Creative Therapeutic Writing

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                            buildings of the future

Shifting Boundaries

a cluster of trees used as a boundary  (Old Breton)

When words emerge from inside my head onto screen or paper, they cross a boundary from inner self to outer world to make themselves visible. This blog uses mainly the unbounded form of free writing (see Blog 4) to explore some personal impressions of my own sense of boundaries.

Free-writing by its very nature is without the boundaries of formal writing and considered editing of prose or poems. When I free-write, I value a feeling of freedom within myself. Rather appropriate and paradoxical that this style of writing helped me know my boundaries better.

The OED defines boundaries in terms of ‘limits’ and ‘dividing lines’. A series of short limited journal extracts follow separated with explanatory headings.

Fixed Boundaries

Real walls don’t move – they are built of materials such as mud, stones or bricks, cement too. For thousands of years, they have provided dwellings for humans, for animals and given shelter from heat or cold.

When I look for boundaries I see them everywhere: walls, fences, railings, roof-tops, high rise flats, hedges and lines of trees. All around us in cities, towns and the country-side.

Personal Boundaries

My own boundary is rooted in the sense of myself as a person. My exploratory writing, however, has challenged an assumption that boundaries are definite and static. I discovered, only through writing, that my own boundaries are flexible and often on the move.

Here’s a question I set myself – the answer doesn’t deal with boundaries of time and space, but is more to do with the quality of self and relationship:

Why are boundaries important?

They make me aware of my individuality, more so now having lived alone for six years and being older. I feel defined with a sense of separateness. It has not always been so.

When I am with others I look for edges where I may meet and engage, usually in conversation and empathy. The image of iron filings comes to mind – thinking of the attraction and distances – within the field of energy between me and another person.

I value my personal space and the chameleon like quality my boundaries have depending on how I feel, my needs and responses in the moment and whose company I’m sharing. All of these are invisible indicators to me of the varying qualities of relationship.

Fixed & Permeable Boundaries

This is what I wrote in 2012:

Everything under the sun is on the move; the earth orbits on itself and around this massive ball of exploding gases held in shape through the force of gravity. The air in the atmosphere moves through our bodies as millions of cells inside us are constantly replacing themselves. Yet defining boundaries and the limit of things is what we humans do to the land, to our dwellings, to each other and to ourselves.

Gems in the Scribbles

Rambling free-writes from three or four years ago often gave me insights – like this gem:

It is the boundary between comfort and discomfort in my inner emotional life that I cross when I write in my own creative therapeutic way.

The Comfort & Discomfort Zones

Diary writing is triggered when I’m at my least comfortable – probably ambivalent, angry or upset – or possibly a combination of all three. When I start to feel uncomfortable, I may not be able to express myself in the moment. Sometimes it’s a slow dawning. Or the timing isn’t right. If my writing doesn’t resolve the issue or doesn’t make me feel better, I’ll give myself the boundary of a time limit and return another day.

Often this sort of writing may need a couple of stabs before comfort is reached again. The idea of discomfort stabbing the self may be apt as writing pierces through confusion to find clarity.

Here’s how I dealt with an uncomfortable feeling after seeing a friend:

As I wrote I put brackets around the friend’s name to match my cross feelings. That separated her out from me. I might have chosen to send a letter or e-mail. I chose neither. Although I said I’d be speaking or writing soon, I neither wrote nor telephoned. I later wrote an unsent letter (written in my diary but not sent). In staying silent, I locked her out, showed my passive disapproval – if only to myself.

Writing Life & Emotional Boundaries

Buried in one of my previous long free-writes (2011) was another gem of a sentence, which stopped me in my tracks:

In my personal writing I have no boundaries, which is why I need to do it.

I needed to know exactly what I meant and posed myself two questions:

What does having no boundaries in my personal writing give me?
Why do I need to write?

Here’s the answer:

It answers the creative source inside me. Creativity bubbles up whether from within or without when I am feeling open in mind and feelings. I am truly creative when I am receptive to what wants to come into and through my writing without form. Form in terms of style or working on a piece until it is satisfying crosses into another part of me (wearing the editor’s hat) and I love that too. I love all aspects of writing. But in order to do it, I must be boundary-less within myself. That’s what I experience.

