Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all
— Emily Dickinson
Barbara Kingsolver begins her 2008 Duke University commencement address, “How to Be Hopeful,” with: “The very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. The most you can do is live inside that hope, running down its hallways, touching the walls on both sides.”
As writers, we battle with hope everyday. We hope for publication, for an audience, to win awards. We hope to master the craft, to make new things familiar and familiar things new, to persuade, to expose the truth. We hope to preserve memories and histories and to make a difference in someone’s life.
Yet every day our ability to maintain high hope is challenged by rejection, insecurity, jealousy, finances, time constraints, and other factors. Maurice Lamm, in The Power of Hope, identifies the fear of being hopeful: “We know in our bones that hope is everything. In the back of our minds, we suspect it is nothing at all.” [i] For writers, hope has become another four-letter word that sounds nice in theory—and in fairy tales—but has little authority over our day-to-day realities.
According to best-selling author Dr. Christiane Northrup, “Hope is actually a biochemical reaction in the body.” [ii] Hope releases chemicals at each synapse, which intensify the motivation to learn and innovate solutions to complex problems. Our brains reshape themselves to accommodate through chemical reactions, which is known as plasticity. Brain strategist Dr. Ellen Weber puts it this way: “[W]henever you act hopefully on what you expect to happen – your brain responds by creating just the right neuron pathways to bring about that new reality.” [iii]
People who expect a positive outcome—such as having their books published—are more likely to see results, which explains why successful people (think Stephen King) tend to stay successful in the long run. However, achieving actual success isn’t required as the catalyst—quite the opposite, in fact.
In studying the neurochemical changes in the brain when patients were given a placebo for pain, Scott et al. (2007) found that high expectations of a result caused the brain to release more dopamine and thereby significantly reduce the sensation of pain. Additionally, having high levels of hope can help a person resist a decrease in hope after receiving negative news. [iv]
The lesson here: be hopeful, regardless of your circumstances. It won’t be easy, as Barbara Kingslover reminds us: “The hardest part will be to convince yourself of the possibilities, and hang on. If you run out of hope at the end of the day, to rise in the morning and put it on again with your shoes. Hope is the only reason you won’t give in, burn what’s left of the ship and go down with it.”
Writing Prompts for Cultivating a Hopeful Disposition:
- Write a character who loses hope in something. Write about how this character then got hope.
- Write an inspirational story about overcoming obstacles through hope.
- Write about the strength and tenacity of your will.
- Describe a person you know whose hope provided her a new path in her writing career.
- Write a character who doubts her every decision.
- What are your highest hopes for your writing?
- How do you stay positive and engaged in your day-to-day writing?
- Write about a decision you made as a result of having hope.
- How have you instilled hope in a fellow writer? Was it through words (simple and straightforward communication) or actions, a belief, or through a collective vision?
- Write about a situation and your realistic and unrealistic hopes.
Writing in itself is an act of hope. That is, we write to be heard and to make sense of the senseless—we write hoping a connection will be made. Now apply that mindset to the aftermath of writing—and write, hope, write, repeat. Hopefully, hope will take you a long way.
Remember, Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and
no good thing ever dies. –Stephen King
[i] as quoted in “Science of Hope” (n.d.). http://www.thehopetree.com/science-of-hope/
[ii] as quoted in “Can You Imagine Cancer Away” by Elizabeth Cohen (2011, March 3). http://www.cnn.com/2011/HEALTH/03/03/ep.seidler.cancer.mind.body/
[iii] Weber, E. (2010, Oct. 17). “The Brain on Hope.” http://www.brainleadersandlearners.com/tone/the-brain-on-hope-lessons-from-chilean-rescue/
[iv] Ward. (2008, Oct. 16). “The Neuroscience Behind Hope.” http://www.brainhealthhacks.com/2008/10/16/the-neuroscience-behind-hope/
Debbie spent 30 years as a registered nurse. She became a certified applied poetry facilitator and journal-writing instructor in 2007. She is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins Science-Medical Writing program. Her publications have appeared in Journal of Poetry Therapy, Studies in Writing: Research on Writing Approaches in Mental Health, Women on Poetry: Tips on Writing, Teaching and Publishing by Successful Women, Statement CLAS Journal, The Journal of the Colorado Language Arts Society, and Red Earth Review.