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.

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.

Writing the therapeutic journey #2: where are we headed?

‘Writing isn’t really to do with sitting at the desk at all,’ said the late, much-lamented, Helen Dunmore in a Guardian interview in 2016. She was talking about writers connecting with the world in order to write about it. I could riff off what she said and suggest that writing for wellbeing isn’t really about writing at all. It’s about making space, shedding the ‘shoulds’ and giving permission.

Making space, shedding the ‘shoulds’ and giving ourselves permission in order to take better care of our wellbeing, both physical and mental (given the two are inexorably linked).

I believe we humans have a lot of ‘displacement’ activities – eating too much, drinking too much, shopping – to name just three. What they do is stop us from feeling awkward or uncomfortable emotions and give us ephemeral moments of pleasure. What they don’t do is feed and nourish our selves at some profound level. In order to do that, we have to stop doing. Once we stop doing, we can start feeling, we can start noticing, we can start accepting, we can start being.

I have found a number of routes towards reclaiming a space to ‘be’ rather than ‘do’ – yoga, swimming, walking, connecting with nature and the seasons, collage. However, for me, the one thing which holds it all together is writing. It may not be so for other people.

Writing in this context cannot become another ‘should’, another ‘to do’ in a life of frenetic activity. Find what it is for you which leads you to a place where you can breathe easily, where you can touch the creative part of yourself, where you can become absorbed in a ‘flow’ of creative energy which means time appears to pass more quickly. Find whatever it is which leads you to that place where you genuinely have the thought, ‘Ah, yes this is me.’

Perhaps it will be writing, perhaps it will not be writing. If there is a possibility that it is writing, then join me for my next post on Writing the therapeutic journey.

 

Writing the therapeutic journey #1: a part of my story

Anniversaries are interesting things. As human beings we seem fascinated by them. I suppose they give a focal point for remembering, for reflection, for noticing the years are passing (on their inevitable march towards our demise), for coming together, for apology, for celebration…

One anniversary is knocking on the door of my consciousness: it is four months since my final therapy session (ever? I doubt I would ever claim that.) Four months ago, after a period of seventeen years of regular therapy, I stopped having sessions with my current therapist.

I would not claim to be ‘sorted’. I consider that I live with depression rather than I am ‘cured’ of it. I do recognise that I am much more resilient emotionally and psychologically. I feel more comfortable with who I am, I accept more readily my vulnerabilities and failings. I understand how my history continues to intrude into my today. I feel joy and the support of others. The word journey is probably much over-used, but it fits here, it has been a long, challenging, difficult, fascinating, enriching journey.

I take up my battered Pocket Oxford Dictionary with its loose and thumbed pages. ‘Journey’: to travel, expedition, voyage. From the French ‘journee’ meaning day. Connected (importantly for me) to ‘journal’ (more on that later).

I have had three therapists over the years. I miss all of them in different ways for what they brought with them to sustain me and my journey. I certainly miss my most recent therapist, Annie, some days more than others.

There are two important legacies bequeathed by my therapists. Firstly, the space they (we) created together in which it was okay to examine me, my story, my life. Finlay calls this the ‘between’ ‘The mysterious intersubjective space between, where we touch and are touched by the Other in multiple, often unseen ways…’ (Page 3. Linda Finlay, Relational Integrative Psychotherapy, engaging process and theory in practice. Wiley Blackwell. 2016.)

I like the Dixie Chick’s definition:

‘When the calls and conversations
Accidents and accusations
Messages and misperceptions
Paralyze my mind

Buses, cars, and airplanes leaving
Burning fumes of gasoline
And everyone is running
And I come to find a refuge in the

Easy silence that you make for me
It’s okay when there’s nothing more to say to me
And the peaceful quiet you create for me
And the way you keep the world at bay for me’

                                                     Easy Silence, Dixie Chicks

Though in truth, rather than keep it at bay, the ‘easy silence’ allowed me to examine my world, without becoming totally overwhelmed by it.

The second legacy is that my therapists’ words, their ways of being, have stayed with me. They are a gentle and nourishing counter-balance to my own tendencies to self-criticism and towards self-annihilation. Tendencies which can sometimes become augmented by the attitudes of others and events. I have left my therapists, but they do not leave me.

There are other significant things which have brought me to where I am. Good support from my husband, my sister and friends. A healthy diet, exercise and yoga. Making more of a connection with nature. And last, though certainly not least, writing and my writing journal. Having reached this particular way-station, I thought I might return to my continuing passion: writing for wellbeing. On this blog, over the coming weeks/months, I will explore ideas around the connection between writing and wellbeing. I hope there will be readers who will want to join me on this particular branch line.

7 Prompts for Writers #7: Poetry

Poets and readers of poetry will spend endless amounts of time arguing about what is poetry. For some, a poem is not a poem unless it rhymes and sticks to a strict rhythmic pattern. I happen to disagree with this stance. A poem can be hung together around the sounds of words, a metaphor or a shape on the page, for instance. Personally, I think there is much more cross-over between prose and poetry than some traditionalists might want to admit, for me it is a continuum.

There are some great definitions of what poetry is in The Bloodaxe Book of Poetry Quotations (edited Dennis O’Driscoll, 2006). However, I would struggle to say why they don’t apply to prose. I like Stephen Dobyns’ introduction in Best Words, Best Order:

‘I believe that a poem is an emotional-intellectual-physical construct that is meant to touch the heart of the reader, that is meant to be re-experienced by the reader. I believe that a poem is a window that hangs between two or more human beings who otherwise live in darkened rooms. I also believe that a poem is a noise and that noise is shaped. A poem is not natural speech, it is artificial speech.’ (Page xii, 2003).

On the other hand, could we not also say prose is a construct, meant to reach a reader? A window between people? A noise shaped into a narrative and to a page? We all know when we sit down with a book what we have in our hands is a series of squiggles on a page we have agreed to understand as a language with meaning. It is the business of all writers – whether prose or poetry – to use those words in such a way that the reader forgets the artifice and accepts to enter (with head and heart) into another world, a world we co-construct together.

I would argue, therefore, that prompts I’ve advocated previously – especially use of a writing journal, free writing, using all the senses and taking note of our own experiences/feelings within our own bodies – are equally prompts for those intending on writing poetry.

A poem is a conversation between people

All writers should be avid readers. We learn so much about our art and craft by studying others. Just as an art student visits galleries or a music student attends concerts. To write poetry read poetry and plenty of contemporary poetry – there are many anthologies in our beleaguered libraries, use them before they disappear or borrow unashamed-ably from friends.

Now here’s something to try. Find one line from a poem you like. Write it down in the middle of a page. For three minutes, write quite freely your own words and phrases around it. Then re-write the line on another piece of paper. Study it, read it out loud, notice the rhythms and patterns made by the words. Ruth Padel’s 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem (2002) is a good guide in this regard. Now start with a clean page. Using your own words which you noted in the first three minutes, see if you can echo in some way the sound or the timbre of the original line you picked. Put it in a drawer. Take it out five weeks later and read it out loud. If you are still pleased with it, share it with others.

 

 

Author Interview: Lynne Blackwell

Welcome to Lynne Blackwell to my blog.

Lynne writes crime fiction/domestic noir. After a stint in the Special Constabulary, Lynne began her nurse training, working mainly in acute general and psychiatric hospitals before co-ordinating day-care for people with dementia. Lynne has a BA (Hons) in Social Policy from Sheffield Hallam University, where she studied Psychology, Sociology, Politics and Criminology. She is a winner of the 2015 Northern Crime competition, contributor to the Northern Crime One anthology and writes regular blogs about the road to publication, which aims to encourage new writers to learn from her mistakes and heed all warnings. 

What are you currently working on?
I’m writing a novel that began as a pitch to my ex agent, Lizzy Kremer, six years ago. It is about a girl who runs away from home after she’s made a serious accusation against another family member; an accusation that was based on nothing more than a series of vague memories from her childhood. 

What has inspired your most recent novel/writing?
An interest in infantile amnesia.

How much do you think fiction intertwines with real life?
All fiction intertwines with real life – minus the lengthy conversations, long drawn out pauses and anything else that can slow down the pace. Whatever the genre, fiction has to be rooted in reality. 

Could you give five tips on how to tackle either characterisation or plotting or dialogue or descriptive passages?
CHARACTERISATION: I tend to write in first person, so I spend a lot of time working on the prologue and the first three chapters until I’ve created the perfect protagonist’s voice for that particular project.

DIALOGUE: Always read dialogue out loud and in the manner of each character to authenticate the voice.

PLOTTING: Delete everything that is superfluous to denouement and slows down the pace.

DESCRIPTIONS: My novels are contemporary, brutally realistic and usually written in first person, so I have to rein in the temptation to write reams of descriptive passages. I do, however, find ways to get around this. For example: I adapted my story in ‘Northern Crime One’ from my second novel (Ghost Towns, 2013) by changing the female narrator from the mother of the victim into a psychic who is haunted by the visions of a drowned girl. This enabled me to examine the dead victim’s Point Of View in a surreal way. My first novel (Into the Snicket, 2009) is about a woman who is an alcoholic and suffers domestic abuse. She is far too stressed to describe anything in great detail, and usually too drunk to notice much at all. However, the fact that she keeps drifting off into drunken stupors gave me an opportunity to describe what she may (or may not) have witnessed in a series of flashbacks as more memories were retrieved.

PLOTTING: A crime editor once advised me to never submit a crime novel without a prologue. Before I start writing a new project, I go in search of an atmospheric ‘crime scene’ for the next prologue. 

How would you describe your writing process?
I don’t meticulously plan my crime novels/stories unless I’m writing a police procedural. Once I’ve got a crime scene in my mind, I’ll have a think about the murder, murderer, victim/s and protagonist before writing a prologue and the first three chapters. I’ll go over this work many times until I’m happy with the Point Of View. Then I’ll jot down a stem outline to use as a guide. I write the basic draft chronologically, often working into the night to keep up momentum. I don’t write fastidiously at this stage; some chapters might be nothing more than a series of notes and diagrams. Once I’ve produced a 40-60,000 word basic draft, I assess what research needs to be done: sociological, psychology, forensic etc. I’ll write several more drafts until I know the characters inside and out, then I’ll work on the dialogue. I wrote ten drafts for my first novel. 

What helps you to write/what gets in the way?
I can only write in a quiet environment – at home and preferably alone. When I’m on a roll I’ll work through the night until the dawn chorus.  

What kind of research do you do and how do you go about it?
My Google history is varied, gruesome and rather fascinating! I have made many contacts over the years, so if something is too complex to use a search engine or I can’t rely on information in a book, I’ll ask a professional for their expert advice.  

Could you say something of your publishing journey and your experience?
After my first novel was rejected by a few editors I was left without an agent. I picked myself up and submitted it to a couple of other agents before taking on board the crime publisher’s advice to increase the pace. I changed the prologue, removed two out of three narrators and kept the strongest voice. Then I put it to one side and began work on the rest of my portfolio; making all my novels similar in style to ‘Into the Snicket’ by fitting them into a domestic noir/crime genre before the likes of ‘The Girl on the Train.’ 

I continued to write blogs about the trials of being an unpublished author and entered a couple of competitions: the second being a short story competition in association with New Writing North and Moth Publishing. As a winner, my story was published in the anthology, ‘Northern Crime One’, which gave me the opportunity to work with an editor and read at book events. It was reassuring to attend these events with the support of NWN/Moth Publishing, and in the company of the other contributors.

The question you wished I’d asked you.
What keeps you motivated? – I love to give myself a challenge at the start of every project. Three out of my four crime novels are written in first person, but the protagonists are not the murderer, murder victim or investigator. For this reason, it has been a challenge coming up with different ways to maintain the pace that is required for crime without ending up with a contrived plot.

How can readers find you and learn more about your writing?
‘Northern Crime One’ is published by Moth Publishing on Paperback and Ebook https://sites.google.com/site/lynneblackwellwriter

Blog: The Trials of an Unpublished Author –  https://sites.google.com/site/lynneblackwellwriter/blogs

Twitter: @lynnemblackwell

Thank you Lynne!

(Date of interview: 21st January 2017)

 

 

7 Prompts for Writers #6: plot

OK, by now you are writing regularly and exploring voice and characterisation (see previous 7 Prompts for Writers posts). At some point, if you are writing prose, (though there is some argument narrative applies equally to poetry – see next post in the series), you need to come up with a story-line.

Perhaps you have started with the story and have had to find the characters to tell it. In which case, I hope the preceding posts in this series will have helped. Perhaps, in exploring voice and characterisation, the story has begun to tell itself. There is an alchemy in creative writing which is impossible to dictate, whereby once the elements are in the crucible, the precious narrative begins to shape itself.

However, it is also possible for a writer to be looking for a story. There are obvious places to look: ourselves, our family history, the stories of the places we live or visit, our friends, museums (the smaller and quirkier the better!), newspapers…. The list is endless and I am sure you can find your own additions. As a writer, always be alert to stories, take your writing journal everywhere, so you can jot down ideas, odd facts, questions, all of which are the starting points for stories.

From the ancient Greeks onwards (and no doubt before) there has been much written and pontificated on the basic plots of literature (and life – for the two, are, I believe, intertwined). Personally, I feel most plots can be boiled down to a quest. Skimmed back to the skeleton, most stories start with a question to which the protagonist attempts to find an answer. The protagonist goes on a journey (frequently an internal journey, they become changed by the quest), overcomes barriers/conflict (three times is a good figure to bear in mind here) and comes to a resolution.

I have written elsewhere about structuring a crime novel: https://goo.gl/tVjZJC and much of what I suggested there can apply to a novel of any genre.

I tend to write quite organically, so plan less than other writers. There are no hard and fast rules about how much planning a writer should do, I think it is down to the individual. But, in my opinion, there will come a moment, when a plan/structure will be required. I like to do it on sheets of A3, with columns going across: (1) point of view; (2) what happens?; (3) what does the reader learn?; (4) what do I need to do in terms of re-writing?

When structuring, it’s worth thinking in chunks:

  • 0-15,000 words initial question.
  • 15,000 words point of conflict/tension.
  • 30,000 words conflict/tension, possibly a new path.
  • 45,000 words realisation.
  • 60,000 words resolution.

Always bear in mind: how is my protagonist being changed by this? Where is the conflict/tension?

Where have your story ideas come from? How and at what point in the writing do you plan? The best tip you’ve been given about plotting?