How Writing Saved My Life – and Why it Might Improve Yours
I was bullied when I was a kid. It wasn’t a “thing” back then – there was no special counseling, no National Bullying Prevention Center, no stopbullying.gov. It wasn’t even really called bullying – at least not when girls did it to girls. At the tender age of 12, youngest in my Catholic-school class and late to the perilous party of puberty, I was mocked almost daily for being smart, for being flat-chested, for being big-nosed and skinny-limbed. My stomach ached many mornings before school, and I often cried when the day was over. But basically, I bit my lip. I told myself that better things awaited me. And while biding my time, I wrote.
My teacher during my year of torture was a tough young woman with thick black hair down to her backside, enormous brown eyes, and a fiancé. All the girls wanted to be Ms. L. She wore mini-skirts and left the classroom several times a day to go downstairs and sneak a cigarette with her friend the school nurse. If a ruckus was in full swing when she got back (a regular occurrence), she would give us a punishment: write a 500-word composition. My classmates would moan and hold their heads. I took whatever topic she gave us and wrote with relish. This was my first experience with riffing on writing prompts. When she gave no specific subject, I made up stories – nice ones, funny ones – about her and her fiancé. She liked them. She would call me up to her desk and ask me about them: where had I gotten the ideas? what else did I write? She told me she showed my compositions to her boyfriend, and he liked them too. Of course, this gave the bullies ammunition – I was now also teacher’s pet. I didn’t care. I had a medium, prompts, and an appreciative audience. It was a tremendously satisfying mixture of refuge and revenge. When I was writing, I created the world. I could choose in a way that was impossible in my 12-year-old reality. I had a voice. The bullying still hurt, but the writing kept me steady.
Tell it like it is
My relationship with writing (and its bosom buddy, reading) continued long after I’d left the mockery behind me. I wrote poems and short stories, lists and letters, news and features, academic papers of all shapes and sizes. But it wasn’t until many years later, when I found myself in a foreign country, freshly divorced and in financial free-fall, that I started to write about my life as a daily practice – to write as though I were talking to myself. It was different from my grade-school lifeboat in that I wasn’t making anything up. I wrote about what was happening to me, what I felt, what I did, what I saw, what I thought, what I wanted, what I was afraid of. But I felt the same steadiness in putting pen to paper, the same thrill. Instead of sizing up the width of my oven to see if it might accommodate my head (I was in luck – the appliance was doll-sized to match my chambre de bonne), I poured my woe and worry onto my notebook pages, then used the same space to give myself a pep talk, a scolding, or, very often, a good laugh. I had other help – precious help; but the writing was key, and once again, got me through.
Today, my practice as a somatic therapist is based on the body. I work with how life plays out on that intimate physical terrain: how the past leaves its mark, how habits limit us, how thoughts and emotions shape us. I teach people how they might relate differently to that terrain – create a garden or enjoy the jungle, rather than just suffer through it.
My clients often get “homework.” Usually I ask them to pay attention to a particular area of their bodies or physical habit, or to practice breathing in a certain way. But sometimes I give them writing assignments. I’ll ask them to riff on a word, explain a belief they have, define what a certain concept means for them, describe a specific period of their lives. I learned this as part of my training, but I realize now that I have always separated it from the physical work. Writing in this context was to gain clarity; it was throwing hunks of meat to the barking mental dogs, hoping they’d heel. It was, as it has been in my personal life, a kind of guilty pleasure – though I saw that when people took the time to do it, it often moved the process forward in wonderful and unexpected ways.
It is in no way necessary to have scientific support for something you feel does you so much good – but boy is it satisfying when it happens. Though it’s been around for decades, I only recently became aware of a whole body of research, teaching, and experimentation that bridges the body/mind gap in relation to writing. James Pennebaker, a social psychologist and professor at the University of Texas at Austin, began researching the effects of writing on trauma back in the mid-1980s. His studies reveal an amazing correlation between writing about consequential emotional issues and improved physical and mental health.
In a typical study, participants would be divided into two groups; one was asked to write about “superficial” topics, such as how they spent their time, while the other was asked to write about deeper issues such as their relationships, their identity, important moments from the past, desires for the future, etc. Across several studies, people who wrote about emotional experiences showed significant drops in doctors’ visits, increased t-helper cell growth, improved antibody response, lower heart rate, improved moods, and distress reduction. Students got better grades. Laid-off seniors found jobs more quickly. University staff members missed fewer days of work. And these findings have been replicated across age, gender, culture, social class, and personality type.
Making sense, moving beyond
There are varying theories about why writing is so beneficial. The most promising involves two basic human traits: the desire to find meaning in our existence, and the need to learn from our experiences so as not to put ourselves in harm’s way. Basically, if we haven’t satisfactorily “processed” or understood something that’s happened to us, we continue to experience it as a threat. It remains a potential danger, and we may ruminate on it, stress about it, and behave out of our fear of it – with all the resulting physical consequences. Putting things into words – demanding a linguistic expression of our own stories – brings structure and explanation to the chaos of our experience. “Once we understand how and why an event has occurred, we are prepared more to deal with it should it happen again,” writes Pennebaker. “Translating distress into language ultimately allows us to forget or, perhaps a better phrase, move beyond the experience.”
As I come more and more “out of the closet” with writing as a tool, a practice, and a passion, I have questions for you.
Do you write? If so, what do you write? Where? How often? How does it affect you?
If you don’t write, why not? What stops you?
What would be helpful to get you to do it? Do you need examples? Prompts? Guidelines? A group? A writing buddy? A community?
Tell me. In writing, naturally!
Elaine Konopka is the founder of The Attentive Body in Paris, offering private sessions in attention-based bodywork and pain management. This month she will launch a series of workshops combining breathwork and writing. Join her on Sunday, March 26th for “Strength.”