Dialogue 1: How Do We Define Collaborative Writing?

Dialogue 1: How Do We Define Collaborative Writing?

by Daniel X. Harris and Trish Thompson
In the spirit of Irvin Yalom’s “Every Day Gets a Little Closer,” a therapist and her client share the richness of the therapeutic journey through collaborative writing.


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Editor's Note: In this “dialogue” between client (Daniel X. Harris) and therapist (Trish Thompson), the co-authors explore how collaborative writing that focuses on the therapeutic relationship can be a powerful tool for building trust, multiple dimensions, and humor. They also explore some of the ethical questions surrounding this kind of work and note that the entries do not always run sequentially, “as the themes they explore circle back and around, more like circuits of curiosity than a linear journal.”

Defining Collaborative Writing

Trish Thompson: Dan, so what do we mean when we say collaborative writing? Does it have to be writing with each other, or can it be writing to each other? Or can it be considered more broadly, including things like one-way writing about collaborative sessions?

so what do we mean when we say collaborative writing? Does it have to be writing with each other, or can it be writing to each other
Daniel X. Harris: This is an interesting question, Trish, and one (in my view) that is framed by disciplinary considerations. There are different ways of responding to it, whether you are coming from psychotherapeutic, autoethnographic, narrative writing or creative writing perspectives. One entry point might be the work of Jane Speedy, who is both an academic and narrative therapist. Her 2017 book, Narrative Inquiry and Psychotherapy, offers many responses to your questions. For example, Speedy offers, “My own interest in narrative research is very much as a collaborative co-inquirer, first in relation to the problems that have come to overshadow and shape peoples’ lives, and secondly in terms of re-telling these stories in writing” (1). Further, she defines “meaning-making as collaborative activities and “reality” as the space between people engaged in conversation.”

There is no hard and fast rule. It can mean a wide range of things, but if it is “collaborative,” I think there has to be that element of working together, not just reporting to each other what we have done individually or independently. For example, you have described using writing with other clients in which they write to you things between sessions. If you read those works and then you work on the content in their session, I would not consider that collaborative writing. If you both read your writings to each other, and change each other in that exchange, then for me that’s moving into the realm of collaborative. Or maybe, more accurately, that would be considered “interdependent” writing! Yalom (2) falls somewhere in there, I think. While I appreciate the efficacy of those approaches, and the many diverse ways in which writing is used in art therapy, I’m more interested in the mutuality of what we have done together. That to me is the “radical” bit: how can one part of a pair (the client) be helped by the therapist’s trained knowledge, through a multi- directional exchange that requires vulnerability and sharing from both sides? That’s truly collaboration.  

Thompson: Ah yes, I like what you are saying here. It makes me think about our writing process, particularly for this book, and the different ways we worked together. What about when we recorded a Zoom chat and then converted the conversation to text? Didn’t seem to make a heap of sense on the page. Technology at fault, surely! Our writing sessions were more productive — 45 mins of writing, screens off (I wonder if your dogs are at your feet?), and then sharing what we had written after. You had always written about three times as much as me, the words pouring out of you, capturing your experience so evocatively. But for me, it is slow work, as if I have to coax out reluctant words that are not sure whether they should show up in case they don’t get along together when they arrive on the page, despite my pleading! I remember telling you about my writing imposter syndrome, saying that there are so many great (much better) writers out there, what do I think I’m doing? And you said something like, “here is room for lots of writers to be out there.” That was so helpful to me.

what difference does it make to co-write for publication
Harris: Trish, what difference does it make to co-write for publication, rather than just as a therapeutic tool (and does that mean they have to be good writers)? 

Thompson: The first question I ask myself whenever I write something is, “who is the audience?”

This to me is fundamental in shaping the purpose of the words. Using writing as a therapeutic tool has its focus in deepening the shared understanding of the issues being explored in sessions. It is endlessly provoking in the material it continues to throw up. I am writing with a client at the moment, and the face-to-face sessions are so enlivened by the picking up of the threads of the email exchange, once they have also been through the reflective cycle. This client uses visual imagery to great effect in her writing, which I love and respond to. She says she loves how I capture and summarise her therapeutic journey so clearly. But this co-creation is done with little thought to skill or form, it is just about an illustration of our process that continues to build connection. But if a client/therapist pair are writing for publication, they are allowing others into the intimate space of therapy because they believe that what they have to say will be of benefit to others. It could raise feelings of vulnerability when imagining what are usually confidential words reaching the eyes of an unknown audience. I think if therapy writing is to be published, it would be important that the client and therapist can write well enough to convey meaning, create interest and inspire the audience (gulp!). The ethics of this issue are also touched on in Dialogue 3.

