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357. Writing as Healing with Meredith Heller

the daily helping podcast Apr 15, 2024


When she was about 12 years old, Meredith Heller left her troubled home and survived in the woods along the Potomac river. What saved her life was writing poetry and noticing how nature took care of her. Meredith has now spent over 30 years helping students and incarcerated women tap into that same power of noticing and writing. Her newest book, “Writing by Heart,” invites all of us into the practice.

In this episode, we dive into Meredith’s book. “Writing by Heart'' walks you through gathering information from your body, experience, psyche, and imagination. That way you can write about what you’re deeply experiencing, not just what you are thinking. The book also helps you notice things around you that spark something within you– joy, curiosity, learning. Through this practice, you teach yourself that the world is a place that feeds what moves you deeply.

Meredith describes writing as a way to make room within yourself to notice and fully experience the good and bad of life. This, she says, is the true path to healing.

The Biggest Helping: Today’s Most Important Takeaway


Writing is a path home to self, to love, to life. It helps us fall in love with ourselves. It helps us come into deep friendship with ourselves. And from here, everything is possible. Pick up your pen, grab your journal, write a gratitude list, write a sparkle list, dive into the invitations in my book, come to workshops, such a warm, beautiful community, and start writing. Open up your inner world to yourself.



Thank you for joining us on The Daily Helping with Dr. Shuster. Subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Google Podcasts to download more food for the brain, knowledge from the experts, and tools to win at life.



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Meredith Heller: 

Writing is a path home to self, to love, to life. It helps us fall in love with ourselves. It helps us come into deep friendship with ourselves. And from here, everything is possible. 

Dr. Richard Shuster: 

Hello and welcome to The Daily Helping with Dr. Richard Shuster, food for the brain, knowledge from the experts, tools to win at life. I'm your host, Dr. Richard. Whoever you are, wherever you're from, and whatever you do, this is the show that is going to help you become the best version of yourself. 

Each episode, you will hear from some of the most amazing, talented, and successful people on the planet who followed their passions and strive to help others. Join our movement to get a million people each day to commit acts of kindness for others. Together, we're going to make the world a better place. Are you ready? Because it's time for your Daily Helping.

Thanks for tuning in to this episode of the Daily Helping Podcast. I'm your host, Dr. Richard. And our guest today is awesome. Her name is Meredith Heller. She is the author of Writing by Heart, Write a Poem, Save Your Life, and several poetry collections. She's been featured in numerous media outlets and top podcasts.

She's a poet, a singer, songwriter, an avid nature lover, and an educator, which agrees in writing and education. When she's not writing and singing and doing all that she does, she leads workshops online and in person in schools, juvenile detention centers, women's prison, and she runs wellness retreats. We're going to talk about her newest book. Meredith, welcome to The Daily Helping. I'm so grateful you're with us today. 

Meredith Heller: 

Thank you, Dr. Richard. I'm so happy to be here with you today. Thanks for having me. 

Dr. Richard Shuster: 

Absolutely. Now, I'm not going to ask you to break into song today. Maybe I will. I don't know. But I am excited to talk about your newest book, Writing by Heart. But before we get into that, because we haven't ever done an episode on and poetry as a healing modality. And I thought about today, man, we're like 360 something episodes into this journey, and we've never touched this subject. So that's really cool. 

So before we get into the book, take us back in time, let's jump in the Meredith Heller time machine and tell us some of those pivotal moments in your life that puts you on the path you're on today.

Meredith Heller: 

Thank you so much. Great question. So I started writing at a pretty young age. I was writing short stories at about five, six years old. But when I really got into poetry writing as a path of healing was when I left home as a young teenager, 12, 13 years old. I left home and raised myself living out in the woods. Nature was pretty much the only thing I trusted. 

So, I built domes in the woods along the Potomac River outside of Washington, D. C. I lived in abandoned houses and old barns and really took solace and communion with nature. And that is when poetry and songwriting really found me. Like my first book, Write a Poem, Save Your Life, it really saved my life. 

I would get the first line of poetry or music in my left ear, like a lifeline, like a work permit that said, stay here, find the words to take the overwhelming feelings of loss, and aloneness and longing, and I suffered with horrible depressions. All of my friends were dying from suicide and drug overdose, and there was absolutely nothing to hold onto. There was absolutely no security in my life, and I didn't have any role models, and I had left school. 

So I would get that first line of poetry or music. And it gave me a way to name the overwhelming feelings and to begin to work with them, like one degree of separation that also gave me a mirror to understand what was happening in myself. And then from there, there was a possibility to create meaning, to create understanding and perhaps even to create beauty out of pain and hurt and loss. That's where I started. 

Dr. Richard Shuster: 

So, and I think you shared a little bit of the why. I was going to ask you as you were talking about, you mentioned that nature was really the only thing you trusted. So that means that people you didn't trust, and you mentioned people dying drug overdose. So what you described was, was that really the impetus for you running away? Or was there within your own home, trauma what was really -- or was it all of your thoughts?

Meredith Heller: 

Yeah, very dysfunctional family, which is why I left and problems in school. Really, I seem to learn a different way than most of the people in school. And so I didn't feel tapped. I didn't feel like I was using my potential. I was frustrated. So I left school as well. Later, I went back and did master's degrees and found my way. 

But at some point, along the way, I realized poetry is my path. It is the way that I find healing and make meaning in my life and clean out the old and envision the new and sit right in the center with what is truly going on with me in a very honest way with myself. And that this is my passion, and this is what I came here to share. 

So I became a poet in the schools for 30 years and worked with kids who were like I had been, bright and creative and slipping through the cracks. And I wanted to get to those kids before they gave up on themselves and the world the way I had. And I wanted to be somebody that could help them, that could show them a way. Grab your pen and journal, follow me. Like the Pied Piper of poetry writing. 

And so I was a poet in the schools for 30 years. And now I work with adult women through Zoom, so all over the country and worldwide. And this last book, the second book, Writing by Heart, comes out of that work that I do with women now, finding their voices and expressing themselves and doing this kind of deep self-reflection work through the medium of poetic writing.

Dr. Richard Shuster: 

So this is great stuff. And so I was going to ask you this. This has been a, you're kind of two for two. You're all the questions that I'm formulating, you're answering before I can ask them, so that's a good sign. Because the impetus for this book was your experiences working with all of these women, prisons and other places. So Writing by Heart, so take us through. What is a reader going to experience when they read this book? 

Meredith Heller: 

They're going to experience a plentitude of writing invitations. And I call them invitations because I can't stand the word prompt. I don't want to be prompted and I don't want to prompt anybody that feels like a push. And this kind of writing that we're doing is the opposites. It's an in, an invitation inside to look at what is truly bubbling up here in my belly, in my heart, in my response and reaction to what's happening in the world around me, in my life, in my relationships, and to ask myself the kind of questions that will lead me to deeper insight, to discovering something I maybe didn't know that I knew. 

But by doing this kind of writing, we open a communication line to deep psyche to our muse, to our creative flow, where things arise in our perception that don't ordinarily arise in just normal waking consciousness. So within the book, when people follow along, they'll be asked all kinds of questions, all kinds of creative and self-reflective writing invitations to really show up with deep honesty to make friendship with ourselves, to make refuge in our own writing. And hopefully in this way, we fall in love with ourselves. We fall in love with our lives. And from here, everything is possible. 

Dr. Richard Shuster: 

I liked that you framed it in that way, Meredith, because I suspect there's a percentage of people listening to this saying, well, I'm really lucky. I didn't have any trauma like Meredith went through. I didn't have any of my friends die. I wasn't living in the woods. That stuff, this doesn't really apply to me. But in fact, even if you've never had trauma, writing is a fabulous way of really getting in touch with who you are and kind of leveling that up. 

Meredith Heller: 

Yeah. And just including all of ourselves because I think we're so conditioned and programmed to think that everything in our lives is supposed to be going really well or we're supposed to be happy or up all the time. And that's not really true. What's true is the whole experience that we experience everything on the spectrum of the worst to the most glorious. 

And so when we make room for what gets us down, or the normal, inevitable losses that we experience as human beings, tragedy, injury, sickness, loss of loved ones, upheaval, chaos in our lives, in the world to include this in our writing, to include and make room for this in our lives makes us whole, and this is how we heal. Most of us don't just slide through life smoothly. So it's this kind of writing, this self-reflective and expressive writing that we're doing really for ourselves or within my workshop groups in a safe container, this kind of writing is a presence, a practice of presencing with ourselves.

Dr. Richard Shuster: 

So, I suspect that you have a formula, I'm going to say that again, guys, because that came out partially in English. So, Meredith, I imagine that you have a formula that you have derived as to how somebody, through their writing, can begin this journey of self-discovery and or healing. Take us through that.

Meredith Heller: 

Well, I would say work with the book or come to my workshops and dive in deeply to getting to know yourself, perhaps in areas that you don't normally dive into. What are things from your past, from your family that most grew you as a human being, both the hard things and the great things and gather these things to yourself, so that you become richer and more resourceful and more resilient. Open the doorways of creativity and imagination in your life. And there's so many writing invitations in the new book to both work with emotional things that are happening in your life, as well as diving deeply into imagination. 

So the process that I use is introducing a theme, getting you to start thinking about it, maybe asking you some general questions to answer about your own life, your own experience, doing a body mindfulness exercise, which is like a guided meditation in which we close our eyes go inside and begin to gather right now information from our body, from our felt experience, from deep psyche, from our creativity, from our imagination. And this is the information that's going to populate and inform the writing that we do in that section of the book, so that we're not thinking our way there. We really want to go from this deeper place of what am I really experiencing here? Even if it's in the imaginal, it's still totally, we're totally having that experience and it becomes real in our psyche. 

So we do a guided imagery, then we write. And then if you're in workshop, we share our work and we hear so many stories that are like our own and totally different than ours. And in this process of sharing and being witnessed, we realize our commonality. We're not alone. And also, we realize that our journey is unique, and it matters. Our voice matters, and the world, this living community needs our engagement, our participation, our unique story.

Dr. Richard Shuster: 

I love this. So, somebody listening to this, tracking along, yeah, this makes a lot of sense to me. I've never had a writing practice. Give us some tips on how to really incorporate this, because this, obviously, you're a writer, and I suspect you're doing this every day in some way. Do you advise that people start at a particular time, make it a habit? Like, what's kind of your approach to that? 

Meredith Heller: 

Yes. So definitely a writing practice. And I talk in the book about how it's a writing practice, not a writing perfect. So it doesn't have to be great. You don't have to wait till you're in a good mood to write. Just sit down, find a time that works for you. Listen into your own rhythm. Maybe you're a get up in the morning and write as soon as you wake up. Maybe you're a write during your lunch break kind of person. Maybe you're a write before you go to sleep kind of person. Find the rhythm that works for you so that you feel good about it, so that it's something you want to do, number one.

And then I have two great ways in for people who are just starting. One is to start with a gratitude list, to write 5 to 10 to 20 things from the smallest thing in your day, the apple you had for lunch to the biggest thing like my gratitude that I can walk outside my house and not be in a war zone every day. So, from the tiniest things to the biggest things that rewire our brains with gratitude, to notice and acknowledge what we do have, what is working in our lives, instead of what we usually do, which is this isn't enough. I'm not enough. This isn't good enough. I need this. I need that to be. But what do I have here that really feeds me and feeds my life in a way that increases my vitality? So one is start with a gratitude list. 

Two is a new one I've invented called the sparkle list. And these are going through our day, noticing the things that spark our muse, our joy, our imagination, the things that move us so deeply that we can no longer just hold it, whether it's sorrow or joy or beauty or curiosity or whatever it is moves us to a point where we then want to spill open into creativity. And so keeping a list of these sparkles, and the more that we become aware of them, the more open we become, and the more we are sparked into creativity, into joy and learning that the world is a place that feeds what moves us deeply.

Dr. Richard Shuster: 

What I like about this, and the gratitude list is some -- I mean I've had a gratitude practice for many years and it's something that has come up on the show quite a bit. The sparkle list is interesting for a couple of reasons. Number one, you don't just limit it to positive things. You limit it to potentially or you include potentially negative things. But what you're doing with this is you're calling people's attention during the day, which means you're breaking them out of the zombie routine. Right? 

And you're having them be mindful of what's going on internally and externally, because you can -- the sparkle list as you've described it is it's this thing that elicits a powerful emotional residence. And that valence could be positive or negative, but it's something that makes us turn our heads and stop and with, again, I like this because most people in society, they get up, they get the kids off to school, if they have kids, they go to work, and they work, and they work and they work and they come home and dinner and whatever, TV until they pass out. Right? 

You are causing an interrupt to this whole cycle that people experience day in, day out. So this is awesome. And to even take that a step further, I'm wondering if there's any particular examples in the people that you've worked with where you could share some of these sparkle moments that were so transformative for people.

