A Surprising Connection That Changed My Writing Life
My Journey in Sense Writing
For more information on Sense Writing's One-on-One Training, please see One-on-One Training.
“Is this a children’s story?” my college professor asked me in front of the class.
“It wasn’t meant to be,” I answered, mortified. We were workshopping my story that day. It wasn’t nearly ready to be edited; it was the forced product of a school assignment.
I was an English and Creative Writing major in a reputable writing program. When we weren’t workshopping our pieces, we were discussing other authors’ work as an inspiration for our own. Before each assignment was due, I would sit at my laptop for hours, struggling to produce something decent before it would be subject to public criticism. I found that the whole product-oriented “process” bred nothing but anxiety and insecurity.
I went to law school at the University of Pennsylvania and reluctantly buried my passion for creative writing for three years. Though law school did make me a better writer, I felt that a part of me was dead. I found the law to be dry and technical. As graduation inched closer, every job opportunity presented did not seem appealing. Finally, I decided to meet with a career counselor.
“So you’re not interested in private practice,” she said, “What about public interest work?” I had had several public interest law jobs. The legal work was basically the same with half the salary. I grew more and more frustrated. None of the jobs she was presenting felt like a good fit for me, but I couldn't fully articulate why. She didn't know much about me, either. Finally she looked at me, and in what could have been one of the most honest moments of my life, she said: "Jenna, when I have these sort of conversations with students, it is usually because they are too scared to say what they really want: either they don't want to practice law and want to be a businessman, they want to be a politician, or they want to be a writer. Jenna, it sounds like you just want to be a writer."
And there it was.
I tried to hold back the tears. A woman who hardly knew me was telling me something that I couldn't even admit to myself. I never intended to write professionally, but being a writer was just who I was. I couldn’t avoid it any longer. Yet how could I graduate an Ivy League law school and not practice law?
After taking the bar, I went to Israel for the year to take a break and reconnect with myself. One night, I was scrolling through my news feed on Facebook, when an ad for a creative writing workshop in Jerusalem called Sense Writing caught my eye. I clicked on the website and read about a writing method developed by former NYU professor Madelyn Kent. The website explained how Sense Writing, largely influenced by Somatic Education (a form of mind-body training) focused on the process of writing by working with your nervous system. I was intrigued and terrified at the same time.
You see, when I was in college, a peculiar thing happened. During a routine visit to the eye doctor, I was given eye drops, and the next thing I knew, I was lying on the examining table with the doctor holding my legs up into the air to increase blood flow to my brain. I had fainted. A few months later at another doctor’s office after getting my blood taken, I fainted again. I was told that I had “vasovagal syncope:” a condition where certain anxiety “triggers” cause the body to faint. After these first episodes, my triggers became anything medical. I found that with each doctor visit, I was anxious and lightheaded at the dreaded prospect of my next fainting spell.
When I read about Sense Writing, I felt almost as if I was walking into one of my triggers. I did not like the idea of messing with my neurological framework. But I was determined to reclaim my identity as a writer.
In the dark room where the Sense Writing workshop took place, we laid on mats on the floor. In a deliberate, calm voice, Madelyn asked us to just notice different parts of our bodies and how they related to each other and made contact with the floor. I felt my heart pounding. “Notice your breath,” Madelyn said. “Don’t change it. Just notice. No need to correct anything.”
When we sat up to write, I felt that this “bodymapping” noticing sensation inside, little by little, took my fear away. My body was extremely calm and grounded and my voice was able to come through much more easily than I was used to. I was enjoying writing in this mode so much that I wished the exercise wouldn't end.
I left the two-day workshop knowing I needed to deepen this practice, so I began working with Madelyn one-on-one via Skype when I returned to the U.S and delved deeper into the Sense Writing training. Through the training, we immediately started to make connections between the way the nervous system works and my creative process.
One of the influences of Sense Writing is Moshe Feldenkrais, the creator of Feldenkrais and one of the granddaddies of neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s ability to reorganize itself. During the Sense Writing training I read Feldenkrais’s "Learning to Learn” and was taken by his idea that one can actually achieve more without trying, by simply doing the work. Throughout my years of school, the motto was always "try harder." I wanted to see if I could achieve more by trying less. In posting my reflections to Madelyn on my private webpage (these self-reflections are a major part of the training) I wrote, I am not here to achieve a specific result, but to experience a process. That’s when I realized what was missing in my undergrad program- it was all product and no process.
The training included recorded sequences, all of which were designed to engage my nervous system in the creative process. With each recording, I focused on different aspects of my body. The equilibrium I achieved through the exercises was far superior to my normal equilibrium, which opened me up to the physical sequences even more. The writing and movement sequences enabled me to reduce my cognitive noise and then trick myself into new creative habits. Instead of struggling and working against my nervous system while writing, my nervous system was now working for me.
I had been scared of interfering with my physiological makeup, but as the weeks went on, I began to understand that I was simply afraid of the unfamiliar. Once I began to explore and learn the landscape of my nervous system, I grew comfortable in its intricacies. This intimacy actually carried over and allowed me to settle in and become more detailed in the landscape of my writing.
By focusing on process rather than product, I found that my writing was the best it had ever been and that I was enjoying writing more than I had in a long time. The physical and creative sequences in Sense Writing worked hand in hand to get me out of old physical and writing habits and develop new ones in a sustainable practice.
Sense Writing gave me the tools and the confidence I needed to begin writing again, both personally and professionally. I recently launched a website, Modernjewishgirl.com, and have been working as a freelance writer. The work continues, but at least I feel I am finally on the right path—one that doesn't have an end—and for that I am eternally grateful.