The Importance of Looking Up
May 7, 2013 § Leave a comment
Last week the movement arts group New York Live Arts hosted a five-day festival dedicated to the work of one of my favorite writers, Oliver Sacks, a neurologist turned author whose fame stems from his ability to make medical writing digestible for a lay audience.
Sacks writes primarily about neurological cases he comes across in his practice. In his essays, he explains the scientific underpinnings of complicated and rare neurological disorders, but his pieces also read like engaging personal narratives. His patients and their experiences come alive on the page.
As a writer I’ve always wondered how Sacks managed to craft such emotionally and scientifically intricate pieces, and I think I recently came across the answer in a National Public Radio blog post dedicated to Sacks.
NPR Reporter Alva Noe writes: “A comment I heard more than once at a recent [New York Live Arts] event in New York to celebrate the life of Oliver Sacks, who turns 80 this year, is that it isn’t Sacks’ patients who are particularly interesting; it is the interest Sacks brings to them that makes them special. He has good eyes.”
He has good eyes. That comment really struck a chord with me. Not just because it shed light upon a question I’d had about Sacks, but because it speaks to something I think every writer has asked themselves at least once: am I paying enough attention?
Whether the focus is your emotions, the world around you or the world of others, writing requires attention to detail. In order to reconstruct our experiences into essays and stories that ring true to others, we have to be able to set scenes, emotional or physical, that are saturated with observations which help our readers feel as if they’re experiencing our worlds themselves.
For me, it sometimes feels like my world is no longer saturated with the kind of details my favorite authors capture in their works. But the problem is not that those details don’t exist—city streets are still as lively as Virginia Woolf described, and people are still as beautifully complicated and fickle as Hemingway depicted them—the problem is that I’ve stopped noticing, and I don’t think I’m alone.
How often have you participated in a conversation where it seems like you’re just one-upping a friend on the exhaustions scale?
“I haven’t slept in three days I’m so busy.”
“I’m so busy I can’t even remember the last time I ate!”
It seems like as a society we’ve come to a decision: busy is better. And busy means not having the time to stop and take in the little details that make life beautiful and exciting.
I don’t know when we decided that busy was the new desirable status quo but it seems like everyone has signed on, and if you’re not busy you’re somehow missing out.
After all, technology makes it so easy to stay busy. Ten minutes between doctors’ appointments? Respond to that e-mail you neglected this morning. An hour-long bus ride to visit family for the holidays? You can make a whole PowerPoint presentation from your iPad. There’s no longer any reason to not be busy.
But there’s also no longer any reason to look up from our smartphones and tablets, to look around at the world and realize there are things beyond our isolated, technology-centric worlds worth devoting our time and attention to.
Sacks was lucky in that he was able to use his work as inspiration for his art, but if he’d spent his diagnostic time looking down at e-mails from his patients instead of looking up and seeing them face-to-face, as unique parts of a bigger world with a greater purpose, I don’t think we’d have the same amazing accounts of his experiences.
To replicate experiences in a tangible way, we have to be present for those experiences. Fully present and mentally alert.
If we stop paying attention, if we stop looking up, if we no longer have “good eyes,” will we deprive ourselves of a whole new generation of literary wonders like Sacks?
We might. But we might lose even more. Philosopher John Campbell once wrote, “People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive.”
If we stop looking up we can lose those essential, random, unplanned experiences of being alive—the very experiences that allow great writers like Sacks to captivate us, that allow us to gain something more from our day-to-day than just checking things off a to-do list, that make us essentially human.
Let’s start looking up again. Let’s have good eyes.
Just a Thought: Journaling in the Digital Age
April 23, 2013 § 2 Comments
Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about journaling. A few weeks ago I was at my parents’ apartment trying to help with the yearly spring cleaning, but instead of finally throwing away the clothes I never wear, I became distracted by a box full of books from my childhood. Tucked between a worn copy of The Outsiders and a Judy Blume novel I can’t remember reading, I found the first journal I ever kept.
