‘What’s writing really about? It’s about trying to take fuller possession of the reality of your life.’ – Ted Hughes
‘I own me, and therefore I can engineer me.’ – Virginia Satir
Here, an imagined snippet of dialogue between poet Ted Hughes and family therapy pioneer Virginia Satir. As a counsellor/psychotherapist who uses writing as a tool for self-discovery, self-care, and a host of other things that start with the prefix ‘self-,’ both these quotes appeal to me – in fact, you could probably replace the word ‘writing’ with ‘therapy’ in Hughes’, and the subsequent line would still make perfect sense. Satir, meanwhile, bolsters the idea of taking hold of one’s life , reminding us of our capacity for autonomy and self-direction. To her wise words I would add an endorsement, speaking both from personal and professional experience, that writing can be an incredible force for change in our efforts to own our lives and selves. An insightful journal entry or creative writing exercise might spark the beginnings of a quiet revolution – or, it might be just a collection of words on a page or screen with no particular ‘light-bulb moment,’ and that’s okay too. In either case, something has been created, and that in itself can have real therapeutic value.
My interest in the area of Writing Therapy/Creative Writing for Therapeutic Purposes (or ‘CWTP,’ for those that like acronyms) stems from my own relationship with writing and its evolution over the years – from constant story-writing as a child to happily geeky essay-writing in college, to journal-writing during my counsellor training and beyond, and more recently a deeper dive into the wider world of creative writing, firstly for pleasure but then also as a tool for reflective professional practice. The more I mined into this latter vein, the more certain I became of my sense that the act and process of writing, say by journaling, composing a poem or just playing around with words, can connect us with an internal reservoir of knowledge that may be there in the background but just outside of our awareness – or as devoted diarist Virginia Woolf suggested, ‘It sweeps up accidentally several stray matters… which are the diamonds of the dustheap.’ Aside from diamonds, for me writing can be like a key to a door; a door to a garden; a garden of possibilities; and perhaps too a compass, to help locate each of the above. What I love most about this way of working is the inner freedom it can tap into and the vastness of the horizons – you are really only limited by your imagination, and that’s an exciting proposition.
The wider CWTP umbrella may be seen to encompass a range of interrelated approaches and ideas, such as reflective writing, journal therapy, and poetry therapy, as well as any number of forms and pathways. What these approaches tend to have in common is the use of writing and the written word, generally in a ‘process over product’ manner, to engender authentic self-expression and/or inner connectedness, which may in turn produce some beneficial shift in state. Unlike many other writing pathways, the emphasis here is not on ‘quality,’ editing or publication, nor are there any expectations around form, metre, spelling, and so on. We seek to illuminate the connection between the writer and their words, and any insights therein that might aid in that process of taking fuller possession of one’s life. The ‘rules,’ if any, are of the writer’s own choosing.
The sentiments of everything here are very much in keeping with the ideals of humanistic psychotherapy which are the backbone of my counselling work, so it felt like something of a natural progression to bring the creativity and therapeutic potential of writing into my practice. However, in spite of undertaking specialised training in the field, co-facilitating workshops at Big Smoke Writing Factory, and leading a creative/reflective writing group for counsellors, as soon as I starting toying with the idea of referring to myself as a ‘Writing Therapist,’ an old, nay-saying internal voice piped up to conscientiously object to such audacity – ‘Who are YOU to claim such a title?’ etc. etc. I’m sure this is quite the same type of voice that impedes many a would-be writer from making the leap to wholly, unapologetically claiming that title for themselves – the irony being that, as wordsmiths, we may have numerous ways to describe this self-censoring grumbler (commonly known as the ‘inner critic’ in therapy circles, though Woolf’s ‘angel of the house’ or Hughes’ ‘inner police system’ are just as apt) but not so many practical ways to challenge it, negotiate with it, perhaps even find a way to collaborate with it.
Agitating against one’s inner critic is just one example of where writing may yield therapeutic benefits, whether it be through free-writing or journaling about it; dialoguing with it; writing it a letter or poem and letting it write back; writing about it as a metaphorical image such as an animal or object; or using some published work around the idea as a springboard for one’s own writing and seeing what emerges. These are the kinds of techniques that I may use with individuals in therapy open to using writing as a tool, whether they identify as writers or not and for whatever situation or emotional landscape they find themselves in – and, critic be damned, I think that does qualify me to use the ‘Writing Therapist’ moniker!
Architect and writer Kyna Leski suggests that ‘a creative process comes from displacing, disturbing, and destabilising what you (think you) know’ – and I believe it is here where creativity, therapy, writing and language can potentially align and form a new constellation of insight and self-understanding. Though not currently as well-established as some other creative therapies, my hope is that the ideals of Writing Therapy will gain greater traction and awareness in the wider world of writing, giving its inhabitants an additional life tool – and one that draws on a medium they are already passionate about. The pen and page await, and with them a galaxy of therapeutic potential.
(c) Simon Forsyth MIACP