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Creative Writing for Health

by Sally Balfe(more info)

listed in stress, originally published in issue 33 - October 1998

Dr Robin Philipp, of Bristol Royal Infirmary, has recently conducted research into the health benefits of writing poetry. Of the 200 study participants, 56% said that writing poetry reduced anxiety and provided an emotional outlet. Some said that writing poetry helped them to cope with the pain of bereavement, while others were able to stop taking anti-depressants or tranquillisers.

"Writing poetry is beneficial because there is something emotionally cathartic about putting one's thoughts and feelings down on paper," says Philipp, a consultant occupational physician who regularly uses poetry with his patients. "The parallel in everyday life is that if you have a lot of tasks to do which are going around in your head and you make a list of them, your anxiety levels decrease." He suggests that other forms of creative writing, such as drama or biography, can produce the same effect.

Woman at desk writing

This idea is supported by Nicki Jacowska, author of Write for Life: "Sometimes thoughts get caught up in a kind of mental loop. By writing them down you are getting them out there." Jacowska believes that by articulating your feelings on the page you become more in touch with them: "You might think or say 'I feel unhappy' but that's as far as it goes. With writing you can go further: you begin to use metaphors and examples to arrive at a much more specific definition of your own particular unhappiness. Ultimately this self-awareness enables you to tackle problems and move on."

An alternative to counselling?

Does creative writing differ from psychotherapy or counselling? Victoria Field, director of Survivors' Poetry, a charity that runs creative writing workshops for, and publishes work by, survivors of mental distress, believes it does. She says: "Whereas with therapy you just voice your difficulties, with creative writing you can transcend the pain of a particular event by transforming it into something beautiful: a polished work of art. This work of art has a universal meaning which can not only benefit others but allows you to gain a perspective on your problems."

Dominic McLoughlin, tutor of 'Writing for Self Discovery' at Morley College, London, believes that the level of autonomy involved in creative writing makes it an attractive alternative to counselling. "The key to the success of creative writing is that the writer is at the centre of his or her healing process," he says. "Unlike speaking, with writing you can spend as long as you like formulating your thoughts and ideas and have a free reign to go back and edit them. It's up to you if you wish to share what you've written, although reading it aloud or letting others read it can enhance the therapeutic process."

Exercises

Examples of creative writing exercises for health are to be found in Daniel Brown's book Art Therapies (Thorsons). Brown recommends practical exercises that encourage the participant to focus on the positive. He suggests writing a short poem, of no more than 12 lines, about a negative emotion such as sadness or fear, using the last two lines of the poem to translate that emotion into something more positive. As an example, here are the last lines of a poem that Brown wrote to combat his fear of flying:

"as you face your fear
its force quails pale
and phantoms disappear
".

Other exercises by Brown include describing your perfect day from the moment you wake up to when you go to bed, and conjuring up one word that describes what is great about you, free associating around that word and then assembling the words into a poem.

McLoughlin uses symbols, for example; water, the tree, the crossroads, to inspire his students' imaginations: "Symbols have a cluster of meanings which can spark our own ideas and which also speak to the more unconscious part of ourselves." He gives the example of a bridge which is both a symbol of change i.e. going from one place to another and a thing that joins different states. "I ask my students to imagine they are walking across a familiar bridge, whether recently or in childhood, and to describe their thoughts, feelings and environment. When we discuss the work, the students are often surprised by what comes up. I think it's an exercise which can contribute to them being able to think about change," he says.

As with other art forms, creative writing is fun, involving many of the qualities that are used in play, such as imagination, experimentation and a sense of adventure. The writer doesn't need to actively seek out the health benefits, as these are automatic. Simply getting into the habit of exercising the 'creative muscle' is beneficial: the writer can apply this newly developed creative side to problems in his or her everyday life.

Jacowska believes that creative writing is an antidote to modern-day efficiency worship: "Large areas of human nature are being sacrificed in the race to doing things in the shortest possible time. Creative writing, on the other hand, is about unravelling and letting go."

Getting Started: A Personal Guide

Anyone can get involved in creative writing. If you can tell an anecdote to your friends, you can write a short story or description. The storytelling skills that we all possessed in childhood can, with the minimum of effort, be reactivated in adulthood.

The Practical Tools of Writing

Creative writing is one of the most accessible art forms: you need only pen and paper. It is a good idea, though, to invest in a 'special' notebook to be used solely for your creative ideas, descriptions or stories. Having a designated place to 'go to' with your thoughts will motivate you to write. Spontaneous jottings can later be used as source material for longer pieces.

In A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf stresses the importance of writers having a room of their own in order to write. If you have a spare room, make that your study, if not create a 'writing space'. This could be a desk in one corner of your bedroom or living room where you can sit and write and where you can keep your writing tools and any objects, such as pictures, that inspire your writing.

Finding the Time to Write

You don't need huge chunks of time at your disposal to do writing. Little and often is the key: regular writing exercises are often more effective than hours spent in bulk. Take an overview of your lifestyle and make a realistic assessment of how much time you can spend on writing per day and when you can spend it. Possibilities might include: twenty minutes in your lunchbreak; half an hour in the evening; an hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon. Whatever your decision, make sure you stick to it. Setting a deadline for a particular activity may help you to focus your mind. For example you may say to yourself, "I'm going to spend 10 minutes describing my thoughts and observations during a recent journey." By setting your alarm clock, you'll know when your deadline has arrived.

Banishing Writing Blocks

The most common causes of writer's block is thinking, "I'll never be good enough" and aiming for perfection. If you find yourself staring at an empty page in frustration, try using automatic writing to break the deadlock. Essentially 'writing before thought', automatic writing is a means of bypassing the brain's censor. It entails quickly writing down anything that pops into one's head, however absurd, without pausing first to analyse or structure it. The resulting stream of consciousness often provides the spark for a more considered piece. It's common practice, among many writers, to do automatic writing first thing in the morning when the inner censor has had less time to become activated and writing is, therefore, less inhibited.

Fuelling your Imagination

Responding to creative writing exercises is a good idea if you want to give your imagination something to work on. These can be found in creative writing books (see the recommended list at the end of this article) or at creative writing classes (contact your regional arts board for details). The exercises below have been approved by creative writing tutors as a good starting point for writers:

* Select a picture that appeals to you. This could be a photograph taken from a magazine, newspaper or book, a painting or a postcard. Describe what is happening in the picture and what happened before and after the picture was taken. Do this in the third person, or enter the picture and imagine yourself in the scene. Explore the scene to the full. What can you/the figures in the picture see, hear, smell, feel or taste? What are the figures saying to each other/thinking about?
* Start small. Write one hundred words about an everyday object such as an onion, coin, blade of grass, key. Go into as much detail as you can, utilising your senses. Write down the associations you have with the object.
* Get inside the skin of a stranger, for example someone you've passed on the street or sat opposite on a train, and describe what you imagine their life is like.
* Look through a frame, whether real or imagined, and describe what you can see. The frame could be a window, a door, between the bars of a cage or a natural frame such as above a garden gate and beneath a tree.
* Describe a happy memory.
* Complete these sentences: "I am a river and . . ."; "I am a bird and . . ."; "I am a stone and . . ." Go on for as long as possible describing what it feels like to be these things.
* Go out with your notebook to a local cafe or park and jot down your observations.

Feedback

Writing within a group gives you the opportunity to air your work and gain feedback. Join a creative writing class or set up a writing group with friends, taking turns to suggest exercises. Seek out feedback that helps you to develop your creativity and find your own voice.

Case study

Alex B joined Dominic McLoughlin's class, 'Writing for Self-Discovery', last September after the death of her father. It was the 'self-discovery' aspect that attracted her to the class: "I received a lot of letters of condolence from people when my father died and found that when I wrote back to thank them I felt emotional. It was this inward looking, this examining of my own emotions and feelings, that acted as the spark for my joining the class: I wanted to take it further." Alex enjoyed the class because, she says: "I could take my own life experiences and apply them to a story. The art of putting words together is very empowering. It's like painting a picture that's part of you, but outside of you." She believes that becoming involved in creative writing has made her more articulate in her personal relationships and she plans to continue with the class next year. "I found the discipline of attending a class helpful," she says. "I was a bit nervous at reading out my work at first but I overcame that because it was a supportive environment."

Further Reading

For personal guidance:

Brown, D (1997) Art Therapies Thorsons
Cameron, J (1992) The Artist's Way Pan
Goldberg, N (1986) Writing Down the Bones Shambala
Jacowska, N (1997) Write for Life Element

For professional use:

Hunt, C and F Sampson (1998) The Self on the Page Jessica Kingsley

Courses:

'The University Certificate in the Uses of Story in Education' Hertfordshire University. For further information contact A. Gersey on 01707 285325.
'Postgraduate Diploma in Creative Writing and Personal Development' Sussex University. Tel: 01273 606755 Contact Celia Hunt on ext 2485, who is also Chair of LAPIDUS (The Association for the Literacy Arts in Personal Development).

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About Sally Balfe

Sally Balfe is a published playwright and poet. She has also worked as a freelance writer, English teacher and television researcher. She has a Postgraduate Certificate in Periodical Journalism from the London College of Printing, Postgraduate Certificate in Adult Education and a Degree in Politics.

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