I’ve made a lot of attempts at keeping journals, some more successful than others. But none of my more recent attempts compare to the tenacity with which I kept my first journal. Thumbing through the spiral bound pages of the colorful notebook, I was shocked to realize that I wrote nearly every day. I was just eight years old when I started this journal; how could I have filled so many pages?
It turns out, I wrote about everything. My days at school. My feelings toward friends. My frustration with my older brothers. My fear that the coolest kids in the class didn’t know my name. The thing that struck me the most was how unconcerned the younger version of myself seemed with what I was writing. I was just venting, fearlessly, confidently, without an ounce of hesitation.
I was so blown away by how much I had to write, and how willing I was to write it, that I had to stop and reassess for a moment: What changed between that journal and my more recent attempts?
I haven’t touched my most recent journal since January 2012, and I’m convinced that my negligence is partially due to being “on” all the time. I can’t remember the last time I had enough down time to do something just for myself without feeling guilty about it, without feeling like I’m neglecting work or forgetting to respond to e-mail. It sometimes seems like everyone is moving so fast and doing so much that if you do have time to just focus on yourself, you’re probably doing something wrong.
When I sit down to journal now, I often find myself thinking: Do I really have the time to just write about my feelings for a while? Is this more important than my to-do list?
I suspect I’m not alone in my hesitancy.
But if you consider mental and physical well-being important, journaling shouldn’t feel like an extravagant indulgence. Research has proven that taking the time to process your thoughts — to reflect on interpersonal conflicts, or even just to write down a quick account of your day—has tangible psychological benefits, as explained in a superb article from PsychCentral:
“The act of writing accesses your left brain, which is analytical and rational. While your left brain is occupied, your right brain is free to create, intuit and feel. In sum, writing removes mental blocks and allows you to use all of your brainpower to better understand yourself, others and the world around you.”
Additionally, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin have found that journaling can protect your physical health as well—regular journaling strengthens your immune cells and decreases the impact of stress on your physical health by helping you come to terms with and manage the stressors in your life.
So maybe we shouldn’t feel guilty about journaling. But for many, I’m sure the concept of writing in a journal is daunting for other reasons.
One of my oft-cited reasons for not writing in my journal is that I simply don’t know what to write. What’s important enough to put on paper? To save and go back to later? But the fact of the matter is that you can write about anything, as long as you’re writing without barriers.
Researchers say that writing for 20 minutes daily is the ideal if you’re writing with health benefits in mind, but offer few other directives other than to just let your guard down. Don’t worry about what’s important or how you might feel about your entry two years from now. Just write. If it helps you get started, pick a topic to write about (relationships, your work, the books you’re reading) each day, week or month. Whatever you can maintain.
I’ve decided to challenge myself to write in a journal at least five days per week for the next six weeks to see if I can get back into the habit. I’m going to force myself to make time to just be with my thoughts, to “turn off” for a while in order to turn inward and gain a better sense of myself.
And to keep myself on track, I’ve decided to try doing this in a new medium. A friend recently brought to my attention the existence of journaling apps—programs that you can install on your laptop and smart phone that will not only allow you to securely journal from anywhere, but that also allow you to set up reminders. The apps will actually e-mail or text you reminding you to write.
And while I recognize the irony in “turning off” through a journaling application on my smartphone, the primary source of my constant need to be on in the first place, I think it will be an interesting experiment: Is it possible to translate something as timeless as the paper journal into the digital world? I’m going to try to find out.
But no matter what your chosen medium is, I think we should all try to journal. Not just for ourselves, but for each other. Because I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather live in a world where we all take a few moments a day to step back and reassess.
Just a thought.
Photo Credit: Sueanna
Superheroes and Super Writers
March 20, 2013 § Leave a comment
Each September dozens of first-year college students flock to the small college writing center where I work, desperate to capitalize on our free tutoring services. Despite a staff of 40 and 12 business hours per day, we can’t keep up with the demand. And while we tutors relish the opportunity to speak with so many new students about writing, a craft that our staff is deeply engaged with and always excited about, the students rarely seem as happy to see us as we are to see them.
