Writing Into Scary Times #1: What Do Your Feelings Want To Say?


It is hard enough for adults to understand and navigate this chaotic, scary time in our world, much less children. We know that kids feel everything so intensely, but they don’t yet have all the tools or development to process them. We also know the value of creative expression for humans, big and small, and that this expression can be a very useful way for kids to work through their very real and understandable feelings including discomfort, sadness, confusion, anger, and distrust.

Like so many of us, I’ve been trying to figure out how to plug in and be of service in this moment. I think of the creative roles I play in life: writer, writing teacher, podcast producer, musician. One idea I came up with was to offer an online Wednesday Writing Circle where I provide a container for people to write in a supportive community. This past week, I led my first one and one of my oldest, dearest friends was joined by her nine and thirteen-year-old daughters. Although I had not specifically designed this exercise with young people in mind, it felt, in ways, made for them. They had such amazing, insightful things to share and it made me want to share it with others as a creative exercise.

Listening To What Our Feelings Want To Say

This exercise can be led by any grown ups with the kids in their lives. Older kids can follow the instructions on their own, but I recommend this exercise be done in community with the person leading it reading instructions aloud and allowing for time to write in between prompts. One important thing to note to both those facilitating and those participating: There is no “right” way to do this exercise. All the guidance is a jumping off point and whatever way this works for you is great!

Materials: All you need for this exercise are several pieces of paper or a notebook and something to write with.

Step 1: Begin by grounding in the moment by placing your feet on the floor, sitting upright and connecting with the breath. Breathe together for a minute or so before beginning the process. (1-2 mins)

Step 2: Do a free-write brain-dump. This is a kind of mental palate cleanser, allowing anything that needs to come out to pour onto the page. Allow your pen to keep moving even if you run out of ideas; you can always write “I don’t know what to write” until another thought emerges. Don’t censor yourself or try to manipulate what you are writing; simply allow what needs to be written to come out. (5-7 mins)

Step 3: Now, take a few minutes to write a list of all the feelings you’ve been experiencing today or in the last few weeks. Some ones that came up when I did the exercise (but not an exhaustive list): Fear, Anger, Gratitude, Anxiety, Panic, Rage, Love, Sadness, Grief, Shock, Denial, Shame. (3-5 mins)

Step 4: Examine your list and look for the emotion that has the most heat, that feels most alive in this moment, and that wants to be in conversation with you. Circle it.

Step 5: Turn to a new page and write that emotion in all capital letters at the top of the page. Now we’re going to engage that emotion in writing by asking some questions. You can write one thing or many things for each question. When I do this, it tends to come out like a list of descriptions.

  • What is the color of that feeling?
  • What is its shape?
  • What is its texture?
  • What does that feeling smell like?
  • What does that feeling taste like?
  • What does that feeling sound like when it walks?
  • What other sounds does the feeling make?
  • What does the feeling say?
  • What is the quality of its voice? (is it gravely? sweet? high or low pitched? the voice of a human or another kind of creature altogether?)

Step 6: Now, put that paper aside and turn to a new page. At the top of that page write the word COMFORT. We’re going to engage with comfort just as we did with the other emotion.

  • What is the color of Comfort?
  • What is Comfort’s shape?
  • What is Comfort’s texture?
  • What does Comfort smell like?
  • What does Comfort taste like?
  • What does Comfort sound like when it walks?
  • What sort of other sounds does Comfort make?
  • What does Comfort say?
  • What is the quality and tone of Comfort’s voice?

Step 7: Finally, we’re going to write a scene in which the Emotion you chose interfaces with Comfort. It’s really up to you how you design your scene. The feelings can be human characters or more abstract/amorphous. Follow your instincts.

You can think of it like a scene in the book and provide some description and then the characters in dialogue. For example:

Outside it is raining, Comfort knocks timidly on Anger’s door. “Who’s THERE?” Anger shouts from within. Comfort waits for a moment before replying, in a soft voice, “It’s me. It’s Comfort.”

Or you could write it like a play or screenplay with stage directions and then dialogue set off like this:

Setting: A room is lit by a single bare bulb. Fear sits on a hard wooden chair in the center of the room.
(Comfort enters, an eighty-year-old grandma wearing a plush robe)

Comfort: Oh, hello there!
Fear(startles): You scared me! I thought I was the only one here.

Or you could draw a cartoon where you have the characters talking to each other.

Some things to consider when writing your scene: Where are the emotions? How do they enter the scene? How do they approach one another? What do they look like? What gestures do they make? What do they want to say to one another? How does the encounter end?

Step 8: Once your scenes are complete, it’s time to share! You can talk about your process and share aloud your descriptions or scenes or both--taking turns and listening/thoughtfully respond to one another.

We’re all whirring with emotions right now amidst our collective whirs. Identifying what we are feeling allows us to better understand and articulate ourselves. And by putting emotions in conversation with one another, we can better understand how to support ourselves and one another. It gives our feelings the voice they need.


Lisa M. O'Neill is an essayist and journalist who writes about social justice issues, politics, and popular culture with an intersectional lens. She is the founder, host, and producer of The MATRIARCHITECTS, a podcast and platform which highlights change-makers who are building a culture that respects, values, and celebrates women. A native New Orleanian and current desert dweller, Lisa received her MFA in nonfiction writing from the University of Arizona, where she taught writing in the English Department for a decade. She teaches in-person and online community writing workshops and designs and leads classes as a teaching artist in juvenile detention. She also works with writers as an editor and creativity usher, helping them discover their stories and and usher them onto the page. Her writing has appeared in Bitch Media, Bustle, Diagram, defunct, Edible Baja Arizona, Everyday Feminism, The Feminist Wire, GOOD, Good Housekeeping, Salon, Terrain.org, and The Washington Post, among others.