Nourishing the Creative Soul

As a writer I find that I must take time to nourish my creative spirit. Julia Cameron in her excellent book The Artist’s Way talks about this too. She suggests ‘artist’s dates’ which we take by ourselves to top up our creativity, visits to, for instance, art galleries, the theatre, festivals…

This weekend I went to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park (https://ysp.org.uk/) What a wonderful place this is. This was my third visit and I sometimes feel I could move in there! As I wandered around, I discussed with my companion (OK I didn’t follow Cameron’s stricture of going alone) the sculptural beauty of the nature around us as opposed to the sculpture created by humans. The trees in particular were looking especially wondrous. I often think this with my writing, why should I try to capture in my paltry words what mother earth creates with truly staggering and startling abundance? In the end, I came up with the suggestion that what we artists and writers are trying to do is add a layer of meaning or story-telling beyond the realism.

We also deliberated over why artists feel the need to share their work, especially when, frequently, the expression is so personal. I have often thought that my need to publish is narcissistic, egotistically and possibly pathological. However, on Saturday, I realised that to share is a human trait; it forms bonds, societal boundaries, empathy. Sharing is (at its best) the glue which sticks us all together. It gave me a modicum of relief from my worries over the balance of my wits.

I am very lucky because next Sunday I will also be gaining food for thought and, hopefully, soul by attending Hull Noir https://www.hullnoir.com/ I am only able to go on that one day – the festival runs over the weekend of the 18th/19th November, and there are events in the preceding week as well – but the panels look as if they will stimulating. The subjects being ranged over include: the golden age Vs digital age; freedom, oppression & control; unusual settings; and unlikeable protagonists.

Hope to see you there!

 

Photos copyright Mark Vesey 2017

The Strange Case of the Disappearing Twin Part Two

The Strange Case of the Disappearing Twin.
What crafting a crime novel told me about myself.

Back with the final part… If you missed the first part, click here: https://goo.gl/Fu8BYR

In 2012, circumstances allowed me to think about fulfilling a long-held ambition, to publish a novel. I suddenly had the time and some financial security, and I gave myself permission to be ‘the monster’ Tóibín has so accurately described.

I knew my 2004 novel was un-publishable, it had a scanty plot and less structure. But it was a starting point. I then took a very pragmatic decision. In the re-crafting, I would use the crime mystery genre. This genre gave me a structure to work towards, it is one I know well as I have loved reading crime fiction since I was in my teens. Plus crime fiction is a fast-selling genre and framing my novel within it would make it more straight forward to market.

I was off, and worked relatively quickly as I already had the setting, most of the characters and bits of the story. I was able to publish The Art of the Imperfect at the end of 2014. It took me a while to notice Clare was missing and that this has meaning for me and my writing doppelgänger.

In the ten years between 2004 and 2014, I was also coming to an understanding of how the therapeutic impact of creative writing goes far beyond the catharsis of free writing. Pennebaker had identified three aspects which, when present, would increase the efficacy of his expressive writing. These are: if a feeling was named and expressed; if there was an alteration of perspective, especially a movement away from using ‘I’ to using ‘you’ or ‘she’ or ‘he’ or ‘they’; and if a narrative, a coherent story, begins to emerge.

Even in the writing of my 2004 novel, I had begun to use my skills as a creative writer to embark on this process. Hannah’s (my) story of depression was told in the third person; I was giving Hannah’s (my) experience a name; and I made an almost lucid narrative from something which, at the time, had felt like pure madness. Now I wanted to offer the story to a readership, I knew crafting would be even more essential.

I am not the only author to have understood the therapy in sculpting a novel. When Jackie Kay was asked how she got through her difficult encounter with her birth father (as described in her novel Red Dust Road, Picador, 2011) she replied, ‘By writing. … By finding some way of crafting an experience, constructing a structure to create a door to let other people in so they can walk into your experience and call it theirs and in the business of doing this in itself gives you somewhere to go with it. It’s almost like telling a story back to yourself. Often the more traumatised we are, the more we’ll tell the story or else we’ll be completely silent. Writing is one of the ways of expressing the inexpressible.’ (Kay, 2016.)

Tóibín explains his task in writing his recent novel Nora Webster (Penguin, 2015), of working out the truth of what had happened when his father died. ‘You’re pulling this out of yourself. This is sometimes very difficult material.’ But ‘it’s an anchor, in a way, all this pleasure [I experience] would mean nothing if this pain, if this working out the pain wasn’t there and I wasn’t writing and I wasn’t doing it.’ (Tóibín, 2016.)

I was attempting to work through my own pain and find my own truth by fashioning a novel I thought others might want to read. And I was doing it in the crime genre. Which could seem an odd choice, if it were not for Val McDermid suggesting it is the best for exploring current issues. She has described how she has, ‘Walked the fine line between making things up and staying real.’ And, for her, ‘The very act of imagining has been a powerful way of accessing the truth.’ (McDermid, 2016.)

In the re-writing, the crafting, the working through, Hannah lost her twin. I didn’t deliberately expel her, she just wasn’t there anymore. Hannah remains a fragmented character, but the spectral disallowed side of her no longer has to be embodied by a twin which exists beyond Hannah’s every-day consciousness. Hannah has become more integrated.

* * *

‘Integration’ could be seen to be a therapeutic, a healing, intention (Erskine et al., 1999; DeYoung, 2003; Finlay, 2016). This can describe many processes, but the one I am leaning towards here, is the bringing together and acceptance of the many sides of who we are. This could include exploring: past experiences which we would choose to ignore or forget; emotions or thoughts which have been long designated as undesirable; how we interact with others and how we fit within societal mores; the extent to which we can find meaning within our lives. The intention of this effort would be to ‘facilitate a sense of wholeness in a person’s being and functioning, at intrapsychic, mind-body, relational, societal and transpersonal levels. We strive to enable our clients to gain insight into their experience and to have a sense of feeling “at home” with self, at peace with others. There are of course limits to the extent to which any of us can be deemed “whole”, but integration remains the driving spirit of our project – particularly with longer-term work.’ (Finlay, 2016, p120.)

My copyeditor noted that in my novel I cycled between using herself and her self/selves. It made perfect sense to me. Our view of the ‘self’ has depended on what era we live in and what part of the world. In Western philosophy, in the seventeenth century, René Descartes gave a ‘self’ centrality. He stressed the autonomy of a first person which was essentially – philosophically and psychologically – a single entity. This notion that there is an authentic core self runs through some therapeutic traditions, for example the classic person-centred approach of American psychologist Carl Rogers. However, there are other concepts of self which allow, for instance, for different selves to be available depending on social context, or for the self to be in a constant process of creation and becoming (Finlay, 2016, p7). I favour this latter view and this is palpable in my writing.

I came to realise, the disappearance of Clare was not only due to me choosing (unconsciously) to craft Hannah as a more integrated character. It was also a sign that I was moving towards a personal integration, what I experience as my many selves were fitting more comfortably together. Furthermore, the writer in me, the double which had previously been shy, and vague, was increasingly formed, increasingly integral to me. This was a process powered by the work of writing and crafting. By doing, I am becoming. And by reflecting back, noticing what is changing in my writing, I am learning more about myself.

* * *

It was not enough for me to write a novel, I also wanted to seek a readership. I decided to publish. It seems to me that there is a merry dance between writer and reader, which, in the best of circumstances, is nourishing for both. As a reader, I know the pleasure and, sometimes, the very profound effect, of having found a story or a poem which touches me and pushes me to think or grasp at a new perspective. As a writer, the connection with the reader could be seen as the final act in a very long and laborious play. Tóibín says that the completion of his novel Nora Webster, which took ten years, allowed him to, at last, find some kind of closure on the death of his father. ‘One Saturday in September 2013 I finished the book. I knew that while I had perhaps opened up this world for readers, I had closed it for myself. I would, I imagined, not come back to it again.’ (Tóibín, 2016b.)

The reader plays a role of witness. Having our story, our experiences, our selves witnessed can in itself be transformative (Finlay, 2016, p37). Psychologist, John Bowlby stated that, in order for us to grow into well-adjusted adults, we need to have a secure base set down in childhood. This is achieved through a loving care-giver effectively communicating to the child that their emotions are acknowledged and understood and it is safe to feel what they are feeling (Bowlby, 1988.). Any deficit in the secure base can be replenished (though often with difficulty) by later empathic relationships. Publishing is a poor substitute for a loving early care-giver’s acceptance. It is not the business of publishers, literary agents and readers to shore-up a crumbling secure base. However, I recognise it is, at least partly, what I am seeking from publication. And I do not believe I am the only writer to do so.

I have noticed within me the tension between wanting to be seen and wanting to hide. Pride competes with shame at each publication date. I want the recognition and yet I fear it. ‘Exposure now means exposure of one’s inherent defectiveness as a human being. To be seen is to be seen as irreparably and unspeakably bad.’ (Kaufman, 1992, p75.)

After the novel launch, I feel sapped, worn-down, de-motivated. As Alan Garner describes it: ‘I had to be totally incapacitated in order to build the energy, to fill the reservoir, that would be needed. The analogy with an enforced hibernation fitted. If I could live with this self-loathing, and see it as a signal to let the waters rise, it could remain a necessary, though unpleasant, part of a positive and creative process. As long as that thought stayed, I could endure. (Garner, 1997, p. 212.)

Like Garner, I walk a lot, out in the rugged landscape of North Yorkshire, feeling the arctic blast into my face. Unlike Garner, I am still writing, though I am back to free writing, ploughing up what’s lurking underneath the now of the mind. And the cycle begins again.

* * *

The assembly, which had formed the perfect tableau of a country house party set in the 1920s, is becoming restless. They had gathered together for a resolution. The detectives have failed to give them one. There is a disconsolate voice calling for chilled champagne. Another suggesting the phonograph be cranked up to play some dance music. Yet another proposes a game of cribbage. The gale can be heard howling outside. Its lament grows stronger, the door of the room crashes open, and a woman enters, apparently delivered on the tip of the storm’s tongue.

It is Harriet Vane (NB*). She is wearing a cloche hat the colour of a good port wine. Her dark eyes under its rim reflect the embers of the fire. She has on a tweed coat threaded with scarlet and gold, her legs are clad in peacock-blue stockings, her feet shod in sturdy brown brogues. Her shoes show evidence of the walk she has taken along the muddy drive. ‘I tried to phone,’ she says crossly. Though, of course, the telephone lines were the first victim of the inclement weather, rendering the isolated estate more cut-off.

Wimsey rushes forward saying Harriet must change into dry clothes, have something to eat, to be given a warming drink. She waves him away, accepting only a glass of whisky which she takes down in one gulp. She moderates her tone (it doesn’t do to alienate your audience at the moment of denouement): ‘I can solve the mystery of the disappearing twin.’

‘Can you Miss?’ mocks the wag supposedly from high society in London, whose accent is as appropriated as his dinner suit.

‘How can you, when these renown detectives can’t?’ asks the dowager. The jewellery flashing on her clawed fingers and sagging neck is glass and paste, bought secretly to replace the family heirlooms long gone to the auction.

‘I can,’ says Harriet firmly. ‘Because I am a writer.’

* creation of Dorothy L Sayers.

References

Atwood, M. (2003.) Negotiating with the Dead, a writer on writing. Virago.

Bowlby, J. (1988.) A Secure Base. New York: Basic Books.

DeYoung, P.A. (2003.) Relational Psychotherapy: a primer. New York: Brunner-Routledge.

Erskine, R.G., Moursund, J.P. & Trautmann, R.L. (1999.) Beyond Empathy: a therapy of contact-in-relationship. London: Taylor & Francis.

Evans, K. (2011). ‘The Chrysalis and the Butterfly: A phenomenological study of one person’s writing journey.’ Journal of Applied Arts & Health 2:2, 173-186.

Finlay, L. (2016.) Relational Integrative Psychotherapy: engaging process and theory in practice. Wiley Blackwell.

Garner, A. (1997.) The Voice That Thunders. Harvill Press.

Goldberg, N. (1986.) Writing Down the Bones. Freeing the Writer Within. Shambhala, Boston and London.

Kaufman, G. (1992.) Shame. The Power of Caring. Rochester, Vermont: Schenkman Books Inc.

Kay, J. (2016.) Desert Island Discs, BBC Radio 4, 28th October. Interviewer: Kirsty Young. Producer: Cathy Drysdale.

Mazza, N. (2003). Poetry Therapy. Theory & Practice. Routledge, New York & London.

McDermid, V. (2016.) Artsnight, BBC 2, 22nd July. Editor: Janet Lee. Producer/Director: Jon Morrice.

Nicholls, S. (2009). ‘Beyond Expressive Writing: evolving models of developmental creative writing.’ Journal of Health Psychology 14(2), 171-180.

Pennebaker, J.W., & Beall, S.K. (1986). Confronting a traumatic event: Toward an understanding of inhibition and disease. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 95(3), 274-281.

