Australia Counselling member Charlie Stansfield speaks about the benefits of therapeutic writing for dealing with difficult life experiences and events.
In this interview, Charlie shares
- what is therapeutic writing?
- the history behind therapeutic writing
- how it works and what is involved
- some of the theory behind why therapeutic writing is effective
- how therapeutic writing unlocks creativity and creative thinking
- what she says to people who say ‘I can’t write!’?
- details about her upcoming writing workshop
Click here to listen to the audio or read the transcript below.
Click here to read more about the Therapeutic Writing Workshop hosted by Charlie Stansfield and Cecile Barral.
Links and resources mentioned in this interview:
- The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron
- Natalie Goldberg
- Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg
- The True Secret of Writing- Connecting Life with Writing, by Natalie Goldberg
- Jon Kabat-Zinn
- Therapeutic Writing Workshop Sydney
Clinton: Hello. This is Clinton Power, founder of Australia Counselling.com.au here and it’s my pleasure to be speaking today with Australia Counselling member, Charlie Stansfield. Hello, Charlie. How are you?
Charlie: Hi, Clinton. I’m good, thank you.
Clinton: It’s great to have you on the call and I asked you to speak to me specifically today about therapeutic writing, but before we go into that, tell me a little bit about your history and how you came to be a therapist and then interested in therapeutic writing.
Charlie: I’ll talk about both of us, actually, because the therapeutic writing course I’ve actually developed with a colleague of mine, Cecile Barral. Cecile’s a psychotherapist and an ANZAP trainer and she’s also a mindfulness teacher. Cecile and I are both writers and therapists and we’re both Buddhist meditators, as well. That’s actually how we met and we started to see a link between the different practices, if you like, of writing and therapy and meditation, so we started to experiment with different writing approaches for our own healing and found that some of the specific techniques we used were really helpful. So that’s how we came up with the exploration into therapeutic writing.
Myself as a therapist, I’m a social worker by background and I’ve been in the field for quite a long time. I won’t say how long and I’m also a freelance writer, so I’ve always had those two paths to my journey, I suppose and they do meet at various points along the way.
Clinton: Wonderful. Now tell me, what is the link that you and Cecile found between therapy and meditation?
Charlie: Therapy and meditation? That’s such a huge question, I could talk about that for the next three hours, couldn’t I? I think it’s really the process of self-inquiry, if I can put it in a very broad term and have both of these paths lead us on a process of knowing ourselves and perhaps living more authentically as the people we are. Can I say that?
Clinton: Absolutely and I’m guessing the next step, of course, in this self-inquiry is also the expression of what comes out of it. Is that how the writing piece comes in?
Charlie: That’s a great connection. It certainly is. Therapeutic writing for us is a combination of different approaches. To basically write about difficult events in our lives or difficult trauma if you like and we’ve actually drawn from a few different models for our own particular workshop and we’ve refined it over the years that we’ve been running it and we weaved the different approaches in with mindfulness practice and some other key elements that I think we’ll probably talk about a bit further on.
Clinton: Tell me a bit about the history of therapeutic writing. Like, where does it come from? Was there someone who began this process?
Charlie: Therapeutic writing itself is kind of a word we’re using. I’m sure it’s not ours. I’m sure other people have used it, but we actually use it as an umbrella term. There’s two basic stands in our course. One is, what the model is called, expressive writing and that has got quite a heavy evidence base. It’s been researched a lot in the U.S. There’s a psychologist called W. J. Pennebaker and there’s also a clinical psychologist in Sydney called Karen Bakey, who’s also completed a PhD on the expressive writing model, so it’s got quite a good body of research behind it.
We draw from some of that and we also draw from a writing practice called free writing, which I think has been claimed by a few different practitioners, but essentially we came across it reading the work of Natalie Goldberg. She’s a Zen teacher and a writer and that’s more of a creativity technique that helps us build confidence in our own voice, if you like, so we’ve kind of drawn from both of these traditions for our therapeutic writing course.
