Every writer gets stuck at times: stuck with a creative project, but also stuck in life. Lara Zielin shares a unique tool that she used to turn her life, and her writing, around.
As a writer, I’m always considering what my characters want. I’m always asking what their motivations are. What will make them happy? What is a satisfying story for them?
But I had never really considered the story of my own life. What was my motivation? What would make me happy?
I began asking these questions at the start of 2018 when I realized I was drowning in unhappiness. Things were fine, except they weren’t. I was the heaviest I’d been in years, and I was drinking a lot.
My work writing novels, which had once been thriving, had also dried up, leaving me questioning who in the world I was since being a novelist was the only thing I’d ever wanted to do.
My husband and I were living paycheck to paycheck. And while we liked each other a lot, our relationship wasn’t exactly thriving. I was drinking to numb all kinds of pain, though I probably couldn’t have said exactly where I was hurting at the time.
It just felt like a terrible ache all over.
Turning the Tables on Fiction
That’s when I went back to writing, but I decided to play with the fiction-writing process and the Hero’s Journey. I wanted to test whether writing about the life I wanted to have could actually help it come to pass.
I began a book I unimaginatively titled Lara’s Life. Every day I wrote about myself like a character, and I wrote about the things I wanted to have happen to this person. It wasn’t great prose by any stretch of the imagination and, some days, all I could manage to write were some basic affirmations.
But there was power in this process. Within one year, my life felt markedly different. In practical terms, I lost 20 pounds, and our finances made a U-turn for the better. I stopped drinking.
But beyond that, I went from being half numb in my life to embracing it and living it fully. I feel totally connected to my purpose and on a better path.
While I want to call this work magical, there are three very practical reasons this worked for me, and why it can work for you, too.
1. This writing process fueled pattern recognition
When you write down what you want to have happen to you, it helps you see more clearly the things that are holding you back. The tension is right there on the page for you in real life, the same as it would be for a character.
When I wrote “Lara loves herself,” I could see more clearly all the ways in which I didn’t act that way on a daily basis. That could be everything from beating myself up for not being perfect to having that third glass of wine at night.
The process of writing it highlighted the disparity between my two “characters” and made it crystal clear where I needed to change. This was especially critical when I wanted to tell myself everything was fine, because it forced me to literally see how my two stories were out of alignment (and that fueled better behavior as a result).
2. Writing ourselves in the third person gives us helpful cognitive distance
Dr. James Pennebaker from the University of Texas at Austin has studied the connections between writing and healing for years. His research shows that writing or “storifying” experiences helps people approach what’s happened to them more objectively and can ultimately provide perspective on and understanding of these experiences.
Thinking about ourselves in the third person is also useful for stressful or difficult situations, according to researchers at Michigan State University and the University of Michigan. The third-person perspective helps people think about themselves as they would others, which matters because we’re often much nicer to other people than we are to ourselves. (Raise your hand if you say things to and about yourself that you would never say to another person.)
Alternatively, if we try writing out situations like we’re a character in a book, it can fool our brain and our emotions into believing the narrative a bit more.
3. Physics tells us that behavior and observation are linked
In quantum mechanics, which is the branch of physics that studies the tiniest building blocks of the universe like atoms and quarks, scientists have tried to measure the physical characteristics of subatomic particles, such as position or momentum, but haven’t been able to pin them down. That’s because the mere act of observing the particles changes the experiment.
“A particle simply does not have a precise position before measurement, any more than the ripples of a pond do,” says David J. Griffiths in Introduction to Quantum Mechanics, Second Edition (Pearson Education, 2005).
In other words, scientists theorize that behavior can be influenced by observation.
If scientists may be able to influence how particles behave just by observing them, then it’s not a far stretch to imagine that we influence our lives when we direct energy or thought (or words!) toward specific aspects of it.
“Intention” is the popular word being used these days to describe just that. If reality is perception, then changing the story of what we’re perceiving can absolutely have an impact.
Try This at Home, Kids
If you’re eager to try this for yourself, it’s pretty simple stuff. Get a notebook and grab a pen. Title your story and write what you want to have happen to you, the same as you would a character in a story.
- How does this character feel?
- Where do they travel?
- Who are they with?
- How do they change for the better?
Don’t worry about plotting out the entire arc of the story. The arc will take care of itself. Just write every day like a chapter and put down whatever bubbles up in your heart.
This process changed my life and reignited my creativity. I believe it can do the same for you, too.
Have you considered writing your own hero's journey as a creative prompt? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
Lara Zielin is a published young adult and romance author. Her nonfiction book Author Your Life is about using the power of writing to create a better story for yourself.
[Journaling image courtesy Hannah Olinger and Unsplash.]
Delece Ford says
Great idea! The thing is – I wonder if anyone would believe what I have to say.
Lara Zielin says
Hi Delece, I’m so happy this idea resonates with you! The great news is that it doesn’t matter if anyone else believes what you have to say — the question is, do YOU believe what you have to say? (*whispers* I’ll believe it with you.)
Cat Michaels says
TY, Joanna and Lara. I’m glad this method helped you dig out of a dark place, Lara.
Brilliant tips here for writing to enhance creativity and well-being. I journaled as a kid; now may try writing my own hero’s journey as a grown-up…just for me….but perhaps to an spark idea or two for my fiction wip -:D
Lara Zielin says
Cat, all the YES to what you’re saying! I am really eager to more deeply explore the connection between this work and my fiction writing, too. There’s a whole other layer here, and I’m right there with you!
John Braddock says
It may help to see the Hero’s Journey as a strategy. In strategy, there’s usually a Positive-Sum Game of alliance-building leading to a Zero-Sum Game of conflict, followed by a Positive-Sum denouement.
There’s a graphic laying it out at the spysguide.com blog, if you search for Hero’s Journey (a direct link isn’t allowed here).
Ingmar Albizu says
The undeniable healing power of writing.
Great post, Lara.
Diane Tibert says
Having gone through a major transformation in the first five months of this year, this post resonates with me. I’ve done the drinking and quit, and I’ve put on the weight and am in the process of losing it. This idea of writing my hero’s story may be the next step in the healing and reinventing myself journey. I’m a relatively clean slate now, looking for the adventure I belong in. Writing it as I would my epic fantasy novels sounds like the right path. Thank you.
Alexander Elliott says
Wonderful post! I enjoy putting little bits of the real me into some of my characters. It helps me work thorough my own issues AND makes the character more interesting and real. So glad you are in a better place – keep writing!
Annabelle Franklin says
Great idea! Trouble with me is, to have my life the way I want it I’d have to be a kid again, and that’s impossible! Maybe that’s why I write for kids.