Smyth, J.M., & Pennebaker, J.W. (2008). Exploring the boundary conditions of expressive writing: In search of the right recipe. British Journal of Health Psychology 13, 1-7.

Pennebaker, J.W. (1997) Opening Up. The healing power of expressing emotions. The Guilford Press: New York.

Sexton, A. (1974.) ‘The Other’ in The Book of Folly. Houghton Mifflin.

Tóibín, C. (2016.) Desert Island Discs, BBC Radio 4, 8th January. Interviewer: Kirsty Young. Producer: Christine Pawlowsky

Tóibín, C. (2016b.) ‘How I wrote Nora Webster’, The Guardian, 22nd January.

 

The Strange Case of the Disappearing Twin

In my last post in this series, I suggested ways in which to become more reflexive about ourselves and how we interact with the world through interrogating our creative writing with reflexive questions. Doing this led me to write this essay, which I am posting in two parts…

Part 1

The Strange Case of the Disappearing Twin: what crafting a crime novel told me about myself.

The light sparks off the diamonds, is reflected by the cut crystal, creating ephemeral rainbows across the damask cloth. The fire crackles. The air is scented by expensive perfumes and aftershave. Some of the assembled company stands or sits to attention, while others lounge, on the plush furnishings. These have been pulled into a circle around the crimson rug bought many years ago in an Egyptian bazaar. The company is an assortment of young and old, of men and women, all dressed for dinner: jackets of crushed velvet, silk dresses, furs. They are all waiting for an answer, ‘What has happened to the twin?’ The detectives – Lord Peter Wimsey, Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot[1] (take your pick) – are unable to say. The twin has simply disappeared.

I have been writing prose stories and novels over the last thirty years. In the last three years I have published three novels. I was able to do this because of the preceding ‘apprenticeship’. The first two in particular were re-modelings of a novel I wrote in 2004, which I chose to re-craft within the crime mystery genre. One of the main point-of-view characters was named Hannah. In 2004 she was controlled by a twin who turns out to be an aspect of herself. Only after I had completed the re-write did I realise the twin had completely disappeared.

* * *

I live with depression and, for me, writing has become part of my life-approach to maintain my sense of well-being. I discovered its importance to me in this regard during a particularly low point about sixteen years ago. Up until then, writing had been a pleasure, as well as a career choice. However, it wasn’t until the turning of the century that I realised it could be a means to greater self-understanding and reflection which could aid me in my healing.

When I had the wherewithal to investigate, I, of course, discovered a wealth of information about writing as a type of therapy. And why not? We have art, music, drama therapies. Despite having no formal status in the UK, writing therapy has plenty of practitioners and advocates (see http://www.lapidus.org.uk).

American psychologist, James W Pennebaker began to consider aspects of what he calls ‘expressive’ writing in the 1980s. However, it is possible to argue the tradition of words being a source of healing goes much further back through the use of prayer, spells and charms (Mazza, 2003). Pennebaker carried out controlled experiments on his students, inviting some to write over a period of five days about emotions and events which had an impact on them, while others wrote about subject which did not evoke a strong reaction in them. Those in the former group reported feeling better and also had less frequent appointments with the medical centre (Pennebaker & Beale, 1986; Pennebaker, 1997). Since this first research, Pennebaker and others have sought to replicate the results and also pin down the components of the writing which gives it its potency (Smyth & Pennebaker, 2008).

One aspect is the cathartic effect of releasing thoughts and emotions through ‘free writing’. The aim of free writing as defined by Goldberg (1986, p8/9) 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.’ The word ‘free’ here has two aspects. It means putting to one side, for the present, learned rules about writing and setting down whatever comes to mind without judging, censoring or editing. In addition, the writing is freed from an external reader. Only the author will see what has been produced and will decide what to do with it.

This was a response to free writing garnered from the participant of my 2011 phenomenological case study: ‘And I think I’ve probably described the free writing as being like ploughing a field and literally to me it’s like that. A field’s got a load of plants on or a load of top soil on, and you don’t quite know what’s underneath, you can guess, but there’s so much going on underneath the now of the mind, that it’s very difficult to find out what you really think about things underneath. And the creative writing, the free writing, tends to dip down underneath the surface and pull things up and it’s almost like ploughing things up and exposing them and it’s almost, like aha, I knew it was there, I don’t know quite why I didn’t think of it before.’ (Evans, 2011, p180.)

However, this is only the beginning of what could be a very extensive tale.

* * *

The writing of my 2004 novel was very free-flowing and was undoubtedly releasing for me. The experience of depression of the point-of-view character, Hannah, is very similar to mine. And Hannah has a controlling ‘twin’.

When she breathes Hannah knows she takes oxygen away from her twin. She is equally as certain that Clare will punish her for this. The hand, which looks so remarkably like Hannah’s own, drags the razor blade across her arm. She watches the blood bubble up in its wake. The pain only begins when she gets back under the duvet. (Evans, 2004, unpublished.)

Twins have a long heritage in literature and story-telling. I remember as quite a young person being riveted by a 1946 film being reprised on TV. It was The Dark Mirror (directed by Robert Siodmak). It stars Olivia de Havilland who plays both twins, Terry and Ruth Collins. They turn out to be identical in looks but exact opposites in character and moral code. Almost two hundred years before, Robert Louis Stevenson was exploring a similar idea in his 1886 novella The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Twins turn up in legend and folk tales: Jacob and Esau; Romulus and Remus; Snow-White and Rose-Red; some versions of Sleeping Beauty where the wicked and good fairies are twins or sisters. Shakespeare (himself a father to twins, one of whom died as a child) fashioned a plethora of plays where twins have a central role.

In one way or another, these story-tellers from the ancient to the modern, were, at least in part, exploring what Carl Jung later gave a name to. He called it the ‘shadow side’. He postulated that, psychologically speaking, there is a shadow side in all of us which, if it remains unacknowledged, can wreak havoc for ourselves and others.

This was an aspect to Clare, the twin I created for Hannah. At the time, I had just discovered the poet Anne Sexton and her poem, ‘The Other’ (Sexton, 1974, p32) resonated powerfully with me.

It is waiting.
Mr. Doppelgänger. My brother. My spouse.
Mr. Doppelgänger. My enemy. My lover.
When truth comes spilling out like peas
it hangs up the phone.
When the child is soothed and resting on the breast
it is my other who swallows Lysol.

It cries and cries and cries
until I put on a painted mask
and leer at Jesus in His passion.
Then it giggles.
It is a thumbscrew.

Clare is unquestionably a ‘thumbscrew’ on Hannah and on her capacity for enjoying life or relationships.

However, Clare may spring from something else. Atwood suggests twins have a particular significance for writers. ‘All writers are double,’ she says (Atwood, 2003, p32). Within a writer there are twins, the twin who lives and the twin who writes. She calls the latter, ‘the Hyde hand’, ‘the slippery double’ and says, ‘The double may be shadowy, but it is also indispensable.’

The writer’s ‘double’ watches, it observes, even when the writer or someone close to them is in enormous pain. This twin takes the chaotic, the disorganised, the meaningless and gives it shape, a narrative, an understanding. The writing twin steals indiscriminately. Colm Tóibín once told a class he was teaching: ‘You have to be a terrible monster to write. I said, “Someone might have told you something they shouldn’t have told you, and you have to be prepared to use it because it will make a great story. You have to use it even though the person is identifiable. If you can’t do it then writing isn’t for you. You’ve no right to be here. If there is any way I can help you get into law school then I will. Your morality will be more useful in a courtroom.”’ (Tóibín, 2016.)

Clare was a particularly malicious double. Yet she was also a critique par excellence, hard-nosed and distant. Attributes which can, at times, be helpful to the writer.

But in the re-formation of my novel I killed off Clare. And quite unconsciously. How did that happen?

Part 2 to follow next week….

[1] Detectives created by DL Sayers and Agatha Christie.

