An Ocean of Writing

I have been reflecting on the difference between therapeutic writing and creative writing. They are not the same but they swim together in the ocean of our psyches, that dark-light place where we must learn to breathe differently.

Creative writing is delivered via the clefts and crannies of literary genres and styles.

Therapeutic writing defies genre and abhors conformity; it reveals what is hidden in the crevices of our heart.

Creative writing is not only alert to a reader’s tastes and aversions, but also to a publisher’s predilections, predictions and perversions.

Therapeutic writing is nothing less than a writer’s lesions, lacerations and longings.

Creative writing is exhaustively edited and intimately connected to history, elitism and the infallibility of tradition.

Therapeutic writing is unalloyed, the past is only a concern when it can be changed; it is classless and unerring in its quest for revolution.

Creative writing is an exhibitionist; its performances justify its originality, it panders to television, the stage, radio, podcasts, computer games, rappers memes and even graffiti.

Therapeutic writing is private, introverted, reserved, internal and timeless,

Creative writing is plays, poetry, creative nonfiction, flash fiction, short stories, longer stories, novels and words written in the sky. It is epic, it is lyrical, it is rhetorical.

Therapeutic writing is a list, a letter, a memoir, an autobiography, a fragment of a dream dropped onto the page. It is the snatch of a conversation. It is literal. It is intimate. It is discreet.

Creative writing is a school bus yellow Butterflyfish serenely displaying its primary status.

Therapeutic writing is a cerulean, spike-bladed, fin-spined Surgeonfish with impenetrable boundaries.

Creative writing and therapeutic writing are alike even as they are different; they dwell together in the swell and billow of our imagination, they drift in the medium of our emotions. To bathe with them is to be cleansed by their truths and their lies.

IS LOSING THE PLOT GOOD FOR YOU?

Since launching this blog 10 weeks ago I have been careful to avoid being seen as a counsellor. While I have been, and probably always will be, a therapeutic writer, I want to spend my time writing short stories. This blog, however, has forced me to confront my ideas about therapeutic writing and its impact on my readers, and the people I care for.

I recently had lunch with my friend Glory; we were chatting together in the spring sunshine when the subject turned to therapeutic writing. Glory told me about a recurring childhood nightmare. Over the years she has written about this dream but feels she has not yet cracked its code so she asked me how therapeutic writing might help. My relationship with Glory is deeply, mutually supportive. We have had numerous conversations of this kind so, as her friend, I honestly answered that I no idea. We laughed and then I added, ‘You could try rewriting the dream with a different plot, specifically an alternative ending.’ Glory thought about this then asked, ‘How could rewriting the dream so it ends differently help me deal with the awfulness of the dream?’

My PhD research explored the relationship between narrative voice and therapeutic writing. I wanted to investigate if writing a memoir using third person narrative voice would be more therapeutic than writing it in the usual first person voice. To answer this question I decided to use both first and third person voice and found the experience therapeutic, although I also decided the question needs further research. I did not have time to research the relationship between plot and therapeutic writing but I believe it also needs to be researched.

Glory waited as I gathered my thoughts.

‘I’m not sure,’ I replied, ‘but writers joke that ‘character is plot and plot is character’. Astrologers say something similar; ‘character is fate and fate is character’. I think what they mean is …’ I sipped the rosé I’d ordered along with my lunch, ‘… writers, astrologers and a lot of other people wonder if what happens to us shapes our character or if our character, the way we operate in the world, produces, or at the very least affects, what happens to us.’ Glory and I often find ourselves sharing literary and metaphysical ideas so we were on familiar ground. She nodded in agreement and I continued. ‘If a writer changes the plot of a story or novel, they review the manuscript and adjust the way their various characters react or the story can lose credibility. On the other hand, if a writer decides to tweak a character, which usually means their motivation, needs, fears and way of operating in the world, then the plot may need to change.’

