Decisions and Revisions

There is time

for decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse. (1)

2017 has been quite a year. I contracted a virus on the 1st January, which was followed by back problems that began the week the virus released its grip. Naturally, keeping a blog let alone maintaining a ‘normal’ life has been a challenge.

As a result, I decided to take a break from writing and considered suspending Elixir and focusing on creative writing, specifically Flash, Hint and Short fiction. However, when it came to deleting my posts and letting go of Elixir and the significance of therapeutic writing, I just couldn’t do it.

I have, therefore, revised my decision; Concise will be a companion blog to Elixir. The former will be an outlet for my own, and I hope others’, creative short fiction. The latter will continue to be personal and reflective, and explore the growing significance of therapeutic writing and art therapy as a healing tool. I want to research and share information about organisations like Art Therapy Without Borders, which provides hope and assistance to a range of people; Lapidus, which focusses specifically on writing for wellbeing; and The Institute for Creative Health, an

independent, not for-profit Australian organisation that advocates for the arts to be delivered within health and social service organisations and the broader community.

 

Elixir has also connected me to blogs like Impromptu Promptlings and Peculiar Ponderings and a positive friendship with the inimitable Calensariel. Through WordPress I discovered Dr Sharon Blackie’s blog, website, books and courses. Closer to home is Raili at Soul Gifts, who creates magic with words, and sites like Spoon You Fork Me. There are dozens of other fascinating blogs listed to the right of this post that expand my universe and enliven my days.

Blogging is, indeed, a blessing.

But like any task, writing a blog can be a curse. There’s the unforgiving blank page; the words that, when they finally arrive, refuse to arrange themselves coherently. How, then, can I imagine I will write two blogs? That’s the point, I can’t imagine it so I won’t try. I’ll give it a go and see what happens. I can’t let go of Elixir and I can’t shake off the idea of Concise so I have to explore the possibility of writing both.

One of my favourite poems, from which the line at the beginning of this blog is taken, is T. S. Elliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.’ (I wonder what the ‘J’ stands for?) Prufrock is, like me, growing old and he laments the often tedious ‘evenings, mornings, afternoons …’ he has spent and wonders how he will

spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?

other than to be what he has always been:

an attendant lord … Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse.

Eliot was none of this; he was a consummate poet. I do not (for many reasons) aspire to be like Eliot. I am content, like Prufrock, to be

At times, indeed, almost ridiculous-

Almost, at times, the Fool …

If it is foolish to write two blogs, one reflective and personal the other a collection of self-published short, narrative fiction, then so be it. I understand that in both cases it may be ‘impossible to say just what I mean’ but I believe it is foolish to give up entirely, to let go of my dreams. Like Prufrock, I cannot help listening to the mermaid’s song, I cannot know what is feels like to lose myself in the mystical, magical and creative ‘chambers of the sea.’

sea-running

‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’ by T. S. Eliot.

Find the first edition of Concise here: https://concisedotblog.wordpress.com/

 

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?

 

On Renaming and Existence

Please believe that one single positive dream is more important than a thousand negative realities.

Adeline Yen Mah

Elixir: a magical or medicinal potion. From Arabic and Greek, meaning ‘a powder to dry wounds’ or a magical substance that changes metal to gold.

Over the last six weeks I’ve thought a lot about this blog and the direction I want it to take. I am tired of being serious; I want to play more, explore more, take more risks. What will it feel like to write from the heart?

I spent time with my writing buddy this afternoon. I drank hot chocolate and ate a chocolate almond cake; she had a cappuccino and nothing to eat. We laughed. A lot. We talked about her forthcoming book of poems and my plan to enter at least two short story competitions a month. I told her I want to try writing more prose poems. She told me about her new bathroom.

Friendships are the powder we sprinkle on our wounds. Laughter is a potion that shines golden light on an afternoon in a café. Writing is a restorative. When I started this blog I had firm ideas about what I wanted to do; now I’m not so sure. To re-name is to change how a person or thing is known.

The other day I had an appointment with the Department of Human Services, Australia’s federal agency for the aged, job seekers, families, migrants and refugees, and people with a disability. Despite having availed myself of their services several years ago, and retaining the same ‘reference number’ (aka an identity number), when I reregistered with them I had to supply three separate documents as proof of my identity. At the end of the process I laughed and said, ‘And now I am a person?’ The woman on the other side of the counter smiled. ‘Congratulations,’ she said, ‘you exist.’

Yes I do, but I do so much more.

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.

Therapeutic Writing: The Power of Constructing a Story.

As I mentioned in my last post, James Pennebaker was one of the first to research (and confirm) the positive benefits of therapeutic writing. He has written or edited ten books and authored or co-authored over 250 articles on the subject. It is little wonder he is considered to be the founding father of the field, although in recent years his research had shifted to analysing the power words have on people and politics.

Pennebaker’s initial work tested the value of ‘expressive writing’. He started by asking participants to:

  • Write every day for four days about an upsetting experience, major conflict or other stressors. Participants could write about the same issue every day or focus on a different situation
  • Explore, through writing, the feelings and thoughts that emerged about the situation
  • Explore, in the writing, how the experience was connected to their past, present and future identity.

Along with the benefits of therapeutic writing Pennebaker discovered that difficult feelings emerged, either during the writing process or shortly after the writing session. He believes this is similar to the experience of ‘seeing a sad movie’ and should diminish after a few hours. If the distress continues, the writer should stop writing and seek immediate support.

The writing activity Pennebaker set for his participants was ‘free writing’, or what I called in my second post ‘raw material’, unedited emotional writing that has, for the most part, informed decades of research into therapeutic writing. It should be noted, however, that Pennebaker did not discourage working on and editing the written material although he did not promote it.

While there may be several problems associated with Pennebaker’s research methodology, I want to mention just two:

  • A large number of participants in his early research were young, healthy university students who volunteered to take part in the study
  • The written expression expected of the participants may have been too brief to yield conclusive, long term results into the usefulness of expressive writing.

Both concerns have been addressed by numerous studies and, in clinical terms, therapeutic writing is now an accepted, multifaceted treatment where an individual takes part in either an ongoing period of regular writing, and discusses it with a therapist, or a group writing session. Both individual and group writing sessions demand specific skills on the part of the therapist or counsellor. This ‘writer/counsellor’ needs to know how to help the therapeutic writer with the creative process of writing and to work through the initial trauma or reason for therapeutic support.

The Writing Cure is a book of essays acknowledging Pennebaker’s contribution to therapeutic writing and examining more than two decades of research into it. Jeffrey Berman‘s review of The Writing Cure laments the lack of input from the arts and humanities on therapeutic writing. Because I am interested in the therapeutic benefits of creative, sustained and edited writing needed to produce and prepare a short story or poem, I agree with Berman. The psychological underpinnings and positive benefits of therapeutic writing need to be considered but the effect of reading, rewriting, editing, proofreading, and above all, sharing creative work should also be studied. Perhaps the arts and humanities need to join with psychology and science and discover what happens when a writer sits down and writes?

I am among the several million humans who have, over the years, needed to consult a therapist or counsellor. When a member of my family married overseas I had counselling to discuss my fear of flying so I could travel to the wedding. I have never, however, been treated by a counsellor who used therapeutic writing as a healing tool. I used my journal for that. When I returned to university and started writing short stories I started to feel more confident and more capable than I had in years. Yes, I enjoyed being a student again, meeting new people and learning new skills, but submitting assignments on time and juggling study, work and family was stressful, so why was I feeling so good? Was it because I was turning personal material from my journal into third-person-narrated-stories and sharing them with my classmates? This question drove my PhD research, so imagine my excitement when I read this comment from Pennebaker:

Movement toward the development of a narrative is far more predictive of health than having a coherent story per se. The construction of a story, rather than having a constructed story, then, may be the desired endpoint of writing …

What did he mean? Was my experience typical? Why is the process of narration more helpful than a pre-formed and rehearsed story about an incident? Could creating a narrative while writing about disturbing experiences help change behaviour?  Could others benefit from this information?

Collecting statistics so you can understand how an essentially creative pursuit like writing is therapeutic, is like catching rain drops during a storm. I understand the need for objective, primary data but can we assume there is a ‘universal truth’ that fits all cases? How do we deal with bias in designing the research question and interpreting the results? What about differences in the writers’ backgrounds, education and resources? When and where does the writing occur? What about the context of the writing experience? Is cathartic free writing the only way to write our way into well-being?

By 2008 I had my Creative Arts degree and had enrolled in a PhD in Creative Writing. I wanted to research therapeutic writing that goes beyond ‘raw material’. I did not have the skills or resources to conduct quantitative research so I decided to take Pennebaker’s work into account but explore the potential of writing for therapy using the elements of story: character, plot, dialogue, setting, theme, point of view and narrative voice. It turned out there were other people exploring this form of therapeutic writing and I will discuss them in the next post.

References

Pennebaker, James W., and Janel D. Seagal. ‘Forming a story: The health benefits of narrative’, Journal of clinical psychology, 55.10 (1999): 1243-1254 and Graybeal, Anna, Janel D. Sexton, and James W. Pennebaker. ‘The role of story-making in disclosure writing: The psychometrics of narrative’, Psychology and Health 17.5 (2002): 571-581.