Reflections on Sense Writing's One-on-One Training

For more information, please see One-on-One Training.

The Key to Unlocking the Story Inside of Me

Journalist Ruth Ebenstein found it difficult to re-find her voice when faced with illness and an almost too-compelling narrative.

Journalist Ruth Ebenstein found it difficult to re-find her voice when faced with illness and an almost too-compelling narrative.

I had a knockout story.

A religiously-observant Jewish-American-Israeli mom living in Jerusalem gets breast cancer while nursing her baby, joins an Israeli-Palestinian breast cancer support group, and meets a devout Muslim Palestinian breast cancer survivor who lives on the other side of the eight-foot concrete separation barrier in the West Bank. Compatibility strikes, then love.

Their friendship blossoms into sisterhood. Hollywood Hopeful, right?

Then I landed a few great bylines and decided to pen a memoir.

I rented a charming writing room atop a nursery five miles west of Jerusalem, propped my laptop on a white folding table covered with a red flowered tablecloth, and poured a cup of Bengal Spice tea.  

And that’s when my fingers got stuck.

Lightly grazing the keys on the keyboard, I couldn't write a word.

The page on my computer screen stayed blank. Or was that my mind?

Why couldn’t I get down the story? Its arc shimmered like a full moon: illness-friendship-reassessment. The idea of trying to capture how friendship and cancer had changed me towered over me like an impossible mountain. I kicked pebbles from the dock and listened to them splash from the safety of the shore, brooding, "But I'm a writer! I should be able to do this!"

Of course, developing that kind of tell-your-secrets kinship with someone from across the Israeli-Palestinian divide, whatever that meant, had rocked my world. I knew that as well as I knew my name. So did surviving breast cancer. Yet I struggled to find, let alone plot, the scenes in which those changes had happened.

The most creative and stirring prose I had ever composed emerged from a writing class I had taken with Madelyn Kent in a funky yoga studio in South Tel Aviv. We had alternated between stretching at the bar and stretching our minds. Or did those happen at the same time?

So after fumbling for a few weeks, I called Madelyn, a playwright/director and writing coach who had gone back to New York. She told me about a pioneering method she had been developing called Sense Writing, which drew from the principles of Feldenkrais. Was I game to try one-on-one coaching across the Atlantic?

I was.

Our weekly Thursday night Skype sessions began with body mapping. Lying on my back, sprawled across a turquoise-and-lavender yoga mat in my study in Jerusalem, I listened to Madelyn’s sonorous voice encourage me to notice the contact points where my body touched the cold stone floor: pelvis, shoulder blades, spine, ankles, neck.  Notice your breathing, she said, then guided me through specific movements and writing sequences that quieted down my nervous system. From that quiescence I entered into some landscape of primary consciousness where my imagination roamed free.  
Sounds trippy? Perhaps.

But there was nothing trippy about the results. My writing was crisp, real, textured.  Critical elements of setting, character, desire and plot bubbled to the surface, percolating with sensory detail. Like an unencumbered child scampering barefoot, I romped in the scenes that I had captured, delighting in the discovery. On cliffs and in the shadows, I plucked details like daisies, pieces of my story that I didn't know were there. Every writing session was a thrill, an adventure. An excuse, no, more like an opportunity to run naked, footloose, carefree.

What was the magical connection between movement, senses, imagination and creativity? I understood little about the techniques and principles of Somatic Education and neuroplasticity, but I grasped keenly the benefits of “a kind of organized dreaming.” Even more than the gemstone details I found lodged under rocks, I discovered that Sense Writing was not just about writing. It was about learning my own story—without anxiety.

But I found that my confidence would often fail when Madelyn was not there to hold my hand. I started to grow dependent on the weekly coaching sessions, even more than on my fix of 70 percent dark chocolate. Though I dutifully recited the sequences on my own and practiced the writing exercises, I failed to replicate the magic of Madelyn.

Serendipitously, Madelyn was just then transitioning from coaching students over Skype to an in-depth training that would enable them to continue using Sense Writing on their own, even after the training was done. It was a way to build an independent, sustainable practice. She called one afternoon. “I've recorded tailored sequences of Sense Writing to be used at home. Would you like to give it a shot?”

The format appeared straightforward, even for an internet ignoramus like me: weekly meetings with Madelyn followed by one or two recorded sequences on a private webpage to facilitate soft entry into my writing, tailored to my particular writing needs.  I would then record my impressions; she would respond in kind.

The following Thursday, I lugged my yoga mat and a furry lime-green blanket to my writing room. I plugged in my laptop, selected a writing sequence on an MP3 and stretched my limbs on the mat.

And… there she was!

“And when we lie down on the floor, all the habits we’ve accumulated from standing up and dealing with evolution and gravity can kind of disappear. And what’s left when you lie down?”

Air filled and stretched my lungs. Inhale through my mouth, exhale through my nose. The worries of the day washed away.

I placed my palms on my eyes to block out the light and quiet down my optic nerve. Then I cupped my chin in my hand and moved it ever-so-gently from left to right, left to right.
Incremental motion, I had learned, can yield incremental, penetrating detail.

Differentiate the scene, advised Madelyn, sense-by-sense. Integration will come later.

Today, I’m writing up my visit to a Muslim girl's school in Mostar, Herzegovina, in 2012. I don't remember much from the visit, and we were not allowed to take photographs. I press play on 22-minute recording called "Specificity leads to Vastness".

Our brain likes to look for differences, explains Madelyn. Rather than trying to bypass thoughts, let us engage the talents of the brain to get to a state of flow.

I'm ready.

The scene starts to fill out like painting on a canvas. I see the teeth marks in chewed bubble gum stuck under a student's desk. I hear the two giggly hijabi teenagers whisper in incomprehensible Bosnian. I smell bits of leftover chocolate stashed in a backpack on a desk in the back row. I feel flipflops slapping and thwacking-thwacking the floor as I enter the bathroom with the special bidet hose. The girls sing me a rousing Happy Birthday in accented English. Here's a sensory detail. And another. And perhaps another burrowed under the seat. Or behind the girl in the seat front of me. Where are my Palestinian friends? Oh, lined up behind me, a Muslim prayer icon behind them.

"Start with the global and then we go the local. We start with big and then shift to the specific. Similar to our imagination, we settle in to a specific idea," guides Madelyn.

Now I cannot suppress a goofy grin. Hey, you're there? Wow! And you, too! I wanted to keep going with the free write, and that surprised me. Because when I started, I was quite sure that I thought I had nothing to say. Nothing interesting.  And I wonder, when I try this again tomorrow, this scene, this exercise, what new things will I discover?

So far, I've discovered this: Sense Writing sequences have become my transitional object.
I never sucked my thumb or cuddled with a teddy bear (unless you count dark chocolate bars as security blankets for writing). But Madelyn's voice and this Sense Writing process have become that for me.

If every writer has a secret tool, then mine is this a stack of Sense Writing MP3s. They are the key to unlocking the story inside of me.