Serendipity, Death, and a Writing Conference in Bristol
It all started with a bit of serendipity.
Several months ago I published a blog about expressive writing and received a comment from a total stranger. The kind gentleman suggested that I might be interested in an upcoming conference in the U.K. focusing on creative writing as therapy. Following the link he provided, I became familiar with the two sponsoring organizations – Lapidus International (a “words for wellbeing” association) and Metanoia Institute (specializing in professional training for therapists, coaches, and consultants) – and decided to go.
This was one of several “aha” moments that have been popping up since I began exploring how to combine writing – a lifelong companion – and my somatic work with clients. There’s a lovely word for such moments: serendipity.
Though we tend to think of it as something magical that happens to us, or around us, I believe serendipity is more than just good luck or karma. It’s an attitude, an ability. It has to do with being creative with what life throws at you – and not just the “aha” moments, but the “uh-oh” ones as well.
The word itself was coined in 1754 by Horace Walpole, who plucked its root from a Persian fairytale called “The Three Princes of Serendip” — Serendip being a former name for Sri Lanka. The eponymous princes, Walpole explained, “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.”
A state of discovery, combining happenstance and wisdom, which leads you to things you were not necessarily looking for: what a lovely and accurate description of what happens when you sit down to write. Ideally, you put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and get ready to be taken places you were not expecting to go. And in writing, as in life, action is involved: “accident” implies that you’re out there taking risks; “sagacity” implies experience, which is had by doing. So it’s not just about sitting around waiting for lightning to strike. You have to put yourself on a path, point yourself in a direction – and then be willing to be led off of it.
It has been said that innovations born of serendipity come from individuals who can see bridges where others see gaps. Which brings me back to the aptly named Creative Bridges conference, which I attended in Bristol this past July.
Reflection and research
It was the first such conference on working with words for wellbeing organized by Lapidus and Metanoia, with two dozen speakers and more than 100 attendees. I found myself in the midst of a frank, generous, intelligent group of writers, academics, therapists, and counselors, come together to share their research and experience in helping others to write as a way of mapping out the meaning of their lives. I was surprised and delighted by the feeling of hands-on playfulness: participants were asked to write and/or read aloud in 5 of the 6 presentations I attended, and there was an open-mic night when we were invited to read our own poetry and prose.
I started with a presentation by Claire Williamson, program leader for Metanoia’s Creative Writing for Therapeutic Purposes degree program. Ms. Williamson talked about the desired skill set for the therapeutic writing practitioner, which balances the humanities and science, literary awareness and therapeutic awareness. Offering picture postcards and small objects as prompts, she asked us to think and write about where we fit on those and other spectrums related to the profession.
I also found myself drawn to two presentations about writing with groups: working with people in end-of-life care, with Helen Stockton, and working with bereaved adults, with Jane Moss. Both women shared their extensive experience in working with these specific populations, including basic guidelines for running such groups, and possible difficulties and their solutions. Again, as participants we were asked to write and share our writing with each other.
Two speakers alluded to the kind of scientific research that fascinates me. Christina Shewell, a speech and language therapist, looked at the physiological effects of sounds and words, and their relationship to wellbeing. In addition to James Pennebaker’s groundbreaking research, she cited social psychologist Paula Niedenthal’s work on the embodiment of emotions – how your physical state (facial expressions and posture, for example) affects your emotional perception.
Georgie Oldfield is a physiotherapist who worked with Dr. John E. Sarno, a pioneer in the field of psychosomatic pain treatment. In a nutshell, according to Sarno, chronic pain does not necessarily spring from physical causes. Repressed emotions can push our nervous system into fight/flight/freeze mode, which, if activated over a long period of time, can lead to the manifestation of painful symptoms. Ms. Oldfield presented evidence of the benefits of therapeutic journaling in such cases.
Squirming yet empowered
On the second day of the conference, I lingered over a lunch discussion and had to race to the next presentation. The door was already closed and I slipped in and took the first available seat near the front of the room, just as the speaker was beginning. I was looking forward to hearing what Carolyn Jess-Cooke would have to say about expressive writing pedagogy. But setting down my bag and notebook, I heard a man’s voice talking about death, and I realized my mistake. There had been a last-minute room change that I had completely forgotten about in my post-lunch rush. The person before me was Larry Butler, and his presentation was entitled, “Ready or not, one day I shall die – and so will you!”
This was one of those uh-oh moments. I’d done the end-of-life and the bereaved; surely that was enough death for one weekend. I calculated the distance to the door. But my gut said, “Stay. Maybe life is trying to tell you something.” And thanks to this new bit of serendipity, I listened to the electric, gleeful Mr. Butler talk about the event that comes to us all, and his approach to encouraging others to write about it. And I wrote about it myself, squirming yet strangely empowered, surprised to see what his blunt, beautiful prompts pulled out of me. And I listened to what the others in my small group had written, which moved me to tears. It was certainly not a discovery I was in quest of, but I am still grateful for it, long after the fact.
Creative Bridges was an inspiration, and I came away brimming with ideas for new projects. It was also a reminder of something I’ve felt since I was a child: life is short, pain is inevitable, time moves swiftly, and the best response is to live as fully, deeply, and truthfully as you can. For this, being attentive to your body and your breathing is essential, which is why I do what I do. Writing is another possible act on the path to depth and fullness, a way to clarify, confront, and complete your experiences, to seize “a piece of your life,” as Rilke said over a century ago:
Describe your sorrows and desires, the thoughts that pass through your mind and your belief in some kind of beauty – describe all these with heartfelt, silent, humble sincerity and, when you express yourself, use the things around you, the images from your dreams, and the objects that you remember….Your personality will grow stronger, your solitude will expand and become a place where you can live in the twilight, where the noise of other people passes by, far in the distance. And if out of this turning within, out of this immersion in your own world, poems come, then you will not think of asking anyone whether they are good or not. You will see them as your dear natural possession, a piece of your life, a voice from it.
Elaine Konopka is the founder of The Attentive Body in Paris, offering private sessions in attention-based bodywork and pain management. Her latest series of monthly workshops combines conscious breathing and expressive writing to explore life’s juicy themes. Join her on Sunday, September 24th for Speak Up! – Use your body to say what’s on your mind.
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