This past fall, a student made an appointment with me to brainstorm ideas for an assignment for her Introduction to Literary Studies course. In three pages, her assignment dictated, she was supposed to explicate a poem or short story, paying specific attention to metaphors and themes. She had her story picked out, and knew which themes she wanted to analyze. She understood metaphors and how they were at work in the story. In conversation with me, her analysis was sharp and well articulated. Fifteen minutes into our session, I asked her what I could help her with—she seemed so prepared to write. Quite candidly, she told me she was scared.
Scared of what?
Scared of writing. Despite her clear grasp on the material, the thought of condensing her ideas into a written analysis caused her great anxiety. “I’m just not a good writer,” she said, “I’ve never liked it. I just can’t do it.”
We hear stories like this all the time at our writing center: a brilliant young student with complex and enlightening ideas for an essay is absolutely terrified of putting pen to paper or finger to key, apprehensive about every step of the writing process.
When I first began tutoring, I was consistently taken aback by students’ reluctance to write. I was a fairly quiet child, and writing was always my outlet. Until I was 7 or so, my main hobby was interviewing neighbors and friends, asking them questions about crimes I made up and using their answers to write articles for my pretend newspaper. My parents encouraged my writing, and every few months would help me type and print my favorite stories and deliver them to my neighbors. And though as I got older I became embarrassed by their insistence that I write things for them to read, looking back now, I’m exceptionally grateful for their encouragement and persistence.
Today, I think of writing as just another way of expressing myself, like dancing or singing or making art. Sometimes I write for fun or therapy, sometimes I write for work, sometimes I write for a grade in a class. And sometimes, writing makes me nervous too—if I know someone else is going to read my work, or if I’m writing about something I feel strongly about—but I’m not afraid of the process itself. I’ve never felt like I just couldn’t do it.
I think any one who grows up thinking they just can’t write has been dealt a major injustice. Sure, a comfort with writing provides an academic advantage, and for many a workplace advantage as well. But more importantly, a comfort with writing provides another means of expression in a world in which disconnecting from your own emotions and experience has become easy, if not commonplace.
And this is why I’m so glad that programs like author Dave Egger’s 826 National are working to get children engaged with writing early, when their desire to express is high and their reluctance is low. Egger’s program, which launched in San Francisco in 2002 but has since spread to eight major cities nationwide, focuses on using creative techniques to kindle children’s interest in and command of writing.
Eggers sets up writing centers under the guise of eccentric storefronts. In New York City, for example, the 826 Center is located in the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Company, which sells capes, masks, grappling hooks, and secret identity kits. But the store is actually used to fund creative writing and tutoring programs for local kids. The stores’ quirky facades quickly spark children’s interest, and the writing programs expand on that interest. First, the kids might write stories about superheroes and spies, but the program builds on that initial excitement to keep them interested not just in the fun, silly themes, but in writing as a means of expressing yourself.
The center publishes its student’s work, encourages them to write in groups, to write poems or short stories, science fiction or personal essays. It encourages them to write about what interests them, so they can see that writing is not just something you have to do for school; writing is a way they can make the world come alive around them, exactly as they’d like that world to be.
Similar programs exist on a less national scale: on the west coast Take My Word for It runs thematic writing groups where children can work with their peers to write about their interests. The Flight group, for example, focuses on writing about planes, and flying, and even the disappearance of Amelia Earhart. Mighty Writers in Philadelphia and Incite to Write in New Mexico offer similarly engaging programs. And across the country smaller versions of these programs are working hard to make sure children see writing as an exciting hobby, something to be proud of, rather than another chore.
The mission of programs like these—to ignite a child’s love of writing—is even more important as public schools continue to redirect resources toward test prep and standardization. Children are naturally so creative, so willing to explore and express. We should encourage them to think of the written word as a primary means of sharing their ideas, of telling us what they see and how they see it. Writing shouldn’t terrify; it should excite and expire. And while not every child will catch the writers’ bug, every child should be given the chance.
