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?