From keeping a daily diary to embarking upon a memoir, from flash fiction to a full-length novel, writing can help us to shape narrative from chaos. As a tried and tested method for coping with and understanding personal crises, depression, anxiety, stress and traumatic events, the simple act of putting words on the page can have profound emotional benefits. Through writing we may attempt to make meaning from our thoughts, feelings and experiences while gaining distance from the things that cause us distress.
In this four part course on Writing As Therapy, Dr Sian Prior will lead you through a series of ideas and exercises in therapeutic writing, exploring a variety of techniques and methods that might work best for you. Each session will involve a mix of thinking, writing, reading and conversation.
No writing experience necessary; grammar, spelling and writing ability are irrelevant. All you need to bring is an urge to write expressively, a desire to resolve personal dilemmas, a journal (or notepad) and a pen. If you prefer to type please feel free to bring a laptop or iPad. There will be class activities and opportunities to share your work, allowing all written material to be kept as private as you wish.
Session One: The Situation vs the Story
‘The place to which our writer finally puzzles her way (is): her own mixed feelings. First she sees that she has them. Then she acknowledges them to herself. Then she considers them as a way into the experience: then she realizes they are the experience. She begins to write.’
- Vivian Gornick
The first session is a gentle introduction to some key concepts in writing as therapy, including; catharsis, self-awareness, self-acceptance and self-transformation. Drawing on the work of Vivian Gornick (author of ‘The Situation and the Story’) we will learn how to distinguish between the ‘situation’ we find ourselves in, and the ‘story’ we want to tell ourselves about our life. We will employ simple writing techniques to identify the internal conversations we have with ourselves (the dialogical self), and learn how these conversations can help us resolve the challenges we are facing.
Session Two: The Made Up Self
‘(In life writing) I want a sense that the writer has reckoned with the self, the material, as well as what it means to reveal it… and how stories are told.’
- Ander Monson
Drawing on the work of sociologist Irving Goffman (who developed self-presentation theory), writer Carl Klaus (author of ‘The Made Up Self’) and re-visiting the idea of ‘the dialogical self’ (introduced in the first session), in this session we will look at how we ‘perform’ our lives, how we ‘make ourselves up’ in our writing, and how understanding the different ‘personas’ we perform can help us get distance and perspective on our travails. American writer Ander Monson (‘Vanishing Point’) suggests we ask ourselves ‘what’s at stake’ when we’re thinking and writing about our lives. What remains to be resolved? How can writing help us identify and move through the unexpressed choices and conflicts in our lives?
Session Three: My Savage Mind
‘I realise it’s my own consciousness I need to confront. Perhaps by writing about myself I’ll discover my own identity. Regardless, I’ll have to stare at the rough edges of sadness in my life.’
- Patricia Foster
Drawing on the work of writer Patricia Foster (author of ‘My Savage Mind’) we will look at life writing as a tool for self-understanding and self-soothing. Part two begins with Finding the language of pain, where we will examine how employing writing techniques such as point-of-view (eg. first person, second person, third person voice) can help us to find better coping techniques in our lives. Finally we will be introduced to Gratitude journals; how to use daily life writing to ‘accentuate the positive’ in our lives.
Session Four: The Honest Self
‘We imagine the past – we don’t remember it.’
- John Banville
We are made up of our memories but we also know that our memories can fade, warp and distort, and at times even ‘trick’ us. These distortions and tricks can sometimes cause us distress – at other times, they can help us. In this session we will look at how to access faded memories and identify their truth content – both factual and emotional – through writing. Part two focuses on Memory vs imagination, as we examine how to acknowledge and accept the blur between the two, and employ them both in our writing to access the ‘story’ in our ‘situation’. We will practice ‘re-writing’ difficult episodes in our lives with alternative endings, and then conclude the course with a view to taking writing further in your daily life.
Illustration by Kathryn Renowden.