Creative Writing as Psychotherapy By Bridget Holding, MA on 3/5/15 - 1:15 PM

“An interesting fusion.” That’s what my project Wild Words was once called by a fellow psychotherapist, and yes, he was looking down his nose at me. But I’ve discovered a huge demand for the fusion of body-based, nature-based, and narrative therapy, via which I help people to find creative flow in their lives. Here’s one recent example.

A stooped 17 year-old man came to me. He had a mop of black hair and smelled of spirits. There were tensions in the family, and his father thought “that some poetry tuition might help relax him.” As I’ve seen many times, my authority as a university creative writing tutor allowed the family to ask for help, without having to admit to themselves or others that what they were really seeking was psychotherapeutic support.

Jed told me that all he wanted to do was to be a poet, but “nothing comes out right.” He didn’t care about my qualifications, but he liked the concept of writing “Wild Words.” He said it would be nice to feel like a wild animal when he wrote, but instead, he usually felt more like his little brother’s hamster, going round and round on its wheel.

As we talked, he asked me crossly why I hadn’t yet asked to see his writing, and motioned to the groaning backpack sitting at his feet. But I didn’t need to look at his writing to understand what was going on, I only had to look at his body. His skin was sickly white. His hands were blue with cold, even though the room was warm. Sometimes, when he told me about the subject of his poetry, color rose in his cheeks, but it was quickly followed by a deflation of his body, and a draining of color. And then, of course, there was the smell of alcohol.

He asked me, even more angrily, why I hadn’t asked him for the reasons for his “writer’s block,” the reason he couldn’t write well. I said that I was sure he already knew the reason, and that he’d probably already thought through it a thousand times to no avail. I was going to try a different approach. He looked skeptical. He told me the reason anyway. Apparently, his father was a well-known poet. “I’m scared that I will never write like my father,” he said. “And it’s ceasing me up.”

I asked him then to remember a time when he did write well, when the words flowed. He told me about a writing competition he had won when he was twelve. I invited him to close his eyes, to remember that experience, and to see how it felt in his body. He told me he felt a warmth, a relaxation spreading from his chest out through his limbs.

Next, I asked him to think about a time when he sat down to write but felt blocked. Where in his body was that physical sense of block? He told me it was in his stomach. At this point he started telling me again about his fears of not matching up to his father’s success. I told him not to think, but to just stay with his bodily experience. If he scanned his body, despite the feeling of block in his chest, was there a place where he still felt the warmth or movement from the writing competition experience? He said yes, there was. It was in his hand. I then got him to move his attention back and forth between his stomach and his hand, touching into the block, and then back again to a place of relaxation.

Through doing this in the session, and by practicing it at home, he gradually found that he could pick away at the edges of the feeling of block his stomach, and integrate it with the feeling of flow in his hand. Eventually that enabled him to find flow in the whole of his body. This process led spontaneously to writing ideas flowing from his body on to the paper. He was an unblocked writer.

The day this happened, he called me immediately. He was excited and laughing, but also confused. He told me, “I’m writing, the words won’t stop coming, but now I have another problem, I’m writing a comedy screenplay, not poetry. That’s not what I want to write. I’ve always wanted to be a poet’.

The psychotherapist Peter Levine has a saying: ‘The body knows.”

This is what I told him. Your body knows what it needs to say. From then, my work with Jed, which lasted six sessions, became about helping him to find his own voice rather than meeting his father’s expectations or trying to follow in his footsteps. He found a creative flow in his life, as well as in his words, and the tensions within the family lessened considerably.

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy