Writing Therapy is a rather grand way of describing what I do with clients who want to use writing to make themselves feel better. But it can sometimes work out that way.


To illustrate: at a recent session with brain-injured clients, one of the group had a seizure minutes before I arrived. Other group members were distracted and concerned – to an impressive and touching level – and not overtly in a writing mood. Certainly the Christmas theme was forgotten. They tried hard to make me feel welcome – standing there with my mince pies – but their thoughts were clearly with D – who was lying on the floor, still unwell.


However, I ploughed on. I went through the usual journalling exercises – the Three Word Game, the Five-minute Sprint and the Unsent Letter (adding Father Christmas to the list of usual suspects). Then I spread out the Christmas goodies. The table was covered with (un-lit but scented) candles, silver baubles, crumbling cinnamon sticks, bright orange satsumas, glossy holly and so on. Prompted by the senses of sight, sound, touch, taste and smell, each member began to search their impaired memories.


Then we read the poem, Smells, by Christopher Morley and we discussed what smells mean to each of us. The group members wrote down single words to remind themselves of the memories the Christmas smells brought up for them. And, little by little, I noticed, the atmosphere had lifted.


And – although unconnected with the therapeutic writing session – D felt better too.

Lists are a simple and accessible writing technique. Everyone makes lists. These lists may be as basic as shopping lists or as daunting as To Do Lists. But lists can also help you establish your priorities and lists can help you create a vision of your future, while helping you identify obstacles, resources and solutions.

So how can lists help memoir writers?

Lists are another way of establishing the structure you want to impose on your materials.

If you feel ready:

  1. Take a spreadsheet – on your computer or in ‘real-life’.
  2. Write your themes and subthemes either across the top of the columns.
  3. Down the side, fill in topics such as events, dates, points of view (with references to interviews (dates and storage), locations,anything else which seems important to you.
  4. Fill in the data.
  5. Review what you have learned about your project from this exercise.
  6. Free-write (5mins): ‘What I want my memoir to say about my life’.

But feel free to contact me with any problems!


Carers often need to protect their own well-being and to express pent-up emotion, frustration and stress. Practical permissions to ease your daily round can help. Journal-keeping can help. But journal-keeping can involve permissions directly-related to self-care – all of its own!

When – at 2am – the local hospital’s A&E department tell you to remove your next of kin from their charge, what do you do next?

This happened to Jane and Jane was still noted on someone’s form as next of kin to her schizophrenic ex-husband. As a result, A&E would not take ‘No!’ for an answer over the telephone. So off she had to go.

But – when Jane arrived – no-one would hand over the case notes or make suggestions as to where she could get help. And there was nothing Jane could do. She had to take her ex-husband home – even though he was threatening her with jealous violence at the time.

However, there is another way. If you find this kind of situation arising – as carer/parent/child/sibling/friend – remember to ask your ‘caree’ in a calm moment to sign a permissions letter to the GP and others. Produce this letter and they’ll discuss your caree’s case with you.

This is a simple solution but prevents you being kept out of the loop of discussions about case plan and management. Among other considerations, to have a say in this is crucial for your well-being

But the concept of ‘permissions’ is more wide-ranging than this.

Permission is not just a practical management tool for the daily situation of a carer. Permission can also be an effective safeguard for people like ‘Jane’ who keep a journal as part of a self-care strategy.

Jane keeps a journal to give herself a voice – when people such as health professionals just don’t listen. But also, she keeps a journal to explore feelings that – when she starts writing – she doesn’t know she has. This can be powerful and frightening, too.

Let me explain. As a journal-keeper, you are responsible for managing your own safety and you can do this in several ways – by, for example, building in the principles of ‘structure’; ‘pacing’; and ‘containment’.

If you are new to journalling, for example, you may find the blank page daunting and structured prompts can help get you started. These may include such beginnings as ‘Today, I . . . ‘ or ‘I am . . .’ or questions such as ‘Who am I?’ or ‘What weather am I today?’

But the structure of these sentence stems, as well as getting you over the blankness of the page, will also ground you. They will keep you in the present and not allow you to return to an unhappy past. This will keep you safe.

Writing without pause, editing or reflection is another form of journalling. Triggered by simple prompts – such as a single word pulled randomly from your dictionary – and expand in unthought of directions. Known as free-writing, this is worthwhile for the truly surprising insights you gain!