I sighed, annoyed with my inability to explain myself clearly. ‘I guess it is the old nature/nurture argument. Are we the way we are because that is how the world shapes us or is the world the way it is because of how we perceive it? Let’s say you do change the ending of your dream. Would that switch on a different aspect of your character? Yes, it is a form of magical thinking, but if the dream changes, even subtly, does your experience of it change and, therefore, your perception of yourself? I think that is a whole new research project right there.’ We laughed then explored together what the dream might mean. Glory told me she would consider rewriting the dream, we finished our coffees, embraced and said our goodbyes.

We cannot change the plot of our dreams or of our lives but what if we re-imagine them?

After lunch with Glory, I decided to conduct a personal experiment and rewrite the plot of the last five years of my life. I began with an event that occurred five years ago, when a new friend made me a promise. At the time, my instincts told me not to trust the person but I said nothing. About a year later I was proved right; the promise had not been kept but by then my life had changed. As I wrote, I imagined a life I may have lived had I followed my instincts and told my new friend I did not want to hold him to his promise. I imagined pursuing the goals I thought important back then; completing my PhD, writing short stories, and starting a novel, attending an international conference, publishing an academic paper, teaching classes on therapeutic writing and purchasing my home.

In my real life, all I managed to achieve was complete my PhD but as I wrote, and drew closer to the present, my ‘imagined’ life became more like my actual life with one significant difference; the friendship I rejected in my imagined life has blossomed. There are, however, some things about one’s life plot that cannot be changed; in both versions of my life I had to cope with the loss of both my parents, within eight months of each other.

This Sliding Doors/Post Birthday World scenario is, I admit, difficult to grasp but maybe imagining a different life trajectory can switch on a different aspect of our character? Is this because, when our imagined experience differs, our imagined perception of ourselves also changes? I knew the woman living that imagined life would have coped, she would have uncovered strengths she did not believe she had, and discard habits that no longer served her.

As for my ‘real’ life, I have learned that a true friendship can survive a broken promise, particularly if that promise was almost impossible to keep. As a result, I have developed strengths I never knew I had and discarded habits that were in the way of my wellbeing.

What do you think about the idea that rewriting a life is a form of reflection on both the experiences one has and on one’s perceptions of, and responses to, those experiences. Is there any point going back over past decisions and re-imagining our lives? How might it help us visualise how we would cope, what we would learn, if we had taken an alternative path? How can we apply those lessons in our ‘real’ lives?


Today, and in the future, whenever I mention friends and family I will borrow Robin Hobb’s method of naming her characters and refer to my loved ones by the ‘name’ I assign them based on what I think are their finest or most appealing qualities.

IS JOURNAL WRITING THERAPEUTIC? Part II

I have been a passionate advocate of writing a personal journal for a long time. I have tried many of the techniques suggested in books or learnt in workshops: unsent letters; lists; dialogues with my Self, my body, my favourite writers, and my mother; daily entries and accounts of my dreams—and many others. I also spent much of my time writing rants, vehement outbursts from a young woman struggling with motherhood, a career and the results of a difficult childhood. Positive entries followed these passages: testimonies of the good times and quotations from the books I was reading, but positive entries were interspersed with passages relating my guilt and despair. I wanted to know why I wasn’t a better mother, teacher, daughter, wife and friend.

I did not realise, during my twenties, thirties and forties, that what I was trying to do was write myself into being.

My journals also contained attempts at short stories, outlines for novels and endless poems that would never progress beyond adolescent, angst ridden embarrassments. Was it me? Was I doing something wrong?

Several weeks ago I opened the boxes containing my journals. I placed the notebooks on the dining table and surveyed them. I remember thinking, ‘What am I going to do with these versions of me?’ They sat on the table, my tatty corpus, and glared at me, mocking me with what lay behind their gaudy faux-leather covers.

