As the year draws to a close, it is inevitable that our minds turn toward the passing of seasons, the ebb and flow of life, and the inevitability of change. This is particularly true for me this year as I stand poised, once again, on life’s Ferris wheel. But here’s the funny thing about Fortune’s wheel—because so much of the ride is beyond our vantage point, we can never really know if the arc we’re on is poised for an upswing, or the stomach clenching dip of a down turn.
My first post here at Writer Unboxed was on how a writer’s life was full of second chances. It was written from a place where I could clearly see the direction fortune’s wheel was taking me. And while I know that down always follows up—it’s science, after all—I was a bit unprepared for the sheer variety of downs there were. The truth is, the Shadowlands of Success are heavily populated with all manner of obstacles: swamps, impossibly high mountain ranges, impenetrable mists, mazes, and terrifyingly deep caverns.
And now for my own confession. Dear reader, I lied. Back in February of 2015, just after I crested life’s Ferris wheel, I fell—long and hard and far—into the Shadowlands. It was not a professional fall, but a personal one. It was not ergonomics that forced my hiatus. Or rather, not simply ergonomics but my body finally screaming at me—enough!—and forcing an intervention.
Because the thing about the body is, it remembers. It remembers and stores all the things that we’d rather forget. That we work so hard to forget. The truth is, I have spent my entire life avoiding the shadowlands, which probably ensured my visit was a long and painful one.
But my body knew. And remembered.
All of our experiences—physical and emotional—are stored deep within our muscles, sinew, bones, and even cells. While our minds are very adept at denial and disassociation, our bodies keeps track of it all.
In an essay entitled Infinite Exchange, David Maisel offers this stunning and startling truth:
In a 2011 paper on the medical effects of scurvy, author Jason C. Anthony offers a remarkable detail about human bodies and the long-term presence of wounds. “Without vitamin C,” Anthony writes, “we cannot produce collagen, an essential component of bones, cartilage, tendons and other connective tissues. Collagen binds our wounds, but that binding is replaced continually throughout our lives. Thus in advanced scurvy”—reached when the body has gone too long without vitamin C—“old wounds long thought healed will magically, painfully reappear.”1
Given the right—or, as it were, exactly wrong—nutritional circumstances, even a person’s oldest injuries never really go away. In a sense, there is no such thing as healing. From paper cuts to surgical scars, our bodies are mere catalogs of wounds: imperfectly locked doors quietly waiting, sooner or later, to spring back open.
The tumble you took down the stairs fifteen years ago.
The strip of skin you scraped off your shin, trying to find your way to the bathroom in the dark.
The weight of being raised by an alcoholic parent.
The shame of sexual or physical abuse.
The soul crushing humiliation of being relentlessly bullied as a child.
They’re all right there, just below the surface, and far closer than we can even imagine.
New research shows that trauma and adverse experiences directly affect our health in other ways. It’s not simply wounds that can reopen, but changes occur at our most basic cellular level. Negative emotional experiences change the chemicals in our bodies, which in turn affect how even our genes manifest or mutate.
The thing is, this concept isn’t new. The medical profession has known for a long time that such negative experiences had chronic effects on our health—they just weren’t able to quantify it or identify the mechanism by which it happened. But science is definitely making huge strides in that field and allowing us to see just how far reaching and devastating those connections can be. New studies show that the more traumatic childhood events one experiences, the more likely one is to have hypertension, diabetes, or heart disease as an adult.
It can sound so incredible, that it might be easy to dismiss. Or to assume it only happens to other people.
Until it happens to you—until the day you stand there horrified, watching a lifetime of wounds unlock their doors and spring back open, leaving you flat on your back, staring at the ceiling, and wondering how in the hell you ended up HERE.
Well, I can answer that question now. My creative journey is what took me to that place. Believe me, no one was more shocked than I! Creativity was joyful! Fun! I loved writing, even when it was hard.
But the incredibly wise Donald Maass once said that the author’s reasons for telling a story might not be the character’s reason for being in that story. I will take this one step further and say that oftentimes, the journey the writer intends to take the character on, isn’t always the same one the story intends to take the writer on.
Turns out, creativity is the carrot, if you will, that calls us forward, urging us to grow and process our lived lives.
It is not unlike religion in that by engaging in it, we are forced to interact with the world on a deeper, more intimate level than we might otherwise choose to. Of course, we don’t know that starting out. Then it is simply fun or something to dabble in, a drive or compunction, possibly even an obsession. It might be play. It might escape. But it is always important work.
At some point, hopefully, we are drawn ever more forward, engaging deeper and deeper with our craft and our artistic truths. This, in turn, opens up paths to our inner selves that could easily remain closed and unexamined. Part of us might think that sounds good—let’s avoid all that messy emotional stuff, shall we? It turns out that it really isn’t possible. We will deal with it one way or another.
For me at least, creativity has been a beguiling trail of breadcrumbs that lead not only to a house inhabited by a scary witch, but a house that can sustain me with its riches, even if, sadly, those riches didn’t taste like candy or gingerbread.
I will be honest; sometimes those beguiling breadcrumbs will lead us straight into places that are dark and murky and downright swampy. A veritable quicksand, where we will remain stuck, flailing and struggling, our bodies unraveling until we have acquired the muscle strength—or the wisdom—to extricate ourselves and resume the journey.
While this might seem like a cautionary tale, it is intended to be a hopeful one.
In that original essay for Writer Unboxed, I also talked about how I believed that writers had as many lives as cats. Dear reader, we’re about to test that theory. I stand today with my foot placed firmly once more on Fortune’s wheel. I have a new book coming out in February, something I feared was impossible two and a half years ago. The book might even be good—or so the starred reviews lead me to hope.
But where this trajectory will lead me is not clear. It could be coming around for a second rise, an ignominious dip, or even a simple stalling out at the bottom. Who knows? What I do know is that I am happy to have a chance to climb back on. Happy to be riding it once more.
And that brings us back to what I love so much about winter. It is the death of the old year to make room for the new. On Twitter, a tweet crossed my feed encouraging us to bloom, and wilt, then bloom again.
Here’s wishing you all a 2019 filled with creativity that blooms—and the courage and strength to kick the dead, wilted petals out of the way once they have served their purpose.
Has an old wound of yours (physical or emotional) ever shown up in unexpected ways? Were you able to identify what was happening? How about your character–what old wounds are threatening to resurface in their lives?
The Deepest Well by Nadine Burke Harris
The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D.
The Mind Gut Connection by Emeran Mayer