Clinton: Tell me a bit more about what free writing involves?
Charlie: Free writing is a practice where we use a range of techniques basically to try and free up our voice naturally, that’s why it’s called free writing. There’s a series of specific sort of practices that you can do that will pretty much cut through that the editor that we all have in our heads that tells us you can’t write that, you can’t say that. What do you think you’re doing putting this down on paper? All the different ways that that editor might try and censor free writing as a series of techniques that help to cut through that. So, we get our words on paper before the editor has had time to stop us.
Clinton: I love that. It’s like you’re cutting through the ‘inner critic’.
Clinton: Wonderful. Like you’ve called it free writing, there’s a freedom to it. Isn’t it like free expression?
Charlie: There is and there’s a playfulness to it, as well and with the free writing element of our therapeutic writing, there’s a kind of not take ourselves too seriously element to it, as well. We can be very playful with it. We can dialogue with that inner critic while we’re trying to write what we’re trying to write, so we encourage a lot of experimentation and a lot of playfulness with that particular approach.
Clinton: I’m curious to know more about what the research is saying about expressive writing? Can you give us a flavor of that?
Charlie: Yes, it’s fascinating. It’s been researched in a number of different areas. Quite a lot of research has been done with students naturally and it’s actually shown to have a number of physical and psychological benefits. Expressive writing, I really should make clear, is very different to free writing, but does have similar elements. Expressive writing is more the model which they used a lot with processing traumatic events, so it’s not so much about freeing your voice to creative purposes. It’s more about revisiting a traumatic event, locating it within a narrative. Look, it’s shown some impressive results in research, everything from improved lung function with people with asthma to alleviating anxiety and depression.
Clinton: Wow, that’s incredible. It’s reminding me as I’m talking to you, Charlie, about a book I read many years ago called The Artist’s Way and one of the …
Charlie: Oh, yes. Julia Cameron’s book.
Clinton: We’ll put a link in the show next to that. I remember doing that for a while and I guess it’s like a free writing process every day. You just write two pages, kind of stream of consciousness writing. My memory of it is just how great I felt after that, just taking everything, it’s like a brain dump and just freeing myself from it.
Charlie: Absolutely. It’s like a download, isn’t it? I mean that certainly would be one of the free writing approaches, rather than the expressive writing. I think Julia Cameron and Natalie Goldberg both claim that free writing model, if you like, but use it in different ways in quite complementary ways. I know Julia Cameron says to do the two or three pages every morning and Natalie Goldberg has a similar approach, but doesn’t specify the number of pages, so they’re kind of similar, but different.
Clinton: Charlie, is this something you’ve been using with clients? Would you encourage a client at times to do some type of writing or free writing outside of the session or maybe even within the session?
Charlie: Yes, I do use it a bit clinically. Cecile’s also used it probably more than I have clinically to very good effect, not so much the free writing, but more the specific instructions for the expressive writing, which as I was saying earlier, helps, because essentially we’re all very good at avoiding the difficult stuff and with expressive writing, what it’s doing is giving us a place and some techniques where we can look at that difficult stuff in quite a lot of detail and locate it within a narrative and contain it somewhat. There’s various things around the model that helps to keep it contained. It’s something that can be used certainly with people that come to speak with us.
Clinton: Can you give us maybe a very brief summary of how you would use it? Would it be given as homework and brought back to the next session? Just give us a flavor of that.
Charlie: It could just be suggested, if someone, because obviously, quite a lot of the people that come and see us may already journal or may already be interested in writing. I wouldn’t push it on someone unless they had already indicated to me that writing was a form they were reasonably comfortable with and Cecile may have a different approach, as well, so this is very general and on-the-spot, but certainly we would encourage someone to use the expressive writing model outside of the session and then be available to discuss it when they next come in and see how it’s helping in either addressing something that they’re finding isn’t being fully addressed within a conversational model, if you like and see if it’s having any benefit that isn’t being derived from the talking.