When I first started to explore boundaries through writing about four years ago I quickly realised it’s a complex subject. I had made an assumption that I had no real sense of boundaries. Writing, however, made me see pretty quickly I had a good sense of my own personal boundaries. The writing at the time reflected emotions and explorations flowing every-which-way which I interpreted as a boundary-less place within.

As I write this blog, reassessing what I think and feel, I realise that my sense of inner boundaries has changed and firmed up quite considerably. Shifted in fact. There was a time when exploration was key to my writing. That time is not now. I’m following another direction. There are times for exploration and times for consolidation. Times for explanations. Times for pauses. Limits to the best of things like experiential and exploratory writing.

My current purpose is working with the material already written and explored to explain its power and effectiveness and bring it up to date. That in itself gives me a sense of the boundary I bring to this current blog writing.

ⓒ Monica Suswin 2015

Writing Exercises:
How are boundaries important to you?
What is the link between your writing and your internalised boundaries?

Please do make a comment. Thank you.

Notes:
Skeat, W. (1893) An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Extracts: Shifting Boundaries (Chapter 5 – book ms.)

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Creative Therapeutic Writing

   A Search for Meaning in Illness

yellow and blue fractal

If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering.

Dr Viktor Frankl  (Austrian psychiatrist and neurologist)

Mental illness is a personal suffering and long ago I decided there was no meaning that I could find in my own clinical depressions. But through writing about them I have indeed found meaning. Not about the illnesses. But in the ways I found I could express myself. And what happened through staying with the process of that expressive and creative writing.

On my shelves is a very small book: Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl (1905-1997). My copy (published in 1963) is a good read which is a curious thing to say about unimaginable circumstances: the author wrote about how he and others survived the concentration camps. The meaning, he means, is not to do with making sense of what is senseless but how man decides and chooses what attitude and approach to take of what is left of his life. Is s/he worthy of his sufferings? (My gender inclusion) he poses.

My trusting attitude could only be found when I was well and wanted to explore something about my illnesses through writing. Here I start with a memory, a disturbing one; meaning came much later.

off the wall

I spent the night in a cave of undergrowth

until dawn when the fox crossed my path

                                                                                        (an event 1993)

Writing Tames the Bad Times

For years at a time my well-being had never been in question. But in 1993 I was ill for a whole year and in hospital for much of it. Allowed home from the acute psychiatric ward, I’d spent a whole night outdoors only wanting to hide like a sick animal under a hedge. When I saw a fox moving through the grass, just yards from me in the early morning mist I noted it, but gave it no more thought. Yet that fox stayed in my mind for many years before I explored the hidden meanings for myself.

Well over ten years later, having moved to Sussex, I’d often see a fox basking in the sunshine from my bedroom window as I woke up to a lovely sunrise. It was usually curled up in the long grasses with its burnished fur, and the contrast would strike me between this waking and that other early morning dawn. I started to write about the fox’s beauty and the disturbing memory. The fox began to hold a symbolic meaning for my mental illness. In the now with its beauty, however, it also represented the good years of wellness. And so a duality was held which is the nature of powerful metaphors. When illness struck, however, it had become the metaphorical stink which entered the hole in my head (see: Blog 5 & Ted Hughes poem). A hole packed with anxiety, terror and fear; at other times empty, vacuous. A void.

Foxes live on the edge of cities and towns, scavenging where they may. Illness too is a scavenger of the body and mind. Illness tipped me quickly into an undoubted bio-chemical ill-balance: a clinical depression. Current research is only beginning to understand why the brain may become dysfunctional but then and now this is my touchstone to some form of comprehension beyond the blame I felt for my illnesses when younger.

Mental illness, also like the fox, is sly and cunning. Creeping up unawares, it always took me suddenly into its jaws and tossed me around, just like a fox or an angry dog might do.

Lion as Metaphor for Illness

Even before the fox became a metaphor, I had tried to describe in a short story, this terrible helpless feeling of being tossed around by illness. The story itself was multi layered with other meanings and events. The metaphor that came into being were golden lions woven into hangings pulled around a four poster bed. The setting was a medieval castle in the fenlands during the thirteenth century. My narrator was nameless to suit the nothing feeling of the ill-self. Her ‘I’ Voice was nevertheless fully owned as she was put to bed with a delirious fever with the warmth kept in by these curtains.

