Writing in troubling times…….

 

winter lakeAlthough the lake here is full at this time and we have snow on the ground, there is not the same calm and safety for many people and communities that we know. Perhaps you or someone you know is personally affected by the fires, floods, earthquakes indelibly changing the landscape, or perhaps the  news brings it into your awareness with brutal immediacy. In these troubling times, when there are natural disasters affecting so many people and communities, it is so easy to feel paralyzed and helpless whilst simultaneously wanting and needing to offer something in whatever way we can.

So I was delighted when my friend and colleague Mary Reynolds Thompson suggested that we record a series of free audio mini-workshops on Writing for Resilience: Shifting your Emotional Landscape.

You can listen to the first of three mini-workshops here.

This episode offers a three-part writing prompt emerging from our joint work on the relationship between Inner and Outer Landscapes. The intention is to help you ground yourself in these troubling times, whatever challenges are facing you.

We hope it may be useful to you or someone you know.

Writing holds a special place among the activities that people use to calm and heal themselves. It is physical, patterned, organised, rhythmic, and directed at a goal. But it is more. It also creates meaning as it flows.

from Surviving Survival: the Art & Science of Resilience by Laurence Gonzales

 

 

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Fall

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This is officially the first day of autumn or fall in the northern hemisphere. The beginning of Keats’ Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness

The aspen change minute to minute outside my window, becoming gold. The temperature drops.

For some people there is a tinge of melancholy but for others this is a time for new beginnings, changes, re-adjustments – habits begun with the cycle of the school year and which go deep and continue,

Journal prompt: What does autumn/fall mean to you? What changes do you notice in yourself, in your surroundings as the season changes?

Are you looking for a new educational, professional or domestic activity? Check out the local or online offerings for groups or classes that interest you, make your ‘to do’ list including the ‘want to do’ items.

Do you have a favourite poem or book for this time of year? (leave a comment at the bottom of this post). Ali Smith’s novel  Autumn, called by the New York Times ‘the first great Brexit novel‘, came out a year ago but still seems timely and uplifting – celebrating the connectivity of people and things in uncertain or confusing times.

A Writing & Hiking Workshop in Boulder, Colorado

Books…..

Environmental Expressive Therapies: Nature-Assisted Theory and Practice (Paperback) book cover

 This is a  new textbook which covers a wide range of creative therapies, and how people incorporate nature into the work. Mary Reynolds Thompson & I co-authored the chapter:

Inner and Outer Landscapes: Bringing Environment into the therapeutic relationship through Expressive Writing

 

 Don’t forget:you can request this or any of the other titles from your local library

Journal Prompt: Explore your relationship with reading over your life – has it changed? Can you remember learning to read? Who was involved with your early reading?

What ‘bookish’ memories come to you?

A version of the following article appeared in the June edition of Integrating Connections

I am a compulsive reader – I read to learn about the world and to understand my own world. The urge to create a meaningful narrative from the events of a life, to understand and to learn, is one of the reasons people come to psychotherapy. Psychotherapists and authors might therefore agree that we read to make sense of our lives and our experience.

Sometimes our professional and personal lives align in a novel in ways that can illuminate both. Recently I picked up a couple of novels from the New Books Shelf at my local library. By chance, they both contained adoption themes:

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane – Lisa See

A Book of American Martyrs – Joyce Carol Oates

I work a lot with clients with adoption stories (from different parts of the adoption triad). I run a group for adoptees. I am an adoptee. Perhaps this makes me particularly sensitive to these themes; I know I am profoundly grateful when I find them. These stories occur in adult fiction from Wuthering Heights to The Orphan Train. Children’s literature has always been full of adoption stories  – think of Anne of Green Gables, The Secret Garden, The Once and Future King. Novels are extra resources I can suggest to clients and show me new perspectives on their stories and my own.


The Novel Cure – An A-Z of Literary Remedies (Berthoud and Elderkin 2013) has a very short section on adoption – if you have come across any books (fiction, non-fiction – as I said, I’m eclectic) with these themes please do let me know at kate@katethompsontherapy.com or leave a note on this post.

Doorways, thresholds and liminal spaces……

How many thresholds do you cross each day? How many doorways do you pass through? These can be literal (your front door, the grocery store, workplace) or metaphorical (moving between parts of the self, embracing a new activity, authoring a change in behaviour). Do you linger in front of the doorway, pause in that liminal space or cross the threshold boldly, with determination?

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Journal prompt: Make a list of doorways you enter and thresholds you cross as you go through your normal life. Make a map of your day by listing the thresholds you cross – see how many times a day you make that decision.

Adrienne Rich’s poem Prospective Immigrants Please Note  begins:

Either you will
go through this door
or you will not go through.

The poet weighs up the possible implications of going through and then of not going through:

If you do not go throughdoorway
it is possible
to live worthily

to maintain your attitudes
to hold your position
to die bravely

but much will blind you,
much will evade you,
at what cost who knows?

 

The poem ends:

The door itself makes no promises.
It is only a door.

Click here for Adrienne Rich reading her poem.

The poem tells ‘prospective immigrants’ that going through the door will involve both losses and gains, but that there are choices to be made about how to live, and consequences of choices. In that sense we are all immigrants and face those choices often.

So what does crossing the threshold mean for you?

Journal Prompt: What is the door in front of you right now? What is on the other side? What is the choice you are being asked to make? What holds you back? Imagine you open the door – will you go through?

We also have choices about what to take through the doorway and what to leave behind, for example, from one year to the next.

Journal prompt: What have you brought with you from 2016? What have you left behind?

(In December I became a citizen of the United States of America. I went through the door,  I’m waiting to see what is on the other side.)

 

Reading and reflecting….

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Happy Thanks Giving Turkeys

Reading is one way of finding solace in uncertain times – and reading about other people’s lives can help us think about our own in new ways.

Writer Alexander Masters discovered 148 diaries (or journals) in a skip in Cambridge. He, of course, tried to make sense of the life described. Eventually his exploration became his book A Life Discarded: 148 diaries discovered in the trash and as readers we come to understand the title refers to both the diaries as representative of a life, and the lived life of the diarist.

The entries from this time raise the interesting idea that, although Laura wrote the diaries, she didn’t read the. She filled the pages but didn’t know what they said.

A Life Discarded p 195

Masters recognises her missed opportunity:

Laura clearly did not read what she wrote, or did not understand what her words meant…she did not grasp the essential message of these pages, which any other reader spots at the first glance: namely, that …

A Life Discarded p197

So journal or diary writing alone is not productive; it provides the seeds for learning and insight but another stage is necessary – that of reading and reflecting. Jean-Paul Sartre reminds us that every writer needs a reader – and in journal therapy we can be both writer and reader.

As I thought, catharsis is not enough, though for many it is the necessary first step.

Do you read your own journal entries?

If not you may be be missing the key opportunity for reflection and insight, the way to turn your journal into a healing tool.

Journal Prompt:

the-first-snow

The first snow

Look back over one of your journal entries. Read it through and then write a few sentences of feedback to yourself beginning:

When I read this I notice……..

When I read this I feel…………..

The Feedback Loop (Thompson 2010 p34) is a simple process with real therapeutic gains. It’s also one that we all forget to do  – especially in difficult times.

Leave a comment on this post and share your experience of this process.

And of course:

What are you reading at this time?

Landscapes real and imagined…

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View from my window – aspen gold

Leading up to the autumn equinox the aspen have started turning gold – some of them already bright, others yet to lose their green.

I’ve been thinking a lot about landscape as I’ve just submitted the chapter  Mary Reynolds Thompson and I have co-authored (Inner and Outer Landscapes: Bringing Environment into the Therapeutic Relationship through Expressive Writing) for a new book (Environmental Expressive Therapies: Nature Assisted Theory and Practice eds Kopytin, A. & Rugh, M).

It gave us the opportunity to align our different ways of working (from ecological and existential therapy approaches) and really explore the common ground, looking at our shared favourite authors and discovering new ones. We consider the power of writing about landscapes, both real and imagined, and how that affects the psyche. There are three circles in the writing process we have developed, with exercises for each stage.

Here’s just one of the exercises adapted from our chapter:

Journal prompt: A Framed Literary Landscape

Sometimes landscapes in books can become as real and affective as actual inhabited landscapes. “Books, like landscapes, leave their marks in us” (Robert Macfarlane  The Old Ways) As Jean-Paul Sartre and Robert Macfarlane remind us, we are all readers before we are writers.

Structure, pacing and containment are established by the idea of a framed picture which captures a moment, just as a photographer frames a shot through the camera lens or an artist places a painting in a frame. The use of a literary, rather than a physical landscape, allows people to be less immersed in the lived experience of their own lives an its potential for anxiety

1) Think of a book that made an impression on you at some time in your life, where the landscape has entered your imagination and memory because it was almost a character in its own right.

Allow the landscape to come into focus as though you are looking through a camera, or at a picture in a frame.

2) Describe what you see within that frame, as though you were looking at a picture hanging on your wall.

3) Use the present tense, notice the colours, imagine the sounds, smells, see the relationships between the objects that make up the landscape.

Feedback Write: When I read this I feel…

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Denali in summer

Let me know what landscapes in what books have left their marks in you. Leave a comment here on this blog.

Landscape: the desert

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Snow in the Arizona desert

Writing about landscape and place, real and metaphorical, is a way back to the self. Different landscapes connect us with different aspects of our self and experience. The desert is one landscape which evokes strong internal responses in people, whether they have real experience of it or not. It’s a place where survival becomes real, it’s an environment in which people find themselves, confront themselves, meet themselves. Mystics and aboriginals have always ventured into the desert to deepen their mental, spiritual and physical encounters.

What is your experience of the desert?

In her book Refuge: an unnatural history of family and place, Terry Tempest Williams writes:

I believe in walking in a landscape of mirages

because you learn humility.

I believe in living in a land of little water,

because life is drawn together.

And I believe in the gathering of bones

as a testament to spirits that have moved on.

If the desert is holy, it is because it is a forgotten place

that allows us to remember the sacred.

Perhaps that is why every pilgrimage to the desert

is a pilgrimage to the self.

There is no place to hide and so  we are found.

I’ve used this piece with groups with some profound results. Some people initially recoil from the idea of desert landscapes saying they seem arid, empty and full of snakes, others are drawn to them for the space and solitude they offer.

Journal prompt:  What is the desert for you?

Ask yourself these questions:

What is the desert in me?

What does the desert want to say to me? Write a letter from the desert.

When you contemplate the desert, what do you truly see?

Notice what happens when you read your writing. Leave a comment or share your writing on this post.

There are many and varied responses – some people are surprised to find that when they answer these questions they find in the desert a more benevolent aspect, a place beyond their resistance and denial, a place where they begin to see themselves with a greater clarity.20150103_120318

Terry Tempest Williams is speaking at the Boulder Library on Friday 29th August 2016

Mary Reynolds Thompson and I are writing a chapter called Inner and outer landscapes: bringing writing into the therapeutic relationship through expressive writing for a new book, Environmental Expressive Therapies: Nature-Assisted Theory and Practice, in which we will explore how writing about place can be therapeutically significant.

 

April: is it spring?

April is the cruelest month, breeding
lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
memory and desire, stirring
dull roots with spring rain.

T.S.Eliot

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View from my window – the last day of April

WHAN that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich  licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;

Chaucer

 

It’s the last day of April and the snow continues to fall here in Colorado  – another big spring storm just as we start to be optimistic. We can take comfort from the poets who promise us that there will be flowers and new growth from this.Please leave a comment about your favorite April quotations on this post.

April is a transitional month, a time of re-birth – and a short month.

So on the last day of April we have an opportunity to review where we are now.

Journal Prompt: What do you need to finish to prepare for new growth?

Journal Prompt: What is the view from your window right now?

Talking of birth….We were all born. What do you know about your birth? What were you told? What have you inferred or even made up?

In my Adult Adoptee Group we were thinking about birth. One person wrote about being left on the steps of an orphanage in a distant country, another wrote about being a twin, someone wrote about the sound of trains. Everyone wrote deeply and movingly. Sharing these stories was powerful for each one – listening was profoundly affecting.

Adopted person or not, everyone has a birth story composed of what they know (facts), what they were told (family stories) and what they’ve imagined (autobiography). What is your birth story? Adoptees often know less about the circumstances of their birth than other people – some do not even have a known birth date.

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Journal Prompt – The Story of my Birth

Adapted from Maria Antoniou: “This is a story of my birth” in Writing Works (eds Bolton, Field & Thompson)

Write the story of your birth – write in the present tense, write in the first person. Include anything you remember, have been told or imagine.

Who was there? Who was involved? Where? When? What are the sensory details? The feelings? Whatever you write – it’s your story. Is there anyone you’d like to share it with?

Please share you birth stories here or contact me privately.

 

 

 

First drafts

The most effective way to foster awareness is by writing down our stories

Brené Brown Rising Strong

20160319_173000Brené Brown, researcher and writer on shame and vulnerability, talks about the stories we make up – the stories we tell ourselves to deal with painful, shameful and hurtful events and interactions, to protect ourselves and make sense of our lives. Sometimes we get stuck in these stories, in our first defensive reactions and interpretations; they may not be accurate or thoughtful but they will often feel familiar. We then often tell those stories to others, looking for confirmation of our way of seeing things and reinforcing our narrative of the self.

Brown invites us to get curious about the stories we tell ourselves and in order to do this …

we get to write down the uncensored first drafts, the unedited narratives of our lives:

The only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really, shitty first drafts. The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out, romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it….

Anne Lamott Bird by Bird  (quoted in Rising Strong)

Brown refers to these as SFDs (coyly suggesting you change the adjective if you need to) or confabulations, often honestly told. But the unconscious storytelling which becomes the default can trap us and limit the way we live in the world.

So when we’ve captured the SFD we can begin to reflect on the story we are telling ourselves.

Journal prompt: Write your SFD for 15 minutes without editing (set a timer to provide the containmentDSC00553 – this ensures that you will not be sucked under by any emerging waves of emotion).

Read it through and see what you notice – add margin notes and ! or ? as appropriate. Then give yourself some feedback in writing. For this reflective feedback write you can use Brené Brown’s 3 questions:

  1. What more do I need to learn and understand about the situation?
  2. What more do I need to learn and understand about the other people in the story?
  3. What more do I need to learn and understand about myself? (Rising Strong p.79)

When it is done with courage and commitment, this practice can open the possibility of telling of new stories, finding new endings and meanings, instead of having to re-live old patterns.

 

 

 

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