‘Dump’ or ‘Craft’?

I’ve spent most of the last three months ‘dumping’ my thoughts onto the blank page, or in my case, blank computer screen. This is despite Louise de Salvo’s belief that we have a better chance of benefiting from

detailed, organized, compelling, vivid and lucid

(2001, p.49)

writing, otherwise known as ‘crafting’, than from simply writing what we feel.

I’ve been a ‘dumper’ for most of my life and owe a lot to the process. It helps me to: understand what is bothering me; clear my head; and constructively deal with my feelings, thoughts and anxieties.

But in my thesis, now almost five years old, I agreed with de Salvo. I asserted that autobiographical writing can be more healing if we reflect on our memories and turn them into readable, enjoyable, evocative material meant for public consumption. When I’m not stuck in a ‘dumping phase’ I can spend days and weeks ‘crafting’ my work, editing, reflecting on, and thinking through what I write. The result is occasionally  something I’m proud to share with others, and I find the crafting process as therapeutic as my ‘daily moan’.

So, which am I, a ‘Dumper’ or a ‘Crafter? Crafting is harder than dumping, but I’m not sure dumping is always beneficial. On the other hand, writing ‘Daily Pages’ is lauded by most writers as a preeminent example of ‘turning up at the page’, and a valuable source of raw material to shape into a polished piece of ‘creative’ writing.

In other words, a writer can, perhaps should, be both a ‘Dumper’ and a ‘Crafter’. The problem is, while writing my thesis, and more recently, my critical inner voice insisted I stop wasting time ‘Dumping’ and get serious about ‘Crafting’. Then, when I’m crafting a piece, my inner critic hisses, ‘This will never work,’ or, ‘why write a blog about dumping or crafting? Everyone knows about this, it will be boring, no one will read it. You are wasting your time.’

I was recently asked about blogging and gathering ‘likes’, the snare social media uses to keep us logged on-line. But what, exactly, is a ‘like’ worth and has it become a measure of self-worth? Can a ‘like’ substitute for ‘Well done,’ for an invitation to share coffee, or for a virtual chat about your blog? Is a ‘like’ less affirming than the ‘holy grail’ of a ‘comment’ because a comment implies a reader wants to engage with you on your topic or idea? And what are comments compared to high sales figures and literary prizes, bait that lures authors and novelists into believing they are the exemplars of the craft of writing?

accomplishment ceremony education graduation
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I’m not saying approval, credit and prizes are bad things but, to return to ‘dumping’ your feelings and problems on the page, I do suggest rereading these ‘rants’ can yield one of two insights: either the writer unwittingly created something remarkable and satisfying, or they are confronted by a vindictive, angry, suffering person who should either hide their aberrations and discontent or seek professional support.

Like writers, anyone is capable of being a demon and an angel, a saint and a sinner a ‘Dumper’ or ‘Crafter’. It depends on whether or not we choose to work on ourselves. The raw material we have to work with is the human creature we are. Sure, we can dump our rage on another person, as if they are a blank page forced to accept our negative thoughts, feeling and ideas. We can also ‘craft’ ourselves into a kind, affectionate, honest and honourable person, someone others want to engage with and by crafting the self it’s possible we can heal ourselves (and silence the inner critic). Crafting the self may also help us heal the world.

Dumper or Crafter or both? It’s up to you.

It’s Always Fun until Someone is Hurt

Humans tend to form tribes because they make us, generally, feel safe. There is nothing wrong with being part of a tribe, which is only a large and probably more rambunctious, potentially more supportive, family.

The question is, why do we objectify, hate and attempt to destroy other tribes? Is it, ‘get them before they get us’? Is it because, ‘they’re standing in the way of what we want’? Is it because they threaten us first, which sets off the amygdala, often described as the part of the brain whose

primary purpose is to govern the emotion of fear,

but whose function may well be

to evaluate the relevance of stimuli, and then to tune the individual’s overall cognitive and emotional response (emphasis added)?

There is nothing wrong with feeling fear, just as there is nothing wrong with feeling proud of and loyal to our tribe and slightly suspicious of other tribes. They are, after all, an unknown quantity. But what about the reasonably well established idea that every human on the planet, regardless of the tribe they belong to, all want the same thing: to feel safe and warm; to be well fed; to watch their children grow to secure adulthood; and, if those things are satisfied, explore the world through travel and communication with others, often through the medium of art and crafts?Paints

If this is true, when different tribes fall into conflict it is not because they want different things; they want the same thing but they have different methods to achieve those things, and herein lies the problem.

The other significant thing about tribes is they usually include a leader.

It’s a truism that the quality of the tribe (by which I mean, what they want, why they want it, and what they are prepared to do to get it), determines the quality of the leader. By extension, the quality of the leader will have a similar impact on the quality of the tribe.

Good leaders listen to every member of their tribe (and good members of the tribe make it their business to share their ideas with their leader, and listen carefully to that leader). A leader’s job is also, given members of a tribe rarely agree, to make wise, considered choices about which parts of a tribe’s agenda are sound and which need more work. Only then can the leader proceed to implement the tribe’s goals and needs.

What does this have to do with disliking an opposing tribe? If our methods for meeting our needs  don’t get in the way of an opposing tribe, and vice versa, why do we get involved in a wasteful conflict with other tribes?

Is it because leaders coerce, convince and cajole their members (who have morphed into ‘followers’, which is quite a different thing), into hating the opposing tribe? If this is true, being tribal is not the problem; the problem may well be our leaders. If we believe the amygdala regulates ‘the emotion of fear’ we are easily seduced into believing, for example, that ‘racial hatred is biologically ingrained and therefore beyond individual control’. When our leaders say other tribes laugh and sneer at us, hate our food, the way we talk, who we sleep with, how we spend our down time, they are manipulating our fears. How do leaders do this? In the way they speak to us. There are three basic ways a leader can talk to us: they can use reason, emotion or focus on character and a sense of belonging. 6K07J9234Y

Let’s look at reason first. This is where a leader logically makes his or her case, provides evidence to back up that case and offers conclusions based on that evidence (a good leader will also listen to conclusions other members of the tribe might have made based on the evidence). In terms of character, a leader might focus on their own standing within the tribe, how their membership of that tribe brings status and honour to the tribe. And then there is the appeal to emotion. Of all the ways a leader can describe the tribe to itself, describe him or herself as a leader, and describe the other tribe and their leader, emotion is the most powerful and the most divisive. There is no logic and no evidence provided, there is no talk of upright moral behaviour, there is just the rawness of feelings. Two year olds are masters at expressing their emotions; they believe in them because they feel them then and there; emotions feel real, they feel reasonable, they are all encompassing. And then they are gone, ‘oh, look, a butterfly …’

How can a tribe distinguish between logic, character and emotions (also known as, since the Greeks first thought democracy might be a good way to get tribes to think about their place in the world, as Logos, Ethos and Pathos)? The answer is to listen carefully to the words the leader uses. Logos is not about saying, ‘I have empirical evidence’ it’s about outlining and explaining the evidence and analysing it. A leader who does this might use words like, ‘research, exploration, data, measurements, comparison, contrast, examination’. In an appeal to Ethos the key words are usually ‘I, me, we, us, them, they, our community, society, ethnic, class, clan, family, tribe, good character, poor character, proper, right, moral, correct, wrong, deviant, evil and not like us’. Some of these words may also be used when the leader employs Pathos, along with other words such as ‘threat, danger, safety, force, take, give, leave, lose, anger, love, cry, hate’.

What can the assembled tribe do as they listen to their leaders trying to convince them that their way of seeing the world, and getting what they want, is the right and proper way?

A friend of mine, an American I deeply respect has, over the years, shared two significant insights with me. The first was, ‘Janet, who is speaking, for whom, and on whose authority?’ I didn’t initially understand her meaning. In the context of today’s post, however, the first part of her question could relate to Ethos; ‘Who is doing the talking, what do they believe, why are they the leader, what do they know, where did they get their information? What are their biases, their prejudices?’ The second is simply a way of remembering they are talking to us: thinking beings with our own ideas, thoughts, experiences and feelings. We need to ask ourselves if the leader is truly reflecting our experiences, or merely acting as if they care about our lives and what we want.

And the final part? The word ‘authority’ is tricky here and I wish I could find a better one, but look at it this way; authority can mean giving orders and making decisions (in which case we go back to ‘who gave this person the right to speak?’). Another meaning of the word is an expert who therefore knows what they are talking about. One final meaning: freedom from doubt, assurance, self-confidence, which is not the same thing as speaking from an expert base or in a logical and sensible way but could be interpreted as ‘speaking for themselves’.

And the second thing my American friend said? It was a decade or two later, when I was struggling with my PhD. I was stuck and I didn’t know what to do with the information I’d uncovered, what it meant and how to structure it. She listened politely as I rambled on and when I took a breath she said, ‘Janet, think harder.’

fphbeu989xTribes will always complain about other tribes. We humans love a good rumble. But as I used to say to my three children when they play-wrestled together on the family room floor, ‘It’s always good fun until someone gets hurt.’

When the rumble is serious, when a leader, two leaders, emerge who think they can speak for us, on their own authority, and tell us the other tribe hate us and want us to disappear off the planet, they are ‘evaluating the relevance of stimuli’, for us. They are manipulating how we ‘tune’ into our ‘overall cognitive and emotional responses’.

How do we stop them from manipulating us? We need to listen carefully, note the words they use, the emphasis they place on those words and how those words are arranged. We need to sit down and think about our tribe, our leader and how he or she wields their authority. And then we need to think harder. We need to consider the other tribe, that weird bunch across the river who, after all, want the same things as we want.

 

 

On Freedom, Emails and Paul McCartney*

*This post has been edited.

It’s been quite a week; two celebrations, one done and dusted for the year and another tomorrow afternoon, plus a bout of feeling poorly. The first celebration was associated with a Beatles favourite, of reaching a time in life when ‘will you still need me, will you still feed me?’ is no longer asked in jest but is a reality. (Readers, yes, he will still need and feed me.)

We laughed, in 1967, the first time we heard Paul McCartney sing that question; we wonder now, his words ringing in our ears, how we suddenly arrived at this place (relatively) unscathed. Thus a memory of youth turns to a reflection on, and a blog about, the third age and the problem of emails.

emailsEmails? They didn’t exist in 1967 and for me, drifting through the shoals of early-ish elderdom, they have become a scourge. After returning to my computer from a three day absence I was greeted by 104 emails merrily disposing themselves among the 700 plus already in my inbox. It was obvious my subscriptions to numerous websites, blogs, clothing franchises, online journals and magazines had got out of hand.

I have at least two dozen books (the old-fashioned version, with pages, print and the glorious sedge like, fibrous smell only descendants of papyrus can emit) on my shelves to read. There are a dozen or more e-books begging for attention on my Kindle and half as many documents and books on my iPad demanding perusal. Numerous magazines mock me, their pages pressed together like the lips of a vexed vicar. I have, obviously, enough reading material to see me through the next sixty four years.

I therefore devoted my afternoon to unsubscribing from several sites (please don’t take it personally, it’s me, not you), deleting emails five or more years old and, I confess, relishing what will be forever known as the Great Email Purge.

Fifty six emails sit shocked into submission in my inbox. One hundred and eighteen are perched in the ‘To Read’ box, unaware they too are for the chop.

It’s not been an easy task but a necessary one. A writer must read, but she should be selective about what she reads to optimise the time spent reading. It feels somewhat immoral, however, to summarily delete what I think of as instruments of conviviality, knowledge and wisdom. It’s as if I walked into a party where the majority of guests are acquaintances who I forcibly evict so my close friends have more space. What if I failed to really know and understand that banished acquaintance? What if I missed their crucial insight into the world no one else could share?

Then again, what if Paul got it wrong? Skitter PhotoMaybe the third phase of life is not a question of being fed (endless pieces of information), or needed (wanted and loved)? Maybe this phase of life is a felicitous residence in one’s lived experience,  a reaching out to others, not from need but from confidence in one’s informed, measured and tranquil self-assurance.

What do you think, is taming one’s inbox a path to freedom or a reason for lament?

With thanks to Dr Steve Evans who pointed out to me I had incorrectly attributed ‘When I’m Sixty Four’, from the Beatles album ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’, to Ringo Starr when the song was written and sung by Paul McCartney. Steve was my supervisor when I did my PhD and is also a well known and respected Australian poet.

Developing Your Eye Day Five

Today’s Task: Connect

To connect we must fasten, physically unite, join. We must tie and bind, relate and associate, we must as E. M. Forster has said, ‘Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.’

#developingyoureye: 'Connect'
#developingyoureye: ‘Connect’

Yet the connection made possible by these lines and wires is fragmentary, temporal, tenuous.

The earth is a beast tethered by humankind’s inability to endure solitude; there is nothing wrong with connection, what needs to be questioned is the motivation for, and the quality and cost of, the connection. We no longer reach out a hand to another, we press a button. We text but never talk; fearful of our impurities we share only what we can photoshop.

The monolith rising above my house gives me the world on a screen even as it ties me to my throttled patch of the planet … and yet, and yet … how else to re-calibrate the fibres of our subjectivity than by assenting to this thready connection with an Other?

I cannot answer that question.

I don’t have to answer that question.

I can, through laptop, cable and satellite, connect to the world, ask that question and hope for a reply.

The Art of Resilience

The reason I started this blog was to share my interest in therapeutic writing. As many of you know, this focus has changed slightly but today I want to return to a topic that remains important to me: therapeutic writing and resilience. I will begin, however,  with what creates the impetus, the need, to develop resilience: trauma and suffering.

Suffering happens. Trauma causes lasting, ongoing distress. Bearing witness to trauma and suffering helps us recognise, acknowledge and relieve the pain. Being resilient is understanding trauma, knowing that it results in alienation as well as dissociation from the traumatic event itself. Resilience is being aware of how trauma disconnects us from our self and our perceptions. Trauma flays friendships, undoes families and leaves us at the mercy of others; to advocate resilience is to acknowledge the struggle to comprehend or change the situation, to acknowledge that trauma makes us feel like ‘a nobody’.

Well-meaning suggestions about how to respond to trauma, and claims that our trauma is less traumatic than another’s, serve only to undermine our survival, suggest our story is not worth sharing or we haven’t ‘suffered enough’. Comments like this rob us of the ability to decide, for ourselves, the personal quality and potency of our suffering; they turn us away from resilience and back to the trauma.

Does defining trauma as

unspeakable [and thus] resistant to representation

silence us, leave us powerless to deal with or learn from the trauma? When trauma is endlessly reproduced and recycled by the media, either for entertainment or as ‘news’, are we being conditioned to accept trauma and suffering as ‘normal’? When groups of people are traumatised, do we know those groups, know individual members of the group, only by their trauma, only by their suffering?

Who benefits from labelling individuals and entire cultures, as ‘traumatised’? Who gains by robbing individuals and entire cultures of their agency, their ability to heal from trauma?

If we study and understand the impact of trauma, shouldn’t we also study and understand how to heal from trauma?

There are some who believe in

the transformative potential of trauma itself […] the possibilities of psychic regrowth

that is a possible outcome of trauma.

Art makes healing from trauma possible. Art is an act of survival. Art builds resilience.

Why art? Because nothing else is strong enough to contain the destruction of the self.

Art doesn’t theorise suffering, it engages with it. Trauma can not

properly be grasped in a purely cognitive manner … its … chaotic and meaningless character

must be encountered through writing, painting, music, drama and movement.

   What of the risk? What if by ‘re-creating’ the trauma we are ‘re-traumatised’? Memory, as it is newly understood, is a process of

selection, emphasis and amplification.

Is it possible that by drawing on our memories of trauma, actively choosing how to represent our trauma, what to represent, what to amplify and what to ignore, we can regain agency? Can remodelling our trauma provide us with the means to craft our recovery and learn to take control of our lives?

Therapeutic writing builds resilience. It helps us discover our meaning of the trauma, and reject meanings imposed by others. Therapeutic writing, like any writing, is an exacting art. It needs the support of a counsellor, who is also a reasonably skilled writer, to witness and guide the process of safely remembering and reconstructing the traumatic event. It needs someone who knows that resilience is flexibility, plasticity and strength. It needs someone who understands that the story of trauma inherently contains a story of survival and the story of suffering is a story of resilience.


The views expressed here are not not meant to serve as medical advice or replace consultation with your physician or mental health professional. The information contained in this blog should not be used to diagnose or treat a mental health problem. If you have experienced trauma you should consult with your medical practitioner or a qualified mental health care provider about your personal questions or concerns.

References

Emily Ashman, ‘Psychic Resilience in the Fragile Images of A Petal: A Post-Jungian Perspective on Retraumatisation’, in Trauma Narratives and Herstory, ed. by Sonya Andermahr and Silvier Pellicer-Ortin (Houndmills, UK: Palgrave MacMillan, 2013), pp. 171-187.

Sonya Andermahr and Silvier Pellicer-Ortin, ‘Trauma Narratives and Herstory’ in Trauma Narratives and Herstory, ed. by Sonya Andermahr and Silvier Pellicer-Ortin (Houndmills, UK: Palgrave MacMillan, 2013), pp. 1-12, p. 7.

Judith Lewis Herman, Trauma and Recovery from Domestic Abuse and Political Terror (London: Pandora, 2010), p. 52.

Stephen K. Levine, Poiesis: The Language and the Speech of the Soul (London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers 1997), p. 120.

Stephen K. Levine, Trauma, Tragedy, Therapy: The Arts and Human Suffering (London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2009), pp. 38-41

Gillian Whitlock and Kate Douglas, ‘Trauma Texts: Reading Trauma in the Twenty-First Century’ in Trauma Texts ed. by Gillian Whitlock and Kate Douglas (Oxon: Routledge, 2009), pp. 1–8, (p. 1).

Photo Credit: Pixabay

 

Where are all the Angry Women?

I recently heard two separate interviews, recorded at different times and in different locations, with the same woman writer. Both interviews were about her new book and in the second interview her comments were the same or similar to the first.

While there is nothing wrong with this, the second interview gave me a chance to reflect on the writer’s response to both interviews and her comments about how she wrote the book. I discovered I had several problems with what she said. While her book is in some ways shocking and disturbing, it contains only a couple of descriptions of overt violence. I applaud the writer’s decision regarding the depiction of violence. I am sickened by books (or movies) that graphically portray the abuse, torture and maiming of anyone, especially women. In the second interview, however, I detected a sense of squeamishness in the writer when it came to writing about violence and sexual intercourse. Again, the book has a couple of sex scenes, written with assurance and skill but also curiously detached. This may be a good thing; books with too much sex, even pleasurable, loving sex can be boring. After all, as a friend once said to me, how many ways can you write about the mechanics of sexual intercourse that aren’t, well, mechanical?

On the other hand, invasive sexual congress, which occurs when one of the partners (usually, in heterosexual intercourse, the woman) is for whatever reason coerced into having sex, makes me really angry. So does the abuse of women, be it their bodies, their minds, their self-respect or their sovereignty.

Am I reading the wrong books or is no one writing about women’s anger anymore and if not, why not?

I wonder if it is because there exists a clutch of women literary writers, many of them aged between thirty and forty-five, who are a tad fastidious about women’s suffering? Who shy away from the awful reality of most women’s lives? If this is true, if women are too refined to write the truth about woman’s suffering, does this reluctance condone women’s abuse? Does it allow the perpetrators of that abuse to get away with their crimes? Does the absence of anger silence the women who are forced to negotiate, on a daily basis, ways to survive their abuse and their abuser.

I also think too many women writers shy away from so-called ‘feral’ female protagonists. Medusa cover I don’t necessarily think we should all write feminist versions of ‘Lord of the Flies’ but I don’t want to read novels where women are complicit in their abuse even though our conditioning and living situations can mean we willingly accept the status quo.

How long will women remain compliant? In straightened circumstances women eventually behave like any other human: they access their power and they fight back, they openly and proudly assert their rights and express their anger and frustration. It’s also true that women can hurt others, be abusive and violent. To say otherwise repudiates women’s humanity, the first dictate of which is survival by any means.

Many women are angry about how they are treated. Anger, however, is not action. Anger motivates: it can be, when properly and wisely directed, a potent force for change. Women have resisted unequal treatment and fought for equality for centuries and many continue the fight.

Do I want a bunch of novels about angry, violent, abusive women popping up on our bookshelves? Can the current crop of young-to-middle-aged women writers express such anger? How is it possible for many of these women writers, university educated, upper middle class, quasi-radical feminists, to ignore the often horrific daily reality of the majority of women? Are they unable to understand this reality because their university education failed them or is it because they simply don’t want to be sullied by the truth that lies behind the statistics, the truth that sits outside their safe, theoretical books and journals?

Why is this important to me? Apart from having been a feminist for over thirty years (and lamenting the ongoing situation many women continue to endure), I am trying to write a themed collection of stories about angry women. It is hard to write about anger without being confronted by one’s own anger. I am wary of alienating a potential reader with my characters’ anger and I want to avoid being didactic. Nor do I want my characters’ anger to be the action but be the motivation for their behaviour. I know it’s vital to show (not tell) the anger and show (not tell) how my characters face, accept, and use their rage to make the change they wants to make.

Every woman, from birth, must have access to good health care, an education, financial independence, safe and accessible contraception and access to safe child-birth and child care. Every woman has the right to have a career, if they want one. Every woman should feel, at the end of their lives, respected and nurtured. I want to put my characters’ divine and justifiable rage out into the world, to represent anger as a legitimate, reasonable reaction to the intolerable fact that too many women are denied these basic rights.

It’s just that writing about anger can be as taxing as feeling angry.

What do you think? Are you angry? Are you comfortable with expressing your anger? Have you created an angry fictional character? What problems did you confront and how did you solve them? Do you know of any books where angry women characters feature?

On Winter Chills and Federal Elections

It’s almost winter in this part of the world and that means head colds and flu. Both my partner and I have come down with the latter at the same time. As I put on my Facebook page, it’s sniffles in stereo around here and I can’t make up my mind which is worst;  suffering alone from a bad cold (as my daughter, who lives interstate, did last week) or suffering at the same time as your partner. I mean, in both cases, who fixes the hot drinks, picks up supplies from the store, cooks the meals?

We’ve decided to take turns as our colds are mild and our needs few. We’ve spent the morning sitting in the family room, where a weak sun occasionally peeks in at us past the clouds and through the windows. We’ve shared snippets of information from Facebook, sneezed together and gently commiserated with each other. We’re planning to watch a couple of DVDs this afternoon, or maybe just snooze; there’s not a lot can be done about a cold except wait it out, drink plenty of fluids, and rest.