Photo Credit: Micah Taylor via photopin cc
Wounds and Words
February 28, 2013 § 2 Comments
“Write hard and clear about what hurts.”
On a recent trip to the grocery store, I overheard a conversation between a man and his wife while standing behind them in the checkout line. The man, probably in his mid-thirties, complained to his wife about a last minute report he had to write for his company. Someone else had dropped the ball, and despite his weeks of overtime and severe lack of sleep, he’d been tasked with the extra work. He said he was tired. He was stressed. The last thing he wanted to do was write.
Even though I knew he meant the last thing he wanted to write was a tedious report, and he wasn’t referring to the kind of therapeutic, personal writing I enjoy so much, the comment stuck with me for the rest of the evening. I know many people who would echo this man’s sentiment, but apply it to writing of any kind. Personal, academic or professional, some people dislike any prolonged form of writing.
Perhaps the fairly common distaste for this particular art form is rooted in formal schooling. For most of us, our first venture into the world of the written word comes in a structured, often punishing environment. We learn to write, but are constantly bombarded with corrections from teachers and parents attempting to teach us to write “better.” And though their concern for our grasp of grammar and syntax is warranted and necessary, it’s easy to understand how some people might shy away from the process for fear of criticism.
If you’re lucky enough to catch the writing bug it can be stressful and disheartening to encounter people, especially friends and loved ones, with a visceral aversion to putting pen to paper—especially now that we’ve accumulated so much research indicating how effective writing can be in helping us heal both psychological and physical wounds.
Research into the connection between writing and psychological health began to gain momentum in the late 1980s, and the results gathered over the last three decades provide support for what most self-proclaimed writers already knew: writing is an excellent form of independent therapy.
One study of note compiled the results from several different therapeutic writing trials, and sought to identify whether or not writing could help victims of traumatic events better cope with their post-trauma lives. In each of the trials, researchers asked half of the group to write about mundane topics like time-management or daily activities, and the other half to write about “an extremely important emotional issue that has affected you and your life.” The writing was completely confidential, and each group was asked to write for about a half hour each day for 3-5 consecutive days.
Participants reported that the actual process of writing was quite stressful, and they often wanted to discontinue their involvement. But the results were astonishing. Researchers found that following the therapeutic writing trials, groups asked to write about their emotional experiences:
- Visited physicians less often, had healthier immune systems, lower heart rates and reported fewer instances of illness.
- Reported generally better moods and less personal psychological stress.
- Showed improved grades (if enrolled in school).
- Found employment more quickly than unemployed members of the non-emotional writing groups.
- Were less likely to miss days of work or school.
- Reported fewer depressive episodes.
Though the results speak for themselves, they’re even more impressive when you consider that the same improvements were found across demographic groups. The various compiled studies featured students, professionals, the elderly, and even convicted felons. Writing about trauma appears to be universally beneficial, and further research indicates that expressive writing has emotional benefits even if you haven’t had any significant traumatic experiences.
And I suspect the confidentiality played a critical role in the effectiveness of these therapeutic writing studies. Like any other art form, writing is less stressful without an audience, without critics. How honestly can you express yourself if you’re concerned with who might read your work and pass judgment? But if you’re guaranteed to be the only consumer of your written words? What an exceptional opportunity to work out complicated, difficult, stressful feelings—feelings that we’re naturally inclined to ignore and repress. And if repression, as research indicates, has a negative effect on our psychological health, expression should logically have the opposite result.
I wish I’d used pen and paper to work out my feelings about writing as therapy prior to overhearing that man complain to his wife. If I had, maybe I would have had the confidence to tell him that perhaps his work-related stress could be combatted with a more expressive form of the tedious writing he seemed to dread so much.
