Body Narrative: Love


Parting is all we need to know of hell. –Emily Dickinson

Among all of the emotions we can have, love is one of the most exhilarating and powerful. Hormones associated with love include dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, adrenaline, vasopressin, testosterone, and estrogen—all of which are part of the brain’s reward system and are responsible for regulating passion, motivation, and sex drive. [i] Writing is or can be a type of love.

In her TED* talk “How We Love” (2014), anthropologist Helen Fisher likens love to cocaine addiction, claiming the hormones involved are part of the “reptilian core” and stimulate wanting, motivation, focus, and craving. Love, Fisher believes, is one of the most addictive substances on earth and, like hunger or thirst, almost impossible to quit. [ii] While we can’t force ourselves to fall in love with writing, we can learn a lot from our body’s response, including how to simulate those responses in order to improve our writing practices.

What if you could harness the passion associated with romantic love and apply it to your writing practice? Writing would become your obsession, your focus would skyrocket, and you’d get so much more done!

The brain is motivated by love because it operates on a reward system. Try giving yourself rewards for writing, starting small, with the pleasure sensors. Buy specialty chocolate, which helps the body release serotonin; licorice, which helps release estrogen; shellfish, which has been linked to an increase in testosterone; or other delicacies; and give them to yourself as a reward for writing.

Love involves more than just physical pleasure. Helen Fisher also postulates that there are three stages of love: lust, attraction, and attachment. Each stage is driven by different hormones and chemicals.

Stage 1: Lust – involves the sex hormones estrogen and testosterone (in both men and women)

Stage 2: Attraction – involves the neurotransmitters adrenaline, dopamine, and serotonin

Stage 3: Attachment – involves two major hormones: oxytocin and vasopressin

She goes on to say that love is part of human chemistry, deeply embedded in the brain, and can be awakened at any time. She calls romantic love a “mating drive” that allows you to focus and conserve energy.

The three stages of love can also be applied to our relationship with writing.

Lust: You can’t resist writing. You may not know the direction you are headed, but you know you have to write. 

Attraction: You want to learn more about the craft of writing to become a better writer. You join a community of writers and keep writing. 

Attachment: You long to be repeat the process of being published, gathering a following, and making a contribution

When you’re ready to move on to stage two with your writing process, attraction, you’ll want to set clear goals and regularly achieve them. This triggers dopamine, “the reward molecule,” which is more prevalent in extroverted people who have uninhibited personality types. [iii] Start with goals you can easily achieve, write for five minutes every day, and gradually up the ante. Experimenting with outrageous styles and techniques or writing in unexpected places, such as on a rooftop or under a tree, can trigger a dopamine response as well. 

In the final stage, attachment, couples form deep bonds that allow them to sustain their relationships. Further along in her TED Talk, Fisher claims that after 25 years of marriage, the same regions for intense romantic love are still active in partners’ brains. Cultivating this bond with your writing practice will take time, but you can create conditions that will facilitate a long-term connection.

Studies show that the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin accompany physical touch and intimacy. Writers can provoke the release of these hormones by forming connections within a writing community. Write in a group setting, share your struggles and offer praise. Having another human being to whom you can give affection will increase your oxytocin and make writing more sustainable in the long-term.

Finally Fisher also discusses anthropologists who have found love in 170 societies—which is to say that they’ve never found a society without love. Love is one of the most natural and invigorating processes our bodies undergo. Harness the power of love, apply it to your writing process, and cultivate a euphoric response every time you put pen to paper.

* TED is a nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks (18 minutes or less). TED began in 1984 as a conference where Technology, Entertainment and Design converged, and today covers almost all topics — from science to business to global issues — in more than 100 languages. 


Image from

[i] “Neurochemistry.” (Aug. 28, 2014). Hmolpedia: An encyclopedia of human thermodynamics, human chemistry, and human physics. Retrieved from 

[ii] Fisher, H. (2014). How we love. TED Radio Hour. NPR. Retrieved from


[iii] Bergland, C. (Nov. 29, 2012). The neurochemicals of happiness. The Athlete’s Way. Retrieved from


Debbie spent 30 years as a registered nurse. She became a certified applied poetry facilitator and journal-writing instructor in 2007. She is currently a student in 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.


Body Narrative: Hope



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.).

[ii] as quoted in “Can You Imagine Cancer Away” by Elizabeth Cohen (2011, March 3).

[iii] Weber, E. (2010, Oct. 17). “The Brain on Hope.”

[iv] Ward. (2008, Oct. 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.

Body Narrative: Virginity

NONFICTION | Body Narrative: Virginity

VirginityA library is a place where you can lose your innocence without losing your virginity.

