Phenomenology is a philosophy that examines and describes how we interact with our world, other people, with things that surround us, and with our thoughts and memories, imagination, emotions and desires. In ‘philosophy-speak’, phenomenology attempts to understand subjective meaning and the significance of our embodied experiences. The phenomenology of the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961) is the kind I am the most familiar with, although I have read only his Phenomenology of Perception so I will not attempt to summarise Merleau-Ponty’s work other than point out he attempted to analyse our perception of embodied experiences, otherwise known as phenomena. I enjoy Merleau-Ponty’s work because he believes art and the philosophy of lived experience have:

the same kind of attentiveness and wonder, the same demand for awareness, the same will to seize the meaning of the world…[1]

I also like phenomenology because when we think about lived experience we need to set aside, or ‘bracket’, any assumptions we have about the phenomenon we are contemplating.

Phenomenology is the basis for a method of research often used in health care that involves interviewing and observing both clients and health care workers as they provide or receive care. A typical question asked by the researcher is,

How did you experience this situation and what does the experience mean to you?[2]

A key component of phenomenology and, therefore, this kind of research, is description. My chief interest is, of course, learning about a person’s subjective perception and experience of writing as therapy. Let’s imagine I ask you to describe your subjective perception and experience of writing a short story about a difficult incident in your life. Imagine you are one of many people taking part in the research and the data I collect includes your description of how you feel. Once I have a number of responses I transcribe each one and carefully read and re-read the material until I find several themes or ‘units of meaning’ that can be linked together. These themes might provide me with information about how and why people write and, more importantly, the meaning people gain from therapeutic writing. This method has the potential to yield rich insights into not only therapeutic writing, but writing in general.

One of the problems many philosophers have with phenomenology is that it is subjective. Phenomenologists, however, believe that embodied awareness is always located in a particular time and culture and is always intersubjective. This is because our perceptions can only ever be of the world that surrounds us; perceiving (noticing, sensing, feeling) the world means we must interact with the world as is, and with whatever, or whoever, appears to us. Because of this we cannot help but interact with the world and, yes, this confronts us with our inherent subjectivity. It also confronts us with the subjectivity (bias, prejudice, partiality) of others. In other words, if we really take notice of what is going on around us we can’t help but notice what is going on for the people around us. By listening and paying attention to the person we are with, we gain an enhanced awareness of his or her perceptions of the world; we ‘experience’ another’s perceptions.

My father used to tell me that I should never judge another person until I walked around in their shoes. When I studied Merleau-Ponty I realised both he and my father were onto something. One of my favourite Merleau-Ponty quotations is this:

solitude and communication cannot be the two horns of a dilemma, but two “moments” of one phenomenon.[3]

I think what he means by this is that we are essentially ‘alone’, in our heads, in our own little world but the elusive ‘two moments’ can occur because the embodied experience of being always and only our self is, at the very same time, never fully the self as we perceive it; it is different from the self as perceived by another. In other words, we are at the same time subject and object. It is a bit like sitting opposite a person on the bus and thinking ‘I am me and you are you’ while that person, at the very same time, thinks, ‘I am me and that person opposite me is ‘you’, which means they are definitely not me!’

Padurariu Alexandru

How do we escape the lonely trap of ‘me’ as subject and ‘you’ as object that causes us to question whether we will have anything in common with another person, particularly one who is a different race (or gender, religion, sexuality), from us? We could try and think of every encounter with another person, either a fictional character or the person sitting across from us at the breakfast table, or on the train, as a chance to seize one ‘moment of time’ and convert it to two moments of one time and allow ourselves to experience a phenomenon from two different perspectives.

I think in order to achieve this we need to practice being reflective, conducting:

a dialogue with the self […] a critical enquiry into our own thought processes, prejudices and habitual assumptions about […] power and authority, professional role, diversity and the match between [our] values and principles.[4]

In other words, we need to ditch our self-importance and give the other people in our life a little more space to be themselves. Is it possible that people who read a lot tend to be better at critically inquiring into their thought processes? Is it is easier to put aside our habits, assumptions and prejudices about a fictional character than it is with the people we love?

Does this mean we should try to ‘read’ our friends, family and workmates as if they are a character from a book? I wonder what would happen if we tried? What could we learn about ourselves and others? Have you ever experienced one moment through two different perspectives? What happened? What did it feel like? What did you learn?

I also wonder if, as well as experiencing the perceptions of another ‘real’ human being, a writer experiences an intersubjective relationship with a character they create. Could writing fiction, where fictional characters experience events (or phenomena) based on the therapeutic writer’s life be more healing than writing autobiographical material? What do you think?


[1] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. by Colin Smith (London: Routledge Classics, 2002), p. xxi.

