Creative Therapeutic Writing

Scribbles & Splurges –   A Rope of  Words

Handmade rope made from strands of hemp

My writing invariably starts with a free-write although my preferred word is usually: scribble. When I am writing furiously at a fast pace, I’ll call my scribbles splurges. It all means the same sort of thing – getting what is inside the head, or more to the point finding out what is inside my head in an unformed state, out onto the page. I do it with pencil or more recently a gel flow pen onto paper because I can’t easily read back my pencilled writing. I find this a tremendous form of immediate self expression and give myself a ten or twenty minute stint. Others might suggest other time limits.

Free-writing is a well established technique with exploratory and expressive writing. As the name implies it is to write freely (see guidelines at end of piece) and was made popular in the nineteen seventies by Peter Elbow, later to become an American Professor of English. The important things, he found, happened during the course of writing (my italics) when his thoughts eased up and flowed; not when he was sitting at a desk thinking about what to write coherently for an essay.

When I use free-writing in a workshop I may suggest guidelines after setting up the exercise or just say: write at random and see what emerges but keep writing. I’ll always encourage participants to read out loud and share. But only with what feels comfortable. Style and content vary from person to person but our themes for discussions arise from what has been written spontaneously. Some are eager to be heard, others need a little encouragement. Overall I view this as empowering: women (my Cabin workshops are for women) owning their words, experiencing being listened to and taking part in a discussion stimulated from their own writing. A recent popular topic was Absent Mothering – an emotionally charged exchange of experiences as daughters.

As for my own scribbles, usually no-one sees them because I do so many. Sometimes I am so amazed at what I’ve written I’ll ring up a writing friend and read aloud on the phone – luckily I have several trusted listeners. I also share my writing with a particular writer I call my rope-mate. The origins of this phrase (borrowed from mountaineering) emerged at the end of a long rambling piece and gave its name to Chapter 12: Rope Mates. All the extracts here come from that chapter which is about the value of writing companions and a rope of words – explaining how a series of pieces behave like the twining strands of a rope being twisted.

A Free Write is Prompted

This theme started with a few lines addressed to myself in the second person right at the end of a long dramatic exploration I wrote in 2006. Here it is:

If you fall off the mountainside the ropes to get you back onto the safe path is woven with words. Use them. Speak them. Write them.

This metaphorical mountain had popped up out of the blue. I used the initial phrase to do a free-write, changing the ‘you’ to ‘I’. Owning the possibility of falling off the mountain. The ‘you’ in the next extract becomes my writing companion in the role of a rope-mate.

If I fall off the mountain which is always possible the rope will hold me tight, and if you fall off the mountain this rope is so long now I will cut it in two and give you the half if you haven’t got your own. Yes I’d like to do that because the words whether in the talking or the writing are the most important thing.

As I wrote more on this theme of cutting the rope in half I became curiously anxious without knowing why. How daft I was. It brought up anxiety and fear out of all proportion to sitting at my desk typing away. There was no real mountain, no real danger.

I was not to know, however, that there was another dreaded depressive illness lurking around the corner of family-involving and draining circumstances. Far from finding my feet on any mountain slope, I was beginning to feel very wobbly and fell properly ill in the New Year of 2007.

Unravelling the Rope

Fortunately my writing companion had an ingenious response to the business of cutting the rope. She suggested unravelling it longitudinally (a gentler action than cutting), this allowed for the image of two separate sets of strands. In the chapter I go into far more detail of why two rather than one rope felt necessary. Another free-write was equally reassuring:

Long journeys need careful preparation and thought. It is entirely sensible you have the long rope and cut it in half. It would be foolish to travel without such a rope. All such journeys carry fear as well as excitement. Your journey is the journey of the heart. This requires the good balance of your feet up and down the mountain and eyes that see clearly. And the rope to steady you, if and when you have need of it.

The rope proved itself a potent symbol for further writing. Here are a couple more examples in different styles and each with a satisfactory meaning:

On Feelings

she has been able to weave her feelings into the rope

and she is sure of her feelings

which send her information for all her writings

On Surprises

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 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.

When I recovered from the illness in 2007, I was indeed lucky that all my writing companions had held the metaphorical rope of writing for me when in effect I had let go and fallen into the abyss. I was able to pick up the other end of the rope and carry on adding my own words. I could re-read these pieces and see that in fact through having followed the strands of thoughts with my writing, I had shed the unwanted feelings as surplus luggage.

Writing Exercises

The guidelines I follow for free-writing are simple and permissive:

*  Write what flows with no regard to style or grammar
*  Allow the writing itself to dictate the trajectory of content
*  Go with the tangential, absurd, even the nonsensical
*  Attend to everything: thoughts, feelings, observations
*  Write whatever comes into mind

I have always found it valuable to free-write with others; it has always been a great spur to keep going with fresh input. These are my recommendations:

*  Find a trusted writing companion for sharing
*  Write every which way you can
*  Carry this writing over a few days, weeks, even several months
*  Use key sentences for further exploratory free-writing
*  Work with the liveliest sentences and redraft into a poem or prose
*  Edit into a finished piece to share with others

ⓒ Monica Suswin

Read This: Bolton_Writers-Key_978-1-84905-475-1_colourjpg-print

The Writer’s Key by Gillie Bolton (2014)
Introducing Creative Solutions for Life
Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Packed with straightforward strategies
to unlock your writing
and get your stories flowing.


4 thoughts on “Creative Therapeutic Writing

  1. Thank you for sharing such a beautiful metaphor: rope writing! Especially your thoughts around cutting the rope, separating and then the idea of ‘unravelling it longitudinally’. The image I get is one of two people swinging liana-like each on one strand as they unravel that rope, orbiting around each other yet whilst also being centred in their very own sphere…


  2. Indeed they do! Thank you Petra and Gillie for your insights. In my chapter: ‘Rope Mates’ the metaphor of the rope prompted much reading about mountaineering and the rocks that needed to be scaled. There are wonderful books written by mountaineers like Heinrich Harrer (The White Spider); Joe Simpson (Touching the Void) and Mountains of the Mind (Robert Macfarlane). Writing about Mountain Adventurers draws on the fabulously useful metaphor as well!


  3. Pingback: a response | petra hilgers

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