When Narratives Meet

We wonder how therapist narratives and different parts of them might enter the space and connect with the narratives/parts of the client? We argue that the meeting point/s of these narratives can be a catalyst for change in both the client and therapist. As Speedy states, collaborative writing between therapist and client, researcher and researched, can “take issue with the low- and high- ground positions in relation to “writing” and “research”… and to promote and encourage ideas of scholarship (alongside research) within the therapeutic domain as collaborative …” This problematisation of the unequal power dynamic that typically haunts both kinds of engagement is at the heart of this book.      

Harris: Collaborative writing doesn’t have to be of equal investment. Clients are looking for witnessing more than a therapist would. They don’t need the writing to witness/reflect them. It’s okay that what the client gets out of it is different from what the therapist gets out of it. Narrative therapy tells us that what a lot of the therapeutic work does, written or not, is bearing witness to someone’s pain or joy or hardship. Validating. It takes the experience from being in one’s psyche to being made real in “real life.” Validating the difficulty of an experience.

But what allowed Trish to accept that invitation? What allowed her to become playful in ways that I experienced as deeper, more or different than in the room? We agree there is something alchemical in the movement of being in, stepping out, looking. This is both a feeling and also is materially and spatially shown by the text and the comments down the side. We were doing that together. It wasn’t just Trish going to supervision and thinking about the therapeutic work.

It felt like there was a collaboration going on around what was going on. There was a shared analysis of what we were doing. Some therapeutic models absolutely flatten the hierarchy: the therapist is not there to tell the client what it “means,” or what to do.

What did it feel like for Trish? You don’t often get a client doing that. Reflecting on the last session, or the work, or where this was helpful – you invite it, but it doesn’t happen a lot. Therapists spend a lot of time wondering if techniques work or not. We have talked a lot about the tendency of therapists to workshop these questions with one another, but less so with clients. How would you know if something worked, if you didn’t ask the client?

This collaborative process speaks to something deeper in Trish, rather than therapist Trish. She doesn’t want to assume or believe things if they’re wrong. She wants to know. This kind of dynamic has been a long-term struggle for her, so the explicit-ness of the conversation in the writing (of the first article) really jazzed her because “the dialogue is open.” You get to know, understand, no matter how hard it is; so much better than wondering. We think that’s why Yalom did that exchange of, “I’ll write my version and you write yours.” He talks about how there are some moments he thinks are pivotal successes, but then the clients debunk that.  

Thompson: What I have particularly enjoyed in the collaborative writing with you, Dan, is the energy I felt when reading something you had written. I would then have a rush of ideas and start making connections – with things we had talked about in the past, with things that were happening in my life, or questions I wanted to ask you or other clients. And then in writing a response, something would click in me about my own journey in finding myself. The writing constantly challenged my self-perceptions.

May 2023: I have been reading your chapter Unstable Sense of Self. So many emotions came up for me. And then the anger came. People don’t see. People think they know better. And because of this you have to endure the experience of the deep knowing that comes from a life’s work of amazing “you-ness” being minimised, whether it is by psychiatrists or dramaturgs. God, who doesn’t want a play that makes you laugh and scares you shitless at the same time?  

“Taking Charge” as Collaborators and as Client/Therapist (29 November, 2020)

Thompson: I’m interested in the idea that as a therapist, I might have personal motives, desires and preferences. When I was studying for my counselling qualification we were drilled with the maxims of “do no harm” and “the clients’ needs are paramount” and that there in fact can be no personal gain for therapists. It is easy to understand this in the context of, say, not allowing a client to arrange to get you the best table at the restaurant they happen to work at, or free tickets to a concert through their connections. So, what about our writing together? You are right about a long-held desire coming to fruition. Not that I haven’t already written, having had three other articles published and many letters to The Age newspaper! The fact that the experience of writing our article has been so positive for both of us equally has felt like a relief. I have been thinking about how it might be for you to feel like my desire to write creates an obligation for you to meet this need. So, it seems like the arrangement is that I can meet your needs, but if you meet mine, there is an ethical problem. And yet you say that to see my excitement and investment is gratifying for you, and you don’t resent it. Not yet anyway. I wonder what might happen to make you resent it?

Harris: I can’t imagine that. I feel that we entered into this mutually – in fact, I suggested it.

Thompson: Dan, I knew you wrote for a living, and I remember when your email came through, suggesting we co-author an article about the process of arriving at the diagnosis of Borderline personality disorder (or BPD). A light inside me flicked on. Can this be something clients and therapists do together? Something about our therapeutic relationship suggested that it could work. Those many hours of therapy-built trust, and this would allow for a story to be told – not just from one perspective (be that client or therapist), but from both. We did due diligence around ethics (spoke to the editor of the PACFA journal, my supervisor and even the CEO of PACFA). Green light given. The writing allowed for a stretching, bending, flexing, and reworking of traditional client/counsellor dynamics and enhanced the work in possibly unexpected ways.

Harris: We tried writing separately, as Yalom and his client “Ginny” do in his book Everyday Gets a Little Closer (1974/1991). But eventually we returned to co-authoring in a shared Google doc that has satisfying interactivity and vibrancy. The fluidity of being able to write into the same document, and comment on each other’s and our own writing as we go, seems to form a big part of the “energy” of this new kind of shared work. (3). It also calls to mind the important work done by Wyatt et al. (4), who have offered an overview and history of collaborative writing (CW) in general, one that might be helpful to readers who are wondering how collaborative writing might be distinct from collaborative autoethnography, for example, or from narrative therapy, as we’ve discussed elsewhere in this book.

I often think that the client-therapist relationship resists a definition that truly lands, no matter how hard we might try
Thompson: I often think that the client-therapist relationship resists a definition that truly lands, no matter how hard we might try. An intimate partnership that grows and deepens over time, though it does not find representation in photo albums, social media posts, or at family dinners. But this relationship can be in existence one day, and not the next. When the therapy ends, chances are the client and therapist will not ever meet again. All that sharing, all that caring comes to an end when the decision is made that the work has been completed. The relationship is very contextual though; I know that people want to experience their therapist in a different way, whether that be as a person who will ultimately tell them what to do, or as someone who will help them feel differently about themselves. As a person-centred therapist, I know I resist taking on the role of the “expert.” Clients are experts of their own lives and I am there to hold the torch in a good spot so they can see more clearly what’s up ahead and choose the path.

Harris: I’m interested in what “expert” means to you. I love your ethos, but I also want to challenge you on your unwillingness to hold a position of power or expertness in the room or in this relationship. For example, when I was a teacher, I tried to do the same thing, but the students resisted it. They WANTED a parent/expert/person in charge. We were taught that it makes them feel safe. Maybe this is the same for the client in your rooms. Inviting clients into agency and power and self-determination and collaboration is one thing, but eschewing power or control altogether may be a bit disingenuous? I’m interested in what kinds of feelings it gives you to be “in charge,” and how you relate to those feelings and where they come from.

30 November 2020

Thompson: I have to respond to some pressing client issues in the next few days, so may not get back to writing till Wednesday, but I wanted to respond to this comment, as it is wonderfully provoking. I did not say I was unwilling to hold a position of power in the room, just unwilling to label myself “the expert.” I am very aware of holding power and in fact, recognise it goes with the territory. We are trained to understand this, and I think it is only in recognising it that you can be mindful of not abusing it. There are times I will be directive with clients, and even strongly suggest what should happen next. I agree that so often clients want to sink into the feeling of being held and directed by someone more powerful than them. I have also had the experience of wanting that myself as a client, from my own therapist. I am very interested in the power dynamics between client and therapist and think there is much we can write about and explore here. I note that you feel rebellious when Yalom uses his power in a paternalistic way, and it makes me wonder if that has anything to do with him inhabiting the role of “expert” to the extent that it takes the client into an infantile space. I know he doesn’t want to do that, but maybe that also goes with the territory of being a white male of his time and circumstance.

what I reject about the expert stance is creating a vibe that puts me in a position of being “all knowing”
So, for me, what I reject about the expert stance is creating a vibe that puts me in a position of being “all knowing” and bestowing the answers from a superior position, creating some idea of the client having a deficit that I will “fix.” I have training, experience and skill which allows me the authority to occupy this role and do the work. I love the question around what “being in charge” means to me. I have often thought I am more comfortable with a second in charge role. I know I have leadership skills, have often been told that, and have also been in a number of leadership positions over my career. But as the youngest of four siblings (by a long shot) and older parents, I could never have been the “expert,” or “in charge” in a million years!

