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.