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Archive for the ‘Memoir & Journaling’ Category


 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.
A LONELY FURROW COMPANY CAVEAT!
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!

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Dear Everyone

As well as Advent, the first week in December 2012 saw the first Lonely Furrow Company monthly mailing to a new and exclusive on-line Memoir & Journaling Group.  These mailings contain guidance, hints & tips about keeping a journal (and other therapeutic writing practices), Q&As and discussion quotes.  There are also opportunities for postings by group members (anonymised with a ‘penname’ and real names known only to me, as the group’s professional facilitator). Confidentiality is assured. The group’s function in the reading of postings is to bear witness, not to judge or criticise either the writing or the life of the person who’s posting. And games, assignments and prompts follow weekly.

The system is entirely flexible – with people joining, dropping out when life’s like that, and re-joining when they feel able. And there are only two deadlines involved in the M&J group:

  1. Express a wish to participate by 21st of the month and I can organise the monthly invoice for £10 and put you on the monthly ‘email’ list for the following month. (Prompt payment really appreciated.)
  2. Send anything you wish to share by 15th of the month and your ‘penname’. (Sharing is entirely optional but has benefits.) (I am the moderator for what is included in the posting).


I’d be delighted if you felt you could join us and please do pass on the details of this group to anyone else who could benefit. If you have further questions, of course, contact me via the website (or email: elizabeth@lonelyfurrowcompany.com ) and I do hope you feel as excited as I am about this group – which is now a thriving entity.

It even has its own Facebook page for a public interface when appropriate. Please visit and ‘like’ if you can.
Thank you
Kindest regards
Lizzie

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At the beginning of any Lonely Furrow Company group session, I like to encourage people to feel ‘in the room’. I use a few Open Space guidelines to settle people down – such as ‘Who-ever comes are the right people’ and ‘Whatever happens is the right thing to happen’. For added safety, I add the Chatham House Rule: ‘What is said in the room stays in the room’.

And then we begin – usually with a free-write on ‘Why am I here?’

I run two sorts of creative writing groups. One is concerned with creative writing and publication. The other has as its focus the well-being of individual participants and creative writing is the means to achieve this. At the point of the first free-write, the nature of each group becomes clear.

Writers concerned with the art and craft of creative writing and the possibilities of broadcasting and publication concentrate on technique – themes and inspirations, characterisation, plotting, location and descriptions, dialogue, editing, language and style and how to approach publishers. They are honing their skills. They may enjoy the ride but the finished product – story, poem, memoir, drama – is their goal. (I have devoted the writing blog, Authorgym, to this: http://authorgym.wordpress.com )

On the other hand, in a therapeutic creative writing group, the possibilities of self-exploration mean that technique doesn’t matter. In these groups, creative writing may take the form of journal writing, unsent letters, dialogues, expressions of altered time perspectives, and creatively-written accounts of imaginings, dreams and visions. These writers may take pleasure in the writing itself.

But, for these writers, it is the process that counts. Nothing written can be ‘wrong’. The purpose of the writing is to observe what is going inside the writer and what is going on around them and to bear witness to this. It is not to produce a work of Art.

As, for example, journal therapist Kate Thompson explains in Therapeutic Journal Writing (Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2011): “for most people who practise therapeutic journal writing, the product of their process will be greater understanding, behavioural change or enhanced well-being rather than the writing itself.”

And, released from concerns over spelling, grammar and punctuation, writers – who never thought of themselves as writers – begin to use words fluently to feel into the darkness within and shed light. (This blog explores this further.)

There is another major difference between the two groups – the desire to ‘share’. Creative writers who want to produce stories or plays are not writing in a vacuum. Part of their purpose in writing at all is to ‘share’ – whether this is reading aloud to a group or being published.

But, within the therapeutic creative writing group, seeking to know themselves better, the ‘sharing’ is optional. For some, it’s enough to have borne witness to their lives with only themselves as audience. They may then choose to share with a trusted A N OTHER. Or they may choose to destroy what they have written. Whatever they choose doesn’t diminish the power of the process itself. And their choice not to share is a valid strategy and must be respected.

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Hello, Everyone!

 

Using creative writing to improve life quality for the long-term ill and distressed – and that of their family, friends and professional advisers – is a subject dear to my heart. And since I went to an Arts and Dementia Conference in Liverpool at the beginning of November, I’ve been thinking about this a lot.

 

As organisers Collective Encounters  explained, the conference aimed ‘to explore the possibilities in the use of arts in dementia care, celebrate excellence in the artistic work created by artists working with people with dementia and their carers, and look at the potential impact of Live and Learn [a new project] will have on the health and social care and creative sectors locally.’

 

It did and I found it difficult to process so many stunning insights all at once. But one story particularly impressed. David Clegg – a sculptor by profession – had volunteered to visit an old lady with dementia. When, after fifteen minutes, she found her front door, she was stark naked apart from ski-boots and oven gloves. She told him later, she was dressed this way because someone had stolen her clothes and replaced them with the clothes of an old woman. A stunning insight – indeed.

 

David now spends his time, when not sculpting, helping people with dementia record their stories and make sense of their lives. Which is what we all – as humans – want to do. And what creative writing is all about.

 

So, I have two pieces of news for you. Firstly, I now offer e-courses in Therapeutic Creative Writing – fiction, life-writing and journaling – for anyone dealing professionally or personally with relationship issues and emotional health problems. These e-courses each contain six units full of advice and writing games to explore the unit topic. Each unit may be completed at your own pace and in your own time with 24/7 support and – when appropriate – professional critique.

 

Secondly, November is packed with Lonely Furrow Company’s Out of the Box Workshops. These are designed to be useful for those – including writers – who deal with relationships and communication issues professionally. Group interaction is a crucial aspect of this form of communication training and the workshops provide a basis for further work.

 

November Workshops:

 

All will take place at The Conservatory, 28 Park West, Heswall, Wirral, CH60 9JF. (Tel: 0151 342 3877)

 

Communication Series

November 23rd 2011 (1pm-3.30pm) ‘Body Language – the silent story’  (£25)

November 30th 2011 (1pm-3.30pm)  ‘Story-telling – the techniques’ (£25)

 

Creative Writing Technique Series

November 26th 2011 (10am – 12.30pm) ‘Memorable Characters – how to write them.’ (£20)

 

To find out more or book your place, contact me initially via Elizabeth@lonelyfurrowcompany.com or telephone 0151 342 3877.

 

And, for a no-charge, no-obligation chat about any Lonely Furrow Company services, contact me initially via the Lonely Furrow Company brochure website www.lonelyfurrowcompany.com .

 

 

I hope you find the concept of Arts in Health as inspirational as I do. If you’d like to know more about this kind of work, please also see www.lapidus.org.uk. Lapidus is a professional organization which promotes the use of creative words for health and well-being, has established an ethical code for this work and maintains a directory of creative writing practitioners (of which I am one).

 

With very best wishes

Lizzie

 

 

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Unless you are writing exclusively for yourself – and I’m not sure how possible this is – you are not writing in a vacuum. You are writing for an audience.  That audience may be represented in indirect ways but an audience it remains.  For example, an editor represents the readers of his or her magazine or the buyers of his books.  And, as you write her memoirs, your great aunt Agatha will be sitting on your shoulder – probably tutting.

As a writer, you are – or should be – acutely aware of your audience.  And, when reading what you’ve written, your audience will be acutely aware of what’s in it for them.  To communicate with them successfully, you should be, too.

But, when writing up personal memoirs – whether as a series of anecdotes or a detailed auto-biography or a family history or even fictionalised as a first novel – you have to protect the feelings of people you know and love in a way that pure fiction usually does not.

Taking the extreme example of the First Novel – usually largely autobiographical – family and friends will paw over the text, hunting for mention of themselves.  At first reading, they will see little other than what they imagine – true or false – to be them.  And your saying ‘If the cap fits…’ will not help.

Similarly with Triumph over Tragedy personal stories for magazines, be cautious.  If you intend to write it yourself, consider how it will impact on all the other players in the ‘drama’.  Do they want their names, photographs, follies and fears all over a tabloid?  And don’t let someone else write it for you unless you absolutely trust them and you really don’t want to set pen to paper on the subject.

This begs the question: Why bother?

  • Some people get involved for the money.
  • Some people get involved because they want to help others.
  • Some people get involved for the therapeutic benefits of unloading.
  • Some people get involved for revenge, setting the record straight.

But writing up memoirs – as opposed to fictionalisation or journalism – has different, more personal, often more loving motives:

  • You may want to ‘remember’ someone in the most reverent way of which you are capable.
  • You may have been asked by ‘the family’ to be keeper of the collective sense of ‘Who we are’.
  • You may want to explore who you are through your own life-story.

You may also want to provide a record for future generations – an oral history transcribed into readable form. But you do not at this point know your audience and you cannot assume any knowledge of your life and times. This will influence what and how much detail you include.

And, even if you suspect your memoir will have a limited audience, you need to exercise diplomacy.  Great Aunt Agatha may be consigned to sitting on your shoulder.  But her other descendants and dependants – your siblings and cousins – may yet be extant. Include anecdotes with caution and – at times – at your peril.

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For centuries, creative writing has been accepted as beneficial to people with emotional problems. Aristotle described the cathartic effect of drama.  Shakespeare warned:  “Give sorrow words.  The grief that does not speak/ Whispers the o’er fraught heart and bids it break.” And twentieth century researchers began to seek an evidence base for this – hoping to establish a cornerstone for creative writing therapy.

However some of the findings have surprised even the already-converted.In independent studies, benefits of creative writing have proved certainly emotional and spiritual but also psychological and physical. (more…)

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