Thompson: You said to me that as a result of our writing the article together, you felt you trusted me more. Initially, I think I assumed that the trusting me more was about the fact that the writing went smoothly, and that nothing went wrong. Then I wondered about what it might have been like for you to read about my experiences of you as a client and to see my care in the words I offered. Not only that I wanted so much for you to be happy and fulfilled in your life, but that I saw you as vital and full of life. But now I am wondering more about the process we engaged in to produce the article. There was a spark that was ignited as we poured what was in our minds and hearts into the document. You would write something and it would create a flash of an idea in me, and then a rush of energy in trying to capture it in words. I think the same might have happened for you. There was a synergy that I don’t know we could have predicted, but maybe it was not so surprising, given the successful therapeutic space that we have created. We have been exploring the issue of the power dynamic in the client-therapist relationship. It is a strange beast because it seems like it is both needed and rebelled against simultaneously. Sometimes as a client you want me to take the reins and show you the way, and at other times you are aware that as you bare your life to me, I keep mine under wraps. You step into a vulnerable space, and I have a boundary that keeps me safe. And I want to offer sup- port and guidance but reject labels like “expert” and get cozy with terms like “fellow travellers.” Did our writing together even the score? For in that space, I saw you as the authority and looked to you to have the answers on how the work would come together. I completely trusted that you would take us to where we needed to be with this piece. Did you know that I trusted you result in you trusting me even more? 

Trish, I’m feeling the resonances of this co-authoring work with you in other places in my life
Harris: Trish, I’m feeling the resonances of this co-authoring work with you in other places in my life. At the time of this writing, I’m also co-writing a chapter with one of my doctoral students, and co- supervisor, Julia and Elise. The chapter uses autoethnography to explore how our relationship changed during lockdown. Julia, the student, is talking about how previously she was trapped in a perfectionist student persona that didn’t allow her to share her mental health challenges, but through COVID, widespread attention to each other’s mental health in general, and us as supervisors sharing our own mental health challenges (to a degree), she has been freed to be “imperfect” and more open, thereby allowing a richer supervisory relationship. Sound familiar? In a material way, we even saw into each other’s homes through our online video sessions. A snippet, reminiscent of our conversations here:

Importantly, this turn to the personal and emotional in the context of the pandemic and consequent reduced hierarchies does not undermine Dan and Elise’s roles as supervisors, including as intellectual guides, advisors, and supporters; on the contrary, it creates a culture of care that enables Julia to further develop as a researcher by generating an ecology of empathic collaboration which fosters curiosity, connection, understandings, confidence, risk-taking, and expressivity. I love the resonances of this work we are doing as it truly does echo out into the other parts of my life. 

What Happens Underneath “What Happens”?

Thompson and Harris: Yalom and many others teach some foundational tenets: that the therapeutic relationship is a microcosm of out- side life. That whatever occurs between them, the focus and benefit must always be on the client, not the therapist. Yet Yalom also says therapists should let clients affect them, challenge them, even change them. For him, therapists must honestly and rigorously examine what it is they are bringing to this. So here we ask ourselves from both the client and therapist perspectives: Can/should we go beyond the Yalom client-centred writing, and if so, for what purpose? These questions are informed by our enquiry into the potential risks and ethical considerations identified in our creative collaboration, a challenge we have continuously held at the forefront throughout our practice together and throughout this book. Our boundaries required constant negotiation and adjustment. The foundations of our current questions in this section are underpinned by our discussions of how those risks were processed, and resolved. For example, sometimes our writing in our shared documents veered toward the therapeutic. In one case, Dan wrote about a dream they had had about Trish, and once we started to discuss it, we both realised it felt like it had crossed a line into the “therapy” space. We acknowledged it and moved back into a more shared enquiry.

Always in relation to these questions, we wonder together about the mystery of the therapeutic encounter. What hap-pens, and what happens underneath “what happens”? Common factors theory (5) suggests that the most important influence on therapeutic change is the strength of the alliance between therapist and client. Looking beyond technique and intervention (the old-school referents of mechanistic schools of psychotherapy), we instead look at what happened in the room with the two of us, and what has changed during and after the process of our collaborative experience as client and therapist.

The Power of Dialogue

 Harris: Hey Trish, what do you call a homeless horse with borderline personality disorder?

Thompson: Unstable.

We both love to laugh, and humour was there in the room but burst out even more unrestrained once we were “on the page.” It opened up new areas of exploration and trust, and helped us both relax a little as well, while we explored this new relationship. We started co-writing online during the 2020 Melbourne lockdown, while maintaining fortnightly therapy sessions, as face-to-face sessions had been prohibited by home isolation, and the humour was there from the beginning.

Thompson: Yalom (2002) talks about the therapeutic relationship between client and counsellor as being one of “fellow travellers,” So when you share your life with me, in all of its realness, I want you to experience the humanity that connects us to one another. And so, over the years, we’ve built a strong alliance, one in which talking about disorders hasn’t really figured (6). Hey Dan! How many psychotherapists does it take to change a light bulb?

Harris: Probably just one, as long as they take responsibility for their own change. This could be called having “a light bulb moment.” (3).

“We wonder together: what if we were writing a novel instead, or painting a picture? We’re writing about our therapy, not something else, so it reinforces the therapeutic relationship. We reflect on the fact that Trish is also a teacher and practice supervisor, and in those roles she encourages her students to be prepared to walk the talk, to consider the ethics of asking clients to go further than they’ll go themselves. 

We use many of the suggestions Yalom offers for calling attention to the bond between client and therapist including: doing process checks, inquiring about the state of the encounter during the session, me asking if Dan has questions for me. Through creative collaboration, the trusting here and now becomes multi-modal and multi-directional in ways that can offer new forms of corrective emotional experience.

Collaboration Extends to Co-Presenting

Harris: In May 2021, we were invited to co-present on our collaborative creative work at an art therapists conference near Melbourne, on the beautiful Morning Peninsula. We were well-prepared, drawing on our three already-published articles together, and having rehearsed. We were excited for the day. But the night before, I had this dream:

Dan’s dream:

So, we show up at Inverloch but arrive late for some reason – just before our session.

We are getting ready, and I have to go to the bathroom, and we are both fussing around and Carla is getting impatient.

All the participants are sitting at their tables, waiting for our “performance” to begin.

I take out my script but it’s not the right one – a previous draft. I ask you if you have yours and basically, we just spend a lot of time fussing around and you tell me I can read off yours, and then you say I can use your computer, etc., but all these versions of the script are wrong. Things are getting tense. The audience is impatient.

Finally, I say to you to just follow me. I start improvising, narrating that I don’t have the right script and narrating what we are going through out loud. Then I start blaming you – your script isn’t right either. Why don’t you know your script isn’t right? What are we going to do? You start laughing. I say, “don’t laugh out of nervousness, we need to do our show for these people.” It’s funnier than it sounds here.

The audience is not sure what to think. Eventually we do a series of audible asides and morph into a full blown “fight,” where we move around the room and then up to a semi-private space still in view of the participants. By now, we are arguing about the performance, and you are telling me I’m projecting and that this is the problem with doing standup with your client! The audience start to wander away, into the dining room for their meal, and we realise we need to re-engage them by asking for their help. I woke up and realised that we could perform therapist-client and that it might be funny but also instructive in a “‘show-not-tell” kind of way. I also remembered that I had done this with a student teacher in one of my first university classes. We pulled a prank where I went into class first and started complaining loudly about the teacher not being there, being late and getting the students kind of riled up, and then when Nick arrived, we were all difficult to control. He did some expert redirecting, and when it was finally calm, I would go up to the front of the room and say I was the lecturer and they always loved it.   

Thompson: I remember you telling me about this dream on the drive to Inver- loch. I thought it was hilarious and it got me imagining what we could do after we do the collaborative writing gig. We should so do stand-up comedy! I mean, how great would that be, telling insider therapy jokes and making people laugh and cry? Did I tell you that on the drive? I can’t remember if I said it or just thought it. And we had a great experience presenting to this gathering of art therapists, who were familiar and comfortable with our methods but also affirmed the radicalness of the reciprocity of our approach.

Harris: It’s challenging and at times risky work. Work that’s asked us both in different ways to re-examine the power of letting go: letting go of what we thought we were good at, who we thought we were … but the rewards are a powerful experience that is changing our self-awareness as both client and therapist.

Thompson: We have used a number of other writers in our shared work, including the meditation master and psychologist Tara Brach, and one of her favourite poets, yoga practitioner Danna Faulds. We ended our workshop with the arts therapists with the following poem by Faulds, called LET IT GO:

Harris: “Let go of the ways you thought life would unfold,
the holding of plans or dreams or expectations, let it all go.
Save your strength
to swim with the tide.  

Thompson: The choice to fight what is here before you now will only result in struggle, fear, and desperate attempts to flee from the very energy you long for.

Harris: Let go.
Let it all go and flow with the grace that washes through your days whether you received it gently or with all your quills raised to defend against invaders. 

Thompson: Take this on faith:
the mind may never find the explanations that it seeks, but you will move forward nonetheless.  

Harris: Let go,
and the wave’s crest will carry you to unknown shores, beyond your wildest dreams or destinations.

Thompson: Let it all go and find the place of rest and peace

Harris: and certain transformation.


This material is taken from Collaborative Writing and Psychotherapy: Flattening the Hierarchy Between Therapist and Client (2024), by Trish Thompson and Daniel X. Harris, published by, and with the consent of Routledge. Buy the book with a 20% discount using code CWP23 here (discount valid from 1st December to 31st January): https://www.routledge.com/Collaborative-Writing-and-Psychotherapy-Flattening-the-Hierarchy-Between/Thompson-Harris/p/book/9781032213880.


(1) Speedy, J. (2017). Narrative inquiry and psychotherapy. Palgrave.

(2) Yalom, I. (1974/1991). Everyday gets a little closer: A twice-told therapy. Basic Books.

(3) Harris, A. and Thompson, T. (2021). ‘Long Term Psychotherapy and BPD, Part 2: A Dialogue on Trust. Available at: https://www.psychotherapy.net/article/long-term-psychotherapy-and-bpd-part-two

(4) Wyatt, J., Gale, K., Gannon, S., & Davies, B. (2018). ‘Creating a space in between: Collaborative inquiries.’ In (Eds.) Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln, The Sage handbook of qualitative research. SAGE.

(5) Browne, J., Cather, C., and Mueser, K.T. (2021). ‘Common factors in psychotherapy’. Oxford Research Encyclopedia.

(6) Harris, A. and Thompson, T. (2020). ‘A dialogue on hope: Long term therapy and borderline personality disorder’. Psychotherapy & Counselling Today, No. 2, pp. 5-16.  

©2023, Psychotherapy.net
Daniel X. Harris and Trish Thompson

Daniel X. Harris (they/them), PhD is a Research Professor in the School of Education, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia, and Co-Director of Creative Agency research lab: www.creativeresearchhub.com. Harris is editor of the book series Creativity, Education and the Arts (Palgrave), and has authored, co-authored or edited 22 books, 88 articles, and 47 book chapters as well as plays, films and spoken word performances. They are activated in their scholarly work by creative methods, affect theory, performance and autoethnography, and are committed to the power of collaborative creative practice to inform social change

Trish Thompson (she/her), BA (Psych), MA. Counseling, is a clinical counsellor, psychotherapist and supervisor in private practice in Melbourne, Australia. With over 28 years of experience, she has also worked with a number of community organisations and has taught in a range of counselling training programs. While group therapy and relationship counselling are strong areas of interest, she devotes much energy to mentoring counsellors in early career, particularly through group supervision, in which reflective practice is combined with creative and artistic collaborations. Her writing experience includes a book chapter and a number of articles to journals such as Psychotherapy & Counselling Today and the website Psychotherapy.net.