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The time between…an opportunity to review

December 28th

20151228_144139The last few days of the year are a kind of limbo – this year gone but not quite over, next  year not quite begun. There is still time to finish things in this year and also to plan things for next year.

So here are a few journal prompts for reviewing the past year before we embark on the new year:

When I think about 2015, some things rise first in my memory: the 1st World Congress in Existential Therapy in May in London, the publication of Expressive Writing: counseling and healthcare (Eds Thompson & Adams), the Expressive Arts Summit in New York in November, other travels to Taiwan and India.

I could call these some of the steppingstones of 2015; these are big picture items. Other threads spin off these – people I’ve met, books I’ve read, conversation and experiences I’ve had.

When reviewing in this way we  can look at different existential dimensions – physical, social, personal, spiritual. Each one offers us a different set of steppingstones. Steppingstones are ways of structuring our experience and memory.

Journal prompt: Steppingstones for the past year

Either choose a theme for your Stepping Stones or simply think back over the past year. See what memories rise to the surface, make a note of each one as it occurs, just a word or a phrase (no continuous prose!) Don’t inquire why it has come to you or what it means.

When you have a list of 6-8 things, number them in chronological order. Read them out loud in that order, see if one of them stands out with more substance or arouses more interest in you.

Write about this one in the present tense, include all things you can remember and the associations that come to mind.

Journal prompt: The Incompletes

Make a list of unfinished business, tasks, projects, conversations. Decide which ones you want to carry over into 2016 and which ones you want to drop (making a conscious decision not to finish something is very different from simply letting something languish – see what it feels like).

Journal prompt: The Satisfactions

Make a list of things you have done in 2015 which have brought you satisfaction (simply completing even simple tasks can bring a sense of satisfaction that is often overlooked) or a sense of achievement.Include professional and personal acts, emotional or physical developments, doing and being.What are you grateful for?


A turkey is not just for Christmas…..

And finally: what was your book of the year for 2015?

I’d have to put Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk up there. Isn’t it hard to pick only one? Please share your best reads of 2015 in the comments on this blog.

Happy New Year to you all.


Finding your creative space

May has been a month of contrasts.

13 May 2014

13 May 2014

At this point we’re about equidistant between both the longest day and the last snows. Finally everything is green and growing. It’s a creative time of year and creativity needs to be practised:

“Creativity is a force moving through us, and only through practice do we learn how to cooperate with it. The ‘process’ is like a muscle. It needs to be exercised in order to function effortlessly.” Shaun McNiff

31 May 2014

31 May 2014


So how do you exercise your creativity? What do you need? Sometimes finding (or creating) the right environment can help. This could mean making a space of your own in your home or workplace. But it could also mean finding a place elsewhere, perhaps outside in a natural environment, or in another kind of building such as a coffee shop, art gallery or library.

Journal prompt: Where do you become most creative? What is the environment which best allows your creative self to flourish? Describe your idea of a perfect creative space.

Then list the steps (however small or big) you need to take to create this out of your current environment. What can you do right now?

In practical terms, for many of us, this place already exists as a studio, office, or corner of a room that is ours. However, it might require a certain amount of organising, rearranging, sorting, tidying. A good purge of an area, however small, can be a most satisfying experience. I know I work better when my desk is well-ordered and without too many guilt-inducing, uncompleted tasks (although it certainly doesn’t need to be clear).

Perhaps looking at our space through the eyes of someone else can help:

Journal Prompt: In Journal to the Self Kathleen Adams suggests investigating your house as if you were a private detective. Let the detective wander through your creative space observing and making notes. From the evidence of the notes, write a character sketch of the person who occupies that space: what personality traits can be deduced? What physical characteristics are suggested?  What are the likes/dislikes of this person?





Spring Landscapes


Spring in Arizona

Spring in Arizona

I’m just back from speaking at the Center for Journal Therapy symposium, Passion to Profit, and the National Association of Poetry Therapy annual conference in Arizona. The temperatures  contrasted (96°F in Arizona, 33°F in Colorado), as did the landscapes. It’s always wonderful to connect with your community and these meetings were particularly stimulating and full of creative energy. 

