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The power of the pen: My unfinished love letter to Minnesota and all Northfield has taught me

Frank Sinatra believed if you could make it in New York, you could make it anywhere. Sinatra clearly never lived in Northfield, Minnesota.

My experience living in the rural midwest as a bonafide city girl has hit plenty of bumps and hurdles. However, no matter what, the one constant I keep coming back to is pen and paper. When the world feels scary and lonely and I cannot quite sort out why it feels so hard to get up in the morning, I write. When I start new relationships and am met with an overload of insecurities, I write. When I feel soul-crushingly homesick, I write. Sorting out my unintelligible emotions on paper has helped me grow and better understand myself. Needless to say, I am a strong advocate for giving writing therapy a shot and I am not the only one.

The chair of the psychology department at University of Texas, Austin, Dr. James W. Pennebaker, believes expressive writing can impact people in many positive ways. According to Pennebaker, organizing thoughts and giving meaning to trauma can potentially encourage people reach out for necessary help as well as assist in breaking negative cycles of rumination. Health psychology researcher Susan Lutgendorf, stresses the importance of using writing as a tool to grow from and overcome trauma. Journaling is not just about writing, it is about deriving meaning from your experiences. In her words, “An individual needs to find meaning in a traumatic memory as well as to feel the related emotions to reap positive benefits [of writing exercises].” Although I was no stranger to journaling, I never realized how much her words would ring true as I used writing for self-discovery in college.

On August 31, 2018, I exited Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport by myself with three suitcases and $60 cash. Although I had arrived a day before first-year move-in, had no place to stay the night and knew absolutely no one in Minnesota, I was excited to explore Middle America for the first time. Having spent my whole life in a bustling neighborhood a couple blocks south of Midtown Manhattan, all I could think about was how thrilled I was to leave my metropolitan childhood behind for the quaint college town of Northfield. It was going to take some getting used to – that much I was sure of – but nothing could have prepared me for the ebb and flow of rural campus life.

My first semester was rough. There were some obvious local differences I was prepared to adapt to – scarce public transportation, limited food options and harsh winters. I very quickly realized, however, that the differences between New York City and Northfield ran deeper than just those minor adjustments. Certain accepted cultural behaviors were so foreign to me that my lack of familiarity to them made me stick out like a sore thumb.
So, I wrote about it. In my entries I described Minnesotans as masters of small talk and active listening. Ultimate frisbee was considered a sport and choir was taken extremely seriously. I could tell they were generally non-confrontational and overall surface-level friendly (not to mention the funny way they say “bag”). After drafting these caricatures of Minnesotans on paper, I was prepared to figure out where my place was in all of this. How was I going to mirror their behaviors enough to fit in, while also finding room for a little bit of home?

At the time, I had only allowed myself to marinate in my writing comfort zone. I described my cultural confusion without reaching the reflective, emotional side of writing therapy. Which is to say, I had not dug deep enough to benefit. So, every time I thought I had begun to figure out Minnesota enough to feel comfortable letting loose my obnoxiously sarcastic and direct east coast mannerisms, I would feel the rug be pulled from underneath me. My humor would not land or my word choice came off as too harsh. The reputation I was creating for myself was not kind and – unlike back home – I could not hide behind a crowd in anonymity. In my small college town, my new reputation would stick. So, in that moment, I realized I had lost control of my narrative.

Having been exhausted of any urge to write, I sifted through old entries and felt myself sink into a deep pit of loneliness. I had completely lost the urge to journal. However, as much as my hands protested, I forced myself to pick up a pen, this time embracing my melancholy. Through it, I was able to discover my subconscious wants and needs in a way that helped me better understand myself. After letting my emotions pour onto the page, for the first time in Minnesota, I felt liberated.

Although the success of expressive writing will vary from person-to-person, there is no evidence supporting any negative long term effects. Simply, a willingness to explore emotions through journaling could be incredibly advantageous for self-reflection and improvement. The British Journal of General Practice released data supporting a reduction in certain people’s anxiety, behavioral issues, blood pressure and depressive symptoms simply through writing exercises. Reasons not to try are few and far between.

Having written extensively on my experience in Minnesota, my journal bleeds with entries of me navigating around toxic friendships, suburban boys and “Minnesota nice.” I take each word I write as an opportunity to learn something new about myself. Admittedly, I often feel as though this state intentionally puts me in unpleasant situations – almost as though it is out to get me. All I can say to that is bring it on Minnesota; my pen has got a lot more ink left in it.

nizhny1@stolaf.edu
Alexia Nizhny ’22 is from New York, N.Y. Her major is English.