I was reminded, as I glared back at them, of a day, about six years ago, when I was a brand new post-graduate student. At the time I was living alone in a one bedroom unit that, despite having seen better days, I loved from the moment I moved in. The first storey unit overlooked the gulf waters that lap gently at the beaches of my home city. It was a cool afternoon, the sea breeze had arrived and because the unit was draughty I had shut all my windows and was sitting on my sofa reading my journals. I was writing an early draft of the creative section of my thesis, and I hoped to find material in my journals to use in my memoir. When a sound from my bedroom distracted me, I laid the journal I was reading on my sofa and went to investigate. A bee had crawled through a bee-sized crack in the rotting, shrunken rubber seal surrounding the window frame. Having found its way into my eyrie, the bee was trying to escape, buzzing and pushing itself against the glass it could feel but not understand. It had crawled into captivity but was unable to find its way out. I sat on my bed and watched it, trying to imagine what it might be feeling. It could see the world beyond the hard invisible barrier, it could remember the smells and sounds of that world but, with each frantic flap of its wings, those memories were fading. The bee dropped to the windowsill, gathered its strength, rose up and pushed once more against the merciless glass. I knew it would continue to do so until it died on the sill and I knew it would take a long time to die.

The woman in my journals was like the bee. She had crawled into a space she called her life but she could see a world beyond, a world she thought might have been her world. Like the bee, she pressed against barriers real and imagined, barriers that stood between her and the smells, sounds and sensations of a world she longed for. She had almost worn herself out, writing her journals, staying trapped in an endless cycle of visualising change but never really changing. Even her eyrie could, if she let it, turn into a trap. Unlike the bee, however, she didn’t have to wait for someone to open the window. She could open it herself.

I returned to the sofa and packed my journals away, leaving the woman I had been to languish between their scabrous pages. I had confronted the whining, melodramatic creature I’d found trapped in the entrails of those journals and decided to become a writer instead.

I wrote my memoir, leaning on my memories, and not my journals, to substantiate who I was … after all, what memoir contains every single truth, and every scurrilous lie, about a life? While I was researching therapeutic writing I discovered reflective writing, and realised my journals lacked reflection, the art of analysing, rethinking and criticising what I wrote (not how I wrote it, which is the concern of a writer who wishes to publish her work).

Journal writing is, of course, a form of reflection but writing about a stressful situation, as I often did in my journals, can add to the stress. When we record an experience and reflect on it, we are reflecting on the experience. When we are stressed, our reactions to, and assumptions about, an experience might be wrong. I believe this is what happened to me and is one of the reasons why re-reading my journals was so unsettling. Would my life have been different if, thirty years earlier, I jotted brief notes about the situation and returned to the entry when I felt calmer, stronger and more likely to think clearly?

Recording and bemoaning an experience does not change anything, and may stop us learning about, or healing from, a situation. I am not recommending we exhaustively examine every journal entry, censor ourselves or give ourselves a hard time. I am suggesting we can gain fresh insights and change our perceptions of life by confronting our assumptions, our prejudices, and our oppression. By casting a cool objective eye across the pages of our journal we separate the person from the record of an experience. The words on the pages of my journal represent me, but they are not me (which is where journal writing and creative writing do dovetail).

It is not just experience that teaches us about life; interpreting and examining the meaning of an experience enhances our learning.

Whether we write a journal entry, an office memo, a letter to a sick friend, a term paper, a dissertation or a blog post, one of the easiest ways to reflect on what we write, is to stop, sit back and ask ourselves:

  • ‘What?’
  • ‘So what?’
  • ‘Now what?’
  • ‘What if?’

What do you think? If you try reflecting on a journal entry, I would be interested in your reaction.

References

David Boud,  ‘Using journal writing to enhance reflective practice’, New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education 2001.90 (2001), pp. 9-18.

Christopher Johns, Becoming a Reflective Practitioner (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004.)

IS JOURNAL WRITING THERAPEUTIC? Part I

There will be two posts this week. Both will explore the relationship between keeping a personal journal and therapeutic writing. The posts are for anyone thinking of starting a journal, or are already keeping a journal, and for those folk who wonder if writing a journal will help them work through troubled times.

Journal writing once sustained me through trials and triumphs, losses and gains, endings and new beginnings and the benefits of journal writing were confirmed when I researched therapeutic writing. Documenting what happens to us, and how we react to life, vouchsafes wisdom during the very process of collecting it.

Journal writing is therapeutic for many reasons; a journal is a personal chronicle, a record of who we are and what we believe. It is a kind of witness to how we unfold into selfhood but it also conserves precious moments of our children’s lives or transmits what we know of our parents and friends’ lives. This information can, should we wish, stand against a backdrop of political, social, national and international events.

