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 or leave a note on this post.


Landscapes real and imagined…


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…


Denali in summer

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

Literature & Landscape


Moose in Brainard Lake

Summer has come late this year, is still coming, not settling. Everything is damp, the air is humid. Visitors from England comment on how green it is here. The landscape is full and juicy, unusual for Colorado in July.

The period of the last two months has been filled with lots of events and activity. This started with the World Congress in Existential Therapy in London in May, where I taught a workshop:

Pourquoi Ecrire? Where Jean-Paul Sartre & Journal Therapy converge

This period has just ended with the July writing workshops I’ve been teaching with my colleague Mary Reynolds Thompson on Landscape & Psyche.

In our workshop Landscape Literature and Imagination: How we connect self and place, we begin by asking participants to think about a book, poem or song in which landscape is a strong aspect, a landscape that they connect to in some way or which made a lingering impression on them.

Journal prompt: List the books, poems or songs that have strong landscapes for you. Think about at what time in your life you discovered them. What spoke to you?

Thinking about this before the workshop I realized that I was brought up on the wild literary landscapes of northern England, in particular the Lake District. This landscape ran like a thread through my reading in the first 20 years of my life.

Copyright Chris Warren

Ullswater: Copyright Chris Warren

First there was Beatrix Potter in my pre-literate days, then Swallows & Amazons and Arthur Ransome’s other novels about children escaping supervision by adults to have adventures on the lakes and in the fells. Then later Wordsworth, The Prelude (to which I still return), perhaps the greatest landscape and psyche poem ever written.

This landscape was also physically real to me, the place of many childhood holidays, the Lakeland fells familiar from many walks and explorations.

Journal Prompt: Choose one of the books from your list. Imagine you are holding it in your hands. When you open the cover there is a picture of the landscape, a frontispiece. It could be a watercolor, a photograph or an engraving. Look at it closely and then, when it has come into focus begin to describe what you see. Describe it in as much detail as you can

From memory to memoir…..

I worked with Carry Gorney on her memoir and am delighted that she has agreed to provide some thoughts about her experience for this blog:

Send me a parcel with a hundred lovely things

Send me a parcel with a hundred lovely things

“I come from a family with heads still in the Weimar republic. My own consciousness eventually leads me to the community arts movement of the 70s. I wanted to produce a far reaching memoir, knitting together my family story and my own.

My Mum’s ending is my memoir’s beginning, My own world spirals out of control as we both descend into the chaos of her failing body. We cling to familiar patterns of coffee and knitting needles which clickety-clack through my book as the story unfolds.”

Journal prompt: Is there anyone close to you whose decline has overshadowed the richness of your relationship with them? Write some short pieces about some of the experiences you shared and see if your collages bring them back to you as they were.

Work in progress:

“Sometimes I write about an episode a character, an incident with enthusiasm.

Sometimes I just lift my fingers and something arrives on the page which hardly needs editing; vivid, funny, alive ..

Sometimes I step back into a time long before me; blurred and monochrome yet strangely familiar. I have to grit my teeth and forge ahead with stories that belonged to others. I put dark and dismal passages on to paper. For every personal anecdote, there has to be a historical context, back and forth, between memory and the history book. I lay on the sofa eating chocolates eyes closed, resisting, yet eventually returning to chronicle the elusive before I am allowed to grasp hope, dreams and new beginnings.”

Journal prompt: Research some historical information about your chosen story and write about the connection between history and your personal experience.

Write the bits you can:

“Writing it was making a collage, small pieces, sepia images, letters in brown flimsy envelopes; ‘opened by censor’ stamped on the back. Eventually the fragments came together into paragraphs, chapters and sections, that spanned half a century.”

Thea and John Ernest 1941

Thea and John Ernest 1941

“My life and its procession of characters emerged as if carved out of a block of marble, the structure appeared, eventually the detail, the colours, the smells, the feel of wool between fingers …a whole book was there. It has an orange and grey cover, it’s no longer in my head….it’s out there…you can read it.”

Thank you, Carry.

Send me a Parcel with a Hundred Lovely Things by Carry Gorney is available here and on Amazon

Janus: looking back, looking forward……..



January seems to be a time for looking back to last year, and looking forward into this one. Janus, the Roman god depicted with two faces looking in opposite directions, symbolises this as we move through his namesake month. He’s also the god of transitions and links past with future. In fact there’s much more to him than I’d realised, but for now I’m looking at his ability to look back and forwards as we transition from one year to another.

One of the fascinating  projects I was involved with in 2014  was working with Carry Gorney on her memoir, Send me a parcel with 100 lovely things (to read more about this book click here). This book interweaves her parents’  journey from Germany to Yorkshire (including her father’s letters from the Isle of Man internment camp) with her own journey from Yorkshire into a wider world. I was her writing coach and editor throughout the process and was thrilled to receive a copy of the real, physical book in early January. It’s satisfying to see something through from the tentative start to completion.

