Not so long ago, my friend Paula asked me, “So, do you think you will ever write a novel?”
“Moi?” I laughed, “I couldn’t write fiction if my horses’ lives depended on it. I am strictly a non-fiction writer.”
I woke up that night at 03h17. I thought about what I had said. I realised that what I said was not entirely true. In fact, it was entirely untrue. My first book, Horse Riding Confidence Secrets, contains several anecdotes to illustrate the points I wanted to make. My second book, Self-Confidence made Simple, features the stories of sixteen French women. Sixteen women I interviewed to find out how they became the confident and well-adjusted women they are today. My third book, the 2nd in the Fabriqué en France series, includes the stories of ten of my workshop participants. My latest book, Cope with Change, Thrive on Transitions, 3rd in the series, contains a large number of personal anecdotes and accounts that illustrate the strategy I developed to cope with change.
In the early morning hours, it dawned on me that what I said to Paula was nonsense. I do write fiction. I would never have been able to write a single book if I could not write stories. I have been writing stories since the day I first opened a file to write a morning page (see Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way) ten years ago. Morning pages are an essential coping strategy for me. I write troublesome emotions out of my head and onto paper. I used to write aimlessly about what had happened and what I felt about it. Sometimes this made me feel better, sometimes worse. As a coping strategy, it had its limitations.
I wanted to include this strategy in my sixth book, but because of its limitations, I hesitated. Luckily, I discovered a more promising technique. I have used it for two years now, and during this time, I have written more stories while trying to cope with my eye problems than I care to count. The technique is called narrative expressive writing (or N.E.W.)
According to James Pennebaker, a professor of psychology at The University of Texas–Austin and co-author of the new book Opening Up by Writing it Down: How Expressive Writing Improves Health and Eases Emotional Pain, “Writing about an emotionally charged subject or an unresolved trauma helps you put the event into perspective…” In other words, writing about thoughts and feelings that arise from a stressful life experience may help some people cope with the emotional upheaval caused by such an event.
Writing a story, instead of just writing about the emotions one experiences, makes a difference. Kyle Bourassa, author of the article The Impact of Narrative Expressive Writing on Heart Rate, Heart Rate Variability, and Blood Pressure Following Marital Separation said, “To be able to create a story in a structured way—not just re-experience your emotions but make meaning out of them—allows you to process those feelings in a more physiologically adaptive way. The explicit instructions to create a narrative may provide a scaffolding for people who are going through this tough time. This structure can help people gain an understanding of their experience that allows them to move forward, rather than simply spinning and re-experiencing the same negative emotions over and over.”
It certainly works for me.
Are you going through a difficult time?
How about using narrative expressive writing to try to make sense of it?
Not sure how to go about it? As an example, here is Leo’s story:
I thought that Leo was a lost cause. I thought that he had been so severely neglected, so fundamentally mistreated, so intensively abused that he would never recover. On the day we met, Leo was little more than a bag of bones. He was infested with lice and so malnourished that he had difficulty staying upright. His eyes were lifeless. His breathing was shallow. When I reached out to him, he tried to get away, but he was so weak that he fell to his knees.
I was ready to give up on Leo.
The chances of ever reaching him again, to lure him out of the dark hole in his mind where he had taken refuge seemed like an impossible undertaking. Might as well give him up as a worthless lot. He had given up himself a long time ago. Leo would never trust anyone again. He tried to make himself as small as possible. He shied away from any physical contact. He offered no resistance and no engagement. He wasn’t present. His broken body was there with me, but his damaged mind was somewhere where no human could reach it.
Once, he must have been young, playful and full of energy. Now, at barely twelve years old, he was a tired old man.
I had worked with damaged horses before, but I have never encountered a horse as far gone as Leo. I did not know where to start. I seriously considered having him put to sleep, even if only to end his suffering. The festering wounds on his legs desperately needed aggressive treatment, but he was so weak that the antibiotics that he needed would probably have done more harm than good. From his swollen stomach, it was clear that he was full of worms, but I wasn’t sure if he would survive treatment for that either. His teeth were in such bad condition that he could not chew even if he did get access to some decent hay. Even if I managed to get him through this, he would never be a healthy, happy horse again.
How totally, utterly and completely wrong I was!
I did not give up on Leo, against my better judgement. Two years later, as I walked out of the front door one morning, I found a happy, healthy, well-fed horse with a shiny coat and a twinkle in his big brown eyes standing on the front lawn. He knows full well that he should not be there, but he has that you-know-that-I-am-a-bit-special attitude down to perfection. He knows that he can melt my heart with a single pleading look. No longer does he shy away when I approach him. I can see that it takes every ounce of self-control that he can muster to remain standing on the same spot when his every instinct tells him to run away as fast as he possibly can. He knows that when he does that, I sigh and turn around with tears in my eyes. So he just stands there, glued to the spot, trembling with effort. From somewhere deep inside himself, Leo found the courage to give people one more chance. Just as I had given him one last chance.
Leo taught me a lot in the time he was with us. He taught me not to give up, no matter how bleak the outlook. He taught me to persevere no matter how impossible a task may seem. He taught me that “success is not measured by what you accomplish, but by the opposition you have encountered, and the courage with which you have maintained the struggle against overwhelming odds,” as Orison Swett Marden said.
Leo died a year ago. I miss him. Writing the above, on the anniversary of his death, helped me to let him go. It reminded me of how grateful I should be that he shared my life for four full years.
Clearly, I am not ready to write a novel yet. In the meantime, I am getting some extensive practice transferring the tension created by one transition after another out of my head and into a lockable computer file.
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6 Replies to “Writing your Way through Life Transitions”
lovely Leo story, horses teach us so much about trust and willingness to try again.
Sure you can write a novel. But this post is already interesting.
Thanks, Riet! maybe one day…
Great article. I agree with your thoughts on this. I also use writing to work through and re-frame experience.
Thank you, Jennifer!