There are different types of journals: learning journals or professional diaries monitor our career goals and how we plan, prepare and implement our dreams. The pages of these journals are charged with private reflections about our industry, colleagues, the firms we work for, workplace politics, our successes and mistakes and the clients we support.

Journals are a private form of a community commons: we yarn to ourselves about how we play and have fun, our sporting activities and the friends we share them with, our contribution to supporting the underprivileged and under-resourced.

Journals chart concerns about our health, how we lost weight, changed our eating habits, started exercising or playing sport. A journal reminds us of who helped us face the challenge of change and cheered us on when we stumbled.

Journals are the vessels that hold our fears when we face a health crisis, what we felt when we heard the diagnoses, how we endured the treatment and how our health impact on our family and friends. More importantly, a journal is where we can write ourselves back into wellbeing, where we describe what recuperation and recovery will feel like. We can record our gratitude in our journals, give thanks on the page for the family, the friends, the doctors and nurses and the medicine that helped us heal.

A journal celebrates love and the inner and outer dimensions of intimacy. It is where we describe, in ecstatic detail, our lover: what we did together; what happened when we lost our love; how the loss altered our ideas about those desperate, delightful and demanding emotions loving and being loved bring to our lives. Our journal is a repository of early drafts of the letters we sent to our love, and those that remained unsent. Pasting letters from lovers into our journal forever tethers them to our lives.

A journal is a storehouse of ‘what if?’, a place to stow ideas gathered from books, plays, movies and the web. It is a warehouse of quotations, insights and opinions, as well as illuminating conversations with friends that we want to keep and refer to again. Every morning our journal is where we workshop the nocturnal messages sent to us from the phantasmagoria that is our mind.

Our journals help us trace negative and positive patterns and habits, it where we weave the threads of meaning that help us transverse and transcend our ego. A journal is where we register our deepest fears, our anger, bitterness and remorse. It is the warm niche where our wisdom, like dough, can rise and prove. Our journal is where we imagine a descendent, years after we die, turning the pages of our journal, uncovering kernels of insights and weeping, or laughing, with us. This makes a journal the place where we dare dream our suffering and redemption might help another heal from what ails them.

Finally, journal writing nurtures our creativity. It is a cauldron into which we cast the elements of a story, poem or script, a crucible wherein we blend, meld and convert personal insights to images that will enchant the hearts of others.

Whether we bequeath our journals to the future or destroy them, our journals are a version of us. They represent a precious treasure that will, one day, be lost. Our journals, therefore, demand our full and mindful attention, they demand we be true to our self even if we hope, or fear, an inquisitive descendent may one day read our thoughts.

I will always be grateful for the time I spent writing my journals, but what if a journal is also a snare, if journal writing as therapy is a ruse keeping the unwary writer ambushed by their life and how they live it?

The books, websites, blogs and workshops that offer techniques and tips for journal writing insist it can enhance one’s well-being, so surely a blog about therapeutic writing would also claim journal writing is ‘good for us’?

Well, yes and no. Tomorrow’s post will discuss the other side of the story, the problems I believe can be caused by non-reflective journal writing.

THE SPIDER AND THE AERIALIST

I love to dance. I’m not a trained dancer but I don’t have to be; just getting up and dancing always improves my mood. I was reminded of how much I love to dance when I read Jules Evans’ post ‘The Dancing Cure’ on his amazing website, Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations. Evans blends his vast knowledge of philosophies drawn from a range of different traditions, with Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. I read his book last year and was impressed by how he applies insights gleaned from his research, and his life, to all he does. As I read Evans’ post I was struck by the following:

rationality fixes things into concepts, whereas dance understands things are always moving and turning into something else. Consciousness is more of a dance than a concept.

As Evans points out, dancing relieves anxiety, stress, phobias and nervous tension. It also reconnects us to our body, to the experience of having a body, and being a body in the world. Like writing, painting, poetry and performance art of all kinds, dance is a form of therapy, because dance is art, and art is therapeutic.

