Tag Archives: internal critic

A Writer’s Toolbox: the self

If you’ve read the first post in this series, https://bit.ly/2RqqBKn, then hopefully that has encouraged you to write regularly. You may have adapted the sprints to suit yourself, all well and good. The point is to be writing regularly without critiquing and without too much concern over what is the point, apart from enjoying yourself.

Now we come to the most important implement in the Writer’s Toolbox: the writer themselves. Everything that comes from the writer is mediated through the self. So let’s consider how the self might work for the writer.

We have five physical senses: touch, smell, taste, sight and hearing. We may favour one of these senses. If I say the word ‘tractor’, do you see it, hear it, smell it, taste it, feel the texture of it? This little exercise gives an idea of which sense you may lean towards. A writer encourages the development of all the senses. Try these explorations:

  •      walk (preferably through a bit of nature) with all your senses opened. Write for ten minutes, uncritically, letting the words drop onto the paper.
  •       Once you have worked out which sense you least favour, go for a walk and focus on that sense. Write for ten minutes, uncritically, letting the words drop onto the paper.
  •       Take an image (a photo or a postcard or a picture or a painting), imagine yourself within the picture, what would you be seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling? What textures could you touch? Write for ten minutes, uncritically, letting the words drop onto the paper.
  •       Imagine that one of your senses has gone. Take a short walk without that sense working. Write for ten minutes, uncritically, letting the words drop onto the paper.

You may discover your own ways of opening up your senses. Keep exploring what your five physical senses can tell you.

Writing is about imagination, inspiration, that’s what people commonly say, which all sounds very head-based. Poet William Blake likened the imagination and inspiration to a grinding millstone and a blacksmith’s forge. If we continue with his analogy, then we need the grain, we need the base metal, for the millstones or the fire in the forge to produce anything. We need the raw materials for the imagination and inspiration to feed on. These raw materials come through the senses, but also through the body as a whole. The body is the receptor by which we experience the world as we pass through it, then the mind puts language and interpretations to this experience. Working in concert, the two enrich our writing.

The self can be a tuning fork, resonating with the environment and finding the individual note for the individual writer. One of the things I have found which encourages the mining of the resources of the body is mindful walking. Mindfulness is a word which is used in many different contexts with a myriad of meanings. I like this definition from psychologytoday.com (accessed 5th October 2015): Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention on the present. When you’re mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience. Try walking mindfully and then writing for ten minutes, uncritically, letting the words drop onto the paper.

Writing creatively means engaging emotion, both for the writer and for the reader. We don’t think emotions, we feel them. Philippot et al. (2004) suggest that emotions are primarily experienced though bodily sensation and then translated into feelings and brought into consciousness. Writers connecting with their bodies are more aware of emotion, more able to capture them and find ways of communicating them which will touch a reader. However, writers are in the business of engaging with a plethora of emotions, not just the ones which we might think are nice or respectable or allowed. This can be hard, can be painful, can be distressing. Be sure you have supports in place to help you through.

The self may also be the spanner in the works, which jams the creative wheels. Another part of a writer’s toolkit is a small but resilient core of self-belief. This is usually difficult to hone and maintain. Writers need to experience a full range of emotions to put them into their writing, some, such as shame and anger, are not conducive to self-belief. Writers might lay themselves open to criticism and rejection – generated by themselves or by others, or (even harder) imagined others.

It is worth remembering that both the creative practice and the construction of self-belief are iterative. There is a back-and-forth to the process. ‘Onwards and upwards’ is an oft repeated phrase, as if going forwards is always what’s best. Writers can feel they are going backwards or round in circles. Remembering that this is an important part of being creative may help this become less frustrating.

Take your time exploring your senses and mindful walking and see where it takes you. I’ll be exploring further tools in the writer’s toolbox in the next post in the series in the coming weeks.

 

Philippot P, Baeyens C, Douilliez C, & Francart B. (2004). Cognitive regulation of emotion: application to clinical disorders. In: Philippot P, Feldman RS (eds.). (2004) The regulation of emotion. New York: Laurence Erlbaum Associates.

