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On writing therapy and being a self-compassionate editor.

by Simon Forsyth


What’s writing really about? It’s trying to take fuller possession of the reality of your life.
Ted Hughes (Bolton et al., 2006)

I own me, and therefore I can engineer me.
Virginia Satir (Thompson, 2003)


Here, an imagined snippet of dialogue between poet Ted Hughes and family therapy pioneer Virginia Satir. As a therapist 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’ words 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 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 multiple selves. An insightful journal entry or creative writing exercise might spark the beginnings of a quiet revolution – or, it might simply be 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 be therapeutic. 

My interest in the area of what I generally call Writing Therapy or, as the Metanoia Institute in the UK terms it, Creative Writing for Therapeutic Purposes (CWTP), stems from my own relationship with writing and its evolution over the years – from constant story-writing as a child to laboriouslyresearched 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/life writing, firstly for pleasure but then also as a tool for reflective practice. The more I mined 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” (Woolf, 2003: 7). 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.  

According to Williamson and Wright (2018: 117), Creative Writing for Therapeutic Purposes is

Expressive, reflective and autobiographical fiction writing that can be in any form, and not necessarily “written.” The aim of CWTP is to focus on the process of writing and insights that are gained. It can be achieved through facilitation of groups, or one-to-one, and can be practiced by individuals alone.

They further emphasise that ‘therapeutic’ in this context broadly refers to “beneficial psychological change” (2018: 118), which might involve, among other things, an increased or strengthened sense of personal freedom and identity and a greater openness to creative expression. This dovetails well with King’s (2016: 16) suggestion that engagement with creative arts, including writing, in a mental health context,  “has the potential to activate a person, promote self-efficacy and mastery, help overcome experiential avoidance, strengthen personal identity, and contribute to social connectedness.” 

The wider Writing Therapy/CWTP umbrella might be seen to encompass a range of interrelated approaches, such as reflective writing, James Pennebaker’s expressive writing model, and bibliotherapy, as well as any number of forms, including poetry, journal, dialogue and song, to name a few (Williamson & Wright, 2018). Within these forms there is scope for a further assortment of specific pathways, including writing inspired by, for example, an object, place, published work, aspect of the self, or colour (Bolton et al., 2006). What these approaches all appear to have in common is the use of writing and the written word to engender authentic self-expression and/or inner connectedness, which may in turn produce some beneficial shift in state, either internally, externally, or potentially both. DeSalvo illustrates this well when she recounts:

After twenty minutes of writing, though I was still sad, my feelings had undergone a subtle but real transformation. A baker friend of mine calls it feeling “yeasty” – alive and growing and changing. That’s what I often feel after I write. Yeasty. (DeSalvo, 2000: 8)


The yeast metaphor is also fitting in that it links to the act of creation and the utilisation of language to convey personal meaning, concepts which are evidently fundamental to both writing and psychotherapy.

Unlike many other writing pathways, particularly where publication is seen as the most desirable endgoal, the positive outcomes of therapeutic writing are generally achieved in a ‘process over product’ manner, meaning that the emphasis is not on ‘quality’, editing or acceptability to an audience, nor will there be any particular expectations around form, metre, spelling, and so on. We seek to illuminate the connection between the writer and their words, and any nuggets 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. Architect and writer Kyna Leski (2015: 13) suggests that “a creative process comes from displacing, disturbing, and destabilising what you (think you) know” – and I believe it is here that creativity, therapy, writing and language can potentially align and form a new constellation of insight and self-understanding.  

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, facilitating or co-facilitating writing workshops, and leading two creative/reflective writing groups for therapists, when I started toying with the idea of formalising Writing Therapy as part of my therapeutic offering, an old, nay-saying internal voice piped up to plant some seeds of doubt. 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 – we’ve all heard of the ‘inner critic,’ though Woolf’s ‘angel in the house’ (Bolton, 2014: 127) or Hughes’ ‘inner police system’ (Bolton & Rowland, 2014: 56)  are just as apt – but not always the practical ways needed to challenge it, negotiate with it, or even find a way to collaborate with it. 