Journal Prompt: Look back over 2014, notice your activities, the projects that you were engaged in. Did some come to completion? How do you feel about them? Are there some which you wish to leave in 2014? Which ones are you bringing forward into 2015?

January Ice

January Ice

It’s conventional to make New Year’s Resolutions at the beginning of January for the coming year. But why not do this at other times? I now invite you to make Re-commitments to unfinished, abandoned or forgotten practices or projects. Do this without guilt or sense of failure for having let things lapse, but rather with pleasure and satisfaction at being able to bring them into focus again. What do you want to continue or bring to completion this year?

Journal prompt: Imagine that the year is already half over. It’s the end of June and you are looking back at the activities and projects of the year to date. Have some come to completion? What do you want to continue to develop? Which ones are still waiting?



And when did you last see your father?

The village cricket team

The village cricket team c.1951

My father would have been 88 this week except he died 27 years ago. He’s been dead for more of my lifetime than he was alive. I still write about him.

There are many published memoirs about the death and life of a parent but Blake Morrison’s 1993 book And when did you last see your father?  was one of the first. It alternates chapters about his father in life and chapters about his decline and death from cancer. All written in the present tense.  On BBC Radio 4’s Bookclub recently Morrison was asked who his imagined reader was when he was writing it. “Myself”, he said,  and added that writing the book was a kind of therapy, that what he was unable to speak about, he was able to write about. Some people can write about things before they can speak about them, especially traumatic or complex things.  Another guest on the programme said, “Reading it was great therapy”.

In Moments of BeingVirginia Woolf writes that her mother, who died when she was 13, obsessed her until she was 44:

“Then one day walking round Tavistock Square I made up, as I sometimes make up my books, To the Lighthouse; in a great, apparently involuntary rush……….I wrote the book very quickly; and when it was written, I ceased to be obsessed by my mother. I no longer hear her voice; I do not see her.

…”I expressed some very long felt and deeply felt emotion. And in expressing it I explained it and then laid it to rest.” p81.

Both Woolf and Morrison understand how writing can be powerfully therapeutic, a way of transforming difficult, painful and inexplicable feelings and experiences into part of the coherent narrative of a life.

One of the challenges of writing about a deceased parent is, as Morrison puts it, how you ‘lift the lid’, how you portray with honesty and with love the complexity of the person and your relationship, how not to ‘beatify the dead’. How do you give yourself permission to show ambivalence and know that it’s ok to show ambivalence? How do you show the mutual frustrations that are present at times in any relationship, especially when there is no longer hope of resolution or understanding?

And when did you last see your father? Frederick Yeames

And when did you last see your father? Frederick Yeames

Journal Prompt:  And when did you last see your father? opens with a vivid childhood memory of going on a family holiday, written in the present tense. We sense that this is a typical view of his father. What typical childhood memories do you have? Write about one in the present tense, situate your parent in context.

Sometimes, as in actor Alan Cumming’s memoir, Not my father’s son, about his violent father, there is no ambivalence but it can be just as difficult to find the words.

What are your favourite memoirs about parents? Please share them in a comment.

What is your experience of writing about your parents? Have you found it therapeutic?






Going deeper…….

There’s writing………..

View from my window

View from my window

Many of us will be finding that the New Year’s Resolutions are already a distant memory and the familiar pattern of  commitment and resignation has kicked in. Perhaps you have started, renewed or continued a writing practice as part of that. Several people have asked me recently:

How can I deepen my writing practice?

It seems a good time to learn, remember or re-activate what I call the Feedback Loop. This is what distinguishes the therapeutic or reflective journal from the purely descriptive. Many people use their journal to remove things from their minds, to excise painful or difficult emotions.

But that is only the first stage (catharsis is not enough!): the therapeutic benefit comes from reflecting and eventually re-integrating the experience.

Journal Prompt 1:

After writing a journal entry read it through (out loud if you can).

Then write a few sentences of feedback to yourself. Select from the following sentence stems:

When I read this I am interested that… ␣␣

When I read this I notice… ␣␣

When I read this I remember… ␣␣

When I read this I realize that…

When I read this I am aware of…

Try this after everything you write for a period of time – see what happens, notice what you learn.

View from my window again

View from my window again

Journal Prompt 2: Repetition. Describe the view from your window every day for a period of time – each time finish

with a Feedback Loop reflection.

And there’s reading…………

One of my students  on an ethics course in an existential setting said to me that unfortunately, now that term had started, she was unable to find time to read novels. This seems such a deprivation that I was happy to be able to help her with a couple of relevant suggestions from my recent reading:

Stoner – John Williams  (is he an existential hero?)

Me Before You – Jojo Moyes  (whose death is it anyway?)

Aren’t there always novels relevant to our work?

I asked a group of colleagues for suggestions of published accounts about or by people with depression or existential concerns. My colleagues were surprised that I would include fiction in my list. But that’s where I start from.

What do you suggest?

Autobiography in food…..

'Dejeuner sur l'herbe'  by Manet

‘Dejeuner sur l’herbe’ by Manet (Photo credit: Martin Beek)

In the prologue to Blue Plate Special, an autobiography of my appetites Kate Christensen writes:

“Food is a subterrranean conduit to sensuality, memory, desire…….to taste fully is to live fully. And to live fully is to be awake and responsive to complexities and truths – good and terrible, overwhelming and miniscule.”

For her, thinking about food and meals in the dark hours of the night can banish the obsessive thoughts and memories of failure and embarrassment (what Brene Brown calls ‘a vulnerability hangover’).

Journal Prompt:  Do you turn towards or away from food when you are stressed or depressed? Are there comfort foods you turn to?

Foods from childhood really do seem to carry special qualities of memory (as John S Allen explains). We don’t necessarily want to make them or eat them in adulthood but we enjoy the nostalgia of them. For some people school dinners may signify warmth and safety, for others nursery puddings bring fullness and sleepiness to mind. Perhaps grandmother’s gravy represents childhood or the first taste of something that seemed rich or rare or awoke a lifelong passion. Things change in a lifetime. Foods have reached parts of the globe where they were previously unknown or extremely rare, they may have become commonplace.

In the 1960s in a Yorkshire village a single avocado pear appeared in the greengrocer’s shop.


Avocado (Photo credit: Livin’ Spoonful)

My mother knew what it was (she’d spent a year at the Sorbonne as a student). She watched it soften into ripeness and then persuaded the greengrocer that she’d take it off his hands, as a favour,  now it was past its best. A generation later, my son was weaned on avocados.

Journal Prompt: Food Steppingstones

List the foods from your childhood which you remember with nostalgia: include them all – treats, single tastes, holiday fare, regular meals etc.

List them in any order. 

Read the list aloud. Notice what you feel, what your sensations are.

Choose the food on the list which seems most rich and resonant now. Describe it, write about the taste and smells and textures. Write about a time you remember eating it, capture the associated memories. Who was there with you? Where were you?

Secrets or stories? Who decides?

In the film The Stories we Tell director Sarah Polley interviews members of her family & their circle about events in their history. She plays with the documentary genre in artful & artistic ways. While it begins as a film about her father and her dead mother it becomes a detective story about Polley’s own beginnings. Different people answer her questions in often contradictory ways as events and circumstances are re-assessed. The film raises questions like “who owns our stories? whose stories are they to tell?”.

line art example of concentric.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

An interviewee talks about concentric circles of ownership. The inner circle consists of only the people who were involved in an event (participants), the next circle contains people who were told by those involved, further out are the people who became aware of the story in some other way.

He espouses the view that only the participants own the story and the right to tell or not tell (in which case the film would never have been made).

What about people who are affected but are not the active participants? Some people have ambiguous stories about their beginnings – perhaps because of trauma in childhood, adoption, displacement, loss. Who gets to own or tell their stories?

Journal Prompt:

1) Write about an event or relationship from some time in your life (either something you remember or something you’ve been told about). Write in the first person

2) Re-write it from the perspective of another participant.

3) Write it a third time from the perspective of someone not a participant but who would have known about it, either at the time or later.

An article in the New York Times comments on research that shows:

The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative.

Journal prompt: Write down a family story – one that’s part of your family narrative, the kind

English: Classical Seven-Circuit Labyrinth

English: Classical Seven-Circuit Labyrinth (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 of story that gets re-told at family gatherings.

Is there anyone you could share your writing with? Would they agree with your version?

Who decides what is the truth of the accepted family narrative? In novels the truth is sometimes revealed, as in Elizabeth Strout‘s recent novel The Burgess Boys (where people have to re-evaluate their lives and constructed identities as a result)  or not, as in Sarah Butler’s 10 Things I’ve Learnt about Love (a novel with Lists of 10 between each chapter – a useful journal technique when short of time!)

Perhaps it is only by writing the story or making the film that we know what our story is and begin to own it……

Why Read?

I’ve just finished writing a piece for the journal of The Society of Existential Analysis. Formally it was a review of two books about what books or literature can tell us about the stages of life. In practice it made me think about the wider questions:

Some classic books

Some classic books

Why Read? Why do we read?

Jean-Paul Sartre entitled his autobiography Pourquoi Ecrire? (Why Write?). And we may ask Pourquoi Lire? (Why read?) We may ask why, in the age of the internet, should we read books at all?  and I do mean books – though these days you can read them on an electronic device.

Or even more precisely, we may ask, as Italo Calvino (a novelist as existential as Camus) once did: ‘Pourquoi lire les classiques?’ Why (should we) read the classics?

Journal Prompt: Why do you read?

Edward Mendelson‘s book The things that matter – What Seven Classic Novels Have to Say about the Stages of Life offers one argument for why we should read.

The stages of life, in this context are:









The Future

You might want to delete some and add others to make your own list – would bereavement count as a stage of life? As surely as love perhaps. Separation can take many forms too.

But of course the question is:

Journal prompt: Which seven novels would you choose to tell you about the stages of Life?

Or perhaps the stages of your life?

Or even which are the books which have taught you most about your own life stages to date?

Please share something about your list here.

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