On Writing and Other Things

Photo by Ricarda Schüler

Along the Rhine river near Bonn, Germany, Godesburg sits high up on a hill. The stones of the 13th century castle are old and crumbling—the stuff of fairy tales. As a child, Sarah Elsing used to traipse the surrounding cemeteries and woods, stopping to write down her innermost thoughts. Dear Kitty—she’d start her diary entries just like Anne Frank. She’d write poems just for the sake of writing them.

Elsing sat at my kitchen table on a Saturday in Prenzlauer Berg earlier this winter, drinking a coffee. She was wearing yoga gear—she had to leave at noon to teach a yoga class. There was a lot of ground to cover; she’d worked as an art and architecture journalist for prominent German publications like Die Zeit and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and was now offering a new kind of writing workshop in Berlin that incorporated yoga philosophy. But, I was hung up on the childhood stuff.

She recalled an especially fraught afternoon: “I ran away from home, headed for the castle, and pulled out my diary and fountain pen. It was cold, so the ink in my pen froze and I couldn’t write anymore.” With nothing to write down her woes with, she went back home again.

Elsing described how her personal relationship to writing developed. “Growing up in a literary family,” she explained, “I was surrounded by Goethe and Heine,”—the holiest of German literature. When she showed talent, her parents encouraged her to enter writing competitions. “Funnily enough,” she tells, “my mom just send me a story I submitted, where I’d tried to write like Hemingway.” Elsing went on to study German Literature and Linguistics at Universities in Heidelberg and Berlin, following the paths of the writers who inspired her.

Something held Elsing back from pursuing literary writing, however. “Call it fear of failure, fear of not being good enough, or not being original enough. I was afraid of not finding my own tone or voice, and of becoming stuck as an undiscovered, unknown writer.” Intimidated by the work of the masters she’d studied, Elsing became afraid to expose her creative work. So, in order to channel her urge to write along what she considered a safer course, she looked toward journalism. “More structured journalistic work seemed a more reliable career choice,” she told. She looked to other journalist-turned writers, like Hemingway, Tucholsky, Roth, and Kästner for inspiration. But, she admitted, she continued to write poems and stories.

Journalistic work became an opportunity for Elsing to collect material. “I hoped that with added experience, I’d be able step out of that comfort zone at some point to experiment with other forms of writing,” she explained. Like the German fictive character Momo, Elsing took time to become an expert listener.

Each article became a new opportunity for Elsing to explore creativity in a controlled setting. “I realized that I could compose a story about pretty much anything,” she admitted. But, over time, artistic impulse snuck its way into her journalistic work. After taking stock of a feature she’d written on a visual artist for Die Zeit, she was confronted with reality; it interested her more to reflect on the artwork itself rather than to report on the artist. “The piece was a breakthrough for me creatively,” she explained. “I couldn’t deny that it was one of the best things I’d written in a long time.”

 Instead of embracing her urge to create, Elsing stepped away from journalism. “I felt like what I had considered a ‘safer’ form of writing was threatened—between the newspaper crisis, closing down of cultural establishments, and my own self-doubts, my writing still seemed too vulnerable.” She did, however, begin to journal regularly, inspired by Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. And, she followed an impulse to become a yoga teacher.

 “It all happened with a headstand,” she explained of the ensuing transformation. At her yoga teacher training course in Costa Rica, Elsing positioned herself upside down, feet in the air, facing the sea. “My arms sank in the sand, the waves cooled my head, and when I opened my eyes, an unending blue spanned before me.” Suddenly, everything was relative. And her reaction to the sensation: to write. She wrote frantically, hungrily, for the next three hours.

Funny—standing on your head is the sort of thing a kid would try. Since her realization, Elsing has leaned into the idea that yoga and writing are interconnected. Attending a workshop for mindful writing solidified the concept. A few wisdom nuggets: start—writing is breathing; persistence—writing is concentration; let go (for real)—writing is a process. “I finally freed myself from the idea that I had to write like the masters, or that I wasn’t creative enough to write my own stories. I re-discovered myself creatively in general.” She experimented with mediums like drawing and painting—methods she’d lost contact with, and learned to embrace writing as another way to express herself artistically.

Like a child without the scruples of ownership, her instinct was to share her newfound discoveries with others. So, she formed yoga and writing workshops that teach participants to channel creativity, with tools to support it. And now, she’s writing again—on her own terms. “I struggle most with time management,” she admitted—it wasn’t hard to believe, since she had to leave in five minutes. “I’m working on conquering my demons. In the end, you have to show up and do the shit”—or at least head home to get a pen that works.

For more information on Elsing’s yoga and writing workshops, visit this link.

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