But is it art? Writing for therapeutic purposes

As a psychotherapist, a writer, and a facilitator of writing for therapeutic purposes, I am sometimes lucky enough to receive written pieces from individuals (all women, up to now…) who are, often, asking me for my opinion about their piece in relation to the emotional issue they are working with.


This has been happening for several years now, since I first began a therapeutic journalling practice for myself, took some short courses, and did research. I then went on to take an MA in Creative Writing and to teach some beginner-level creative writing courses, and to work face to face (when we could still do that) with therapeutic writing groups, and with individuals finding psychological help via the writing process.


However, I’ve noticed a real increase this last year in women sending me their work. I imagine this is because more people more of the time are needing more outlets for emotionally charged material. As we’ve seen throughout 2020 and into this year, for some folk their safety valve during the pandemic has been more exercise, or enjoying nature, or taking up new hobbies, or even beginning new business ventures. Others are clearly turning to writing (and its wonderful precursor and partner, reading). So the emails and the letters and the photos of journal or scrapbook entries keep coming, and how lovely it is to read them. Sometimes, these writers ask me what I think about their pieces as creative writing, and if I think they might be suitable for publication.


As I find myself giving a similar response to many different women, facing many different emotional issues, I thought this blog piece might be useful for anyone to read who is questioning the nature and the ‘quality’ of their therapeutic writing. This is for men to read too, of course… it’s just that apart from men’s writing which has achieved publication status, I have no personal experience of it.


I put ‘quality’ in inverted commas because there are two very different answers to the ‘is this a quality piece of writing?’ question.


Wearing my psychotherapist and therapeutic writing facilitator hat, the answer is simple: your piece is perfect. You have written what you needed to write for your own mental health. It is what it is. It has value in and of itself, and it has even more value if it allows you to explore further whatever it is you are working with, psychologically. Even if it’s full of typos, and technical errors, it’s still perfect. If it rambles on at length, if it’s a mere sentence or two, if it makes little sense to anyone but you, if it’s an ink-spattered, doodled mess, it’s perfect. If you feel there are changes you want to make to it, ‘improvements’ or refinements you feel it needs, then fine… go ahead and make them. It will be perfect once again.


The other answer – if you are asking whether, by some objective standard, it has quality as a piece of creative writing – is more complex. The answer to the ‘is it suitable for publication?’ question is more complex still. 


First things first. One google definition of creative writing is this: writing, typically fiction or poetry, which displays imagination or invention (often contrasted with academic or journalistic writing). Good as far as it goes, but there is also creative non-fiction: crafted writing about true events. Currently, in the literary world, the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction are being challenged everywhere, but then one might also say that about the definition of what is ‘true’: a philosophical discussion not for here and now. 


But this limited definition does help: one difference between a purely therapeutic piece of writing (what the poet Fleur Adcock calls “slabs of raw emotion” ) and a more creative piece, would be this display of imagination or invention; this crafting of that slab. A comparison with other creative practices also helps here: for example, a sculptor will choose a piece of material with some seed of an idea in mind, but must hew and then more intricately carve that material to make it into more of what they are wanting to create. A dancer will start with some basic, general, movements of their discipline, and will then need to re-shape, refine, select an appropriate order for those movements to fulfil their vision of the completed, choreographed dance.


So it is with writing. A piece sourced from pain and anguish – or its opposite, wild joy – is just that… wild and anguished; and in need of some ‘taming’ if it is to fit into an acceptable shape of what is defined as a piece of creative writing. 


Memoir is a particularly significant genre to consider here. A random google definition again: a memoir is a longer piece of creative nonfiction that delves deep into a writer’s personal experience. The genesis of so many of the wonderful memoirs available today is via the variety of challenging life experiences faced by the authors of those memoirs. But they have taken the crucial steps of going from Adcock’s slab of raw emotion to a crafted piece of work – often taking years in the process – worth reading by anyone, not just their therapists, or immediate friends and family.


I will leave the last word on whether deeply personal and and emotional experiences have the potential to be beautifully creative literature to my favourite female writer, Sylvia Plath, who crafted her own work obsessively. In an interview in 1962, she said:


I think my poems immediately come out of the sensuous and emotional experiences I have, but I must say I cannot sympathise with these cries from the heart that are informed by nothing except a needle or a knife or whatever it is. I believe that one should be able to control and manipulate experiences, even the most terrific – like madness, being tortured, that sort of experience – and one should be able to manipulate these experiences with an informed and an intelligent mind. 


And so to the publication question: the third stage question. At the first stage – Plath’s cry from the heart – nothing else is required. But if you want art in addition to heart, then some of Plath’s control and manipulation must take place. And if you seek publication (by that I mean anything beyond your own blog or other forms of self-publishing) then you need to research, research and research and be prepared for rejection, rejection and rejection. It’s a crowded world out there, and a fickle one. However well-written and creative your piece is, it may not be what is required by that publisher, in that manner, at that time, if ever. There is far more to explain here than is possible in a short blog, but suffice to say now that if you seek publication, work your way through stages one and two first… 


… and to end by repeating – for it cannot be said enough – that anything you have written for your own personal or therapeutic purposes should never be made available for literary analysis or publisher rejection. It is a beautiful creative thing in and of itself. 

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