[2] Linda Finlay, Phenomenology for Therapists: Researching the Lived World (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), p. 8.

[3] Merleau-Ponty, p. 418.

[4] Gillie Bolton, ‘Who is Telling the Story? The Critical Role of the Narrator in Reflective and Reflexive writing’, Educational Reflective Practices, 2.1, (2012), 35-54 (p. 46).

Arts Training for Health Care Workers?

Durham University’s Centre for Medical Humanities explores the connection between medicine, the humanities and the social sciences. It aims to investigate how collaboration between these three diverse fields may enhance our well-being. Their blog disseminates information about current and proposed research, reviews relevant books, articles and conferences, publishes calls for academic papers, provides information about events and exhibitions related to the field and publishes the occasional opinion piece.

Medical Humanities is a relatively new discipline that examines how medical training that includes studies in the humanities and the arts (literature, theatre, film, visual arts, philosophy, particularly medical ethics, and history), and the social sciences (including psychology and sociology) can enhance the interpersonal skills of health care workers.

I have been aware of Durham University’s research for several years, but Glasgow University also has a research centre as do the University of Sydney and the Yale School of Medicine. The Yale website has an interesting reading list and links to other sources. I am sure other universities have similar courses to the ones mentioned above.

In order to illustrate the connection between the arts and medicine, especially the redemptive and healing power of creative enterprise, I have created a link to the Centre for Medical Humanities latest blog: Movie Making as Palliative Care. Those of you who live in the UK might be lucky enough to see the film. For the rest of us, here is a link to the film’s website.

If you are interested in the healing powers of a good novel, you might also enjoy this link.

Photo Credit:


What do you think? How might studying art, literature, history or philosophy affect a health care worker’s medical skills? Could it make a medical practitioner more compassionate?


This week I want to reflect on the connection between therapeutic writing and believing in one’s ability to do well. It is difficult for a practised writer to trust her talent, skills and judgement: writing is a singular occupation involving solitary stretches of time in front of a computer or blank page. Drafting, writing, revising, editing and proofreading a story is a painstaking affair and writing a novel can seem like a marathon. Inexperienced writers who write as a way of healing are trying to deal with a trauma, or physical or mental health problems. This alone can undermine their self-belief and indicates that writing to heal may not be the best way to deal with deeply seated problems, especially if the writer has no one to guide or support them.

Given, however, last week’s events in France, Beirut and other parts of the world, I wonder if a blog about self-belief is relevant or appropriate. After much thought I concluded that those who inflict the worst kind of pain and trauma on others possess an extreme, unrealistic and entrenched form of belief in themselves and in their cause. I have decided, therefore, that self-belief is a continuum; on one hand it is used to ordain heinous behaviour, on the other it can be used to authorise creative, nurturing and loving acts that enrich all humanity.

Because many people struggle to believe in their worth and can be mentally and emotionally crippled by its shortage, let’s start with poor self-belief, or as my mother used to call it, a lack of ‘aplomb’.

If we want to start something new, a blog post, poem or film script, we may find our inner voice maliciously foretells our downfall; ‘We,’ (for the inner voice is, above all else, concerned with self-defence), ‘are setting ourselves up to fail,’ it hisses. ‘This has been written before, we are not up to it, we are sure to look stupid.’ Most of the time the inner voice is not ours; it is a voice from the past, a teacher, perhaps, or a well-meaning but misguided friend. Sometimes it is even a parent who wants to protect us or, sadly, convince us that improving our lot is pointless. Focussing on our weaknesses, dwelling on past failures, and feeling worn down by adversity all contribute to diminished self-confidence, and low self-confidence shreds any self-belief we may have mustered. The problem is, writing is hard work and when we encounter difficulties we agree with the inner voice; ‘I knew I was hopeless at writing’, we think. ‘What could I possibly say on the topic, it has all been said before; I’m sure to fail if I keep going, so it is better to stop now.’

Those who enjoy an excess of self-belief follow, no matter their religion, race or culture, a determinedly righteous path: they brook no contradictions; believe their perspective of the world remains unquestioned; and foster an unassailable self-confidence. When this is taken to extremes, it is hard to agree with Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous quote:

No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.

No one consents to abuse or violence. When, however, those of us who struggle with self-belief are confronted with another’s excessive self-belief, we can blame ourselves when threatened. This is exactly what abusers and terrorists want.

Is it possible to improve self-belief? Australian writer Russ Harris has an interesting answer to this question. In The Confidence Gap, he defines confidence as ‘a feeling of certainty or assurance’ and ‘an act of trust and reliance’. Harris points out that most of us make the mistake of assuming we must feel confident before we dive in and trying to achieve our goals. The truth, however, is just the opposite.