I have also been listening to a series of podcasts created by Elizabeth Gilbert, author of, among other things, Eat, Pray, Love and The Signature of All Things. These aural gems of wisdom have inspired me to keep going with this blog and I urge you to listen to them; Gilbert brings a sense of joy to the topic of creativity and each episode is packed with wisdom. In the podcasts, Gilbert chats to women struggling with their creativity and she suggests ways to overcome the problem. She then contacts experienced writers and artists and asks them how they deal with blocks or problems that impede their creativity. During one poignant interview Gilbert points out that art helps overcome our tribulations then adds,

Art is not enough, but it’s as close as we can get.

Neither Gilbert nor Evans’ insights are new to me, but being exposed to them in the same week set me thinking. Why are these somewhat disparate but connected ideas important to me, and what do they have to do with reflective and therapeutic writing?

Most of my life I have been like a spider who, not quite confident in casting her web, cast two threads and tried to spin two different webs, or two different lives. One of the webs was my profession; I’ve been a teacher since 1973. That is forty-two years of service to the education of others (with time ‘off’ caring for my babies). I have, most of the time, loved my job, which is saying a lot; I only became a teacher because it was what my mother wanted me to do.

The other web connects me to my (to use Jules Evans’ words) ‘divine madness’: my writing. I’ve tried to weave that web since I had a story published in my High School Year Book in 1965. It was called ‘The Kite’, and the opening line reads: ‘My father’s face was bright and merry as he told me he was going to make a kite.’ I have only just noticed it was the first story featured that year.

I have been a writer, therefore, longer than I have a teacher, but although the thread to my writing sometimes pulled at me so hard I thought it, or I, would break, the web of teaching was where I spent my energy.

Recently, however, writing has begun to reel me in and I struggle to get up in the morning, drive to work, fight for a car park and find the strength to get through my classes. But here’s my conundrum; money is tight and my job is well paid and part-time. The rational choice would be to hold  both lines. After all, I’ve been doing it for so long a year or two more won’t matter? Or will it?

The Greek word for spider is arakhnē or Arachne. In ancient times Arachne was known as the rival of another Greek Goddess, Athene, and they were locked in battle over who was the best weaver. Athene won and Arachne was turned into a spider. I’ll leave it to you to decide who benefits when women are portrayed as rivals instead of allies, but the point of the story is, according to Barbara G Walker, Arachne and Athene were once the same entity.

Anne Baring and Jules Cashford tell us, in The Myth of the Goddess; Evolution of an Image, that Athene was an unvanquished virgin warrior, the guardian of ancient Athens, and the Goddess of wisdom. This, they say, creates a

fundamental inner tension in the figure of Athene that complicates any simple reading of what she embodies.

As the Goddess of both war and wisdom Athene epitomises the unbridled, ill-considered tendency to battle against those we imagine are our foes, and civilized restraint, considered strategy, and the capacity to reflect and learn. This battle works on an inner level as well. We are either ready for action, eager to defend our lives and our choices no matter what, or circumspect, calculated and reflective when it comes to how we choose to behave. All of which leaves me hanging; do I break the thread tethering me to a lucrative part-time job or do I yield to the impulse, one my mother thought was foolish, to grasp with both hands the thread of my creativity?

To combine the wisdom of Jules Evans’ and Elizabeth Gilbert, maybe my art was not  enough but if my consciousness, my being, is ‘more of a dance than a concept’ then I was never a hapless spider swaying in the wind, I was an aerialist. But I am no longer as agile as I once was and the urge to write is too strong; it is time to bow out of teaching. It is time to leave the safety of that web and embrace the ecstatic uncertainty of the other. That is why I want to tweak my blog’s focus a little; as well as sharing my knowledge of therapeutic writing I am going to share some of my stories. Who knows, I may even share ‘The Kite’, once I have fixed the first line.

Do you feel you have cast two webs and tried to attend to both at the same time?  Are you an aerialist, and how do you manage to look after all of your webs?

References
Anne Baring and Jules Cashford, The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image (London: Penguin, 1993)
Barbara G Walker, The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets (New York: HarperOne, 1983.)