‘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.

On Journals, Blogging, Letters and Constructing the (Writing) Self

The other day I was trying to catch up on reading the blogs I follow. One of the first things you learn as a blogger is the need to connect with other bloggers and read their posts. It’s not as easy as it sounds especially if, like me, you discover a blog, read one or two posts then follow it because it’s so interesting and well written and the blogger sounds like an astounding person you’d love to meet one day.

One of my former colleagues believes blogging is the offshoot of the personal diary or journal. I’m not so sure.  dsc_0319
I started keeping a journal thirty years before my colleague was born and I’d never write a post that even remotely resembles my journal entries. There are some things that just shouldn’t be made public. Granted, a lot of blogs are tell-all rants about the seedy and not so seedy side of life. Plenty of bloggers share moments of misery and loss, but I question whether this means blogging and writing a journal is the same thing. I will admit bloggers, like the folk who write a journal, are in the business of ‘constructing the self’, which is academic-speak for creating a persona, a fabricated self a blogger feels comfortable about appearing on a screen thousands of kilometres from home. I believe, however, that the self I have constructed for my blog is more carefully drawn than the self that inhabits the abandoned pages of my journals.

The other reason I don’t think writing a blog post is the same as writing a journal entry is because I feel blog posts are similar to letters. I have 80 or more followers (thank you, one and all) and I probably follow as many blogs. Not all my readers read all of my posts and I certainly don’t read every blog I follow – while I was catching up the other day I was interrupted – but, as all writers are admonished, I believe most of us learn to write, as much as possible, for our readers. This means, in the case of a blog post, writing so our readers feel it was written specifically for them.  Blogging, in much the same way as writing a novel, and unlike journal writing, is about supply and demand, specifically meeting the demands of readers. Yes, there are plenty of instances where journal writers share their private musings (or they are read, often clandestinely, by lovers, intrusive parents or inquisitive siblings) but bloggers want to be read, they want to form connections, they want to be shared.

Bloggers develop blogging friendships. I certainly have, and I’ve renewed old relationships (Hi, Kathy), so I often feel as if I’m writing a letter to my friends.   dsc_0323Not a newsy, chatty letter about the family’s latest escapades, but a letter that shares my ideas, the issues that concern me, my interest in therapeutic writing … which raises another point …

… is blogging therapeutic? I think it can be; shaping an event or feeling and sharing it with others can, if handled well,  help with healing. I doubt many bloggers feel they are alone in the world; for most of us there will be someone out there who’s interested in what we have to say, who reads what we write and who cares. Keeping a journal, while it helped in many ways, didn’t stop me from feeling alone, which is what writing for no one but oneself can do. My journal became a self-fulfilling rehash of personal (often self-induced) misery, which is why, despite intending to, I barely referred to my journals when I wrote my memoir.

The woman who wrote those journals is a mere echo of the woman I am now and I am an echo of the woman I will be. janetp03Blogging, as confessional and personal as it might be,  is a larger act of rebellion than writing a private journal ever was and believe me, I thought journal writing was truly rebellious. I was even advised by one counsellor to stop because she believed it would harm my relationship.

It’s hard to grasp exactly how massive the ‘blogosphere’ is, let alone imagine how many mega-millions of words are written and shared via blog posts. I am nevertheless content in my minuscule corner of it. I have readers, bloggers and otherwise, that I feel obligated to, not in an onerous, ‘dear me is it time to write another post?’ way, but  in a ‘I wonder what so and so is up to, and if they’d be interested in …’ way. More importantly, and this is a revelation born of knowing I do have readers, I look forward to sharing the (constructed) self who writes my blog; a self now past middle-age, an occasionally confused writer, by turns cynical and sentimental who is grateful to be a part of a sphere where readers and writers are not afraid to be whatever self they choose.

What about you? Are you writing a personal journal that you make public, a letter to far flung or nearby friends or something else entirely?

Guest Blogger: The Good the Bad and the in Between

I’m very excited to introduce my first guest blogger: Barbara Brown. I met Barbara ten years ago at Flinders University when we were enrolled in the Bachelor of Creative Arts. Like me, Barbara is a mother with a couple of qualifications and a successful career behind her, and like me she did her degree because she wanted to be a writer. We both did a PhD and in the last three years of our candidature we shared an office and the problems associated with intensive and personally confronting research. Barbara’s thesis, like mine, consisted of a memoir and an account of research into therapeutic writing, although our topics and main interests, as well as our backgrounds, are very different.

Barbara is also a fierce defender of the rights of asylum seekers. She actively supports several refugees, men and women who’ve experienced terrible situations in their own countries and found in Barbara not only a sympathetic ear but a source of sound practical advice and assistance. In case I’m making her sound like a saint, you’ll see from the opening lines of her post she is very human. Her post reminds us there are different forms of therapeutic writing and she has inspired me to adopt her approach.

V0C2CIXXN8 ‘Grumpy, grumpy, grumpy – I’ve been yelling at Jim all day. This is the result of doing too much for too many people over Christmas. Each year I promise myself I’ll say no, but when the time comes my need to be everybody’s friend gets in the way. There I go again climbing onto the self-sacrifice merry-go-round. You might want to laugh, but my inability to refuse requests has its dark side. Anyway, it’s over now, so time to shut up, put up and act more graciously.’

You have just read my journal entry for December 26th 2015. The fallout from doing everything for everybody had spread far and wide, but was mainly directed towards my poor husband who consistently maintained his innocence (yet who spent most of the day with his feet up eating shortbread?). As you can see, I have always used journal writing as a way of letting it all hang out. No holds barred.

Journals are my private release valve; a place where I can vent my frustrations and receive a sense of peace when I eventually put the pen down; but these entries are always pretty negative and I don’t want them to be a just record of my moaning. So, I thought I would tell you about another piece of cathartic writing I engage in. My gratitude list. This is where I record my serendipitous moments; the moments that bring me joy

I wrote this in bed one Saturday evening:

‘I am grateful for the smell of lemon scented gums in the park, winning a game of cards after tea, talking to Junie on the phone, and finishing the long overdue beanie for Maurice …’  Lemon_Sc_Gum

You get the idea. This is my Pollyanna time. A list of ‘thank yous’ designed to counteract my feelings of negativity. No matter how awful the day has been I can usually find at least half a dozen glimpses of happiness.

Both ways of writing are important to me, the need to release my anxieties and a place to remember that life is really pretty good. And over time I hope my gratitude list will grow longer and the list of frustrations ebb away. But I live in an imperfect world, and I am a long way from sainthood; so for time being I will rely on these two different styles of cathartic writing to help me stay me sane and balanced.

What do you think? Has Barbara reminded you of life’s bounty? What, right at this moment, are you grateful for?

 

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?

 

PHENOMENOLOGY and THERAPEUTIC WRITING.

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).

A SACRED SPACE

I spent several days this week converting our spare bedroom into my writing space because, as Virginia Woolf advised many years ago, a woman needs a ‘room of her own’ in order to write. The room isn’t complete yet: I need a few more shelves and I want to hang curtains, paintings and photographs. Nevertheless, today’s post is the first of many that will emanate from what my partner dubs ‘The Writing Studio.’

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Is a private writing space necessary? I knew a student who wrote most of his PhD while sitting in the university café; another friend writes her wry, astute poems in the local café. The staff know her children, her friends and the way she prefers her coffee. They are protective of her privacy and, I think, a little awed by her ability to concentrate surrounded by the noise and bustle of a busy restaurant on one of Adelaide’s well known tourist strips.

I have tried to cultivate the skill of writing in cafes but although I am better at it now than five years ago, I find noise and movement distracting. I also like to watch people, which is a useful habit for a writer to cultivate but also an excuse to not write.

While creating a space to write I thought about the act of writing, of being a creative person. Sheree Dukes Conrad suggests the ‘common-sense understanding’ of creativity, where writers, for example, record and expand a conversation they have overheard, or a writing prompt or exercise, is not a sufficient explanation. Conrad believes the artist finds and brings to life a story, novel, painting or song that is waiting to be written, painted or penned.

The story exists, in the sense that it makes demands upon the writer to write it … the writer has to find out what the story is by writing it.

This is why, she believes, modern audiences enjoy Shakespeare’s Hamlet; they have experienced and therefore understand the ‘meaning and logic of [Hamlet’s] grief’.

How is this relevant to making a space for writing, particularly therapeutic writing? According to the World Health Organisation (WHO):

 Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.

I believe good health is the default position of the human organism; we are designed to be healthy, although how our particular body expresses its unique form of health is an individual phenomenon. I also believe when we are unwell, good health, like a painting or poem waiting for a writer, waits for us to find it, and we need to help the healing happen. Sadly, this may not always occur and I do not subscribe to the idea that ill-health is the fault of the sufferer; of course we all want to enjoy good health.

Perhaps my need for a writing space has something to do with spending years writing a private journal, writing for therapy and with my search for well-being. Whether it be in a group, a one on one writing session supervised by a therapist, or as part of an online counselling program I think therapeutic writing demands a certain quality of space, an empathetic, understanding, empowering, and protective environment.

In ancient times healing took place in an Asclepion, a healing temple sacred to Asclepius the Greek God of healing. While they are two different things, the Asclepion reminds me of a sanctuary. Derived from the Latin, sanctuarium, sanctuary originally meant a container that held a consecrated object or perhaps housed a holy individual. Now considered a safe refuge or asylum, a sanctuary is also a sacred space.

What could be more holy, or more in need of sanctum, than a person who is ill? Perhaps, to return to Dukes Conrad’s idea that a work of art waits to be discovered by the artist, an Asclepion or sanctuary is where healing awaits those who are suffering. The trick is finding, or creating, the appropriate sanctuary, but must it be a physical space? Is there an inner sanctum, an attitude of mind, we need to cultivate in order to find the poem that awaits us or the healing we deserve?

Over the years I have created several writing spaces. The first was in a corner of the master bedroom and, later, in the lounge room. When our children left home my ex-husband and I converted a bedroom into a shared office space. When we moved house I finally had my own space; the spare bedroom. More recently, I shared a small room with my new partner; now I have a writing and healing space once more. Despite organising these writing spaces, I soon learned it wasn’t just a physical space I needed. I had to cultivate an inner space where I allowed myself to believe in my writing and call myself a writer. I think this is why my two friends, and many other people, are able to write in cafes or busy marketplaces; they know they are writers, they trust the work and they confidently travel towards the novel or poem that demands to be written.

Maybe writing in a public space is difficult when we burrow into the obscure workings of the psyche, when we need to let the tears fall as we write, or pound the keyboard in anger as we let off steam. I think, however, any writing requires us to access and enter our sacred writing space. My favourite place has to be the eyrie overlooking the sea where I sought healing after my marriage ended. It was my space; tiny, cold in winter and hot in summer, I found it, paid for it, cried, laughed, grew and wrote in it.

Here I sit then, in the new, yet to be finished writing space. It contains my favourite writing books, a photo of my granddaughter and a framed painting, created by, found by, my granddaughter when she was just twelve months old. As I sit here I realise this is not ‘The Writing Studio’, it is ‘The Writing Sanctuary,’ a place of healing, a place to search for the next short story, novel, script, blog post or whatever else awaits.

Where does your writing await you? Which specific writing place, or process, works for you? Can you describe that space in ten words or less?

REFERENCES

Sheree Dukes Conrad, ‘Toward a phenomenological analysis of artistic creativity’, Journal of Phenomenological Psychology, 21.2 (1990), 103-120, pp. 111-112.

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (Malden, MA: 2015).

Jeannie Wright, ‘Online counselling: Learning from writing therapy,’ British Journal of Guidance and Counselling, 30.3 (2002), 285-298.

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.