But in some vulnerable people, this freedom can be dangerous. Some suffer severe distress. Some – rare examples – have even been known to hallucinate. So, when tempted by free-writing, try these safety measures:


  1. Set a time-limit and – when the timer pings – stop even if you are half-way through a word. (This provides structure, pace and containment.)


  1. Make sure you have your support network in place – family, friends, counsellors & therapists, the dog! (More containment.)


  1. Give yourself permission to stop! Yes, permission to stop is the most effective ‘containment’ measure of them all. And it is in your power.

Often in my therapeutic writing sessions, we will use a poem as a springboard. This poem is chosen for its relationship to group concerns. For example, Rumi’s Guesthouse helps people who are feeling overwhelmed by thoughts and feelings they cannot understand. Or Maya Angelou’s I know why the caged bird sings resonates with people who feel trapped (for example, caregivers).

The people I work with may have had scant experience of reading poetry. They are sometimes surprised at how relevant poetry can be – even if the poetry they have met previously was written in language not remotely relating to their everyday lives and seemingly placing the poet’s concerns somewhere different from their own.

So, when we have read the poem (several times), we then consider some of the following questions:

  • What does this poem do for you?
  • What feelings does this poem call up in you?
  • What similarities are there in your life?
  • How do you relate to the speaker’s situation?

These questions are quite different to the questions asked in usual literature classes and may generate surprising discussions. But if the group is willing to go further, I may ask also the more usual questions such as:

  • What is the important idea in this poem?
  • How does the language help to express this idea? The images? The sound? The rhythm?
  • Which vivid detail speaks most to you?

And if group members are interested in ‘having a go’ themselves, I ask them to make notes on the following:

  • If you wanted to write about your own situation, what image would you choose?
  • Have you any ideas about a poetic form you’d choose? Eg couplets (two line verses, lists, alpha poems? Free verse?
  • Would you write it from your own point of view – or choose another person? For example, we might read Hawk roosting by Ted Hughes.

And then, we do ‘have a go’!

Sharing is an important part of this kind of work. Some people are willing to share there and then. Others like to polish their work as ‘homework’. Others consider publication or public performance.

But, for some, what they have written is entirely private. And, whatever they choose to do is good. In fact, for some, having a choice is empowering. Choice for some is a rare experience.

Brain or Heart?


Safety in journalling relies on many things. If you are careless with where you keep your journal, someone else may read it, confidentiality is out of the window and – in worst cases – you can feel violated, sometimes sufficiently so as to require full-blown counselling! 


But safety derives from other considerations as well. The free-write can take you places that surprise you but you may not feel quite ready for that freedom. The trick is to protect yourself with regard to structure, pace and containment. 


And one of the safest ways of journalling – if you find the free-write too unstructured at the moment – is a response to a sentence stem. If you want further to restrict your response, set yourself time limits and remember response to a statement stem such as ‘I am …..’ engages the brain. But if you feel a little braver, try a question which engages the heart. Such as ‘Who am I . . .? 

Try these springboard sentence stems and review your reactions:

  1. How do I feel right now? (Three words?)
  2. Today I feel ———– (5? 15? 55?)
  3. I want to achieve these three things . . . . (today, this year, during my lifetime)
  4. What resources do I have to achieve what I want?
  5. What resources do I need to achieve what I want?
  6. I have received . . . from the world today?
  7. What has the world given me today?
  8. I am proud of myself because . . .
  9. I am . . .
  10. Who am I?

Have a go!

Unsent letters are a great place to vent pent-up anger and frustration – simply because we write them as if we will never send them and with brutal honesty about what we feel and what we think. People suffering from brain-injury and their carers are no different from the rest of us in this. And, recently, at a journal-writing session at Wirral Headway, having written the letters, we then brainstormed the next steps. Here are some of the ideas we came up with:

  1. Send the letter to the person addressed anyway – options included a range of people from the kind/unkind to healthcare professionals (understanding/unsympathetic) and so on . . . 
  2. With due regard for Health & Safety, burn the letter and throw the ashes on the sea or use them round the roses
  3. Commit the letter to the unknown – such as the God in our lives – by putting it in a bottle and throwing it off a ship or attaching it to a balloon
  4. Or make it part of our future so that we can see what progress we have made. We can do this by putting the letter in a time capsule to be opened this time next year or we can leave it in a stamped, self-addressed envelope with a friend who will post it when we least expect it.


If you can think of any other ways to handle the unsent letter, we’d be grateful if you’d let us know.

Journaling Lite!

The First Word!

Short of time? Just quickly write down three words that describe how you feel in body, mind, or spirit at this very moment. First into your head. Go!

Three words that describe how I feel right now are:

_____________      ______________    _____________________


The Last Word!

Write down three words that describe how you feel at this moment – first into your head. Go!

Three words that describe how I feel right now are:

_____________      ______________    _____________________

Do you notice any change from the three feelings you wrote down earlier? More self-awareness?  Anything different?

You can use this exercise any time of day – but you may also find it helpful at the beginning and end of the day for checking in with yourself!


I’m very grateful to Barbara Stahura (www.barbarastahura.com) for suggesting this exercise!

President elect for the American Society for Personality & Social Psychology James Pennebaker recently received the Society’s Distinguished Scholar Award on account of his work on the health impacts of expressive writing.

As early as the 1970s, Pennebaker put to experimental test the thesis that writing about your feelings can improve your physical health. And since those first inspiring studies, over three hundred research papers have been produced – a formidable and oft-cited evidence base for the health benefits of expressive writing. For an independent review of the academic literature making up this evidence base, see the Baikie and Wilhelm article listed below.

Intriguing developments have occurred.

King’s College Institute of Psychiatry researchers, for example, have found that

Communication Graphicsignificant numbers of people participating in expressive writing sessions a few weeks before their scheduled operations demonstrate improved immune function. Their wounds heal more quickly.
And, people with breast cancer who practise expressive writing are not cured of cancer but are known to visit the doctor less frequently.


    To learn more, see:
  • James Pennebaker
  • For the Pennebaker expressive writing method, see YouTube (But, if you think you may be emotionally or psychiatrically vulnerable, this method is potentially risk-bearing and you should ensure adequate emotional and mental health support is available to you.)
  • 2005 Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing by Karen Baikie and Kay Wilhelm.  Advances in Psychiatric Treatment 11: 338-346) (for an independent review of the literature up to 2005)
  • 2008 Enhanced wound healing after emotional disclosure intervention by John Weinman et al.  British Journal of Health Psychology Feb ;13 (Pt 1):95-102.
  • And, if possible, listen to BBC Radio 4’s Claudia Hammond’s programme on Pennebaker (first broadcast on 12-04-2013). This is entitled Mind Changers.
Expressive Writing is not for everyone! As James Pennebaker says, if it hasn’t worked for you after three to four days, try something else. For those few Lonely Furrow Company well-being coaching clients who don’t find writing helps, we suggest going for a walk. Walking is good – so is jogging, swimming, gardening, making music – whatever helps you to change your state from negative to positive!

This month – in my Memoir & Journaling group – we’ve been concentrating on Dialogues – dialogues with people, ‘work’ activities, and body parts and identities. But a thought occurs: while practising our journaling techniques we are also practising creative writing techniques and vice versa. Without concentrating so hard we’re taking the life out of ourselves, we’re skilling up beyond our wildest dreams. I love the way these two aspects of writing mesh. And the way writing itself can be so good for us!

  1. First buy yourself a notebook – nothing so beautiful you don’t want to write in it!
  2. Take up your pen and write from the heart
  3. Don’t fuss about grammar etc. Keep going – don’t stop to correct or edit
  4. Express and release all those emotions, fears, and anger sloshing about inside. Write and release to avoid the bad effects of keeping these feelings bottled up.
  5. Write until you feel you can’t write any more – write till you’re exhausted of feeling. Don’t be arbitrary eg. Morning pages (3 pages, every morning etc) Write when you feel so full you may burst if you don’t do something!
  6. Use your journal as your sounding board, the counselor in your pocket, say anything you like to your journal – it will not judge you.
  7. Writing in your journal is a way you can safely yell at your ex-spouse  – create the letters you’d like to send but never will. eg to your ex’s new lover, inlaws. This is your arena for a fight.
  8. The only rule is to date each entry  (The Date rule may help in court but will also help you review your progress.)
  9. Use your journal to record any physical symptoms – BP, rapid heart rate, fast breathing, energy level etc This way you are using your journal as a well-being tool.
%d bloggers like this: