their writing. Most of us think of writing
as something formal, something done only when we apply
a certain number of rules and regulations, and something that should bring about
very concrete results: a book, a poem, a piece of research. But here we’re talking about writing that will connect you
with nothing other than yourself, something that you do in order
to come closer to who you really are. When you write
with any degree of regularity – and again, I don’t mean when you write
in order to become a novelist but simply when you write – something wondrous begins to happen. After training yourself
to write without thinking for one, two or three weeks, then you suddenly begin
to hear your own voice much more clearly than before. Our mind is normally cluttered
by a variety of thoughts and voices which we don’t actually hear, and which, luckily,
we don’t actually lead. But they’re always there
in the background. If any of you have ever tried yoga
or meditation before, and you’re asked to keep your mind still
for as little as two minutes, you know how difficult this really is. According to data provided by [an]
institute of neuroresearch in the U.S., an average person has approximately
70,000 thoughts per day. Other research shows this number
to be a bit smaller or a bit bigger, but this is, more or less, the average. The Buddhists call this incessant movement
of thoughts in our head “monkey mind.” Just as a monkey constantly
jumps from one branch or from one tree to the other, so does a monkey mind constantly jump
from one thought to the other, seemingly without ever being able to stop. Alright, so this is not exactly
a scientific metaphor, but our mind resembles
a big, noisy highway with hundreds of cars
passing through it every day. What the practice of writing does is that it slowly gets rid of
all the extra noise in our head, making it resemble a rural street instead. And that’s when it gets
really scary for many people. Why? Because in all of that peacefulness, when you’re finally able
to hear your own voice, you might suddenly discover that you don’t actually like
the job that you do, or that you don’t really want to live
in that huge house that you just bought, or that you’d rather get a parrot
rather than the dog that you already have. The feeling of being scared comes from our being
too close to ourselves. In fact, this closeness to ourselves, this opening up to see things
that we didn’t even know were there, is why there’s a therapeutic side
to writing as well, to the extent that it now
forms part of psychology. There’s a form of therapy
called “writing therapy.” This is not of concern to us here today, but it goes to show that writing does something to our way
of looking at ourselves and other people that’s truly transformative. Something more familiar to us,
perhaps, than writing therapy might be the figure of a person
who keeps a journal or a diary where his or her innermost
thoughts and feelings are recorded. These diaries are, more often
than not, not meant to be seen, but they serve the purpose of connecting their author
to their feelings, thoughts and desires. Okay, so how could we
use writing in our own lives in order to look deeper
and come closer to ourselves? How could any one of us
here in this audience today use writing in order
to listen to our own voice? You might think that this
doesn’t really concern you, that your life or job has
absolutely nothing to do with writing. Yet even if what you have to do is write a professional email
or compose a legal document, you’ll be surprised at how much more
convincing and official you’ll sound if you know what your own voice
actually sounds like. The practice is very simple
and very cheap too. And many people have
already written about this. All you need is a notebook
and a pen or a pencil. You may wonder whether you
could do all this on a computer. Well, you could, but it won’t be
the same experience. Recent studies have shown that children’s brains develop
differently when writing by hand, as opposed to writing on the keyboard. And there’s evidence to suggest that there are comparable benefits
in adults writing by hand too. What’s more, writing
is not only an intellectual activity. If you write by hand, your whole body
gets involved in the process. Your hand becomes
an extension of your mind, and so the whole process of writing
becomes a mind and body activity. Okay, so back to the practice. You go and sit somewhere quiet, somewhere you’re less likely
to have any interruptions, and you start writing without thinking. Now, this is the difficult part. You do not think about writing, you do not think about anything. So while you’re writing, you’re not thinking “Hmm, I wonder what
I’m going to cook tomorrow for lunch.” Nor are you thinking “Well, I wish I’d put
the black coat instead of the red one.” No, you write without thinking;
you keep your hand moving. That is the key. You do not stop to check, you do not stop to correct. You do not care about your spelling, you do not care
about the lines on the paper. You write in whatever language,
dialect or idiom that you like, or in a combination
of languages or idioms. You keep your hand moving. You write without thinking for 15 minutes. That is the key. When you are done, you do not
go back to check what you’ve written. You simply close your notebook
until your next writing session. So, what do you write about? Anything. You try to catch your thoughts and put
them on paper as quickly as you can. After all the clutter
in your mind is gone, you might suddenly discover that there were things
that you wanted to write after all: those stories your grandfather
used to tell you, those letters that your parents gave you, or love or loss or the feeling
of trauma or happiness in your life. If you write with any degree
of regularity, the question of discipline
becomes crucial. Remember that you’re not writing
for an audience here, but for yourself. Yet the repetition is vital for cutting out any resistance
that you may have to writing. Tolstoy once wrote in his diary: “I must write each day without fail, not so much for the success of the work,
as in order not to get out of my routine.” I understand that perhaps not all of us
may be able to keep up with such a demand, but even if we don’t write
each day without fail, the important thing is
to keep the practice of writing, despite all the difficulties that may
and that will arise in the process. I can almost hear
some of you saying “This is hard.” Yes, of course it is. No one ever said
this was going to be easy. But it’s also all about practice. If you decide to run the marathon, you won’t simply show up
on the day of the race. You’ll start training yourself,
little by little, until finally you’re able
to run the whole thing. It’s exactly the same with writing. We don’t expect to run
the marathon on the first day. But we practice each day, each day taking it a little bit further. For those of you who may wonder
what the point of all this is, or why you should devote any
of your precious little time to writing, I can tell you it’s because
this will transform your lives. So, if you would really like
to look deeper, both within yourselves
and within other people, if you would really like to get to know
what your own voice sounds like, if you would really like to get to know what it is that you
truly want to do in life, then give writing a chance. Write with no expectations and no demands. Write simply with the curiosity
to see what will happen and with the conviction
that something will happen. Look deeper and keep writing. Thank you. (Applause)


38 Responses

  1. 77777aol

    December 3, 2017 6:20 pm

    In stating, 'the fear of being too close to ourselves' really depends on how we view ourselves. I reckon Nicoletta Demetriu, in her encouraging talk, means being too close to our critical self, or even too close to our public-face or mask. In an ideal scenario, we never need fear being too close to our true or authentic self, which is untrammelled and unfettered, free and wondrous. The 64,00 dollar question is 'how?' ! Certainly writing stream of consciousness helps, as Brenda Urland inspired in her seminal work, 'If You Want to Write'; published in the late 1930s I believe. Let's keep writing, free of self criticism; all the while reading good books ! Thank you ND.

  2. FortyNothing

    December 4, 2017 9:31 am

    That was a big exercise in high school creative writing. We started every class with 15 minutes of unthinking stream of consciousness freewriting. Similar idea to some artistic exercises where you draw without looking or without picking the pencil off the paper.

  3. Ambi Cahira

    December 7, 2017 2:52 am

    Here is a suggestion of a warm-up exercise. Don't do sentences, just let your hand do words. The and though dog dough then why so sow rake barn dog frog goat store clerk and so on. And when these random words have come out and warm-up is over you will easily start making sentences without much effort even if it is a sentence between the words or not. Removing the restriction of feeling like it must be sentences can make your mind go blank on where to start.

  4. Anuja Churi

    March 12, 2018 6:48 pm

    I wonder why does this video have just '380' likes whereas other gibberish talks have aplenty! Thank you! Pen to paper – noted!

  5. Deborah Choma

    July 11, 2018 1:25 am

    Nicholetta Demetriou, thank you for your educated insights and thought provoking concepts for writing.

    Far from boring, your charm and vocals made listening a melody. You enunciated and spoke with clarity.

    As a writer, I have, for many years now, created the white space you mentioned, to write for fifteen minutes first thing in the morning.