References

Atwood, M. (2003.) Negotiating with the Dead, a writer on writing. Virago.
Bowlby, J. (1988.) A Secure Base. New York: Basic Books.
DeYoung, P.A. (2003.) Relational Psychotherapy: a primer. New York: Brunner-Routledge.
Erskine, R.G., Moursund, J.P. & Trautmann, R.L. (1999.) Beyond Empathy: a therapy of contact-in-relationship. London: Taylor & Francis.
Evans, K. (2011). ‘The Chrysalis and the Butterfly: A phenomenological study of one person’s writing journey.’ Journal of Applied Arts & Health 2:2, 173-186.
Finlay, L. (2016.) Relational Integrative Psychotherapy: engaging process and theory in practice. Wiley Blackwell.
Garner, A. (1997.) The Voice That Thunders. Harvill Press.
Goldberg, N. (1986.) Writing Down the Bones. Freeing the Writer Within. Shambhala, Boston and London.
Kaufman, G. (1992.) Shame. The Power of Caring. Rochester, Vermont: Schenkman Books Inc.
Kay, J. (2016.) Desert Island Discs, BBC Radio 4, 28th October. Interviewer: Kirsty Young. Producer: Cathy Drysdale.
Mazza, N. (2003). Poetry Therapy. Theory & Practice. Routledge, New York & London.
McDermid, V. (2016.) Artsnight, BBC 2, 22nd July. Editor: Janet Lee. Producer/Director: Jon Morrice.
Nicholls, S. (2009). ‘Beyond Expressive Writing: evolving models of developmental creative writing.’ Journal of Health Psychology 14(2), 171-180.
Pennebaker, J.W., & Beall, S.K. (1986). Confronting a traumatic event: Toward an understanding of inhibition and disease. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 95(3), 274-281.
Smyth, J.M., & Pennebaker, J.W. (2008). Exploring the boundary conditions of expressive writing: In search of the right recipe. British Journal of Health Psychology 13, 1-7.
Pennebaker, J.W. (1997) Opening Up. The healing power of expressing emotions. The Guilford Press: New York.
Sexton, A. (1974.) ‘The Other’ in The Book of Folly. Houghton Mifflin.
Tóibín, C. (2016.) Desert Island Discs, BBC Radio 4, 8th January. Interviewer: Kirsty Young. Producer: Christine Pawlowsky
Tóibín, C. (2016b.) ‘How I wrote Nora Webster’, The Guardian, 22nd January.

Writing the therapeutic journey #7: Point of View

These blog posts are about exploring creative writing as a support for our mental health and our over-all wellbeing.

With some practice and a fair wind, you are writing more freely and uncovering some emotions which you are finding a way of reflecting back on. There is one particular tool in creative writing which I would like to introduce you to: point of view.

Whenever we start to write, we choose a point of view. Will we use ‘I’ in the first person or ‘he’, ‘she’ or ‘they’ in the third person? It is also possible to use the second person ‘you’, addressing the reader directly, though there is always a narrator behind, doing the addressing.

Changing from one point of view to another can often change the sense of distance in a piece. Try it for yourself. Write about something which happened today, a short incident which may have some emotional content for you, using ‘I’. Then re-write it using ‘he’ or ‘she’ as if you are watching yourself going through whatever it was that happened. Finally try using ‘you’, as if you are telling yourself what happened.

A very simple example:
I went for a walk by the sea this morning, the weather was chill against my skin. I thought about other walks I had taken with a good friend who has since left the area and no longer contacts me.

She went for a walk by the sea this morning, the weather was chill against her skin. She thought about other walks she had taken with a good friend who has since left the area and no longer contacts her.

You went for a walk by the sea this morning, the weather was chill against your skin. You thought about other walks you had taken with a good friend who has since left the area and no longer contacts you.

Once you have done this exercise, consider how you felt doing it and how you feel reading the different pieces back. Have you noticed anything? Generally speaking, I find using third person gives me greater distance and using ‘you’ can feel supportive or accusatory. However, this is your writing and your experience, so go with what happens with you.

Another way to use Point of View is to take another person’s perspective. Maybe you have had a recent encounter which has been uncomfortable for you. Try writing it out using ‘I’ – this is your own point of view. Then imagine yourself into the other person’s body, write it out again, also using ‘I’, but really trying to see the exchange through the other person’s eyes and to feel it through their senses and body. Finally, imagine you are an inanimate object – perhaps a clock on the wall – describe what happened using third person. You are now seeing yourself and the other person from a distance, from the outside.

Have you any experiences of using the technique of ‘Point of View’ in this way which you would like to share?

Writing the therapeutic journey #6: reflecting as we go

autumn treeThese blog posts are about exploring creative writing as a support for our mental health and our over-all wellbeing. The first aspect to this is to have the impulse to write, the second is to get words onto paper with as little judgement or self-critiquing as possible. Remember this writing has an audience of one – you (or possibly two if you are working with a therapist or a supportive friend/mentor).

It is interesting to note at this point that for some of us, our own internal critic is the harshest of all. Saying, ‘Only I will read this,’ may not silence all the ‘should’s and ‘have to’s we have absorbed about how and what to write. If this is true for you, then a written exchange – never sent letters or emails – may be illuminating.

Doing this for myself and with others, I have found the internal critic comes often emerges from one of two sources. Firstly it could be the voice of someone in the past – parent, sibling, friend, teacher – who (for their own reasons which we may not know) have sought to restrict what we do or say. Or secondly, the internal critic might be about protecting the writer from the perceived possibility of shame. Perhaps there has been a time when we have spoken out or been ‘too loud’ and we have been ‘told off’ in an unduly harsh way. The embarrassment we felt then is seeping into our present. Our critical voices could need reassurance that the potential for embarrassment is not currently present.

These are only squiggles on paper which we all agree to understand as words. How often they can feel more like unexploded bombs! Elma Mitchell suggests as much in her poem This Poem… Here is an extract:
… Even the simplest poem
May destroy your immunity to human emotions.
All poems must carry a Government warning. Words
Can seriously affect your heart.

And yes, in the end, however we come at it, with this type of writing we do eventually want to touch a nerve, unearth an emotion or two, circle around a troubling relationship. This may come through your writing without much effort. In blog post #3 of this series, I suggested taking the time every few weeks to reflect back on your writing. Again we will use writing to do this. We will re-read some of what we have written and then start a reflection such as ‘I notice….’ or ‘I feel….’ or ‘I am intrigued by….’ or ‘I am confused by….’ (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.)

When doing this exercise, keep an eye out for metaphors which might be hiding an LD1Nov13emotion. Is there a certain image which returns and returns? What kind of emotion does it evoke? Could it be a metaphor for that emotion? Also, take note of patterns in your writing and things which get repeated. What are these telling you?

Through writing we can express ourselves. In addition, through writing, we can begin to gain greater understandings about ourselves. I would be inviting the one to feed naturally into the other.

What is your experience of writing for good mental health and wellbeing?

 

 

Writing the therapeutic journey #5: Creating a Safe Space

Welcome back to my occasional series on Creative Writing for Wellbeing. Given it’s been a while since I posted, I would urge those who have not already done so, to read the previous posts in the series:

#1 A Part of My Story: https://goo.gl/fZkxfi

#2 Where Are We Headed?:  https://goo.gl/4wy6XC

#3 How to Get Going: https://goo.gl/5exuRx

#4 Where’s the Evidence?: https://goo.gl/QAcfYL

Creative writing for wellbeing has been crucial to my own recovery from depression and to my own wellness and I know (from feedback I get from workshops I run) that it has been useful to others struggling with emotional or physical challenges. However, it is not always an easy path to choose. Creative writing which encourages the tapping into of what lies beneath our every day, conscious thought can lead us into tough places. We may experience emotions which we find difficult or, even, unacceptable. We may see a side of ourselves which is not comfortable to witness. I would say, this is not a journey to embark on unaccompanied, and, for me, talking therapies, has been an important support.

When doing this type of writing, we need, as far as is possible, to take-on a non-judgemental stance, about the writing and the emotions it may evoke. I have already used words such as ‘difficult’ and ‘unacceptable’. Can we, for just a moment, put such judgements aside and accept what comes out onto the paper and into our hearts and minds as ‘what is’?

Judgements are important, we need them to take decisions and to form a moral frame for our actions. However, when pursuing creative writing for wellbeing, judgements can be put to one side for short periods of time. I would add this rider, at the same time as putting aside judgements, we also agree not to act on what we are expressing. The words appear on the page, we feel what we feel, and then we close our writing journal.

 

An Exercise

On this expedition which will take us into unexpected terrain and onto, as yet, unexplored ways, we need a place to retreat to when the going gets rough. Creative writing can assist with this too. Sit or stand comfortably for a few moments, perhaps outside in nature, feeling the ground beneath your feet and the sky above your head. Take some deep breaths and let a vision enter your mind of a place you experience as safe – it could be a real place or an imagined place, or a bit of both. Keep breathing long and slow, as you take a bit of time to investigate this place. Then pick up your pen and write about it in your writing journal.

This first draft may be quite sketchy. But over weeks add to the description, remembering always to engage your five physical senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, texture.

This is an exercise you can repeat and repeat, or return to and embellish, or re-write and copy. You may like to draw images which go with your safe space or collect images (from magazines, photos, from books….) which seem to represent it.

The idea is that this safe space becomes an anchor in your writing journal, and eventually in your imagination, for when the seas become troubled and unpleasant.

What have your experiences of writing for wellbeing been? Any tips for remaining motivated?

Writing the therapeutic journey #4: where’s the evidence?

I have prefaced much of the previous posts with ‘I believe’. This belief comes from my own experience, from working with others through writing, and from reading and studying what others say about writing.

Nicholas Mazza claims a long history for words being seen as healing in the form of prayers, spells, charms. (Poetry Therapy. Theory & Practice. 2003, Routledge, New York & London.) It was James W Pennebaker, Professor and Chair, Department of Psychology, The University of Texas, who first put the idea that writing might be good for wellbeing to the test. To summarise, he devised an experiment where, over consecutive days, he asked one group of people to write about something emotionally significant, while the other wrote about something mundane. He found the improvement of the wellbeing of those in the first group was experimentally significant, whereas this was not true for the second group. (Further reading at the end of this post.)

Pennebaker called this expressive writing and he gave no guidelines on how people should do it, only that it should be about something which has emotional consequence to them. On analysing the writing which appeared to improve wellbeing, he found three things in common: (1) a feeling was named and expressed; (2) the writer moved from using ‘I’ to using you or she or he or they. In other words they began to gain differing perspectives through their writing; (3) the writer began to structure a narrative, a coherent story.

Expressive writing leaves this to chance, however, creative writing encourages people to develop the tools which means this need not be a question of luck.

Creative writing for wellbeing is not as recognised as art therapy, drama therapy, music therapy and so on, however much of the theory is the same: self-expression leading to reflection, greater understanding, compassion and acceptance. As with all art therapies, working within a group can be useful as the self-expression is witnessed and acknowledged, aiding the sense of being understood and accepted/acceptable.

I would say, however, there are a couple of things which put writing apart from the other art therapies. Firstly, it is a private activity. Even in a group, we can choose when and if to share. Until that moment, whatever is being expressed is between the writer and the page. Secondly, writing is a relatively everyday activity. It is not easy for everyone and many people do come to writing for wellbeing with preconceived ideas (absorbed during school) about what writing should be which can get in the way. On the other hand, for many scribbling words on paper would be more comfortable and straightforward than, for instance, making some music.

In the end, it is for each of us to decide for ourselves what is right for our wellbeing. Creative writing might be a way towards self-expression and reflection which could be useful. It is for you to decide. And as this series of posts goes along, I hope all readers will see each as an invitation. You have a choice to take it up or not. The principals of invitation and choice are very important in this kind of work. As are the words: compassion, respect, kindness – to yourself and your writing. It is what it is, you don’t have to judge it.

I will repeat my 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.

Take some time to get to know the resources listed below and also connect with the national organisation for writing for wellbeing: https://lapidus.org.uk/. Perhaps there is a local group in your area. And the journey continues with the next post.

Resources

James W Pennebaker: https://pennebaker.socialpsychology.org/

Pennebaker, J.W., & Beall, S.K. (1986). Confronting a traumatic event: Toward an understanding of inhibition and disease. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 95(3), 274-281.

Smyth, J.M., & Pennebaker, J.W. (2008). Exploring the boundary conditions of expressive writing: In search of the right recipe. British Journal of Health Psychology 13, 1-7.

Pennebaker, J.W. (1997) Opening Up. The healing power of expressing emotions. The Guilford Press: New York.

Bolton, G. (1999). The Therapeutic Potential of Creative Writing. Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London & Philadelphia.

Bolton, G. Field, V, Thompson, K. (Eds) (2006). Writing Works. A resource handbook for therapeutic writing workshops & activities. Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London & Philadelphia.

DeSalvo, L. (1999). Writing as a Way of Healing, How telling our stories transforms our lives. The Women’s Press.

Evans, K. (2011). ‘The Chrysalis and the Butterfly: A phenomenological study of one person’s writing journey.’ Journal of Applied Arts & Health 2:2, 173-186.

Hedges, D. (2005) Poetry, Therapy & Emotional Life. Radcliffe Publishing, London & Seattle.

Mazza, N. (2003). Poetry Therapy. Theory & Practice. Routledge, New York & London.

Nicholls, S. (2009). ‘Beyond Expressive Writing: evolving models of developmental creative writing.’ Journal of Health Psychology 14(2), 171-180.