Every so often—in every teacher’s life—there appears a student whose dedication and progress confirm what we’re trying to do in the classroom, reminding us that our work really works.
Hilda was a case in point. A psychologist in her mid-sixties, with an antiquated top knot and bifocals clipped to a chain around her neck, Hilda looked like a maiden aunt who’d fallen asleep when Ike was in office and never quite woken up again. Groggy, disengaged, and depressed, Hilda sat alone at the back of the room, avoiding eye contact with other students and remaining aloof during class discussions. When others shared thoughts and feelings about writing—with a brave few even reading their work—Hilda remained aloof, declining my efforts to draw her out with a shake of her head, a shrug of her shoulders.
When the others had gone after class one day, I asked Hilda, “Is everything OK?”
At first, she said nothing. Then her grey-green eyes pooled up with tears. “I’m so lonely,” Hilda told me, dabbing at an eye with the back of her hand. Hilda sat down and told me her story. Unmarried and childless, marooned in a job where she was disrespected, estranged from her only brother, and traumatized by physical and emotional abuse, Hilda felt alone in the world. Untrusting and paralyzed by fear, she lived a kind of half-life, she said, treading water and avoiding connection in order to not be disappointed. She signed up for the “Writing To Awaken” course in hopes that this practice could help bring her back to life by cracking the shell of alienation that had been suffocating her for decades.
So far, though, Hilda had made little progress. “I feel like I have nothing to say,” she whispered.
“Is that true?” I asked.
“Well, that’s how it feels.”
I suggested that we start by exploring that story. I invited Hilda to explore this question of why she believed she had nothing to say, and inquire into how true that story actually was. Hilda agreed (with some skepticism) and thanked me warmly for taking the time.
The following week, Hilda came to class with a manila envelope marked PRIVATE and handed it to me. Inside were four single-spaced, typed pages covered with the testament of Hilda’s soul, the archaeology of her inner world. Repressed as a girl in the nineteen-fifties, Hilda had devoted herself to the piano, which she hoped to play professionally. When her father died, her hopes were dashed, and Hilda was left to become her sick mother’s caregiver. She spent the next twenty years in that role, foregoing a career in music, and eventually earned a Ph.D. in economics and found a mid-level job in a government office filled with contemptuous, condescending male colleagues. One day, Hilda was raped by a man who attacked her in the street, and after that she withdrew even more into her drab caretaker’s existence. Now she found herself alone and scared at sixty-five, stuck in a career she detested, terrified of meeting new people. “It’s not that I have nothing to say,” she wrote. “It’s that there’s nobody around to listen.” Hilda feared that it was too late for any of this to change. “I’m basically waiting to die,” she wrote. “But something inside me still wants to live.”
I saw that this last sentence was Hilda’s lifeline and suggested another writing prompt: What do you most deeply long for? At first, she protested (“I don’t have any longings!”); again, I asked her, “Is that true?” Hilda went home with her brow furrowed then returned the following week with four more perfectly lucid pages. Upon asking herself honestly about her own longings, she realized that her story was utterly false. Hilda wrote pages and pages on what she desired: to play music, have meaningful connections, write a self-help book, quit her job, move out of her mother’s house, find the courage to travel, learn to trust, take risks, and feel passion—to allow herself to finally live before it was too late. “I had no idea all that was still in there. I feel scared but also a little excited.”
Hilda began to look lighter, less frazzled. Over the course of the next few weeks as she continued to challenge her booby-trapped story—and the tragic figure she’d mistaken for herself—Hilda continued to let down her guard. I caught her smiling when a fellow student read a candid passage about the aftereffects of his PTSD. By week eight, she was ready to read her own work, which the class praised, leaving Hilda in tears. And on the day of our final session, Hilda came to class with her hair loose—looking ten years younger—and a bag of rugalech for the group. I could scarcely believe that this warm, gentle woman passing out her email address was the same shut-down malcontent I’d first seen scowling in the back of the room.
For the past thirty years, as a memoirist, teacher, and survivor, I’ve been consistently amazed by the extraordinary power of transformative writing to heal our wounds, open our hearts, deepen insight, and foster spiritual awareness. In order for writing to do its job, honesty is the first prerequisite—the willingness to question the stories we use to define ourselves, stories that tell us who we are, who we aren’t, what we want, what we reject, what’s taboo, and what’s permitted, who’s in our circle, and who is not. These are the narratives used to compose the self. The more we do this writing practice, the more aware we become of something unnerving: the stories themselves are nothing but stories. The stories have no inherent reality—they’re constructed from assumptions, memories, opinions, feelings, biases, dreams, and expectations, all constantly changing and shifting in value. In turn, we realize how much we deceive others and ourselves by not acknowledging the whole truth (as we know it). This recognition of our habitual falseness leads to a life-changing discovery: that we are not the sum of our own fiction, that we are the storytellers not the stories.
I can sum this teaching up in two sentences:
When you tell the truth, your story changes.
When your story changes, your life is transformed.
That’s the essence of “Writing To Awaken.” Hilda was a prime example of how this process of self-inquiry through targeted questioning works. By stepping back into the witness position—and challenging herself to get real on the page—she was able to see that her stories were the problem, not her. She gained a perspective that enabled her, for the first time, to detach from the character she had been playing, and consider new options for her future. Three months after the class ended, Hilda wrote me a long letter about her progress. She was getting out more, she was happy to say, and looking at ways to quit her job. Her friendship with a fellow female was getting off to an enjoyable start. She planned to enroll at the music conservatory in the town where she lived. And even though Hilda still longed for a life partner, her loneliness had shifted in tone. “I’m enjoying my company for the first time,” she wrote. Hilda had taken to reading May Sarton, the patron saint of solitude, whose expanded view of living alone was proving to be a balm for her soul. “There’s a difference between solitude and loneliness,” Hilda reminded me. “Loneliness is the poverty of self; solitude is richness of self,” Hilda added, quoting May Sarton. “I’m feeling richer every day.”
Writing is powerful medicine.
Mark Matousek is a bestselling author, teacher, and speaker whose work focuses on personal awakening and creative excellence through transformational writing and self-inquiry. He is the author of two award-winning memoirs, Sex Death Enlightenment: A True Story and The Boy He Left Behind: A Man’s Search For His Lost Father. He is co-leading a workshop at the Garrison Institute with Maria Sirois, “Writing to Awaken,” on November 17-19.
Photograph courtesy of unsplash.com