I cannot remember the last time I wrote a post specifically related to therapeutic writing. Most of my posts are reflective, but the chief impetus for creating this blog has faded somewhat. Today, while tidying up and relocating old files, I reflected on the five years I spent researching the power of creative writing to heal, or at least assuage, grief, loss and trauma. As I sorted through my files I found the following quotations from people I consider experts in the field of therapeutic writing and I decided to share them.
Art allows a safe revisiting of that place of revulsion. (1)
This is a confronting assertion. Who wants to return to a place of fear and loathing, who wants to expose themselves to memories of pain and sorrow? How is reliving the bad times healing? Research demonstrates that when we relive a trauma on the page, when the power of a pen (or computer keyboard) is in our hands, when we say what we want to say, feel what we need to feel, share as little or as much as we choose, we can find relief. Reliving and retelling the story of our suffering gives us the power to interpret, engage with and revise that story. Writing is a way of standing up and facing the demon and telling it to back off.
The etymological roots of the word `record’ are `re’, meaning again, and `cord’, meaning heart (Oxford English Dictionary). Recording is getting closer to what is in the heart. The writer is their own first reader, their own primary interlocutor. So, writing, in the first instance, is a private communication with the heart of the self. (2)
Never one to take anything as given, I checked Bolton’s claim and she is right. The heart is not a site of revulsion, pain is what happens to us while our heart keeps beating. The body and the psyche may be scarred but the heart remains the animating principle. To survive is to cherish our heart beat no matter what happens to us, no matter how others treat us. This is therapeutic writing as a stethoscope (from the Greek, stethos; breast: skopien, look). Therapeutic writing is a way to look within our heart and record what is found there. It is also, in terms of the verb to breast, a way to press on confidently, to struggle with, and to overcome or conquer. If we examine the word interlocutor we find it means ‘conversationalist’; to write therapeutically is not to converse with either the pain we experience or who or what caused our suffering, but to converse with the self that has survived, that will survive, the pain. Once again, the power is placed back with the therapeutic writer. We are no longer victims, we claim instead a profound tool: the power to record not only how we endured our pain but how we survived it.
In every case, the writing on the page speaks back to its writer, offering resolution, solace or posing more questions about life and writing. (3)
Here we are then, at a place of power, offering the surviving self comfort and the means to resolve our trauma and move on, to be curious once more about life and what we can do with the life we fought so hard to keep.
Our days are filled with moments. Most of these never get written and usually that doesn’t matter but sometimes it feels like it does. Sometimes a moment happens that causes a jarring, a disturbance, a confusion or such an explosion of feeling that you know you will have to re-live that moment in nondescript jolts and shivers, shakes of the head or blinks of the eyes unless you find a way to process and make sense of it in some other way. (4)
Yes, most moments are fleeting; we are unmindful of their passing and they are lost forever. Other moments, however, the moment a loved one takes her or his last breath, the moment a car swerves into our path, the moment someone harms us, those moment are seared into us, we are forever branded with them. Therapeutic writing is one way to do the crucial work of processing these scorching, indelible moments. To process means taking a series of actions or steps to achieve an outcome. It is an operation, a procedure, a treatment, but it is first and foremost an action, one we can perform, with the help of a trained counsellor, on the page.
As I muse on these quotations and play with words, I remember reading, early last year, Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter. While I cannot say with certainty that Porter wrote the book as a form of therapy, it is based on his experience, when only six, of losing his father. His book is, for me, an almost perfect expression of profound loss, crippling grief and the essential work required to survive, not just for ourselves but for those who love us. The book describes moments of recovery, of survival that never nullify the moment of grief but honour and dignify that loss. Not everyone, of course, will see loss and grief this way but Porter’s novel demonstrates the possibility.
When I wrote, as part of my thesis, my memoir I discovered a mature, feisty, woman comfortable with breaking the rules. She always existed, of course, but she either hid away, for fear of censure, or expressed her pluck in inappropriate ways. I also rediscovered my mother, who experienced a profound loss and trauma, one I believe she never processed. If this blog can, in some small way, demonstrate to one person the power and potential of therapeutic writing, then I have honoured my mother, her trauma and the little brother that she loved deeply and lost.
(1) Gillie Bolton, quoting from a participant, Teenage Cancer Trust Unit, Camden Palliative Care Unit, King’s College London Arts and Medicine Unit (English Department) in Bolton, Gillie, Write Yourself: Creative Writing and Personal Development, London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2011, Kindle Edition, loc. 89.
(2) Bolton, Gillie, Write Yourself: Creative Writing and Personal Development, loc. 94.
(3) ‘Preface’, by Gillie Bolton, Victoria Field, Kate Thompson, with a Postscript by Fiona Hamilton, in Writing Routes: A Resource Handbook of Therapeutic Writing (Writing for Therapy or Personal Development), Jessica Kingsley Publishers. Kindle Edition, loc. 157.
(4) Cheryl Moskowitz, ‘Letter to a Stranger – Processing the Momentary’ in Field, Victoria, Kate Thompson, and Gillie Bolton, Writing Routes: A Resource Handbook of Therapeutic Writing, loc. 826.