Writing is still a relative newcomer on the therapeutic block, less well recognised, even by professionals, than, say, art or music therapy. Nevertheless, you can now find therapeutic writing groups in all kinds of settings – working with adults and children, the sick and the dying, refugees and people in prison, recovering addicts and those with mental health problems, and many more.
So what exactly is therapeutic writing?
Those of us who write know that almost any writing can, at times, be therapeutic. However, the essential purpose of therapeutic writing is the exploration of self. We may choose, at some point, to show it to others. We may publish what we have written; we may perform it in public. But first and foremost, we are writing for ourselves.
As one member of a therapeutic writing group put it: “I didn’t know what I felt until I heard what I had written.”
Unlike when we talk – be it to a friend, a family member or a therapist – the words we write on a page are recorded, just as we first wrote them. We can put them aside for days or weeks if we choose, and then return to them, exactly as they were. We can “go deeper into our own truths.”
We can edit them, shape them, fashion them into something new.
We can choose how and when we share them with someone else. We can destroy them, if we wish.
And when someone does read the words, or listens to us read, they don’t interrupt or interact. They hear the whole thing, as we intended.
Filling in the Gaps
Gillie Bolton is one of a handful of people in the UK who, in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, more or less invented the field of therapeutic writing from their own experiences.
For Bolton, it began when her own demons began to catch her up and her husband, not knowing how to help her, suggested that she wrote her autobiography.
“I sat down at my kitchen table and wrote a nice neat story on every other line of a hardback notebook. A childhood in a lovely farming village. Somehow writing that first version gave me permission to explore what was wrong. I went back and filled in the gaps, scrawling in red felt tip all over big sheets of paper. ”
As many others have discovered since, Bolton found that writing down our experiences can help provide separation, a necessary distance. Rather than thoughts going round and round in our heads, we have a narrative that can be shaped. And shaping that narrative allows us to make sense of traumatic events and to begin the process of recovery.
Not long ago, I heard a powerful interview on the radio: Bob Geldof, describing his reaction to hearing that his ex-wife, Paula Yates, had committed suicide. After weeks of being barely able to function, he went down into his basement and began composing music. He poured his anguish onto a CD and once it was done, the hurt was there, but it was contained. Manageable. He could function again.
Not all of us can distil our emotions into a musical composition, but we can call write. As Sheila Hayman, coordinator of Freedom From Torture’s Write to Life group says, “all it takes is a pen, paper and enough peace to let the words come out.”
Exploring the Hinterland
Bolton began to study how writing could help others as well as herself, eventually gaining her PhD in Reflective Practice: Therapeutic Writing for Professional Development, particularly in the medical profession.
“I trawled therapeutic practices. One of my favourites was the ‘two chair’ method, where you have a conversation with yourself in two different voices. I got people to write in different voices. If they had written something in the voice of their inner critic, they had to consciously seek out their inner mentor and write in that voice too.”
Bolton is particularly interested in what social anthropologists call ‘liminal states’: periods of transition between one life stage and another. Bereavement, convalescence, retirement, redundancy, ‘empty nest syndrome’ are all liminal states.
“Our society is particularly bad at allowing us time to make adjustments from one stage to another and to come to terms with the new conditions of our lives,” says Bolton. “But they are often also times of tremendous opportunity.”
A primary influence mentioned by several of my interviewees is Marion Milner. Milner was a psychoanalyst in the early 20th century. In her book, A Life of One’s Own she explored the benefits of keeping a journal and of ‘letting one’s mind speak for itself’ – perhaps the first experiment in tapping into the unconscious mind through free writing.
Free writing – writing done in that ‘hypnagogic state’ between waking and dreaming – is the first step in therapeutic writing. As Marion Milner found, allowing oneself space and time – and silence – can be a powerful way to access something beyond our conscious minds – whether we think of this as something spiritual or as what Bolton refers to as our ‘inner mentor’.
Free writing is best done with the body as well as with the mind – something may be lost if it’s mediated through a keyboard and a computer screen – when those insidious red and green lines start to criticise even before your thought is fully formed.
But free writing is only a first step. Milner went on to explore the nature of creative activity in On Not Being Able to Paint. Having experimented with free drawing, as she had with free writing, she became aware of a parallel need for a frame or structure, “without which human activity can spend itself in disastrous dissipation of energy.”
Bolton agrees. She has reservations about the practice, expounded in books such as Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, simply to write for thirty minutes every day. Sometimes, that can be a trap. “You can get stuck with the voice of your critic, with everything just getting blacker and blacker.”
To avoid this, Bolton suggests free-writing for just six minutes at a time. “After that, you need something playful.”
Plenty of ideas can found for such ‘playful’ exercises. Some people respond to the formal structures of poetry, others to the familiar form of fairytales. “Once upon a time there was a… is such a powerful trigger,” says Bolton. “You can use it to explore your own archetypes, or discover what magic gifts you would give yourself. The golden rule is: you must write the positive.”
This is not simply a facile instruction to ‘always look on the bright side of life’. It is important not to shy away from the dark stuff. But afterwards, it’s vital to actively seek out the light.
Another trap that people may fall into is to imagine that what they have tapped from their subconscious is somehow sacrosanct – immune from the need to edit. Virginia Woolf described finding ‘diamonds in the dust heap’ when she wrote her diaries ‘at a gallop’. But as she well knew, those diamonds still require cutting and polishing. Often it is the shaping and reshaping of an image or a narrative that will allow you to find its real meaning.
You don’t have to join a group to take advantage of the benefits of therapeutic writing. Bolton’s advice to anyone thinking of starting out of their own is to find a trusted friend. “Not a life partner or a business partner. And preferably someone who also wants to write, so there is an exchange, a quid pro quo.” If possible, she says, read aloud to each other. There is something tremendously powerful about the process of giving your words a voice.
The full version of this article was first published in Words with Jam Magazine.