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.


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?


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.)


Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
An article in The Guardian offered Chinese New Year (8th February, by the way – Happy Year of the Monkey) as a reset day for all those New Year Resolutions that have now been forgotten, abandoned, given up or put off to tomorrow. If you made resolutions earlier, which ones are worth re-setting? which ones have you decided to put off for another year? Are there new ones which now feel manageable in the lengthening days (northern hemisphere of course)?


Latin: pro cras – for tomorrow

“The avoidance of doing a task which needs to be accomplished.”  Wikipedia
Do you agree with this?  Are you a chronic or a creative procrastinator?

Journal prompt: Make a procrastination list

The things on your procrastination list are those things which rarely, if ever, make it to the active to do list – they lurk, they hover, they lour or lower.
Give them their own list. Ask yourself
am I putting this off until tomorrow or do I just hope it will go away?
Are there things on the list that are either no longer relevant (deadlines long long past, time expired, technology obsolete)?
or which you know you can no longer do without help? (diy projects, research, social commitments)
Can you break them down into smaller steps which you can transfer to your to do list?
Choose one – do it then write a reflection on what it feels like to have done it. Was it as bad as you feared? What do you feel having done it? How does it help you?
 20160112_115334Journal prompt: Write a character sketch of Procrastination personified

What does she look like? What does she think?  Write a dialogue with her (or him). Can you be friends?

If you are an artist – sketch, draw or make a collage.

Tomorrow you will live, you always cry;
In what fair country does this morrow lie,
That ’tis so mighty long ere it arrive?
Beyond the Indies does this morrow live?
‘Tis so far-fetched, this morrow, that I fear
‘Twill be both very old and very dear.
‘Tomorrow I will live,’ the fool does say;
Today itself’s too late — the wise lived yesterday. 
Now, what are you going to do tomorrow?

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?

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.

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……

%d bloggers like this: