Creative and Therapeutic Writing
Overlaps, Links and Differences
to make something from nothing
therapeía – θεραπεία – treatment – Ancient Greek
Some while ago I asked myself this question: Where are the overlaps, the links and the differences in creative and therapeutic writing?
Within minutes my brain had gone fuzzy. I kept thinking of pieces that I’d written which answered both aspects. I couldn’t divide one from the other. And yet… I find myself arguing the case to define each.
I draw on literary styles and my writing often proves to be healing. I have long called my slant on writing: Creative Therapeutic Writing with no ‘and’ to separate the two adjectives. It is a phrase that means what it says. A ‘creatively therapeutic’ approach to writing. More so I feel than the inverted description of ‘therapeutically creative’. To me that infers a given therapeutic or healing intention for creative writing in the first instance. Whereas I find writing in itself is often (not always) a therapeutic activity, but I find it first and foremost creative.
When I turned my question on its head, I asked myself: what is the intention in my writing? Then I started to get lots of answers flooding into my mind. If there is any satisfactory answer, I think it has to lie with the writer and the intention of a particular piece. I might ask myself: Is this going to be a piece of prose? Am I writing for the sake of it?
Often in the beginning I may start with an outpouring of scribbles and go nowhere else. The piece may not have any intention at all. That perhaps is the therapeutic end of exploration. Other times I may redraft and edit until I have writing which is well-honed and has a clear form like a poem. A fully created piece.
Writing is an adventure into the unknown. In this blog I quote some words from a real adventurer: a mountaineer. I critique one of my poems which started as a free-write (therapeutic intention) and ended as a prose-poem (creatively worked). And thoughts follow on what my writing achieves therapeutically and creatively.
My Therapeutic Approach
A writer’s life is a highly vulnerable almost naked activity . . . It is true to say that you are open to all the winds, some of them icy indeed. (Harold Pinter – Nobel Prize for Literature 2005)
In real icy and treacherous conditions, the Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer (1913-2006) described how ‘true confidence’ and knowing himself with ‘unsparing clarity’ was vital when he climbed. He said: ‘Unless you cross inner lines, you cannot encounter great adventure.’
My writing helps me know and understand myself better – makes me more confident as well as, at times, more vulnerable. I write to know what I think, how I feel and how I might act in any given situation. If I cross my own ‘inner lines’ as a writer, I am down to my bare bones, inside my skin, my naked self clothed with words. This is what I know about those times:
I come up against the forces of myself
the rawness of myself
my desires and anxieties
my limitations and my expansiveness
My Creative Approach
But then I use my imagination to develop what I am writing. In this extract I draw on the metaphor of a rope to describe what my writing achieves. I show its therapeutic effect through expressing myself creatively with a range of images.
My rope writing has a very long reach; up to the heavens and down into the bottom of the well with a bucket to draw up surprise after surprise. It is the sort of rope that I twine and weave as I go through time. The strands hold the content and I travel on with less emotional baggage which unravels on the journey. I travel lighter. Emotions like fear, shame, and anxiety are shed and what is essentially mine is not lost. What is left after this shedding of cluttered up feelings is like a steel core through the centre of the rope, through the centre of myself.
My Approach in the Present to Past Experience
The following prose-poem was written in response to reading Selima Hill’s collection: Lou Lou. Her poems – with their extraordinary juxtapositions of different images – entered the world of psychiatric care that she had received when younger in hospital. She gave her bizarre but brilliant poems ordinary names like: Night-room, Day-room, Side-room, Corridor and so on.
Reading them brought up painful memories of my own time in an acute psychiatric ward. Many of those memories were of the corridor. There is a lot of action in a psychiatric ward’s corridor: patients pace up and down like animals in a cage, fights break out, patients are smartly walked in or out. Visitors come and then leave behind their relatives.
My first description was a free-write: no form, a string of words on the page. Later I turned that into a prose-poem. Here it is:
is where the tramp woman fingered the walls
to find her way
leads to everywhere I must go
is where visitors come in and leave me behind
is where they shouted my name from the medicine trolley
echoes my name
is where I was frog-marched
for trying to use the office telephone
when the trolley phone had been out of order for days
leads to the doors
they tell you are locked they aren’t I can slip through
I didn’t run away I returned then they knew they were not locked
is where I went when I was so out of myself that I needed those walls
I read this silently to myself before a Presentation and felt my stomach turn over. The poem became alive, recreated the scene from over twenty years ago. Even though I had felt sick I knew the writing worked; that is the price I pay as a writer willing to read my poems in public. The reward came when several people told me afterwards that it was their favourite.
The creative process began when I redrafted my free-write. I put in line-breaks and spaces to make the lines look like a corridor on the page. (WordPress is limited and this is as near an approximation to placing on the page as I can get.) I changed the tenses from past to present. And wherever I had put in a ‘you’, which tends to distance the experience from both writer and listener, I owned the phrases with the first person pronoun, my own ‘I’ Voice.
Redrafting my original free-write into a prose-poem meant I had taken those memories from out of my head onto the paper. Taking that expressive writing and editing as I have described gave a shape to the lived experience. The naked vulnerability of exposing that experience became clothed with words. This may sound paradoxical but I found this helped my inner vulnerability shift into the body of the poem. The whole process was both therapeutic and creative.
My writing draws on my life experiences with feelings in the moment and old ones from the past. I never planned in the beginning that Hospital Corridor would end up as a prose-poem. I just thought if Selima Hill is giving her poems titles like that, I’ll have a go and see what emerges for me in a free-write.
After one of my readings, a member of the audience asked me: When does a free write turn into something creative? My answer stressed that a free write wasn’t intended to be anything other than writing in a flow with no particular intention. Later I thought of a better answer:
When I take some gems of sentences from a free-write and begin crafting them into a piece I may redraft and edit into something that pleases me. Then I feel I have entered the creative phase.
To end this blog, I return to the rope metaphor. That free-write led on to another, and another, which in turn led to a chapter: Rope-Mates in my book ms.
This rope threaded with words serves me well; it is intertwined with stories from my own life and stories I find in my imagination. I have twined this rope, with my true feelings.
I draft and redraft probably more now than years ago. Every word matters. Every sentence needs to be in the right place. The question of whether writing is creative or therapeutic interests me but in the end I find it spurious. Each piece rests on its own merits depending on how it evolves and shapes up. That’s what the writing process is all about.
Have I said what I meant? Will you the reader understand what I am trying to get across? Will you the reader find my writing resonates with some of your lived experience, some of your feelings? Is that creative? I hope so. May it be therapeutic? I shrug my shoulders. Will I change how I name what I do? Not at the moment.
ⓒ Monica Suswin March 2016
New terms keep popping up. I belong to Lapidus in the UK which currently calls itself: The Writing for Wellbeing Organisation. In its early days the phrase: Literary Arts in Personal Development was used.
The Metanoia Institute in London & Bristol calls their MSc Course: Creative Writing for Therapeutic Purposes thereby avoiding any claim to the more specific term of therapeutic writing. That means it may draw students and practitioners with a more literary disposition, as well as a wide variety of people from the caring professions.
Yet another – rather side-ways but aligned term – is Creative Non-Fiction. The University of East Anglia runs a course in Biography and Creative Non-Fiction – previously called Life-Writing, which includes memoir, other lives and any writing based on facts. Real life written with a literary style to reveal the narrative.
My WordPress Analytics shows that you my readers come from many parts of the world. I’d be really interested to know about your own experiences of writing within these definitions of creative and therapeutic or healing and wellbeing. Please do comment. I’ve not had one from abroad so far.
Seven Years in Tibet by Heinrich Harrer (1976) London: Hart-Davis, MacGibbon.
The White Spider – the classic account of the ascent of the Eiger by Heinrich Harrer (2005)  p.21
Lou Lou by Selima Hill (2004). Northumberland: Bloodaxe Books.
“Harold Pinter: Nobel Lecture: Art, Truth & Politics”. Nobelprize.org.
http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/2005/pinter-lecture-e.html/. accessed: 6 Aug 2012
Extracts from my book ms – Chapter 9: A Fox Crossed My Path & Chapter 12: Rope-Mates