This extract was written in the present tense when the the fever had set in:

I’m crouching around the post of my bed, hiding between the linen folds of the curtain-hangings – they smell old and stale the lions are coming for me, their tongues are poison, their claws are sharp, serrated. I am in the lion’s mouth – chewed and tossed. They are delving into my stomach with their red tongues. I am split apart, torn open – the fodder of these beasts.

I coil up tightly into a quilt amongst the embroidered flowers, the crimson silk is cool and smooth to my skin. The lions arrange themselves into the wool yarn. The hangings are still pulled around the bed-posts. I have no desire to open them. Sleep is creeping over me. The breathing is easing. There is a yellowing of the denseness with the light of noon. I’m stretching out. The shivering is stopping. I draw the covers even closer around me.

I cannot tell you all there is to tell about this time lying on this great bed, hour after hour, day after day. I am alone as I’ve never been in any other time, with no comprehension or yearning.

When I was well and writing this fictionalised version I touched that old fearful feeling of incipient illness, but the writing gave me a new layer of images: these transformed into an imaginary but just as real memory. That contained the healing because something new was created which was not there before, making me feel less in the grip of the memories. A moving forward in life was more possible with this transformative power – only realised after the writing had been done. The process itself was experiential.

The reality I created in the four poster bed with the embroidered hangings allowed the flight of fantastic images. This gave me a clear boundary of how far I was able to stretch my imagination with what rang true. One of the lions having chewed and tossed the terrified narrator in its mouth had to return to the wool yarn of the hangings around the bed-post. And then something else happened as I wrote that passage:

Could it even be that the lions are smiling? Could it even be that the tear-drops are really golden rain? Beautiful. I am bathed in shafts of softness – light diffusing the boundaries which separate my body from the world around me into infinity. This is a joy inside the dimension of life, which claims me, though I am nameless, yet fills me with the bliss of being.

The crescendo of terror had waned into beauty. And that was how I found the ability to express the terrible fear I felt when ill, but the way the writing turned out gave me a wonderful and surprising shift into healing.

I followed the writing. I had no idea this was how it would evolve. It was the descriptions I chose which mutated into the terrifying images, but also succeeded in turning something horrible into something nurturing. During the process of writing, I actually moved into the bliss of being. These experiences were really felt in my body as I wrote. It was not just inside my head. It was all through me spilling onto the page.

I have found this transition with my writing time and time again. I start with a frightening memory and image and during the process of writing something shifts and is healing.

A Blaze of Yellow

Here is a poem which started with another frightening memory and then moved into the time of writing (2006) and a life affirming scene. Selima Hill had recently brought out a collection: Lou Lou (2004). So many of her poems about her time in a psychiatric hospital, resonated with me, and stimulated me to write my own.

A schizophrenic woman, dirty and dressed in rags, was admitted late one night to the high security acute psychiatric ward. I watched her moving along the corridor wall. In this poem, I transferred my own reality of unbearable mental illness through the remembered image of that terribly ill woman.

Nightmare

She is mincing her feet-steps staccato
side-ways, crabbing all four limbs
palms flat open fingers stiff spread
jabbing the crevices for fixings
for holding for the finding of
the hook that isn’t there
in the invisible wall
so she can unzip hang up her lunar jumpsuit
snuggle under duvet into cup of tea morning
yes-saying-sunshine in at the window
forsythia spikes, daffodils, cowslips      a blaze of yellow

Alongside that memory, I called on other images and integrated them into the second half of the poem. There are no separate stanzas. It is a compact and dense poem. Although there are commas there are no full-stops, and apart from the initial capital letter, all is in lower case. This helps the poem to flow along; the lines quicken and gained momentum, as well as getting louder and emphatic when read aloud.

The pace of the poem emphasised the crazy-ness; each end-line, up until ‘invisible wall’, merging into the following one – words carrying the impact until a pause before ‘the hook’. There were no hooks of course on either the hospital or an imaginary wall; I felt it echoed that experience of not being able to release myself out of day or night, not being able to find a dividing line in time. The image of this disturbed woman merged into a me who had hung up the madness, the craziness, through unzipping the lunar jumpsuit.

Every morning as I opened the curtains that April in 2006, the forsythia, the daffodils, the cowslips, all greeted me with their yellow-ness. Yellow is the colour of the sun, of freshness, new life in the garden blossoming; these images confirmed my good inner feelings. The poem is anchored by those last three lines of the welcoming morning cup of tea and the comfort of the duvet. Everything slows down for the last four words ‘a blaze of yellow’; this phrase is separated out on the page, so the bottom line acts as a foundation for the lines above and provided the full-stop to the poem.

All of this only became clear to me some time after the poem was written. There was no formula to draw on a memory, imagination and everyday images. None of the poetic devices were planned – they happened during the draft stages. I never approach a poem with rules but in retrospect and with reflection, I see that is what Nightmare contains to make it work.

Metaphor and Meaning

I’ve found metaphor so helpful in expressing and exploring my emotional responses to life. Unable to find meaning in incomprehensible illness, I have found my meaning in writing and its mysterious processes. None of this writing, however, was known to me before I started. My only intention being to write about the difficult times. And yet writing out of a place of pain revealed the converse to me: healing.

A metaphor works by calling upon a specific image from the real world to represent an abstract psychological state or episode. Ted Hughes explained in his chapter: Capturing Animals (Poetry in the Making – faber and faber: 1967) how to make language come alive, how he made his ‘thought-fox’ live through the words in his poem.

If you have a metaphor for an illness or difficult time of your life, I’d be really interested to hear. Please do make a comment. Thank you.

Read This:

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl originally published after World War Two. Reprinted with various publications over the years and available. See:http://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/jun/09/viktor-frankls-book-on-the-psychology-of-the-holocaust-to-be-made-into-a-film?CMP=share_btn_tw

Lou – Lou by Selima Hill (2004). Bloodaxe Books.

The Thought-Fox by Ted Hughes. (See Blog 5 for reference)

Extracts:

The Embroidered Quilt (short story)

A Fox Crossed My Path (Chapter 9 – book ms.)

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Real Earthquakes

Earthquake

Authors , literary agents and writers of every persuasion are making donations to an on-line auction to raise money for the Nepalese people who have survived the appalling earthquakes. There was one more this week with a magnitude of 7.3.  All the monies will go to Earthquake Relief for Nepal, an appeal set up by New Zealand-based charity First Steps Himalaya.

AUTHORS FOR NEPAL AUCTION

I am offering a Writing Session in Sussex or on Skype and the bids are set to start at £25.

That’s a bargain!  Creative Therapeutic Writing isn’t about critiquing, as the description says, which is the category given. It will be my usual response to what is needed by the other writer. Apparently it will only be up for another 3 days which is why I am giving this maximum exposure now through tweets, face-book and blogging.

Here’s the link for those who might be interested:

http://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/Critiques-and-mentoring-Monica-Suswin-/171784725741

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Personal is Political

Living in Sussex, we are fortunate to live without earth tremors. Although the prospect of fracking into the nooks and crannies of the rock strata of the Weald Basin has unknown consequences. If you asked me if I were a political person, my answer would be: No, because my inner life has been so very demanding of my whole being. But with my understanding of the personal as political that’s the way I live: with small ripples for the few people in my social sphere.

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Creative Therapeutic Writing

foxy curling up in my garden

foxy curling up in my garden

Nurturing & The Naïve Voice

Nothing can make up for a lack of nurturing from childhood, adolescence or even as a young adult. Therapies of different persuasions may assuage and address these feelings.

Writing looks after me in the present and has done so for years now. Writing nurtures me because my assortment of diaries, journals and notebooks are always within reach, always available. Wherever I am. In the house. When I travel.

Perhaps my need to write makes up for an earlier absence of nurturing; perhaps I’m like the toddler needing their Mummy or Daddy when I am comforted by my writing’s supportive nature. At times it’s an addiction like my need for coffee. Equally so there are welcome periods when I don’t need to write at all. This blog is about one tiny way some writing proved to be nurturing: both in process and in content.

The first piece is prose written with a voice I call ‘naïve’; the second a poem drawing on the same material but using my adult voice. I prefer this term ‘naïve’ rather than the familiar concept of the ‘inner child’, as I feel my own inner younger self is imbued with adult knowledge and consciousness. This expressive voice feels naïve rather than childish, or child-like. I also think of the wider meaning around nurturing, as separate from mothering.

The Young Inner Self

My reflections identify with the mischievous eight year old I once was – before Mother woke up to the fact I wasn’t going to grow up into a nice little girl, pirouetting onto the front page of Vogue. I became a tomboy with a mass of curls which frizzed up in the sea-air. She is my favourite inner self when my explorations have felt playful.

Creative therapeutic writing, however, also allows feelings to emerge which are anything but playful: like the unacknowledged feelings of shame or abandonment from earlier years. When I touch the hurts of my younger self, when I become more aware of these feelings from the past, I feel my vulnerability. I cannot go out and play.

Hurt Feelings from the Past

My subterranean emotional material emerges through my writing and I need to acknowledge those feelings as I would in any therapeutic sense. I may work with these emotions and explore them every-which-way; add, subtract and fine-tune my writing until I come to a natural stopping place. Sometimes that process will be enough just for myself; sometimes I’ll need a listener for my once hurt feelings, just like the toddler running to Mummy; some trusted listener to hear my words expressing in the present emotional responses which belong to the past. Tricky feelings may fall away and I’ll be able to let go of them. And then I’ll be free enough to find again my playful creative self.

Nurturing Feelings in the Present

My two pieces here express just what I needed to say and are only about comfortable feelings, the nurturing of myself, expressed in different ways. The first piece of prose was written on holiday in Scotland.

My naive voice is reflected in the simplicity of language chosen; any grammatical rules I would apply to proper or finished writing have been broken. I did, however, give this prose-piece a grown-up title with upper and lower case letters. The writing itself, however, is all lower case with a few full stops and commas, merely to help make sense.

Achmelvich Beach: Western Highlands, Scotland
17.53 hours

and it is not warm. there is wind. and the woman curls up on the white sand in the dunes and rests. first on the right side curl up, and then on the left side curl up. and then she sits up after half an hour, not knowing she was so sleepy and needing rest, and she thought she would have a walk over the green grass sheep shorn hill where rocks jutted out all smooth. but she didn’t, she sat with her knees all tucked into her chest and felt the warm sun on her skin and the wind in her hair and the sandy cliff against her back and the sands hard under her behind and the regular sound of waves breaking on the beach. the tide is going out. she knew she would not walk but stay very still and hug herself tight. and something very still is inside her and she does not have words for this but she knows this sitting very still on the beach is a good thing for her to do.

Even though I called myself the woman, I hugged myself tight as if I were both mother and child inside my own skin. My naïve voice brought simplicity to the style, but included my adult perceptions through description; each phrase making use of colour, the sound of the waves, movement, texture and the physicality of the body. Writing in the third person usually distances the self from the content, but I feel this is an intimate piece and by the end I had expressed the inarticulate.

The precise time of 17.53 hours recorded in my notebook ten years ago (2005) meant it was early evening. I remember the lovely western ocean light bouncing off the sea’s surface; a moment caught which brought back childhood memories of pale yellow warm sand.

One winter’s morning some months later I woke up feeling cosy in bed, which reminded me of the previous summer in Scotland. After several free-writes, a poem eventually emerged transferring the feeling of curling up. I kept all the words in lower case and omitted any punctuation. The poem was written with my adult voice:

Comforting Myself

when there I lay under duvet myself
and no other first on the right side
curl up, then on the left side curl up
hands around myself and no other
it’s not as if the blood ever stops its pulsing
as I pivot and spin around a still-point
over fifty years it’s taken for my own skin
to hold me tight and only the soft whorl
of my fingertip branding my lips

This cosy snuggling up under the softness of my duvet took just the shifting from the ‘right side curl up’ to the ‘left side curl up’ with a more mature expression. There was no sense of restlessness as each side experienced a self-hug, but there were more layered meanings about movement, stillness and holding as the poem moved rhythmically to the last line.

Integration Through Writing

Child or adult, we need emotional support and physical affection to function to our full potential. The nurturing qualities of my expressive writing around the difficult phases of my life brings together the vulnerable and the strong me. My writing emotionally supports my daily life; as well, of course, as the hugs I give and I receive.

These two pieces are included in my book ms in a chapter which dealt with my mental illnesses: A Fox Crossed My Path. As I was enjoying a great sense of well-being during the process of writing that chapter, I wove in poems containing good feelings, a response to my healthy life alongside awful memories which I can not forget. The fox became the metaphor for my illnesses with its ‘hot stink’ entering ‘the dark hole’ of my head.* Yet like the photo above and from a distance, the amber furred creature is beautiful and looks cuddly.

Literature may explore the childhood and teenage experience through giving the narrator an appropriately authentic voice. Creative therapeutic writing directly accesses your own version of these younger selves. You may like to call this an inner child’s voice, or a naïve voice as I do.