There is something very different about privately and quietly writing down the story of the difficult stuff that can be less edited than sometimes it is when we talk in conversation and there’s time to really explore all the rich detail that’s usually in all these experiences that we all have.
Clinton: Would you give your clients direction in terms of the writing or is it more important to allow them just to funnel their own flow?
Charlie: We would give a frame, if you like, that we would suggest that they stick to, so there would be like a frame or guidelines or however you want to call it and we can give those as a handout and talk about them before the person goes away and does their own practice. It’s quite a specific set of guidelines. It’s not just kind of why don’t you go away and write for ten minutes on the issues that you’re avoiding. It’s not as loose as that. There is quite a specific frame, which is what has actually been researched quite extensively and has been shown to be beneficial.
Clinton: Great. What is the theory behind why therapeutic writing is effective? What’s your understanding of that?
Charlie: It’s a good question. You can answer it in lots of different ways and I’ve kind of touched on it already. There’s something about writing it down in a quiet space, with quite a lot of detail, with the timeframe that can be helpful processing difficult events, relocating it in time and place, as I say, using the detail, you’re doing it within a timeframe and you’re doing it for yourself. You’re not actually talking to someone else who you may want to adjust the story for or you may want to leave bits out for or you may edit in some kind of very complicated way. We all do it in different ways. It’s just something about that kind of containment, that space, that detail, that timing that seems to be helpful.
Clinton: Great. A question that occurs to me, Charlie, because I think of myself and I just love typing and I’m almost losing my ability to write, because I talk all the time. Do you think it makes a difference whether you type or whether you write with a pen?
Charlie: The jury’s a bit out on that. I’m an old fashioned person and I think there is something about the pen and the notebook that is helpful. I realize that not everyone agrees with that, so I think it really is a question of seeing what works for you and experimenting. What we try and encourage in the groups is to do the pen and paper method while you’re in the group, because some people do feel that that’s got something that typing doesn’t have and it’s around the flow, it’s around the editor, it’s around the sitting and the doing. I can’t be more scientific than that, I’m afraid.
But if people prefer after that to use or practice on a computer, well that seems to be the way of the world, so if that works for people, then sure, use the computer. While you’re doing the course, we would encourage people very strongly to try and do the pen and paper old fashioned method.
Clinton: I imagine that some people might say I can’t write. I’m not a writer. I was terrible with creative writing and those objections might come up. What do you say to those people?
Charlie: One of the things we might encourage people to explore in the course is just where that I can’t write story is coming from, very gently, very supportively. Sometimes it could be our inner critic talking and we do practice getting to know the inner critic quite intimately in this course in a very safe, gentle way. Sometimes it can be a form of resistance, which is similar to the inner critic and that’s something we know affects us all in different ways, so I guess we just want to know what is that story? Where’s that story come from when we’re first aware of it? Can we find a writing practice around that? Can we write for 10 minutes on why I can’t write?
Clinton: I love that.
Charlie: Can we put the time, pick up a pen and can we just say why we can’t write, all the reasons. Just put them all out on the page there and let’s try and understand this a little bit more. Then those other issues, like for some people and I would certainly include myself in this group, the blank page can invite a lot of anxiety. That blank page, what’s it saying? Is it saying come on, Charlie, I dare you? Why does it freeze me up so much and that was how I found my way into the expressive and the free writing, looking at why that blank page is such a kind of threat.
You can play with all that. You can find so many ways around dealing with the story that is I can’t write. I’m no good at this, to get the point.
Clinton: Do you think therapeutic writing can actually help unlock creativity or creative thinking?
Charlie: Absolutely. I think probably free writing more so than expressive writing and I realize I’m using these terms a bit when I haven’t actually extrapolated on them very much. I think just to talk about free writing, because it does have a series of techniques that really unlock the voice, if you like, then that can only help creativity and we don’t actually promise people that your writing’s going to improve as a result of this course, because it’s not really the aim that your writing will improve as such, but it’s often a byproduct, because I think when we become more real and more true and more who we are, then our words will have more resonance and it will be more of a genuine voice, if you like.
