National Eating Disorders Association

Facing the Blank Page is Scary (But it Doesn't Have to Be)

Carolyn Jennings

Opening an entire blank book can be as intimidating as opening the door to a new therapist.  “Free writing,” which is writing in stream of consciousness, flowing with whatever comes to mind, can be a revealing technique.  But its limitlessness has disadvantages.  It can unearth scary memories or thoughts that harm rather than help.  I've used Short Lists and Clusters to give myself structure, containment, and safety.  They guide me effortlessly onto the page.


Here are some lists of 3, 5, 7 or 10 that uplift me .  They give me pause to step out of the swirl of any given moment and see the bigger picture of my life and recovery unfolding.

  • Three things I want to get done today
  • Five places I want to visit in my lifetime
  • Seven behaviors, thoughts or feelings that prove my recovery is moving forward
  • Ten goals for the coming year
  • Three ways I like to play
  • Five new activities, experiences, people or behaviors of the past month
  • Seven people, places or things that make me smile
  • Ten challenges I've met or overcome/Ten moments of bravery
  • Three steps I can take to feel more optimistic when I wake up in the morning


A Cluster is similar to a Mind Map, with which you may be familiar--or you can Google.  Instead of using my journal, I choose a big sheet of paper so I don't feel cramped.  It's an engaging way to get a lot of information down fast.  One of the strengths of a Cluster is it enlists both hemispheres of the brain at the same time; often surprising information flows together.  Because it's more visual than writing in prose, I make new connections when I look at it after I've created it.

Recent Cluster topics that I've played with have been my childhood, the various parts or sub-personalities of me, and what's called a Time Capsule, capturing a season of the year.  My childhood Cluster brought back to me the pets, parochial school, family, vacations, favorite foods, hobbies,and places, as well as some scars from the early years.   The parts-of-me Cluster showed, among others, the little girl who likes to eat for pleasure and is naturally in touch with her body, the eating disordered one who always wants more, and a strong “Recovery Mom” who guides them both. Time Capsules are an amazing way to see an entire summer on one page in a very few minutes.  I find that the seasons have a sort of “theme” when I see them in Clusters.

I am always left a bit in awe to get the overview provided by this technique.  I see the richness, complexities and connections of my life, myself or any situation.  I usually emerge with new information, a fresh way of seeing or feeling or a different way to put the pieces together.

If you'd like to experiment with something besides prose in your journal, why not try a Cluster?  It takes only 3 – 5 minutes to Cluster, another 10 minutes, if you choose, for a Follow-Up Write and Feedback Write. Write your topic in the middle of the sheet of paper.  Topics could be Recovery, Relationships or Emotions.  It could be today (write the date) or this week (write the dates) or this season (Spring or Summer).  It could be anything that's on your mind—a name, a place, a project, things you're grateful for.  Put a circle around your topic.

Use lines/branches to write any associations that leap to mind.  Associations could be people, places, things, situations, memories, emotions, images.  Some may surprise you, popping up from your subconscious.  Jot down words or phrases.  Circle each association.  Each association may branch into more associations.  Continue until you feel done or your page is full.  Trust that you are writing the most important items.  This will likely take 3 – 5 minutes.

Look over the Cluster you've created.  What draws your attention?  If you're inspired to write about one association (one circled item) or one branch or what you notice overall, set a timer for five minutes, keep your pen continuously moving on the page or your fingers on the keyboard until the timer tells you to stop.  Read what you just wrote and capture in a sentence or two what you noticed or felt as you read.

Short Lists and Clusters have become reliable ways to both ease me into writing and to provide me with new views.  Maybe they'll lead you to see yourself or your life in unexpected ways.

Information adapted from The Way of the Journal by Kathleen Adams.

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