Working with one’s inner critic/doubter/finger-wagger  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 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 that touches on the idea as a springboard for one’s own writing and seeing what emerges. These are the kinds of techniques that I may introduce to workshop participants or individual clients that are open to using writing and/or a love of literature as a tool in their therapy, even if on the level of an experiment to begin with. 

To highlight just one, I am consistently surprised and delighted with how much fresh insight the writing of a dialogue can offer people, and often how quickly it can achieve this. Journal to the Self author Kathleen Adams (1990: 103) defines the technique as  “an exchange between you and someone or something else, where you play both parts.” Building on the work of Ira Progoff, she proposes an extensive list of potential dialogue candidates, including persons living and deceased, events and circumstances, objects, the body, emotions/feelings, resistances and subpersonalities of the self. In session or group, I usually offer 10-12 minutes as a toe-dipper, and while this might not sound like much, particularly if someone is used to a more open-ended approach to journaling, in my experience this is actually plenty of time for some kind of movement to occur, with the time limit providing a sense of containment and perhaps motivation also (Thompson, 2011). As with other experiments such as the empty chair, using a written dialogue to open up a direct but safely contained line of communication with someone/something/some aspect of ourselves in therapy can be a powerful tool for movement. On a personal note, I have found much wisdom through repeated dialogues with some of my musical heroes, particularly Prince!

In addition to its applications with clients, I believe that therapeutic writing can be an invaluable tool for therapists themselves, potentially traversing the lines between reflective practice, personal process and creative enjoyment. Thompson (2011) presents various ways journal writing might be used in supervision, highlighting techniques such as the unsent letter (say, to a challenging client) as a way of exploring one’s sense of the therapeutic relationship and perhaps identifying and working with countertransference. To offer a personal example, in my workshops and groups aimed specifically at therapists, I have presented participants with a word-list of natural phenomena (‘volcano,’ ‘forest,’ ‘desert,’ ‘ocean,’ and so forth) and then asked them to call a particular client to mind, imagining them to be either in the scene (e.g. lost in a desert; being tossed by waves) or as the phenomena in question (e.g. a volcano about to erupt; a forest flourishing). This is followed by a timed writing exercise, with the words and images generated perhaps yielding a different perspective on the therapist’s sense of their client and their journey. It might also illuminate how they feel about occupying the role of witness in this – how is it to sit with a client that is seen, week on week, to be drowning amid the tumultuous waves of painful memory? Likewise, how is it to observe the long-term client whose inner landscape has gradually transformed from a desert to a thriving garden, and will perhaps not need the aid of their therapist much longer in tending it? Insights gleaned from this type of writing exercise have the potential to positively impact therapeutic work, with the added bonus of having been arrived at through the therapist’s own creative process.

While there can of course be real therapeutic value in putting words on a page in the moment without ever revisiting them – indeed, with some pieces there might be an even greater sense of catharsis through a ritualistic destroying of the writing – I have more recently come to a greater appreciation of the retracing of our steps through the words we have written. What can I observe or learn by re-reading what I wrote just moments ago and offering myself some kind of feedback (an approach advocated by Kathleen Adams), or giving the piece some space and revisiting, perhaps with different eyes, the next week, or several months, even years, later? This idea of following breadcrumbs and ‘harvesting’ one’sjournals or writings for further insights, whether they be in the form of clues, patterns, evolutions, or regressions, can greatly bolster one’s self-awareness and, in my personal experience, create a deeper space for self-compassion, empathy and acceptance.

Building on this, I feel there is also something liberating about the idea of giving oneself permission to view a piece of writing, like ourselves, as part of a larger work-in-progress – or, indeed, a work-in-progress in and of itself. For example, this piece is in fact an edited version, with additions, of an article I contributed to the website Writing.ie (Forsyth, 2020) – an article that itself contained elements of an assignment I completed as part of my training at the Metanoia Institute. As I approached the idea of writing something for Inside Out, I found two of my inner selves at loggerheads around the idea of ‘worthiness’ in terms of what to contribute – surely I should write something completely new? Would revisiting a previous work and reformulating/repackaging/recycling it not just be some kind of (gasp) laziness? After a little dialoguing, the answer I came to is that there is value for me in challenging the idea of something that has been created and/or launched into the public domain as necessarily needing to remain static. I find joy in creating a union between the words written then and fresh ones produced here today, knowing myself that I am in a very different space now to where I was last October, at the very beginnings of an exciting and somewhat frightening journey into full-time self-employment as a therapist and facilitator – a road I have since adjusted to, though not without its share of bumps. 

For me, giving myself permission to edit that piece of writing and allow these newer perspectives enter into it echoes Virginia Satir’s statement at the beginning of the article – I own this collection of words, and therefore I can (re)engineer it, if I so desire. And if an ‘editor’ can be defined (courtesy of Oxford Languages) as “a person who is in charge of and determines the final content” of some written publication, then I think it a valid question to ask what kind of editor do I wish to be for myself and my words? If I want to splice a set of thoughts formulated several months apart and create a hybrid in the here-andnow, whose place is it to gatekeep that plan or unceremoniously consign it to the dustheap? Had the part of me that was petitioning for absolute newness as the only acceptable option been successful, this would have been representative of an older, less self-compassionate, more demanding part of me that I know I do well to listen to less these days, while still acknowledging that he too has his place in my inner cast of characters. In this way, the process of revisiting and editing that previous article to create this new one has offered me its own unique form of therapeutic insight – and besides, if the ongoing ‘process over product’ journey to become myself is one characterised by smooth stretches interspersed with detours, roundabouts, and, sometimes, retracing my steps to find a way forward, then why not let this smaller process of submitting an article for publication mirror some of that?  

I have recently taken to concluding workshops with a quote from famed writing teacher Natalie Goldberg (1990: 227):  “Have compassion for yourself when you write. There is no failure – just a big field to wander in.” To that field I would now like to add the joy of being a self-compassionate editor, however that might manifest in one’s life. 


Simon Forsyth (MIACP)  is an integrative psychotherapist, facilitator and advocate of therapeutic writing and journaling. He works in Dublin city centre and online, with a particular link to the LGBTQ+ community. Details of upcoming writing workshops/groups can be found on his website, nozomicounselling.com. He would like to acknowledge the encouragement of Jude Fay and Meg-John Barker in the completion of this piece. 

References

Adams, K. (1990). Journal to the self: Twenty-two paths to personal growth. Grand Central Publishing. 
Bolton, G. (2014). The writer’s key: Introducing creative solutions for life. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Bolton, G. & Rowland, S. (2014). Inspirational writing for academic publication.
SAGE Publications.

Bolton, G., Field, V. & Thompson, K. (Eds.). (2006). Writing works: A resource handbook for therapeutic writing workshops and activities. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.


DeSalvo, L. (2000). Writing as a way of healing: How telling our stories transforms our lives. Beacon
Press.
Forsyth, S. (2020). Writing therapy and the power of the pen. Writing.ie. Retrieved from https://www. writing.ie/resources/writing-therapy-and-the-power-of-the-pen-by-simon-forsyth/

Goldberg, N. (1990). Wild mind: Living the writer’s life. Bantam Books. King, R. (2016). Lived experience: Writing and recovery. In P. Neilsen, R. King & F. Baker (Eds.), Creative arts in counseling and mental health (pp. 8-16). SAGE Publications. 

Leski, K. (2015). The storm of creativity. MIT Press. Thompson, R.A. (2003). Counseling techniques: Improving relationships with others, ourselves, our families, and our environment. Routledge. 

Thompson, K. (2011). Therapeutic journal writing: An introduction for professionals. Jessica Kingsley Publishers. 
Williamson, C. & Wright, J.K. (2018). How creative does writing have to be in order to be therapeutic? A dialogue on the practice and research of writing to recover and survive.  Journal of Poetry Therapy 31(2), 113-123. https://doi.org/10.1080/08893675.2018.1448951 

Woolf. V. (2013). A writer’s diary: Being extracts from the diary of Virginia Woolf. Mariner Books.

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