Mary Reynolds Thompson (no relation!) and I facilitated our workshop called Literature, Landscape and Imagination at the NAPT meeting. Reading literature and inhabiting landscapes are both acts of imagination, framed by our perspectives and our perceptions. In her book Reading Middlemarch Rebecca Mead says:

Spring in Colorado

Spring in Colorado



..”when I read her [George Eliot’s] books I am restored anew to that place of childhood. She shows me that the remembrance of a childhood landscape is not mere nostalgia for what is lost and beyond my reach. It does not consist of longing to be back there, in the present; or of longing to be a child once more; or of wishing the world would not change. Rather it is an opportunity to be in touch again with the intensity and imagination of beginnings. It is a discovery, later in life, of what remains with me.” p253


Journal Prompt:

Think about the spring landscapes of your childhood. Choose one which has a particular resonance for you right now. Think about how old you were when you inhabited it (however briefly – perhaps a holiday place, perhaps your home). Who else was there?

Write about it in the 1st person, present tense, use the language of the senses to evoke your experience of it.

Read it through and write a few sentences of feedback (e.g. When I read this I notice…..When I read this I feel….. )

What does that place have in common with where you are now?

Winter Landscapes

Winter landscape

Winter landscape

The clocks changed this weekend, taking the US an hour closer to Europe for the rest of the month. Suddenly the evening lasts longer and spring seems a possibility although this is still a winter landscape, deep snow, the trees still dormant. But it feels time to emerge and experience landscape again, to be physically connected to it.

What is landscape? According to Simon Schama in Landscape and Memory the word entered the English language

along with herring and bleached linen,as a dutch import at the end of the sixteenth century. p10

Landscape differs from scenery or land or background in that it is always framed, it is the framing of an image, picture making, whether by an artist’s eye, a camera’s lens, a Claude-glass  or the interior eye of memory. It is a relationship between viewer and place.

Journal prompt: Think about the winter landscapes that you know. List them as you think of them.  Describe the one you can see with your outer or inner eye. Is it in front of you? Is it a memory? How do you relate to it? How far away are you?

In The Old Ways, his book about ancient tracks in Britain and beyond, Robert Macfarlane writes:

Winter Landscape

Winter Landscape

I have long been fascinated by how people understand themselves using landscape, by the topographies of self we carry within us and by the maps we make with which to navigate these interior terrains. p26

Writing about such places takes us into much larger realms of the self and experience than we can imagine. Our personal history is also our personal geography. In writing we can re-inhabit the landscapes of our lives but we can also use the distance of memory to write about how we have got here from there.

Placeless events are inconceivable, in that everything that happens must happen somewhere, and so history issues from geography in the same way that water issues from a spring: unpredictably but site-specifically. p147

Who are your favourite writers on landscape (fact or fiction)? Leave a comment on this post.


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?

More food memories……….

My last post, Autobiography in food….., sparked much discussion  in other forums. People were keen to write about the foods that evoked powerful memories. It seems right to conclude the year with a continuation of this theme.

Mince Pie

Mince Pie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The holiday season 2013 is coming to an end – this can be a time of joy as people gather with loved ones, or a time of sadness as people remember those they’ve lost. Most cultures celebrate holidays with special foods or meals. Often the food of holiday times consists of dishes passed down from previous generations. For example, mince pies epitomise Christmas for me (I’ve lost the habit of Christmas pudding). Do I make them the same as my mother did? In some ways (though mine are vegetarian), but they are certainly different from my grandmother’s. These things evolve from generation to generation and change as other significant relationships form or as people travel and import things from other cultures into their own.

Journal prompt: What are the dishes that represent holiday celebrations, eg Thanksgiving, Christmas or other celebration  for you? Are they from your childhood or introduced later? How has this changed over time?

Before Christmas I heard a panel of chefs asked the following question: Who is the better cook, you or your mother? They were unanimously complimentary about their mothers in the kitchen extolling how much they learnt from them or inherited their love of food and cooking. But this is not always the case – when I introduced the same question in a writing group, the writing produced a range of responses.

The Kitchen Maid

The Kitchen Maid (Photo credit: Accidental Hedonist)

Journal prompt:  Who is the better cook, you or your mother (or the person who cooked for you in childhood)? What did you learn from them? What do you remember?

Write an unsent letter to express your feelings about this.

After the flood…….

Boulder Creek Flood

Boulder Creek Flood (Photo credit: JGColorado)

The floods in Colorado have devastated lives and landscape. Now we are re-grouping and returning to some kind of normality even though many are still displaced, not sure what the future may hold or when they can return to their homes. It has stolen more than 2 weeks of our lives, and we’ve been lucky – for many people this has been a truly devastating and life changing event. Our sympathies are with those who continue to suffer the effects.

There comes a point where the crisis can become an excuse rather than a reason for not getting back to routine lives. When we’ve done the big clean-up, services are restored and the rest of our life is calling, people can be unsettled, distracted. Somehow it’s hard to settle back into routine.

Journal Prompt: Write about a time when your life was disturbed, upset or disrupted by something (a small thing or a big thing, something external). How did you get back to your routine? What helped you? Did you resist the return to Normal? Was something changed?

Flood is a powerful image.  Poets have written about literal and metaphorical floods throughoutA Flood - Frederick morgan the ages, including John Clare, Seamus Heaney, Robert Frost, James Joyce. Leave a comment and share your favourite flood poem or reference.

Journal Prompt: Explore the idea of flood as metaphor.

February is the shortest month……….

I notice that a year ago I wrote about Wind….and Snow…..in my February posts.

What is it about February in the northern hemisphere that provokes a concentration on climate conditions? DSC03201The paradox of February is perhaps that the extreme weather we get (2 feet of snow here after a dry winter, for example) is in contrast with the lengthening days, the increased energy and outward focus. The hibernation instinct releases its grip.

The desire to spend more time outside, being more physically active  in daylight is often frustrated by snow and rain………Margaret Atwood’s poem February depicts it as a transitional month.

Many people battle depression or experience a lowering of the spirits & energy in winter. People who suffer from SAD start to feel better as days noticeably lengthen. Up in the Arctic the sun has returned and people are becoming happy again. Next month many countries will put their clocks forward and suddenly the evenings are restored.

Journal prompt: What do you notice in yourself as the days get longer? Think about your physical, mental and emotional energy. 

Do you notice any annual patterns or rhythms?

Is there anything in February which lifts your spirits? A ritual? An annual event? If not, what could you introduce?

NEWS: This blog is moving to a new home. Why not check it out now: click here.



Water, water………..

Last week the temperature dropped and the well froze. This meant that for a few days there was no running water in the house. Like many people, (living in the places I do) potable running water is something we take for granted – when we turn on the tap we expect to receive hot or cold water.

Frozen water

Frozen water

When there isn’t any……life is changed. I was shovelling snow to melt on the woodburner, using it in as many ways as possible. It became a creative endeavour, it became a different way of thinking. It was a reminder, an awareness. And it became possible to do without something that is usually an almost unconscious part of life. It’s an interesting lesson in resilience in fact.

Journal prompt: What happens when you, even temporarily, have to do without someone or something that you consider part of the very fabric of your life?  How do you adapt? How resilient are you?


In terms of the landscapes of people’s lives I think people are either mountain people or water people – which landscape feeds you most? Water has certainly provided inspiration for many writers and poets. Wallace Stevens said  ‘perhaps the truth depends on a walk around the lake’, but rivers are particularly  celebrated from Wordsworth’s  series of sonnets on the River Duddon to Alice Oswald’s narrative poem Dart.

Unfrozen water

Unfrozen water


Journal prompt: What is your relationship with water? What are your most evocative memories of water (good or bad)? Write from the senses – smell, sight, sound, taste, touch. Write in prose or poetry.

Accidental souvenirs

Preparing for another trip I take down a bag unused since the last one. Emptying it I find:

coins in currencies not useful this time

a ticket for a foreign train

receipts for meals eaten, hotels stayed in

a notebook with too few blank pages remaining

scraps of paper with names of unfamiliar artists

a printed sheet from an exhibition

and an embarassing number of pens………….

These are accidental souvenirs (from the French – to remember) – not chosen or carefully selected, not proudly displayed, shelved or filed – but each one evokes a fleeting memory.

Journal prompt:

What lurks forgotten at the bottom of your bag or suitcase from the last outing? Have you looked at the back of your closet recently?

What did you bring back unwittingly from your last trip?

Which all reminds me of William Stafford‘s poem What’s in my journal? which you can find here. It begins:

Odd things, like a button drawer.

Journal prompt:

What’s in my journal? Write your own prose piece or poem.

Anyone who has ever tried to de-clutter or Organize will know there are places where forgotten treasures congregate – forgotten treasures or clutter?

Caroline Koehnline on her website defines clutter as:

anything that drains your energy, gets in your way, distracts from what’s important, or has no place in your home or life. Stacks of paper, unproductive thinking, stuck feelings, and time-wasting activities can take up space that could be better used for other things.

Does that include foreign train tickets?!

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