    It is a superb suggestion. Thank you.

  6. Deborah Choma

    July 11, 2018 2:20 pm


    Here you go.

    The first fifteen minutes of an eye opening July 11.

    This a quiet intimate space where a cat and a son reconnect. Away from outside distractions, it's the beginning, a string of moments to enjoy. Routines reintroduce themselves, whilst the repeats play.

    What about today will set in motion or trigger the necessary changes to shift the same-old-same of expectations and disappointments?

    Much like a seesaw, I struggle with the vitality to do what I know, to be what I can, and reach a happy height of achievement. Then I hear an inaudible phrase, "Who you are is enough to be all that you are meant for today."

    And in this white space of writing intimate thoughts, I choose to be a gentle guide to myself and whomever shares the sacred moment of creating beauty and new beginnings.

    Today is the dew of opportunity, the fresh morning air of accessing thoughts and ideas; a string of fresh water pearls carefully gathered from the Sydney Harbor of my mind.

    Each pearl is uniquely formed, and I remind myself that my struggles are mine.

    But amidst the solitude of writing undistracted, I have already set in motion the creation of something beautiful, vulnerable, and innately raw.

    So what can I shift in this waterhole of thoughts? What will I find to day in the exercise of duty and in the reach of gratitude. My next act uncovers a heart that is simply willing.

    There's never going to be a day that presents itself as the perfect time to change my challenges. But the perfect opportunity is, in essence, what I create for myself today.

    One small shift is a start.

    Grateful in the blanket of peace; a cat called Abby, a vase of yellow roses, a blue and gold pen, a room that reflects taste, choice ideas, and surrounds me with beauty. I am grateful for health, strength, and solace. I am grateful for people in my life, my family. I am grateful for change and the string of moments, the cluster of decisions. The hundreds of steps I take today are going somewhere.

    I am not everything I need to be, but who I am is enough for today. I'm not a child who has no control. My body deserves the best, just as it were a quadriplegic with robotic legs.

    Healing to be happy is a process. It's a development of thoughts, ideas, and the input of loved ones who see more than you can. They simply sing the song in your heart.

    To new beginnings – available and ready.

  7. Yellowhat Dick

    August 31, 2018 12:36 am

    THIS IS BORING! MY GAWD! I'm going to create a Patreon to fund a new lecture series called 'Topless TED'; That would have my interest!

  8. PROXY

    December 14, 2018 4:14 am

    Connecting with yourself.. something I do to in order to come closer to who I really am. I wasn't aware that I needed to hear those words so badly that it hurt.

  9. Kimberley

    January 4, 2019 1:34 am

    Itโ€™s so tricky to try and clear oneโ€™s mind and not write โ€˜so what am I going to writeโ€™ for example. Loved her delivery of this talk very much

  10. Michael M

    January 31, 2019 5:01 am

    Im starting to find the more I listen to people telling me how to write and what rules to follow I am becoming less creative and in a sense mimicking others who failed to do what I aspire to do. You cannot be taught to be a great writer it has to be within you.

  11. Niccolo Socrates

    June 19, 2019 5:26 pm

    Wtf where was I..lets think deeper into what shes trying to mean…best insight so far for me

  12. Sixto Bayangan

    August 7, 2019 9:43 am

    Her voice made me watch this video but its content made me finish watching it. Nice pointers. And so the writing begins!

  13. Billy Bonza

    August 25, 2019 10:08 am

    A really great talk and the points she makes are undeniable. There is only one main point which I think is very important where I disagree entirely with her. Writing on the computer using a keyboard can be just the same and give the same benefit that you can get from writing with a pen or pencil. When I am in the zone so to speak, writing something and I'm right in my flow, if feel like I am channeling whatever I am writing like its coming through me more than from me and when that is happening and I am smashing away on my keyboard, that is a whole body experience too trust me. Something like dictating into a recorder though as an example, not the same thing at all, not even close.


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