Writing the therapeutic journey #3: how to get going

Let’s be clear, I am not talking about writing which aims at an outcome, for example results in something to share such as a poem, a story, a novel, a piece of drama. This is another branch-line which you could explore (concurrently or at another time). But this writing journey we are taking together is about finding space, giving ourselves permission, shedding the ‘shoulds’, excavating the self.

And as such, I want to issue a health warning. Don’t go off on your own. Make sure you have support, certainly of those close to you, but also think about seeking a professional therapist or writing therapist to accompany you. What comes out of the writing could be painful, it could be distressing, it could be disappointing, it could be revelatory, it could be full of anger and hate. It could be anything. It is unknown. We need back-up when facing the unknown.

Where to start? Begin with a writing journal and a selection of pens (different colours/nibs/ink flow). There maybe some who want to or have to use a keyboard. It’s not my preference, but it could be yours. I think there is a particular connection between the writing brain and moving a pen across the paper.

I was fascinated to hear Japanese calligraphy, Shodo artist, Tomoko Kawao, say: ‘Shodo is said to express the human heart. What you feel in your heart flows through your arm and is expressed on the paper.’ (The Art of Japanese Life: Home, BBC4, 23rd June 2017. Presenter: Dr James Fox. Producer: Jude Ho.) Watch her work at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p056qcjq It’s beautiful.

Just as Kawao does, I believe, we can encourage the flow from heart to paper, firstly by a study of the craft of writing and then by letting our hand move freely across the paper as if it were a tentacle of the heart.

Keyboards for me are about thinking not feeling, they are too regimented, with a pen and paper I can let words become big, small, messy, neat, unreadable. With pen and paper I can doodle, the words can go off in all sorts of directions, they don’t have to stay in straight lines. If you think you don’t want to use pen and paper, try it for a week and then make your decision.

Choose a writing journal which appeals to you. Make it something which you know will be totally private and no-one else will read. I would choose plain and thickish paper which can absorb all manner of inks and pressure from pens.

Then set aside fifteen minutes a day for a couple of weeks and begin….

Here are three tips for beginning:

(1) Free writing

Natalie Goldberg in her seminal work Writing Down the Bones, gives the following ‘rules’ for free writing:

  •    Keep to a time limit*.
  •   Keep your hand moving.
  •   Don’t cross out.
  •   Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, grammar.
  •   Lose control.
  •   Don’t think. Don’t get logical.
  •   Go for the jugular (if something comes up in your writing that is scary or naked, dive right into it. It probably has lots of energy)

* I would suggest initially three minutes, working up to five or ten.

The aim is to ‘burn through to first thoughts … to the place where you are writing what your mind actually sees and feels, not what it thinks it should see or feel’, to ‘explore the rugged edge of thought.’ This does take practice and may initially go against your writing instinct.

(Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones. Freeing the Writer Within. Shambhala, Boston and London, 1986. Page 8/9.)

It sometimes helps to have things to kick-start some free writing. How about: looking at a postcard; reading a poem; taking a walk; listening to some music (I find instrumentals or songs in a language I can’t understand work best); doing a dance; taking a stone off the beach; walking round an art gallery; sitting in a park; collecting some scraps of material or buttons… The possibilities are endless.

(2) Using all your senses

We have five physical senses: taste, touch, smell, sight, hearing. We generally naturally lean towards one sense as opposed to another. Get used to noticing all your senses. If you’re more used to taking into account sights, become interested in smells or sounds for a day. Then write for your fifteen minutes. Imagine what it might like to lose one sense or have one sense accentuated. Then write for your fifteen minutes. Look into an image on a postcard, imagine yourself in it, what would you be seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting? What textures would there be? Write for your fifteen minutes.

(3) The morning pages

This is an idea which comes from The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. She suggests writing three pages every morning in a writing journal, trying to capture that moment between sleeping and being properly awake.

This might suit you. Or you might want to do your writing at another time of day. Whatever, try to keep up fifteen minutes a day for two weeks. Do not re-read what you have written, do not edit or re-write. Leave it to ferment in your writing journal.

After two weeks, take 30 minutes to consider what you have done. During this 30 minutes, remember some key words – compassion, respect, kindness – to yourself and your writing. It is what it is, you don’t have to judge it. Skim over what you have done, see if there is anything you might want to underline because it is interesting. Notice your feelings. Notice any resistances to writing and re-reading it. Notice your attitude to taking time for yourself. Write for fifteen minutes starting with the words: ‘About my writing, I notice….’

For more suggestions on working reflexively with creative writing, see Thompson in Bolton, G., Howlett, S., Lago, C. & Wright J. K. (2004). Writing Cures. An introductory handbook of writing in counselling and therapy. Hove & New York: Brunner-Routledge.

You’ve spent three-and-a half hours writing over the last two weeks. Do you want to continue with your writing journal and journey? If so, maybe you want to join me for the next posts on Writing the therapeutic journey.

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