It just occurred to me, as I wrote the first two paragraphs, that my entire country has a head cold at the moment, otherwise known as a general federal election. The symptoms are similar; Australian’s collective heads are  pounding with the clichés, slogans and promises made and broken from the last election. After only three weeks, and with five more to go, our energy is depleted, our political antibodies, while still fighting the good fight, need help. Check this link, for example, to see the effect last night’s ‘great debate’ had on Laura Tingle, one of Australia’s perceptive and respected journalists.

Australia is suffering. It needs to stock up on paracetamols laced with ‘beta blockers guaranteed to eliminate polli speak.’ Even a few of the candidates are starting to sound husky, the result of too much talking and not enough thinking. Many of us hope they’ll soon see sense and stop talking altogether. It will be better for them and a bonus for us. It’s also apparent that most of our candidates have misdiagnosed our ailments; ‘Fix the economy,’ they insist, forgetting that a human’s hopes, dreams and needs are not column entries on a financial spread sheet. Some of us reckon the problem goes deeper, that the real source of our malaise is Australia’s soul. Our collective health is poor because we imprison the innocent (our ‘solution’ for refugees) and decimate arts funding. Maybe it’s my sore head, but my poor country is ailing; we used to pride ourselves on being the land of the ‘fair go’, we believed in giving those worse off a helping hand. Then again, we failed too many times to heal the damage we did to original custodians of this beautiful country.

Maybe Australia needs antibiotics, a good dose of statesmen and stateswomen to flush the politicians out of our system and make room for people of principle: creative thinkers; leaders who recognise our strengths as well as our weaknesses; problem solvers who believe every Australian is a valued member of society no matter their religious beliefs, gender alignment, race, class or education level. We need leaders who listen, not functionaries who think they know who we are and what we want. We need to strengthen our immune system so we can right the wrongs made in our name. It’s the people who wield the syringe that will deliver the medicine; it’s called an election. We have five more weeks before it’s ‘roll up your sleeves, Messers Turnbull and Shorten. Time to take your medicine’.

You have to love democracy; if nothing else, it’s a chance to play doctor to what, or who, ails us.

And now I’m off to make some soup while my partner dozes on the couch.

Wise Words and Comforting Suggestions

I have been planning to share a range of ideas about writing as therapy for some time. The links below lead to diverse opinions concerning the benefits of therapeutic writing although none of them provide conclusive evidence that therapeutic writing is an effective therapeutic tool.  I hope you enjoy them.

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  • JR White points out in this first link that therapeutic writing is useful because, ‘instead of turning to others for wise words or comforting suggestions, your inner wisdom has a chance to voice itself.’ See what else White has to say at: Writing Away Your Worries
  •  Margarita Tartakovsky’s main point is that ‘writing helps us track our spinning thoughts and feelings.’ For more information go to: The Power of Writing: 3 Types of Therapeutic Writing 
  • This article by Gina McColl points out that whether or not it is ‘the inky cousin of selfie culture or long tail of the creative writing mania, writing as therapy is having a moment.’ More about the healing power of writing can be found here: Writing as therapy: how blogs and memoirs can help the sick and traumatized. I also suggest you follow McColl’s link to Jane Turner Goldsmith’s useful summary of research into therapeutic writing.
  • Although the next article is about creative writing, I’ve included it because I’m interested in the connection between brain plasticity and therapeutic writing. While, as Stephen Pinker comments at the end of the article, ‘creativity is a perversely difficult thing to study,’ I found this New York Times article fascinating. I wonder what researchers would find if they scanned the brains of therapeutic writers as they wrote? See what you think at: This Is Your Brain on Writing
  • Finally, Tara DaPra’s Writing Memoir and Writing for Therapy An Inquiry on the Functions of Reflection is moving and beautifully written.

MES5X81ZYII’d love to know of your reactions. Do you find writing therapeutic, and how would you describe its benefits, or do you think therapeutic writing has had its ‘moment’ and is just a fad?

 

THERAPEUTIC WRITING: REMEMBERING TO FORGET.

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.

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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.

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.)