Just a Thought: Live Arts misses the boat with writing
February 7, 2013 § Leave a comment
New York Live Arts (NYLA), the movement arts group led by renowned choreographer Bill T. Jones, recently announced that it would begin hosting an annual festival dedicated to exploring the interplay of art and ideas. Dubbed “Live Arts,” the festival will explore a different sub-theme each year. The first annual festival, which will run from April 17-21 in New York City, is tentatively titled “The World of Oliver Sacks” and will commemorate the great body of work Sacks has contributed to the world of neurology and, more specifically, the understanding of the connection between creative expression and the body. Outside of the medical world, Sacks is best known for his memoir Awakenings, which inspired the 1990 film starring Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams.
The schedule for the five-day festival has already been released, and for anyone interested in the world of artistic expression, or the world of science, there’s much to be excited about. Highlights include:
- Jones and Sacks will participate in a keynote conversation about the overlaps in the world of neurology and the world of choreography
- Bill Morrison will premiere his new film, RE:Awakenings, which is based on original footage shot by Sacks
- Many of the neurologist’s former patients will sit on panels to discuss the impact of Sack’s creative inclinations on their healing and coping processes
- Philosophers, writers, and doctors will host discussions dedicated to the doctor’s many critically-acclaimed books
Though not all the events are free, ticket prices are low enough to make them accessible to the general community. Overall, the new festival promises to be engaging, enlightening, and educational.
In perusing the events schedule, however, I’ve found what seems to me a disappointing oversight in the content. As the festival is hosted by NYLA, the emphasis on music and dance-related material makes sense and I’d happily attend any of the advertised panels, performances, or discussions. But I can’t help but yearn for an event—just one—dedicated to the exploring the relationship between writing and health. Sacks is a prolific writer who, if my experience is any benchmark, has had a profound influence on writers everywhere. Through his many medically inclined but exceptionally readable books, Sacks has proven that reflective personal narrative and detailed, informative scientific prose are not mutually exclusive.
Yet, based on the information made available so far, only one of the festival’s events will deal directly with Sacks the writer, but not from the perspective of the mind-body connection. The moderated panel “Sacks the Writer: Process and Influence,” will feature two of the doctor’s editors and two fellow writers discussing the lasting impact of Sacks’ twelve books and countless articles on the writing world. But Sacks himself, it seems, will not speak and the connection between the writing process and mental and physical health won’t necessarily be explored.
As someone who began writing at a very young age, I believe quite strongly in the cathartic power of the written word, of journaling, of crafting a pro-con list before making a difficult decision. Research has confirmed the positive effects of writing (both creative writing like poetry and autobiographical writing) on patients in both mental and physical distress, and therapeutic writing workshops are interestingly beginning to gain popularity even as talk therapy is on the decline.
If the first Live Arts festival is going to explore Sacks’ contribution to our understanding of the connection between art and health, I think it would be incredibly enlightening to hear the doctor speak about the impact writing has had on his well-being. I imagine Sacks’ day-to-day life must often be excessively stressful. A large portion of his medical career has been spent working with patients in the direst circumstances—patients with debilitating disabilities and little will to live. Sacks chronicles these interactions beautifully in his essays and books but rarely directly confronts his own emotional state, and this reader can’t help but wonder if the doctor turner author has ever reflected on the role writing has played in his ability to sustain himself in such an emotionally and mentally straining field of work.
In a recent interview with The Daily Beast, Sacks told a reporter, “It infuriates me not to be able to write something that has popped into my mind.” To me, this indicates that Sacks does see writing as a calming activity, as I like to think most writers do. Adding a conversation about this connection, about the role of writing in the pursuance of greater overall well-being, to the Live Arts lineup could encourage continued conversation and awareness around the phenomenal impact writing can have on a person’s emotional, mental and physical health. Like dancing, playing an instrument, or composing a song, writing is an inherently creative and active process that can offer emotional relief and foster greater self-awareness. Taking a little time out of each day to reflect, in writing, on your emotional state can help you heal after a traumatic event, serve as an outlet for working out minor frustrations without falling victim to needless stressors, or allow you to celebrate and preserve positive experiences. And while I’m sure Oliver Sacks would agree, I nevertheless think the greater Live Arts audience could benefit from hearing the doctor’s experiences with writing as a form of catharsis.
Just a thought.
– Jean-Ann Kubler