Meredith Heller: 

Yeah, definitely. I just wanted to speak to something that you said about the sparkle is being an invitation to stop in the middle of the routine. And I think that this is so much part of what we do with this kind of poetic writing. It's a slowing down to be present with what we're feeling, what we're experiencing, and then taking the time to make a note of it. Wow, this moves me. I am moved by this thing I heard on the news. I am moved by the sunlight on the leaves. I am moved by this. This affects me, this touches me. And this being moved, I think, is where all creativity and all art comes from. So, such a wide range of sparkles in the people who come to workshop. 

We just finished a series called Spark the Muse. And this is when I invented the sparkle diary. And so all kinds of sparkles from moments of watching people watching their children when their children didn't know they were being watched. So really seeing a child in their own world on self-conscious doing their thing and the beauty of that and how that reminded people of that place in themselves, that place of deep flow of deep play, where we're not self-conscious and we say yes to whatever arises. 

And on the other side of that, a woman who came to workshop and most of her sparkles were she lives in a city. Excuse me. Her sparkles would be on her walk to work. She would see discarded things in the street, old bottles, scrimped containers or tubes of something, thrown away packets of duck sauce. That was one of them. And she put this into her poems. And what I saw, the connections that I began to make is that this is a person who works with people who are mentally challenged. 

And so I began to see that she saw these throwaways in the gutter, like the people that she worked with throwaways discarded, no longer needed, used up. And so this was the connection in her piece. And I saw that as something very life affirming for her in the work that she did and what matters to her and it showed up in the mirror of her writing, other people, things in nature, food, conversations with friends, laughter, sensuality, these kinds of things that taking a moment to actually anchor into ourselves these moments of our own humanity, what matters to us. 

Dr. Richard Shuster: 

Beautiful. That's really beautiful. As we're sitting here talking, I'm curious about something because writing has been around for thousands of years. Technology is new. And so do you advise people when they're writing to pen and paper, keyboard and mouse, stylus, what's your take on all of that? 

Meredith Heller: 

I really ask people to use pen and paper. I think that because we've been doing it for so long, it's in our DNA and there's a way that writing with pen and paper engages our bodies, our nervous systems, hands connected to arms, connected to heart. There's a way it engages us on this deep organic level. Even pulling pen across the texture of paper is information to our whole nervous system, different than tapping on a keyboard. 

So I ask people to write this way. If there's some reason that they can't, it makes them tired, or they have an injury, I understand that. But at least to try it, pen and paper and to find a pen that flows easily, ink that flows easily so you don't have to push so hard if you're going to be doing a lot of writing. I always write with pen and paper. And I will go to -- now I edit with my computer because, oh my gosh, but you think about how we've been writing with pen and paper, like you say, for thousands of years, it's in our DNA. 

Dr. Richard Shuster: 

Awesome. That's what I thought you were going to say, but I would have been remiss if I didn't ask. Meredith, I have loved our conversation today. You put a unique and different spin on writing and why we should write, and we don't have a writing practice how to start one. And it's easier than people would have thought for sure. As you know, I wrap up every episode of my show by asking my guest just this one question and that is what is your biggest helping, that one most important piece of information you'd like somebody to walk away with after hearing our conversation today? 

Meredith Heller: 

Definitely writing is a path home to self, to love, to life. It helps us fall in love with ourselves. It helps us come into deep friendship with ourselves. And from here, everything is possible. Pick up your pen, grab your journal, write a gratitude list, write a sparkle list, dive into the invitations in my book, come to workshops, such a warm, beautiful community, and start writing. Open up inner world to yourself. 

Dr. Richard Shuster: 

Meredith, tell us where people can learn more about you online. 

Meredith Heller: 

Thank you., all the information. I'm on Facebook. I'm on Instagram. But all the information you need, 

Dr. Richard Shuster: 

And for those of you on the treadmill, we got you covered. We will have everything Meredith Heller in the show notes at Well, Meredith, I loved our conversation today. Really grateful you took time out of your day to come share your wisdom with all of us. 

Meredith Heller: 

Thank you for having me, Dr. Richard. It's been wonderful to talk to you. 

Dr. Richard Shuster: 

Thank you. And I also want to thank everybody who listened to the show. If you're inspired, if you're going to go grab that pen and write your own sparkle list, go give us a follow and a five-star review on your podcast app of choice. This is what helps other people find the show. 

Most importantly, go out there today and do something nice for somebody else. Even if you don't know who they are and post in your social media feeds using the hashtag #MyDailyHelping because the happiest people are those that help others.



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