Myra Sabir, assistant professor of human development, leads a group of men through a Lifewriting workshop at the YMCA in downtown Binghamton.
Tim Williams hadn’t gardened a day in his life. But last summer, at the age of 50, he grew a slew of fresh vegetables in his back yard — collard greens, kale, broccoli, tomatoes, eggplants, peppers and more.
Just what prompted Williams to discover he had a green thumb? Expressive writing.
Williams took part in a narrative intervention known as Lifewriting, an eight-week program in which participants work through unresolved experiences in their lives through intensive written and oral exercises.
For Williams, it was working through his difficult teenage years. Forced to watch over his 14 younger brothers and sisters, he had little time to pursue his own interests. At the age of 15, he reached a breaking point, dropped out of high school and moved in with his dad in New York City. The experience left a bitter taste in his mouth. But he’s ready to move forward, and he credits Lifewriting. Starting a garden is just one result of his renewed outlook.
“I started digging and putting it together because it was just like ‘Do something.’ Good, bad, indifferent. Even if the plants all die, at least you tried,” Williams says.
“I’m at the point now where I’m dealing with all of the aspects of my life. Whatever it is that’s coming my way, I’m going to start looking at it for what it is.”
Lifewriting is the brainchild of Myra Sabir, assistant professor of human development. Unresolved experiences like Williams’ retain a continuing influence on the psyche, she says.
“You’re part of the equation of everything that happens. And your interpretation of events shapes how they impact you,” Sabir says. “If you’re convinced that you aren’t worthy of love, for example, you’re going to interpret situations from that perspective ... You bring that to every encounter.”
Last spring, Sabir recruited 24 participants, including Williams, from three community organizations in Binghamton: Trinity AME Zion Church, Broome County YMCA and Volunteers of America. Of the 24 participants, 17 completed a questionnaire before and after the workshop. Analysis of the 17 questionnaires, conducted by Associate Professor of Social Work Suk-Young Kang, showed that participants reported significantly less depression, significantly less anxiety and significantly greater life satisfaction after completing the workshop series.
These kinds of results are nothing new for Sabir; more than 25 years of research has shown the benefits of expressive writing. But she doesn’t want to merely replicate her research. She wants to expand it and discover the ways in which participants actually begin to change their lives and impact their communities.