—Germaine Greer


The word “virgin” generally indicates naivety, innocence, or inexperience in a particular context. Virginity can also represent sharing a previously un-shared part of yourself with a partner, and, for this reason, is often associated with intimacy. Writing, too, involves sharing part of you with other people and, like losing one’s virginity, can be frightening, enthralling, or unremarkable. In writing, the loss of virginity can be related to moving from innocence to awareness of the craft of writing. Regret for stories written or published too soon can be equated with unwise choices in sexual partners. Social stigmas can influence your willingness to explore new forms or subjects in writing as well.

In American culture, we have myriad views of virginity. Annelise Pennington notes, “Today, our society has made virgins feel bad for being virgins.” A stigma—a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person—exists on each sides of the issue. According to Voltaire: “It is an infantile superstition of the human spirit that virginity would be thought a virtue and not the barrier that separates ignorance from knowledge.”

Misconceptions and prejudices about virginity can arise from religion, pop culture, love, choice, or bad luck—even myth. In ancient Greece, it was thought that the deepening of a girl’s voice determined loss of virginity. Some medical writers of the time argued that virginity meant no desire. Soranos and Galen suggested that virgin women suffered from less disease than other women. In early Christian writings, the paleness of a woman’s face was an outer sign of virginity. Christianity argued for the value of preserving one’s virginity in terms of the life to come. True virginity resided in the body and the soul. [i] Today, countries including India, Turkey, and Africa place a high value on virginity. A woman’s eligibility for marriage can hinge on virginity testing, a practice that continues despite scientific evidence that the presence of an intact hymen is not a reliable indicator of whether a female has been vaginally penetrated. Women who fail virginity testing are often divorced by their husbands instantly, disowned, beaten by family members, or in some cases, even killed.[ii]

Myths about the loss of virginity are still pervasive in America, too. These myths can lead to rampant misinformation, including that losing your virginity will cause irreversible damage to the body, that it’s going to be pleasurable, magical, painful, bloody, or life-changing. According to an article in The Atlantic, “These myths persist in part because of a lack of information about what happens to the human body, specifically the hymen, during sex—information that’s often not taught in schools, that’s not always found online, and that’s not always available from medical providers.”[iii]

Though virginity can be an embarrassing, confusing issue to explore for anyone, regardless of gender, historically and culturally, women have faced more stringent restraints to their sexuality and intimacy. For this reason, many women don’t feel comfortable writing about sex and desire. Helene Cixous, author of “The Laugh of the Medusa,” says,

[W]omen must write her self: must write about women and bring women into writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies—for the same reasons, by the same law, with the same fatal goal. Women must put herself into the text—as into the world and into history—by her own movement. […] I wished that woman would write and proclaim this unique empire so that other women, other unacknowledged sovereigns, might exclaim: I, too, overflow; my desires have invented new desires, my body knows unheard-of songs (p. 875, 876).

Refusing to acknowledge or avoiding the topic of sex in writing only compounds the problem of misinformation. Young people often cast virginity in a shadow of negativity and have trouble taking ownership of their sexuality due to myth and misinformation. A potentially pleasurable experience can be viewed as stressful and unnecessarily traumatic. As writers, it’s our job to help dispel or clarify myths that can be harmful to our health and well-being.


Prompts for More Promiscuous Writing

  • Do you remember when you moved from innocence to awareness of the craft of writing? How would you describe any feelings of confusion, fear, or worry? How did you make your voice public?
  • Have you been told that you have to write a certain way or write about certain topics? Is this what you, too, tell yourself? How have you allowed yourself to venture out into new types of writing that might change how you look at the world?
  • What must break in order to welcome a new writing style or to take a writing risk? Write about a transformative writing experience. What is it like to share your body of writing?
  • What genres do you write in? What genres are you most comfortable reading/writing? Write about the first time you crossed genres in your writing. What did you notice as you wrote? What most surprised you? What have you yet to explore/share?
  • What parts of you are pushing your writing in new directions? Do you ever feel pressured in your writing? The loss of virginity for some of us is painful, humiliating, even shameful. We may feel empty during it or afterwards. Make a list of all of the shameful or painful experiences you would never write. Now write them. Go after your desires; make yourself vulnerable to your loved one, which is to say writing.
  • How do you feel when put out your most vulnerable writing? In what ways do you write to please others and conform to their expectations rather than writing for self-expression or experimentation? How are you self-conscious in your writing? How do you think people will think of you if they were to read your words?
  • What stretches and leaps do you allow yourself to take in your writing? Is it possible to come back to our innocence once it is gone?

Virginity, by being once lost, may be ten times found: by being ever kept, it is ever lost. ’Tis too cold a companion: away with ’t!

―William Shakespeare, All’s Well That Ends Well


[i]   King, H. (2003). Disease of Virgins: Green Sickness, Chlorosis and the Problems of Puberty. Routledge, pp. 47-48.

[ii] Francis, S. (2010). A Thin Membrane Called Honor Hymenoplasty in Muslim Cultures. Retrieved September 28, 2014 from

[iii] Feeney, N. (February 7, 2014). Living myths about virginity. The Atlantic. Retrieved September 30, 2014 from



Debbie McCulliss 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.