Three Exercises to Write the Hard Material

When Valley and Nadia invited me to be part of this summer’s Unearthing Retreat, I was thrilled—and intimidated. The theme for the weekend was, “Writing From Our True Depths.” I’m not a writer who naturally gravitates to my own hardest material, but I do increasingly feel an urgency to dig deeper in my work. 

In the weeks leading up to the retreat, I challenged myself to develop new writing exercises to guide myself into my deepest material—those events, feelings and memories that sometimes feel too buried to touch. As a process, it was hard, uncomfortable, and often awkward. But I think I came away with some exercises that actually do work.

I’m sharing three of these exercises below in the hopes they might help you unearth your own buried stories.

Heartstone Lodge and Retreat Center where the Unearthing Retreat took place. Photo by Elizabeth.

Heartstone Lodge and Retreat Center where the Unearthing Retreat took place. Photo by Elizabeth.

1. Writing Comfort Zones

The goal of this exercise is to notice where you’re most comfortable writing in order to gently challenge yourself toward more uncomfortable material.

To begin, draw three concentric circles on a piece of paper (like a bullseye). On the outer ring, write down those topics that you write about easily—your go-to subjects and memories. On the middle (or in-between) ring, record the subjects that can be mildly uncomfortable to write about but that you do on occasion tackle. The inner ring is reserved for those thopics that you avoid writing about because they feel too big, too weighty, too difficult, or too much. If you’re like me, you may feel most safe and able to represent those memories or subjects with initials or abbreviations.

When we did this exercise at the retreat, we followed it with a 10-minute free write. I invited writers to take a few minutes to decide which level of the ring they felt drawn to approach, and then pick a topic on that wring. Then I set the timer for 10 minutes and we wrote whatever came up.

If you’re having trouble getting started, I recommend trying one of the following prompts:

 For topics on your outer or middle/in between ring: “When I write about ________, I write about ________” (For example, When I write about nature, I write about _________)

 For topics on your inner ring: “When I don’t write about __________, I don’t write about _________ (When I don’t write about my body, I don’t write about _____________)


2. Writing From the Body

By writing from the body I mean writing about our sensory experiences associated with certain memories. That could include the way the light looked in the room the day you learned your father was dying, the smell of the hospital where you delivered your baby, our how your body felt when you moved into your first home on your own. I find focusing on the five senses can actually take us deeper into our stories than focusing on details of who or what alone. Deciding to write just the sensory memories associated with a particular difficult event can also feel more approachable and manageable than trying to tackle the event more analytically.

For this exercise, write a 2-4 sentence summary of the event you wish to write about at the top of the page. This can be done quickly—it’s just to orientate you in the story you want to tell. Then, setting the timer for 5, 10, or 15 minutes, write everything you can remember about what you could see, taste, touch/feel, hear, and smell during that event. Try experimenting with point of view (for example writing in second person “you”) or tense (present tense instead or simple past tense, for example) which can help open new angles and memories.

Sacred Labyrinth at Heartstone Lodge. Photo by Elizabeth.

Sacred Labyrinth at Heartstone Lodge. Photo by Elizabeth.

3. Deep Dive/Writing Sprints

This is probably the most experimental of these exercises, and I’ve heard from students—and experienced myself—the way it can be strange and awkward. But it’s also sent me in important directions in my writing that I wouldn’t have otherwise gone in.

For this writing exercise, you will write 3 times in a row. You can write for as long or as little as you like (though I recommend writing for at least 5 minutes each time). The object here is to let what comes out of one writing lead you to the next.

The first writing is open ended. You can write about whatever is coming up for you, or try the prompts, “I remember…” or “I want to write about…” or even “I don’t want to write about…” Once you’ve completed your first writing, look back over it and, without thinking too much about it, underline one sentence or phrase that stands out for being unexpected, particularly true, or vulnerable. Write that sentence below what you’ve just written and use it as the first sentence of your next piece. The repeat this step for your third writing, pulling your starting sentence from this second piece.


In closing this post, I want to offer the reminder that when writing about difficult material, it’s not only helpful, but often necessary to go slowly and schedule breaks.

Set your timer for 10 or 15 or 30 minutes and write, then get up and leave your writing behind. Go for a walk, call a friend, or do something that engages another part of yourself like listening to music, dancing, or playing a video game. There’s no one right pace for unearthing our hard material just as there’s no one right outcome. It’s about finding new ways to approach your story to go deeper into the heart of it.


Elizabeth Ferris is a teacher with Life in 10 Minutes and the executive editor of Life in 10 Minutes Press. She teaches the workshop (Un)Well: Writing About Disease and Mental Illness as well as intensives about fiction writing and structuring your memoir. Find her latest classes here.

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