How Writing Saved My Life – and Why it Might Improve Yours

By Posted in - Life on March 4th, 2017 The Attentive Body blog by Elaine Konopka

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.

 

Body/mind bridge

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.”

(10) awesome folk have had something to say...

  • Anne-Catherine Wright - Reply

    May 5, 2017 at 15:06

    Hi Elaine, just stumbled across this having responded to your last article on Mothers and read your reply. Thank you for writing this and for further clearing a path through my mind with the clarity of your thoughts. Your words are just what I need right now to release me from my ongoing struggle with procrastination and self doubt. Have written throughout my life in fits and starts only to stop whenever I became aware of what I was actually doing! Have found writing a great way to metabolise life and to grow! Like composting as I mentioned in my last post to you….writing to or with a group I imagine would help me enormously and I completely understand its benefits because I have experienced them on some occasions What I like most is the sharing and healing aspect of words….the idea of recognising and enriching our common experiences through the act of writing and of course getting all excited by the sheer beauty of them!

    • Elaine - Reply

      May 5, 2017 at 21:29

      Glad you stumbled in here, Anne-Catherine. Could be interesting to have a look at the content of your self-doubt — what kinds of things you’re telling yourself. Those voices or words are sometimes like vampires: you shed a little light on them and they POOF into dust.

      I’m like you — so often amazed at the beauty (or wisdom, or humour) in what people write. I hope you’re back at it by now! Thanks for writing here.

  • Emery Snowe - Reply

    March 30, 2017 at 15:24

    Elaine, your practice as a somatic therapist and the fact you draw on the expressive writing research of Pennebaker chimes with a growing body of research and reflection here in the UK, exemplified both by the role of Lapidus, the writing for wellbeing organisation, and the existence of a thriving PGCert, Diploma and MSc course in creative writing for therapeutic purposes (CWTP).
    The latter course is holding an introductory workshop in Bristol on 13 May – check out http://www.metanoia.ac.uk/introductory-workshops/msc-in-creative-writing-for-therapeutic-purposes/
    Also, there is a really interesting two-day conference in Bristol this summer that might be right up your street, called Creative Bridges (https://creativebridgesbristol.com/), covering everything from ‘Sounds and Words in Brain and Body: Connections to Well-being’, to the role of CWTP in chronic pain management.
    Thanks for your blog; there is always something thought-provoking to read and you write so well about the holistic relevance of the written word in daily life.

    • Elaine - Reply

      March 30, 2017 at 22:26

      How wonderful to hear about these programs Emery, thank you very much for posting the information. It certainly does sound right up my alley (the New Jersey version of ‘up your street’), and I’m very curious to read more about it all. I’m glad you enjoy my blog and I hope you’ll keep reading and commenting.

  • Doby R. - Reply

    March 19, 2017 at 09:29

    Inspiring piece, Elaine. Thanks for giving me some mind-breathing. Except for songs and sketches (and some – minority – of my feuilletons for the radio and the press ) writing has never been much fun to me. I’ve been doing that on daily bases to make my living for decades now. Too much routine and deadly deadlines kill most of the fun. I admit, writing can help. I recommend it as a way to clarify and verify one’s thoughts. If you can’t put them down and understand what you mean it is quite likely that it wouldn’t make much sense to express these “thoughts” aloud. But, of course, the message of your article goes deeper than that. And I realize that I’d have to start writing something very different from what I write everyday to find out if I can experience the benefits you wrote about.

    • Elaine - Reply

      March 20, 2017 at 10:01

      Most of all I hope you can find a way to write that’s enjoyable for you, because I know you have a great sense of humour and a quick mind, and it would be so wonderful if you could share those things with the world. Maybe try writing just for yourself, and see what happens? Thanks for your comments Doby!

  • KATHLEEN GRAY - Reply

    March 6, 2017 at 14:52

    What a beautiful piece of writing, Elaine. I identified with many of your experiences, particularly your ‘coming out of the closet’.