Clinton: Fantastic. I love that. Tell us a little bit about your course, because you have an upcoming course in therapeutic writing in Sydney and I believe it’s specifically targeted towards therapists, is that correct?
Charlie: No, it’s not actually. It’s going to be a mix of a group, we think. We did pitch it to therapists and also to other people who aren’t necessarily therapists that are interested in the model. It’s coming up in Sydney in March, starting March the 8th. It’s 10 to 1 in the afternoon, so you’ve still got time on your Saturday to do lots of other things and obviously, 10 to 1 involves a coffee break, as well. What’s involved? Well, we haven’t talked too much about the mindfulness aspect, but I think I did mention earlier that we’re both quite experienced with some meditation practice, but Cecile, in particular is accredited with Jon Kabat-Zin same method, so we do look in the course about how this can actually help when we’re writing the difficult stuff.
Is there anything else? The groups tend to be quite small, so we like to keep them fairly safe and intimate so that people feel okay about perhaps sharing how the process is for them. I should also say that we don’t put a lot of pressure on people to actually read out great chunks of what they’ve written. It is about writing the difficult stuff and people aren’t always comfortable sharing that. We gauge, as most people do running groups, we gauge the group to the participants in the group, but mostly we try and keep it fairly safe and comfortable so that people can have some time exploring these different models.
Clinton: How are you incorporating mindfulness within the therapeutic writing?
Charlie: It’s just that it’s a strand in the particular course, so mindfulness practices can help settle us, perhaps after we’ve written something that might have stirred us up a bit. Mindfulness can also help us get in touch with our feelings so that when we start to write, we’re more writing about our feelings rather than the facts of the situation. Perhaps for some people it’s harder to write about the feeling aspect. It’s easier to write a more factual narrative, so we use mindfulness in those various ways as an extra kind of layer in the course.
Clinton: Wonderful. It sounds like a really match between the two, the expression of the therapeutic writing and then using mindfulness and meditation to integrate and reflect and observe.
Charlie: There’s not a lot of mindfulness in the course. Obviously, the focus is on therapeutic writing, but we have found that mindfulness can be quite helpful as a strategy around self-care, as well, because we are writing difficult stuff. We’re writing about the stuff that we like to try and avoid. We’re writing about the stuff that we find it hard to, sometimes, talk about, so we need to practice a lot of self-care and we need to go easy on ourselves and I think mindfulness has a bit of a role there.
Clinton: Absolutely. I guess you’re talking about writing the difficult stuff. Maybe some people might be concerned about well, I’m not sure I want to share some of this in a group setting.
Charlie: That’s why I was making the point earlier that we don’t put any pressure on people to share what they’ve written. It’s very much what people are comfortable with. Usually, we will say, look, could you share a sentence? Even if you just want to share a sentence, but sometimes people don’t want to share anything and that’s okay. If people can participate in other ways, such as in the discussion and exploration, in the reflection of the process, then that’s perfectly okay. It’s perfectly valid.
Clinton: What kind of outcomes have you seen from people that have gone through this process?
Charlie: You know some great things. Our very first course, we did one exclusively with therapists and we really did ask for some frank in-field feedback and we got it. Mostly the feedback’s been positive. One piece of feedback that warmed the cockles of my heart was someone saying that it had introduced her to a whole new field of personal development, if you like. It was an introduction to the wonderful world of writing, I think she actually said on her evaluation. Mostly people who haven’t actually explored this kind of thing before find it becomes another tool for themselves. It might become something they want to incorporate into their clinical work.
We do say to people if they are coming on this course as a therapist to come as yourself. Don’t necessarily come because you want to pick up a tool to use in practice. Come and try it for yourself first and participate as you, not necessarily you as your therapist identity, if you see what I mean.
Clinton: What I’m really liking about what you’re saying, