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.
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).
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.
[Journaling image courtesy Hannah Olinger and Unsplash.]