I encountered a similar idea in March 2009 when I participated in a seminar run by Hugh Kearns, co-founder, with Maria Gardiner, of ThinkWell™ . Drawing on the latest research into cognitive behaviour therapy and education, Hugh and Maria conduct seminars and workshops in achieving one’s potential. Because they aim their workshops at medical practitioners, academics and PhD students, I was able to attend two of their seminars. Hugh Kearns and Russ Harris’ ideas are similar, but their focus is different; Harris examines confidence, Kearns examines motivation. Most people believe motivation must precede action; in order to do something we need to be motivated to do it. In 2009, like most of my fellow post graduates, I believed I had to be motivated before I could write anything. But, as with confidence, the opposite is true; Kearns encourages students to write for at least ten minutes, even when they are not motivated to do so. The idea is, as I recorded in my workshop notes, action leads to motivation, which then leads to more action. Kearns’ workshops helped me complete my dissertation and now, whenever I struggle to write this blog, or a short story I tell myself to write for ten minutes. It worked this week and I trust that, should the need arise, it will work next week as well.


Self-belief and confidence are tricky concepts. Having too little means life, other people and our past can frustrate or thwart our dreams. Sometimes we overcome these barriers and feel good. When we can’t, we feel bad and blame ourselves for not being motivated, confident or determined enough. This is something I have battled most of my life but in the last few years I feel I have conquered the problem: maybe it is my age; maybe it is completing a PhD; maybe I grew tired of giving myself, and others, a hard time because I could not muster the necessary self-belief I thought I needed to write. Whatever the reason, my writing now comes first. Anything else has to fit in around it. Is this self-belief as an unassailable, self-righteous, unquestioned absolute? I hope not, but what am I prepared to do to keep writing?

I think the message is balance and remaining aware of where I am on the continuum. I will do my best not to hurt another creature, human or otherwise, but I must take those precious ten minutes (and the hours that, invariably, follow), uninterrupted and undiminished by fears and a malevolent inner voice. Action, I have learned, leads to motivation and more action, which leads to confidence and perhaps that is how I can help make the world a better place.

Where are you on the self-belief continuum? What do you think of the idea that action leads to motivation and to confidence? What do you do when it is time to write but you feel unmotivated? What are you prepared to do in order to keep writing?


Writers are often asked what inspires them to write. I want to share two very different sources of inspiration; the first from Canadian writer Carol Shields’ short story, ‘Scenes’. I found it in Michael Ondaatje’s collection, The Faber Book of Contemporary Canadian Short Stories.

These are just some of the scenes in Frances’s life. She thinks of them as scenes because they’re much too fragmentary to be stories and far too immediate to be memories. They seem to bloom out of nothing, out of the thin, uncoloured air of defeats and pleasures. A curtain opens, a light appears, there are voices or music or sometimes a wide transparent stream of silence. Only rarely do they point to anything but themselves. They’re difficult to talk about. They’re useless, attached to nothing, can’t be traded in or shaped into instruments to prise open the meaning of the universe.

Shields inspires me because she respects her readers and her sentences are faultless and beautiful.

I also find inspiration from a woman whose name I will never know, but whose determination transformed my life. In the late 1990s my ex-husband and I moved our family from a dry, dusty suburb north of the city to a home near one of Adelaide’s beautiful beaches. Every morning my ex and I walked along the beach. Some mornings, the warm, still ones, we’d see a woman in a floral bathing cap and a thick white bath robe, walking towards the water. She used two strong walking sticks to pick her way through the seaweed and seashell fragments that littered the beach. When she was within fifteen metres of the water’s edge, she let the walking sticks fall and dropped the robe from her shoulders, revealing limbs like weathered driftwood. Her pale green bathing suit clung to her emaciated frame like the over ripe skin of a Granny Smith apple. The woman’s husband, following two paces behind, retrieved her robe and the walking sticks, handed the sticks to her and then watched as she continued, alone, towards the sea. She stopped five paces from the water’s edge and, using the sticks for support, lowered herself to the wet sand. Ignoring the joggers and beach walkers averting their gaze from the marathon taking place before them, she crawled into the water.

The woman’s husband, planted against the rising sun, waited as she briefly rested on her hands and knees, letting the waves lap her chin and caress her shanks. Then she crawled deeper into the water’s cool embrace, lowered her head, spread her arms and legs and floated. After another brief lull, she started to swim, her bony elbows flashing in the sun as she lifted first one arm, then the other, in long, sure blissful strokes. After a few minutes she swam back to shore, retraced her long crawl across the sand, retrieved her sticks, and climbed along their length until she was upright. She took several slow steps to the proffered bath robe, turned once more to face the sea and waited as the robe was draped across her shoulders. Only then did she lean against her husband as they climbed the gentle slope back to their car.


