Creative writing and lockdown. Therapy to boot?

Creative writing and lockdown. Therapy to boot?

Writing as freedom, as an outlet, as a release, as a means of setting our imagination loose…

These were just some of the ways students conceptualised the writing that they did during last semester’s creative writing course. The course ran for three weeks on campus and then nine weeks online due to lockdown and every week students had to post work and provide feedback (via forums) on their colleagues’ work.

Several students mentioned in their final dissertations (in which they had to analyse their personal creative writing process during the course) that writing and sharing their writing with their classmates had not only made them feel more confident and creative but also ‘better’ in general terms. Several mentioned that it had helped them through a difficult period (‘hard times’) during which the campus was closed for the second time in the year 2020. And one mentioned the word ‘therapy’. Goodness.

To be entirely honest, the aspect of creative writing as therapy is not one that has particularly caught my interest in the past. Why not?

  • It hasn’t really cropped up in my teaching experience.
  • I don’t know much about it and I’ve always imagined it as being a bit touchy feely to suit my temperament.
  • There’s something about the idea of writing as therapy that troubles me. Personally, writing is not necessarily always something that comes easy to me. It has its ups and downs. Does this mean that when it’s down I’m down. Or vice versa? And what does it mean if the writing is going well but not the rest. Am I a freak?
  • And what do we mean by therapy? In France a psychologist for instance is a five-year course. (NB a general practitioner = eight-year course which says long about how mental health is regarded here). Should we use the word therapy if it’s not carried out by mental health practitioners?

But as times change, learners needs change. Perhaps the moment has come, as a teacher of creative writing, to be at least better informed concerning the subject. And so, I turned to a friend of mine, Jon Sayers, who is experienced in this field. Jon is a certified Instructor of  Journal to the Self workshops, running workshops teaching people the techniques in small and supportive groups and he very kindly agreed to share his knowledge and expertise with us.

Thank you Jon:

“There are two main approaches. One is called Expressive Writing (or Writing Therapy). And the other is called Journal Therapy. These terms aren’t fixed and tend to be interchangeable, which can be a little confusing. Sometimes the terms ‘therapeutic writing’ and ‘reflective writing’ are also used, which can be applied to either approach.

Expressive Writing

Expressive writing is the approach developed by social psychologist James Pennebaker, who is Regents Centennial Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas. Over a number of decades, he has led highly successful research studies into the healing effects (both psychological and physical) of expressive writing.

His method, which has been applied to many different population groups and types of pathology or emotional disturbance, involves several consecutive days of short writing bursts following a particular protocol, which is set out clearly in his books and workbooks. Here’s a brief video taster of how his method works: The Expressive Writing Method. This book introduces the subject and contains writing exercises and a guide to interpreting your responses to them: Expressive Writing: Words That Heal

A more recent book offers evidence-based support for the emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing: Opening Up By Writing It Down

I have used and experienced the Pennabaker method myself during my training with the Therapeutic Writing Institute and can personally testify to its power and effectiveness. It could be recommended to participants who might have an interest in this kind of writing and who have a traumatic event (from mild to severe) that they want to process outside of coaching sessions. It’s also a great tool for coaches to develop our own self-awareness and to learn the power of language (including positive language) to change our neurological wiring relating to certain events and experiences.

The Wikpedia article Expressive Writing on Expressive Writing (here termed ‘Writing Therapy’) provides a concise and helpful introduction to the subject of Writing Therapy.

Journal Therapy

Journal Therapy is my own main area of interest and I am qualified to teach the journaling techniques through the Therapeutic Writing Institute of Denver, Colorado.

There a around 22 different established journaling techniques that can help our clients (and ourselves) bypass our conscious minds to draw on the richness of our hidden potential and discover ways we might be unknowningly blocking ourselves, quickly, economically, and recreationally.

Writers are encouraged to write quickly with no attention to spelling, grammar or any of the normal ‘rules’ of writing learned at school.

Here are just a few of the techniques Journal Therapy offers:

Sprint

Catharsis is encouraged by allowing a writer to write about anything for a designated period, such as for five minutes or for ten minutes:

Lists

The writer writes any number of connected items in order to help prioritize and organize.

Captured moments

Writer attempts to completely describe the essence and emotional experience of a memory.

Unsent letters

This attempts to silence a writer’s internal censor; it can be used in a grieving process or to get over traumas, such as sexual abuse.

Character sketch

A written portrait of another person or of some aspect of yourself. Handy to use when you’re in conflict with someone, when you want to see how you might come across to someone else, or when you want to get to know the different parts of yourself in a more direct and intimate way.

Dialogue

The writer creates both sides to a conversation involving anything, including but not limited to, people, the body, events, situations, time etc.

Reflection

Important to journal therapy, as this makes the writer aware of his or her feelings and thought processes.

Once again, Wikipedia provides a good succinct overview of the subject if you’re interested in reading further about Journal Therapy. Kathleen (Kay) Adams, a US licensed psychologist, and founder of the Center for Journal Therapy and its teaching arm The Therapeutic Writing Institute,is probably the leading proponent of contemporary journaling today. She makes journaling creative and accessible while ensuring it still reaches the important parts of the mind and soul. First published in the 1980s, her book Journal to the Self remains the journaling ‘bible.’ It introduces readers to 22 journaling techniques or ‘paths to personal growth.’Kay also launched a brilliant online resource earlier this year, which offers some free resources and some very affordable courses: Journalversity

The Professional Writing Academy

In the UK, the PWA runs an excellent introductory course: Introduction to Therapeutic and Reflective Writing.While you’re on their site, check out their blog and search for articles on ‘expressive writing’ and ‘therapeutic wriitng’ for a variety of insightful angles on the subject from a range of practitioners.

Lapidus

For anybody wishing to connect with others interested in therapeutic journaling and expressive writing, it might be worth joining Lapidus  the UK’s writing for wellbeing organisation, which carries details of local groups and events and lots of other useful information and resources.

Just For Men

It’s often said that men have more difficulty expressing their emotions to others. So journaling can be an especially useful tool for them. I would recommend: This Book Will Make You Stronger.”

Thank you so much for all of this Jon. I now longer have any excuse for being uninformed about the subject and you are right when you say that there are lots of links between these techniques and more traditional creative writing classes that provide potential for further development.

Many of the techniques that Jon mentions we of course use in creative writing classes although the terminology differs eg. Sprint = free write. Last semester one of the subjects of our ritualised 10 minute free write at the beginning of class was ‘Waiting’ and several students shared texts that dealt with lockdown through the lens of waiting. When we worked on conceptual writing, playing around with square writing, the theme of confinement once again recurred. And on a separate course running at the same time, two (LANSAD) students wrote the following listicles:

My creative writing classes are not intended as therapy. However, as the previous examples show, when we encourage students to write creatively it is inevitable that some of them are going to share intimate thoughts and feelings in a more or less direct manner. Very recently a student submitted a text that, as she explained in her critical analysis, was a fictionalised account of the traumatic death of her young neice. As teachers it seems to me we have a responsibility to be aware of what we might set into motion unknowingly and, above all, know how to react appropriately.

When I asked for permission to publish the previous texts, one of the authors replied back to me the folowing: ‘Thank you. It really does means a lot to me to know that my homework is being read. University can feel really impersonal at times’. For many writers (and not only students) there is solace in writing, solace in being read. Of having a voice that is listened to.

If people have further questions or want to get in touch with Jon for more info (or maybe even a complimentary online introductory workshop) they’re welcome to contact him at jon@boom.co.uk

He is currently writing courses for WriteWell Community, a new writing for wellbeing website launching soon.

Thank you for beautiful mimosa from fig_tart

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