********

Prose & poem: Chapter 9 of my book ms: A Fox Crossed My Path.

Writing Exercises

Since I discovered my naïve voice, I’ve always enjoyed its playful nature. Insights, however, I’ve found come later, leading to or helping with the integration of feelings belonging to an earlier self with my present adult.

Here are my guidelines:

* Forget rules about grammar
* Write intuitively
* Play with punctuation or use none at all
* Write in the present tense to find the words in the now
* Experiment with finding your child-like but not childish voice
* Bring your awareness into how you use upper & lower case letters
* Allow your spelling to be erratic, if that fits

* Free-write on the theme of: Comforting Yourself

ⓒ Monica Suswin April 2015

Read This:

* The Fox by Ted Hughes (widely available)

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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.

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Creative Therapeutic Writing

3 folders: 3  extracts from 3 extracts in this piece

3 folders: 3 chapters, 3 extracts in this piece

On Young Men
and Older Women

Exploratory writing led to a theme which I kept noticing turning up through several chapters in my book ms. The theme: younger men. Did I (and do I) find them attractive?

An unequivocal: yes, returned pretty quickly. But lustful thoughts, not really.

In her illustrated book: The Boy, Germaine Greer writes of adolescent and younger boys – their beauty, their youth and how adolescents have been enjoyed and admired throughout the ages by men and women alike.

My young men had, in fact, reached their maturity – decades younger than me, now in my mid-sixties. All my writing was triggered from just one tiny scene in a long busy dream:

Dream Snatch: Everything Starts with a Cup of Coffee

I was at a large outdoors event and joined a queue in front of a stall with an awning for morning buns and coffee. The young man serving tells me the coffee from the percolator is finished: Will I accept instant coffee? I hardly ever drink instant coffee, but I want my morning coffee so I agree and drink it quickly. By this time he tells me the real coffee is ready. He gives me a cup of coffee mounded with white froth. It looks divine. It tastes fantastic. It is the best cup of coffee I have ever seen or drunk.

As I explained this dream snatch, I noticed how I’d moved from past to present tense. I stayed in the present tense with the following imaginative scenes. I wanted to find out more about the significance of the young man and the dream cup of coffee. I was intrigued this was the best cup of coffee I’d ever been given and settled down naturally with a genuine one to give myself authenticity: actually a very good cup of coffee. A real cup of coffee. The warmth spread through my mouth, the taste was velvety smooth. . .

The Exploratory Write-Up

I started by describing the young man:

You are an attractive man. About thirty something. Dark hair, several day’s stubble growth. This is the best cup of coffee I have ever been given. Thank you.

That was pretty short, so I went over the scene again with my eyes closed to visualize the scene:

A sexy young man gives me the best cup of coffee I have ever been given. Thank you, I say. And he replies: a pleasure and smiles at me. What a pity I am not thirty something and he could make himself a cup of coffee and we could find a table somewhere and have a quiet talk. And then go off for a walk into the countryside. I can see a path leading away from this crowded celebratory gathering. We could walk down this path. Talk. And be silent. And sit somewhere in a glade. And then I might stare into his eyes. And he might stare into mine.

The stuff of fairy stories and romantic novels. That was really a surprise write. From best cup of coffee to imagining myself at thirty and having a romantic rendezvous. A pleasant few minutes writing. Was that rubbish? Was it meaningful? Certainly it was fantasy. A waking fantasy. Second best to a dream.

This is the sort of hypnagogic state I go into when my imagination freewheels as the drama is happening inside my head. Preparing myself to write I quieten down, become aware of my breath, allow it to deepen, give myself over to slowness and then I enter this imaginative space.

Taking on the Masculine Identity of the Young Man

At sixty something a young man was not going to walk down a green glade with me hand in hand. In a psychotherapeutic framework, certainly from a gestalt perspective, I needed to complete this exploration by taking on the voice and perspective of the young man. I needed to find my own inner male self and understand what he represented. I used the ‘I’ Voice, kept in the present tense and included dialogue. First of all I made a simple statement, which took me into the piece:

I am thirty-two years old and a man. An older woman comes and asks me for a cup of coffee but I can only give her an instant quickly. A quick one. Is that what she wants?

I will magic up the most spectacular cup of coffee she has ever had. That will please her. She smiles nicely. I wonder what she is thinking when she smiles at me. Maybe she likes me. I certainly like her. Here is a better cup of coffee, I say as I hand it to her. Thank you, she says. A pleasure, I say.

(Chapter 1 – Dream Snatcher: book ms.)

The next piece took the writing about my young man a little further, a little deeper.

Androgyny: the Masculine and Feminine Principles of the Psyche

The American Jungian analyst, Dr June Singer (1920-2004) wrote about the potency of androgyny as a concept: the power (inner strength) lies in the openness to the opposites within oneself.
Singer 1989 (p.17)

This next extract is in keeping with this concept of androgyny:

I am the young man within Monica. In fact I am part of her. I inhabit her not through sex but by being inside her very being, inside her skin. I am the inner young man: the one to protect her; the one to be practical and the one to be strong.

(Chapter 3 – Erotic Alert: book ms)

Young man as protector. Opposites balanced in terms of age and gender. Not a bad interpretation of androgyny for me. This final piece is about a real young man I met in 2012: my camel guide on a Moroccan trip to the desert.

Safe in the Sand Dunes

It was March and warm. I ambled gently on a camel called Abu led by Karsch, a young man of twenty five, the Berber guide. My thoughts led back to the young man in my cup of coffee dream and reflections on my inner and outer self coming together. I thought about my own animus, the masculine part of myself. Real life far from home, a proper journey. I was not a bit afraid. Perfectly safe. A young man as guide and protector.

(Chapter 4 – Raw Heart: book ms)

And so from starting with an imaginative and romantic young man in a dream, I discovered an attraction to younger men which I don’t think I had admitted to myself before. In the end, it’s about looking and appreciating their beauty, but the exploration led me to consider my own inner male qualities (with only short extracts here). In turn that made me realize, I often rely on those qualities in the young men (like Karsch) who appear in my life.

A circuitous line of thought with writing I followed through several chapters. And what did Karsch talk to me about? The girl he loved, of course, and all his own trials and tribulations about her. As a Mum I’m good at listening to young men, and women, about their love-troubled lives.

********

Writing Exercise

This is an exercise to follow to find an inner young man or boy; an inner younger woman or girl, or even to reverse the age into an imagined older version of the self. These are the guidelines I would follow for any of my numerous inner selves:

* Find your inner self and decide on gender and age
* Describe his/her physical appearance
* Free-write (writing without censoring) to him/her
* Write yourself a letter from this inner self and write a reply
* Write a dialogue between him/her and yourself
* Reflect on the characteristics she/he might give you in the present
* Remember to pause and breathe when writing imaginatively
* Keep in the present tense

ⓒ Monica Suswin

Read This:
Androgyny The Opposites Within by June Singer [1976] (1989).
Boston: Sigo Press
Gestalt Therapy Verbatim by Fritz Perls (1971).
New York: Bantam Books (still in print)

Look at (& Read):
The Boy by Germaine Greer. Thames & Hudson. London (2003).

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Creative Therapeutic Writing

All ms files. Draft Three of Book 2012.

All ms files. Draft Three of Book 2012.

Polarities and Paradox

A celebrity suicide reminds us of the frailty of the human condition at odds perhaps with our notions of worldly success and achievement. When we learnt that Robin Williams had killed himself in August 2014, there was an outpouring of public shock and sadness. Then mental illness was back in the news.

Over 45 years I have seen the taboo and stigma lift. People are willing to talk about their terrible personal journeys in and out of dark inner worlds. Others resonate with their own ill stories. As I do.

Nevertheless it is still a big thing to openly admit to this affliction of a mental illness. My own life has been interspersed with long episodes of clinical depression; these have been the biggest of polarities in my life. I tip into serious mental illness from a place of health. It happens so quickly over a few days that I can not catch and hold it back. The first aged 21, the last as I turned 60. No celebration for either significant birthday.

Mental Illness and Writing

In the acute phase of my last illness I could not write at all; I was incapacitated and distressed both emotionally and physically. As the winter months of 2009 dragged on, I was fortunate that at some point my writing colleagues encouraged me to write.

Then in May I had a curious dream. A dream about a house by the sea. It came towards the end of my illness, but I could never have known that. It was a prescient dream and very soon I was about to hit the turning point, and start to get better very quickly. Here is the description:

Dream Snatch

There is a floor I do not know about in the middle of this house. I’ve just discovered this spacious storey where there is a room with high ceilings and a huge modern window looking out to sea, right over the ocean. The house is built high up on a hill-side. The window is open bringing salty fresh air into the room, which has a residual scent of thick warm fabric and seasoned oak. Apart from the window, it’s an old fashioned room with thick brocade curtains on the other wall. The counterpane is luxuriously panelled, tempting for the finger- tips to smooth the rich colours of reds and golds on the big oak framed bed. This faces a wall of shelves from floor to ceiling all neatly stacked with books. The floor is seasoned oak planks. I am so pleased to discover this room that I shall make it my own. My daughter is with me. I hug her and say: go and tell Mummy I am better.

(Chapter 1 – Dream Snatcher: book ms.)

I heard myself speak in the dream and I didn’t mean my Mother, I meant myself as Mummy. Though by that stage I was mostly Mum to my university student daughter.

******

One of my writing friends had driven us to the coast for a walk. The English Channel was in turmoil – like myself – with grey white-flecked waves, different from the ocean in my dream. It was too windy to write outside so we sat in the car and wrote.

Letter from My Dream Room

The letter is a good form for exploratory writing. I wrote the one which follows as if from the dream itself on a yellow lined A4 page. At the bottom I had scrawled: gut implosion. I still felt dreadful.

Dear Monica,

Please come in, open my door, step inside and look around me as if for the first time. Yes, I am your dream-room in a dream house. In a far-away place. This house is perched, no I am wrong it is not perched, it is solidly built into the side of a cliff.

I am the dream-room, high enough up for my window to give you fantastic views of the ocean. When the wind is blowing inland (but always with a warm breeze) the air coming into me is fresh with a salty tang.

You come with no luggage I notice. You only have the clothes you stand up in. The floor is welcoming for your feet. Spread your toes out, stretch up, lean on the window-sill, take in the blues of the ocean. Lean a little more, spread your feet a little firmer and there you are half out of the window feeling sun-warmth, breeze, the heat.

Breathe in this good clean salted air. Let it travel through you cleansing all that is within. Smell it. Isn’t it both salty and scented with the seasoned oak from my interior? All that is within you may be healed in this room, which is me.

I am full of light. Stay here for the light, for clarity, which you believed you had lost. It is here in me. Come to the window. Look out across the ocean – breathe in the clean air. This is what you need.

With newly found affection
Your room

A Place of Healing

Astonishingly, my own dream was offering me an imaginary place of healing. This writing must have come from a well-part of myself, which as I wrote made me feel relieved. When I stopped writing, all the distress flooded back again.

There were simple instructions: come to the window, breathe in the clean air and as I imagined myself re-entering the space of the dream-room, that reality mirrored those exact sensations in my mind and body. The dream writing became potent with the natural presence of good things. What could be more healing than that?

Naturally at the time I didn’t realize the significance, but in the weeks when I was getting better, I often thought of the dream house. It was a transitional time between being ill and becoming well again. In time, the ill feelings receded but the imaginary safe room with its healing qualities had staying power. And it remains in my mind all these years later to visit whenever I want. It shows how the mysterious nature of writing presented me with a paradox quite at contrast with anything I was feeling at the time.

Writing Exercise

Here are the guidelines I followed to re-create that dream-room in my mind:

* Imagine walking into the dream-room
(an imaginatively conjured up one would be fine too)
* Walk all around to explore
* Allow feelings to surface
* Bring awareness into all the senses
* Describe everything visually as precisely as possible
* Pause from time to time and breathe in deeply
* Go with any change of details as they occur during writing
* Write in the present tense to bring the piece to life

When I wrote the letter from the dream-room to myself, I was consistent in using the first person pronoun my ‘I’ Voice and didn’t sign off: ‘love from’, but felt for a different ending to round off.

Later I carried on with more correspondence of responses and replies until I had quite a body of letter-writing which explored the dream room and its significance more fully than I could ever have imagined.

******

Future postings will show other exploratory writing about my mental illnesses and how I have managed to gain a sense of containment from what were chaotic, confusing and terrible experiences.

ⓒ Monica Suswin November 2014

Read This:

Wild Geese by Mary Oliver (widely available on the internet) Wild Geese Selected Poems: Bloodaxe Books (2004).

Even Better Listen:
http://www.brainpickings.org/2014/09/24/mary-oliver-reads-wild-geese/

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