Later that year I enrolled in a creative writing degree at my local university. Due to a busy timetable and the onset of autumn, the walks along the beach stopped. I never saw the woman again. My decision to return to study led, ultimately, to an entirely new life. When I despair of ever writing a captivating sentence, I remember the woman in the green bathing suit and hope the water she swims in is warm and the waves are gentle.


My partner Caolan is an actor. He is currently appearing in a local production of Eurydice, by American playwright Sarah Ruhl. The play is a modern interpretation of the ancient myth of Orpheus who enters the underworld in an attempt to retrieve his beloved wife.

Eurydice, not Orpheus, is the main protagonist of Ruhl’s play. As well as being deeply in love with Orpheus, Eurydice misses her father, a character Ruhl introduced to the tale. Of all those who dwell in the underworld, the ‘Father’ (he has no name), is the only one who remembers his life and the people he loved. On the eve of Eurydice’s wedding he writes her a letter that sets the play’s events in train. Caolan plays the Father and in the last few weeks, while he has been in rehearsal, we have discussed Eros, the intimate, sexual love that Eurydice feels for Orpheus, and Philia, the affectionate, loyal and joyful relationship she shared with her father. We have also discussed the significance of memory, loss and grief that performing in, and watching, a play like Eurydice produces.

Although it has been claimed that Ruhl wrote the play to honour her father, no one but the author can know if a piece of writing is intended to be therapeutic. The play, and watching  Caolan and the other cast members perform in it has, however, made me think about how therapeutic writing can heal the pain of losing a loved one.

‘How,’ the Father asks towards the end of the play, ‘does a person remember to forget?’ The answer lies in one of the many powerful symbols in the play: the River Lethe.


In order to reach the Greek underworld a soul had to pass through the waters of oblivion. In the process memories were surrendered and those left behind were forgotten. Unlike the dead, those of us who remain are cursed with remembering. Forgetting a lost loved one seems abhorrent. Memorials, photographs, benches by the sea, a tree planted in a special place, a loved one’s piece of jewellery or article of clothing worn close to the heart, a treasured personal effect, or shrine are ways to ensure memories of the beloved will not fail us. Such memorials also make the lost one real to our descendants although in reality, all they do is pass on a memory.

In Ruhl’s play, as in the classical myth is, Orpheus is told, ‘As you walk, keep your eyes facing front.’ Not only does he fail to do so, but in Ruhl’s version of the tale, Eurydice, afraid the man she is following is not her husband, runs up to him. When Orpheus turns to face his wife she is forced to return to the underworld. I think this means the bereft must do two things, remember the beloved while looking to the future. The work of grief involves negotiating between the two, and although our memorials may help in this process, another way is through story.

Our parents begin our story before we are born; we are the story of their hopes and their future. We invariably, however, insist on shaping our own story because that is how we come to terms with existence. Just as the content of every life is different so is the way we structure and tell our story. Our story-voice is like a fingerprint. I am not referring to the sound of our voice as we talk, but the words we choose, the emphasis we place on certain events, the repetitions, the patterns, and the symbols we use when we story our lives.

Poetry is story distilled in the crucible of language, rendered down to a sauce, and poured over the meat and vegetables of life. Theatre is story as dialogue, of souls glimpsed through the dark and tempered through the magic of a spot of light.  At these times story is a flame, its dogged blue heart burns to be told and in the telling you and others may be scorched, such is the insistent nature of story.

We are terrified of what will happen when stories jumble, syntax dissolves and phrases melt away like marshmallows over a fire. Maybe that is why we fear death. We do not know, as we cross the Lethe, or crumble in the bowels of a vast oven, which of our stories a loved one will tell as they drink lustreless coffee and chew over the dusty biscuits. But story us they will. A distant relative begins with, ‘I remember when …,’ a cousin adds their morsel to our tale, the way a cook adds herbs to a pot. A neighbour adds salt or a little pepper, a friend stirs in the name of a song you danced to at a party back in … when was it? It won’t be a matter of ‘too many cooks spoiling the broth’, because their telling thickens our story. Those gathered, whom we loved, will smile, nod and take a spoonful of our story and add it to theirs. Our stories will continue because remembering is the way the bereaved look forward. Eventually, however, those who partook of our story will forget our quirky ways, our gait, how we smelled. Only the story remains, the way Sarah Ruhl’s story on the stage is now a part of   Caolan’s story, and the other members of the cast. It has also become a part of my story, and I have, in a small way, passed it on to you. If, as Ruhl has indicated, she finds solace in ‘telling someone something strange and funny that happened to me to make myself feel better’ then the healing is our way of looking forward.