How Writing Can Save Your Life
A kidnapping. A suicide bomber. A pandemic. I write my way through it all
I was six months pregnant with my daughter when I was held hostage at gunpoint in the mountains of Yemen. I had lived in Yemen for three and a half years by then, hiking in the mountains at least once a week, and had always felt safe. That morning, I walked with four other women, from four other countries, in an area that was supposed to be trouble-free. It was the president’s home territory.
When we saw the first AK-47 cocked at us, we were eating lunch, after a two-hour hike from the nearest road. Leaping to our feet, we scrambled to gather our things and hurry away, figuring we had accidentally trespassed.
But my bodyguard — assigned to me because my husband was the British Ambassador to Yemen at the time — beckoned us toward the man holding the gun. And I was trained to always do what he said.
I was the only one of us who spoke Arabic, so I tried to explain that we wanted no trouble, that we wanted to be friends. Yemenis are among the world’s most hospitable people, and I had never felt anything but embraced by them.
But this man, the sheikh of the local tribe, could not be persuaded that our intentions were benign. He said we were spies, or thieves come to deprive his land of gold. Soon, we were surrounded by eight men, looking down the wrong end of eight AK-47s.
While I lost my phone in the ensuing chaos, my Romanian fellow hiker still had hers, and I had memorized my husband’s number. I had little hope of actually reaching him, knowing that mobile phones were not allowed in the embassy. But by pure luck, he happened to be having a meeting in our home, and he picked up.
“Sweetheart, we’re in trouble,” I said, trying to hide the phone from our captors. As I explained, he switched into work mode, not a single note of worry in his voice. He is good in a crisis. “Do you have a sat phone? Let me speak with Mohammed. I’ll get on the phone with the Minister of the Interior now.”
During the several hours of negotiations that followed, the strength of the other women held me. Most were older and had been held at gunpoint in foreign countries before. No one cried, no one panicked.
Except for me. I was panicked, though trying not to show it. When my abdomen began to cramp, it occurred to me that if I didn’t calm down, I was in danger of losing my baby. Stress could bring on premature labor. And a remote hilltop at the end of a rifle didn’t seem like an ideal place to deliver a premature infant.
I took a deep breath through my nose and into my belly, turning to the ujjayi breath I learned in yoga. Maybe this could save us. I murmured a mantra to my daughter. Stay in, stay in, stay in. I breathed and breathed and breathed and tried not to look at the guns.
I calmed. And the cramps went away.
How I Navigate the World
When we were finally released and returned home, the first thing I did — after hugging my husband and the head of his team of bodyguards, who was tearful with relief — was write down every detail of what had happened. Not only had the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office asked me to send them a full report, but I had to write for my own sanity. Writing has always been where I think things through. There are times I don’t even know my own mind until I see it on paper.
As I wrote, I wondered what would have happened had my husband not been an ambassador, had I not remembered his phone number, had my captors not released me.
These thoughts, and that terrifying afternoon, became the first chapter of my novel The Ambassador’s Wife.
Writing is how I navigate the world, how I translate my experiences into something else, something easier. How I find ways to survive.
I wrote after a bus accident my daughter and I were in when she was one month old. I wrote after a suicide bomber attacked my husband on his way to work. I wrote after a catastrophic automobile accident in Bolivia that seriously injured dozens and left me with lifelong tinnitus. I have always written my way out of heartbreak.
I write now.
Finding Solace in Art
Music plays a similar role for the characters of my new novel, Exile Music. My protagonist, Orly, comes from a family of musicians. Her father plays viola with the Vienna Philharmonic and her mother is an opera singer. In 1939, they flee the Nazis in Austria to find refuge in Bolivia, the only country to grant them asylum.
Both Orly and her father Jakob use music to connect their past and their present. Jakob is excited to discover new Bolivian sounds and Orly takes up a Bolivian instrument. But her mother Julia refuses to sing. Singing comes from a place of joy, and she is no longer capable of joy, having left her son in Europe and lost her entire extended family. The loss of what has always sustained her plunges her into a darkness that prompts her to acts that place her family in danger again.
I often give my characters talents and careers I wish I had. The protagonist of The Ambassador’s Wife is a painter. The characters of Exile Music can sing and play instruments. In the novel I am writing now, my characters are comic book artists and composers. Perhaps I do this not only to live vicariously through these people, but because I cannot imagine negotiating the world without the help of an art.
The Power of Expressive Writing
I am far from the first to feel this way. Recent medical research has found that expressive writing can not only help ease the pain of physical ailments — including nerve pain, rheumatoid arthritis, and asthma — but can help alleviate depression and anxiety. Dr. David Hanscom, an orthopedic surgeon at Swedish Neuroscience Specialists in Seattle, WA, tells his patients to write for 15 to 30 minutes every morning, freely and by hand, as regularly as they brush their teeth. “Don’t analyze your thoughts, just write whatever comes into your head,” he says. Then take that writing and tear it up. “There is now space between you and your thoughts.”
Expressive writing is not analytical. It pays no attention to grammar or structure. Expressive writing is not so much about life events as it is about your feelings about these events. It is just for you.
More than 200 studies have found that expressive writing can improve both pain and mood. Practitioners of expressive writing have reduced pain, fewer doctor visits, and improved immune systems, liver functions, and moods. “It’s so simple and risk-free,” says Hanscom. “Why would you not try it?”
As this pandemic continues to transform our lives, we are all suffering trauma and grief. Writing is one way we can begin to process what is happening to us and find a way forward.
I don’t need studies to know the effect writing has on me. With each retelling of the kidnapping, which I return to with some regularity, I am pushing it further away from me. I am creating space between me and the end of those rifles.
Jennifer Steil is the award-winning author of the novels Exile Music (Viking, 2020), The Ambassador’s Wife (Doubleday, 2015), and the memoir The Woman Who Fell From the Sky (Broadway Books, 2010). She currently lives in Uzbekistan.