Ruth Ebenstein
Writer, Peace/Health activist, Public Speaker, Historian, Mom/Stepmom
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Melting cancer-induced writer’s block

Unblocking creativity while writing a memoir about illness

I am lying on the cold stone floor in the study of my Jerusalem apartment, cushioned by a royal-blue wool blanket. My arms and legs flop to the sides, my head lolls to the left. Closing my eyes, I shut out the light.

From my laptop, balanced across my bent knees, I listen to Madelyn Kent’s soothing voice guide me via Skype to notice the contact points where my body touches the floor: pelvis, shoulders, spine, and neck.

This is no spiritual, new-age yoga class cool-down or meditation-by-remote taught by a fitness guru in Manhattan.

This is my weekly Sense Writing class.

Today’s goal: to re-inhabit how it felt to nurse my baby for the very last time before I was wheeled into surgery to cut a malignant tumor out of my left breast.

Madelyn’s solution: Quiet down my optic nerve. Relax, and let my other senses take over.

I’m game.

I cover my closed eyes with my palms. Then I move my eyeballs left and right, catching flashes of shapes and light in the darkness. It feels weird at first, eyeballing from the inside, but I trust her. I know that these exercises, rooted in the principles of Feldenkrais, will immerse me in the landscape of my breast-cancer story. Slowly, my eyes settle down.

Two-plus years ago, after surgery and treatment, I decided to pen a memoir about what I went through. With a bachelor’s degree in journalism and twenty-five years of experience in writing and in editing, I imagined this task doable. Writing had always helped me untangle my feelings. Words were the cane that I leaned on.

But when I sat down at the computer to unload my story, I stumbled. How did it really feel to fight an illness? What terror struck my heart when I considered leaving behind three boys under five? How does one make sense of and navigate life and living after fighting a disease at 42 that will always threaten to recur?

My descriptions were pretty, even witty. But the raw-and-real, from the depths, was absent from the page.

If only I could get inside, I could yield much more than a decent memoir.

I could gain greater understanding, peace and quiescence.

About cancer. About life. About me.

But how could I get there?

The most compelling writing I had ever done emerged from a composition class Madelyn had taught at a yoga studio in south Tel Aviv a year and a half ago when she was living in Israel. Alternating between stretching at the bar and scribbling in my notebook, I found my creative muscles extending in unconventional directions. Could that unorthodox method dislodge the rock slab covering my creative well?

Two months ago, I called her in New York. She talked about Feldenkrais and how much her pioneering method had evolved since she had returned to Manhattan. Almost as soon as we started one-on-one coaching across the Atlantic, my emotional writer’s block lifted. Through exercises drawing from techniques of somatic education that allowed me to investigate the link between movement, senses and creativity, I have started to unpack my own story. The specific movement and writing sequences of Sense Writing calm down my nervous system, transporting me back to some primary consciousness where my imagination runs free.

Though I am piecing together a memoir about illness, I have found liberation and light.

After three minutes of scanning the darkness under my eyelids, decreasing the stimulation to my optic nerve, I slowly open my eyes. Back at my laptop, the words and moments that I had not consciously known begin to flow. Nestled in a crack in the wall of sorrow about suddenly ending a singular intimate relationship with my son, I find hope.


I realize that the same gift of life I had given to my baby I could now give myself.

Because what I had to take from my baby—mother’s milk, though divine and magical—was not life.

It was just milk.

And writing? Well, writing is divine.

Writing is the prism with which I make sense of life.

And cancer?

Well, that’s just more material… for writing and for life.

About the Author
Ruth Ebenstein is an award-winning American-Israeli writer, historian, public speaker, and health/peace activist who loves to laugh a lot--and heartily. She is the author of the forthcoming book, Bosom Buddies: How Breast Cancer Fostered An Unexpected Friendship Across the Israeli-Palestinian Divide. She is also the author of "All of this country is called Jerusalem": a curricular guide about the contemporary rescue operations of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and has written two teleplays for children, Follow that Goblin and Follow that Bunny. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Atlantic, Washington Post, Los Angeles Review of Books, Tablet,, Good Housekeeping, Triquarterly,, School Library Journal, USA Today, the Forward, Stars and Stripes, Education Week, Brain, Child, Fathom, and other publications. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.