Creative Writing as Therapy
'The course was brilliant … I have begun to learn things about myself.’
Sunderland Recovery College student
Sunderland Recovery College students have been enjoying the College’s Introduction to Journaling classes during 2022. The two key ways of journaling that the students engaged in were short and long form writing. Short form journaling uses bullet points which help to summarise key thoughts and feelings. This is a good way to begin journaling for those students who have not written for a while or who are daunted by a clean page and the expectation that they should write something. Long form journaling is for those students who enjoy writing streams of consciousness as they pour out their thoughts onto the page.
Whilst following the courses last year some of the students began to respond using alternative, more creative writing approaches, such as poetry. Quite often their writing was inspired by a visit to the woods, the park, the river, or the beach, where they would sit, reflect and write. Here they were able to express themselves in a different way and asked if I could run a creative journaling course. The course ran from November 2022 to January 2023 with six sessions, each looking at a different form of writing, including Haiku, metaphors, vignettes, micro-stories and the hero's journey. The response from the students has been overwhelming in terms of their writing, with very positive feedback being received about the course (see below).
Research about the benefits of creative writing for wellbeing and recovery is well documented. For example, Suzan Lemont (2023) confirms that interest in expressive writing as a form of therapy began in the 1950s and in her chapter summarises some of the studies that have been conducted since then. In particular, she suggests that 'there is some evidence that therapeutic writing after trauma can actually alter cognitive performance and perhaps even rewire the brain' (p309). Elsewhere, Nicolle Nattress (2021) has written that creative 'journaling for mental health and wellness can be a powerful tool for healing ... as it is a window into our relationship with self' (p79). Feedback from the students who followed the Sunderland Recovery College Creative Journaling course confirms these points.
Below is an example of Haiku written by the course tutor to illustrate the point. Haiku is a Japanese form of writing based on strict rules of three lines made up of 5, 7 and 5 syllables. Writing to such extreme restrictions ensures that there are no superfluous words, literally every syllable counts. It is also possible to experiment with different numbers of syllables and increase the lines from three to five, as shown in the second example below by one of the students on the course:
Morning greeting - by Steve
Red breasted greeting
Welcoming in a new day
Through the murky dawn
The Wedding - by Sarah
Thomas and Molly’s
Wedding day has arrived
Good luck to you both
May God bless you and keep you
In love from this day forward
Another form of poetry that does not have any restrictions uses metaphors to describe a person, a place, an event or a situation, like the example below. Writing this way encourages us to think creatively about, for example, how we feel, using metaphors to better express our experiences.
A part of me - Autism by Jay
It’s like my breath
It’s the organs that makes me
It’s my day and my night
My then and my now
The rollercoaster of emotions
The battle to be the normal
The fight for education
The war to survive bullying
The face mask of my mind
My burst of random sounds
Random words and face twitches
My OCD’s and need for acceptance
My forgotten sentences
My misspoken words
My meltdowns and my shutdowns
My silent anxiety
My special interests
And restless thoughts
Distraction and social awkwardness
Some goods and some bads
It is me and I am it
I might talk too much about it
But it took me twenty-seven years to understand why
Why I didn’t fit in
Why life was so hard
But now I understand
Now I am finally found.
Having looked at two different types of poetry and how we can record our thoughts and feelings through imagery, the course turned to look at prose writing. The first of these sessions looked at writing vignettes. Vignettes were made famous by, amongst others, Ernest Hemingway, where the writing describes a person, place or experience. The emphasis is on description of what we see in front of us, it is not a story, there is no beginning, middle and end, no plot. Instead, it is a snapshot of what we see, such as the two vignettes below:
Little Comfort by Sue
"Ting" snug door opens he shuffles in scrape-tap, scrape-tap, scrape- tap towards the armchair by the roaring coal fire. Steam rises from his threadbare coat. Gnarled fingers unwind his woollen scarf, they welcome the tingle as he sinks low into the chair. Raspy coughing escapes the bent frail body. A nod to the bartender instantly brings a half pint glass of amber liquid served with the certainty of comfort and warmth. Loneliness waits by the door until it can accompany him home again.
Halloween by Sarah
Three school friends together witches’ hats and broomsticks in hand. Something has been said, they are all laughing and smiling enjoying themselves, having fun together on Halloween. The house is all decorated, food and drinks are prepared for others to arrive.
The second type of prose writing we looked at was flash fiction, defined as a very short story, which can be as short as 6 words. Flash fiction is different to a vignette because it is a story which does have a beginning, middle and end, though usually it is limited to two characters and a single event. As with all the previous forms of writing the word limit is restricted.
Saying Goodbye by Gail
There is a slight breeze the sun is shining through the canopy of the copse of trees, the sound of the stream bubbling close by over the rocks his daughters had stepped across as children, when he had brought them on picnics to this his favourite place. The air is thick with grief the soft sound of crying as tears roll down his families faces, each remembering him in their own way. Out of their hands his ashes are taken by the wind up into the air and blown across the moors of purple heather and back to the nature he loved.
The advantage of using these approaches is that they are based on strict word limits which means they are more accessible to students. Even so, writing with strict word limits is possibly harder than writing freely without limit. The students on the course confirmed that they found this difficult, but they all still engaged and produced some very profound work.
Feedback about the course has been very encouraging. As one of the students commented ‘Steve’s course is brilliant. I met my friends there, it is a safe and welcoming environment. I have learned so many new things about writing.’ As another student wrote ‘I have made new friends and learnt new writing techniques.’
A third student described the course as providing ‘inspiration and freedom to write within a structured way,’ whilst a fourth student confirmed that ‘the course was brilliant … I have begun to learn things about myself.’ Finally, another course participant confirmed that ‘I have started to feel much better in myself due to writing things down.’
‘I felt I could be open [because] I knew and felt that it was a safe place.’
Sunderland Recovery College student
Lamont, S (2023) Integrating Creative Writing and Expressive Arts in Malchiodi, CA Ed Handbook of Expressive Arts Therapy. Guildford Press: London
Nattrass, N (2021) Creative Journaling for Self-Care in Monk, L and Maisel, E Transformational Journaling for Coaches, Therapists and Clients. Routledge: New York