A Writer’s Toolkit: Getting Started

However much I ignore it, the New Year does bring with it the idea of new possibilities and opportunities. It feels like a time to reassess, perhaps, and try new things. Maybe it is the moment to start or re-invigorate your writing?

This year, I plan to do a series of posts called A Writer’s Toolbox which aims to give anyone the impetus to get on with the writing they want to do. These posts will be interspersed by my usual musings on being a writer, plus some posts by guests. I have some exciting ones already lined up. But if you are a writer and would like to contribute a post, please do get in touch. There’s no money, no glory and it won’t change your life, however, if you would like to give it a whirl, email me on kateevans@tinyonline.co.uk

Igniting or re-igniting the spark
At the risk of sounding un-empathic, it sometimes bemuses me when people tell me they want to write. I wonder why they are not doing it. On the face of it, writing is one of the easiest creative arts to ease into. There’s no need for any special equipment or even much space. If you can put one word in front of another down on paper, then you can write.

So if you want to write, and you are not doing so, then the first question to ask yourself is what is getting in the way of me writing? Perhaps spending ten minutes writing about this should be your first piece of writing. Over years of writing, running writing workshops and being around writers, the general things which get in the way of writing are:

  •     Finding the time within your life. To start with it doesn’t have to be a lot, perhaps as little as ten minutes a week. But, like doing anything, it’s about carving out the space to focus on what you want to do.
  •      Other pressures, such as earning money or looking after children/other family members. This is obviously a tough one, but needs to be negotiated and balances and boundaries found.
  •       Giving yourself permission. Sometimes it is ourselves which get in the way. Negative thoughts such as: ‘I’m not good enough’; ‘what’s the point in this?’ ‘Everyone will laugh at me.’ My advice is, as far as possible, don’t get too hung up on the why or the end product or on what you might imagine other people thinking and saying. Writing is first and foremost a pleasure for ourselves. If it becomes something else – something to share with an audience, for instance – that is a bonus. It is not necessary to start out with the idea of what you are going to write. The first exercise is to put one word down on the paper and then another while setting your critical voice(s) to one side. It can be a struggle. So don’t beat yourself up if at first you don’t succeed.
  •       What is your motivation? If it’s to make money, then these posts are not for you. If it’s to explore your world through writing and develop your creativity, then read on.

My writing journals

Getting Started
Buy a writing journal, this is a pad of paper or notebook which you will only use for writing creatively in and no-one else will use or look at. Personally I prefer something with strong paper, a decent cover and no lines. Make sure you have some pens. Decide on an achievable amount of time that you can put aside for writing and write a positive statement in the front of your journal: ‘I will spend xx minutes writing every xx.’

Take a walk, preferably somewhere green and open. Sit down for ten minutes and write as freely as you can. Do this on a regular basis.

Begin to collect inspirational prompts eg postcards, images of different kinds, snippets from the paper, music, pebbles, buttons, scraps of material, flowers, herbs, small objects…. Take one of these up, examine it, and write for ten minutes as freely as you can.

After each ten minutes, close your writing journal. Do not re-read. Do not critique. Leave what you have written to ferment and marinade.

As far as possible, keep to a schedule of these ten minute ‘sprints’ from prompts (such as a walk or an object or an image or a piece of music) for a month. Then review. Is there anything in what you have written you feel particularly fond of? Then underline it. Was there a particular prompt which worked better than others? Perhaps use this more often.

Continue with a similar schedule for another month and review again. By this time, you may be getting a clearer idea of something you want to develop further. Or perhaps not. If not, continue with the sprints until something emerges.

NB: writing in short uncritiqued sprints from a prompt to get started in writing is a method used by many writer. I first came across it in ‘Writing as a Way of Healing’ by Louise DeSalvo and ‘The Artist’s Way’ by Julia Cameron.

Beyond the First Draft: the re-write

We all have our own creative process. What I am sharing here is what works for me, it might not work for you. I understand some writers re-write as they go along. For me, this is like trying to go forward in reverse gear. It may be different for you. Experiment for yourself. However, if you are re-writing as you go along, just take a moment to reflect. Are you self-sabotaging by making sure you will never finish anything, by continually going over and over the same section of writing trying to get it perfect? Are you squashing your creativity? Many of my most creative ideas quite frankly look pants when first committed to paper. My first impulse would be to re-write them out. But left to ‘stew’ and then crafted, they become something else.

‘I do a lot of rubbish, you have to work through the rubbish. If you are doing rubbish you can’t go away and say, OK, I’ll come back when I’m cleverer because it doesn’t work like that.’
Author, Judith Kerr (‘Pink Rabbits and Other Animals’
Radio 4, 14th June 2018, producer/presenter Jessica Treen)

So this is my method:

  • Write a first draft, relatively quickly, with no looking back. For me this is joyous, I am only pleasing myself and playing with words and ideas and characters.
  • Leave it for several weeks in a nice folder (always value your writing by keeping it safe and well shod).
  • Re-read. Try to put on a reader’s head at this point. For poetry you might be looking at rhythm, word choice, consistency of images, form on the page, voice. Would a stranger understand it or, at least, take some meaning from it? For prose, perhaps ask yourself about the narrative arc, research, narrative voice, character development, conflict/crisis, pace. Write notes for yourself on the manuscript, on a separate sheet, at 3am in the morning.
  • Re-write using your comments.
  • Leave it for several weeks in a nice folder.
  • Second re-read which might lead to some re-writing, but don’t over do it until you have some feedback. You don’t want to ‘bake’ your ‘cake’ until you’ve got some input on the ‘ingredients’. Many a time I’ve been asked to give feedback on a piece which the writer considers finished and is unlikely to alter. It’s a waste of time and energy for the both of us. Choose your readers carefully. For me, they should be writers or intelligent readers, people whose judgement I trust. Ask your readers specific questions, pointing them at the parts you want to work on and protecting the bits you know (in your heart of hearts) you will never change. Ask for positive feedback as well as a critique. Your readers should not be proofreading (unless your writing is unreadable because of grammatical or spelling errors). Proofreading comes right at the end of the process.
  • Read your feedback, then put it away for several weeks and read it again. Remember to thank your readers and buy them tea and cake (or similar). Make a list of the parts of your work which you are going to work on. Re-write. Re-read.
  • At this point you could well be ready to self-publish or submit. If you are self-publishing, and can afford it, pay for a copy editor and a proof reader. If you have to choose, pay the proof reader, it’s nigh on impossible to proof read your own work. If you are submitting, you can probably do your own proof read, and the copy editing will come once your manuscript is accepted.

Here is some further advice from author Lisa O’Donnell on the Curtis Brown Creative site: https://bit.ly/2OBR4Pw

I believe in my method. However, there are times when needs must. I am submitting a novella to the Mslexia competition and the deadline is the 1st of October. I am re-writing as I go and I can smell the burning of crunching gears.

What’s your advice for re-writing?

The Writing Journal

Writing in my journal by a Norwegian lake

I have been keeping writing journals for over ten years now and recently I spent many happy hours reviewing them. The result is a list of ideas and kernels of pieces of writing which should keep me going for the next ten years!

I’ve been writing since I was 19, so I’ve had the habit of writing regularly for over thirty years. oftentimes in notebooks and/or in diaries. I didn’t commit to the idea of a writing journal until I returned to the UK after a spell working abroad for an anti-poverty non-profit. In many ways, I can see the commitment to my writing journal as also a commitment to accepting myself as a writer – rather than waiting for some kind of external ratification of me as a writer. I began to say (when asked) ‘I am a writer’. I dedicated time and space to writing and further developing my craft, even though there was little endorsement from the publishing industry.

During the last ten years I have taught creative writing (for the University of Hull) and run numerous workshops. The first thing I always encourage people to do is to start keeping a writing journal. For me, this is a special notebook. It is 15 by 21 cms, so relatively portable. It has no lines to cramp my writing into going in a particular direction or being of a particular size. The paper is relatively thick (the notebooks I use are sold as sketch books) which means I can sketch if I like, use watercolour pencils and oil pastels and stick things in without spoiling the page surfaces for writing. I date every entry. Entries might include: very personal reflections on how I am feeling or what I’ve been doing; musings on being a writer; scrappy thoughts on writing pieces to be developed; beginnings, middles, ends (in no particular order); observations on the world around me; quotes; poetry (written by others and me); images such as postcards; cuttings from newspapers and magazines; bits of information gleaned from the TV, the internet, radio, other people….

I am wedded to a writing journal and hand-writing. It works for me. I do believe there is something exceptional about ‘free writing’ – which I have written about elsewhere eg writing the therapeutic journey – done with a pen. I think it is a way of unearthing what is below the surface of conscious thought and of circumventing the many ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ which a lot of us carry around.

However, I could see for other people a writing journal might be, for example, a folder on the computer; a box file; or a filing cabinet drawer. The main thing is that it should only be used for gathering inspirations for writing, it should be added to regularly and that it should be away from prying/judging eyes.

Over time the writing journal will become a treasure trove to be mined, especially, but not only, when a writer is feeling depleted and de-motivated.

I am currently reading Deborah Levy’s essay Things I don’t Want to Know. I was charmed to find her mentioning her writing journal. She notes how descriptions she had written of the cabin crew on a LOT fight to Poland in the late 1980s ‘morphed into nurses from Odessa’ in a novel she was to write a decade later.

Nothing written in a writing journal is ever lost, it will always pop up somewhere or become a scaffold for some piece of creative work.

Which is why, whenever I am asked by someone about where to start with writing I suggest a journal. If a person can commit to writing in one of those habitually, then there is a chance they will realise their ambition of writing stories or poetry or a novel or a non-fiction book or even a series of blog posts.

What is your experiences of keeping a writing journal?

The Joy of Re-writing

For this New Year, my project is to re-write my crime novel Drowning Not Waving. Re-writing is often a real struggle, especially for novice writers. Where to start? What to do? Here are some pointers.

Firstly take some distance. I finished the first draft of this novel over six months ago. That’s a good length of time to leave before attempting a re-write. It should mean that when you re-read your work you can do so more as a disinterested reader than as the involved writer. Six months ago I thought I had done a pretty good job on my novel. However, when I re-engaged with it in January, I could immediately see problems with the pacing, with when and how clues are revealed and with keeping the tension going. Being a crime novel, these aspects are important. What’s paramount in making your novel work will depend a bit on what genre it is. Though issues around pacing, reveals and tension are probably worth considering whatever the type of story it is.

Secondly get some feedback. I got some following a writing course I did with Curtis Brown Creatives and this has helped me to focus. I started by tightening up the character profiles. I usually discover a character by writing about it, but at some point I pin down a profile with everything I now know. I had done this last year. I re-visited them and ironed out inconsistencies, worked on back-story and refined motivations.

I then pulled apart the time-line, creating more space for characterisation and creating jeopardy. This has also meant moving chapters around which does get a bit hairy, as I then find things happening in an earlier section which can’t until something in a later one occurs.

When I am writing my first draft, I generally find I am carrying all my characters around in my head. At this stage, I have them and my narrative arc which – as a friend helpfully put it – is currently a partly unravelled piece of knitting. It feels like a delicate balancing act, so excuse me if I appear distracted….

Thirdly ensure your feedback is from someone who understands the concept of re-writing. This is not the moment to show your writing to someone who is pernickety about grammar or spelling. What you want is a fellow writer or a reader who is able to take in the narrative as a whole and see where the kinks are or the patches where it limps along. Who is able to meet the characters as real people and suggest where they become too thin to be believed. Who can hear your dialogue and root out where it clangs or where it is unnecessary. It is not an easy task, nor one for the faint-hearted.

I am about two-thirds through this re-write, with all the unpicking and re-stitching I have done, I have no idea whether it will work as a whole. But for the moment I feel confident and energised, so I hope this will carry me through.

What are your tips for re-writing?

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 #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?