    For years I wrote pretty much as you did, in notebooks and travel logs, to record my feelings, laugh at myself, work out why I was upset, let off steam about who/whatever had upset me or describe something that had affected me or given me joy. My notebook was my companion, my confidante, my safety net. I still have most of them, but periodically I toy with the idea of destroying the lot. The idea of anyone having access to the ravings of my younger inner self makes me feel uncomfortably exposed. And yet, I keep the notebooks stashed safely away in a blue metal box in a nice dry cupboard.

    Any ‘public’ writing I did, (except for letters back in the day), was perhaps less honest, more playing to the gallery, hiding myself behind the words for fear of revealing too much. I’m all too well aware of how this stunts my writing. It’s odd, really, because the writing I admire most is invariably emotionally honest. For me, it’s the ultimate criterion of what makes a good writer.

    I came out of the closet some years ago by joining various creative writing groups. I’ve written short stories and am half way through a novel, but a niggling voice tells me that I’m still not being totally honest as a writer.

    So what ‘s the problem? Why do I censor myself in writing in a way I don’t in conversation? Why, when I know that connecting with a piece of writing is the essential pleasure of reading, do I hold back from creating that connection?

    A writer at one of the workshops I attended advised us to “write from your shakiness”. That’s a tough one. But it’s almost certainly the way for me to write something I’d want to read.

    • Elaine - Reply

      March 6, 2017 at 20:25

      You’ve got the questions Kathleen, and I’ll bet anything you have the answers as well. Jordan Peterson, a psychologist/philosopher whose work I admire (and who is a proponent of expressive writing), says, “Every day, ask yourself a hard question — and then answer it.” One question I think you could add to “Why do I censor myself?” is “HOW do I censor myself?” In what way are you not being honest? What specifically does that mean in the context of your work and the things you write about?
      I really enjoyed reading about your experience, thanks so much for commenting. And “Write from your shakiness” is a keeper.

  • Barbara Droubay - Reply

    March 5, 2017 at 19:08

    I loved to read this – and it made me think a lot. I have also written all my life – and it serves me in an interesting way – that being that i can be ruminating and all things are open – worries to ideas—but the physical act of writing makes it concrete somehow. I think because it enters the concrete word through a physical act – but I love that about writing. The study from james Pennebaker was wonderful to read about!

    I write alone – and often need time to get into it – i do a lot of miscellaneous stuff before finally dropping into the zone –
    it’s like working out the energy of self-doubt-
    then if I just allow myself to simply start writing- nothing to judge or be good at – just start –pretty soon I am absorbed.
    the other thing that helps me is every time I hesitate – I stop and take a breath–and stand up or move – and I start a whole rephrase –
    the other thing is I ask myself–what am I afraid of not saying, or how can I say this the most direct and simple way, or i imagine saying it out loud.

    when I don’t wirte its because I am believing I am not clear about it –the thing is in fat – WRITING makes me get clear…so I am learning that to start writing I do not need to be clear, have ideas, know exactly what I am doing – instead – theat always seems to show up during the process of writing itself. so what stops me is a strange idea of perfection or I should be ..voice.

    i think what would help is community as well as a daily practice – cues and things I can use to get into that space of just doing it!

    thank you for this!

    Barbara Droubay

    • Elaine - Reply

      March 5, 2017 at 20:27

      So much great stuff in your comment, Barb. The “strange idea of perfection” is so pervasive — it’s been drummed into a lot of us and can be a serious obstacle to self-expression or just getting things done in general. The antidote — or one antidote — is the faith that things will show up in the process of doing it. Trust the writing. A writing buddy sent me an article today that included this quote from Donald Barthelme: “The writer is that person who, embarking upon her task, does not know what to do.” So you’re in good company.
      It seems this blog made you not only think, but write! And this makes my day. Thanks for your words.

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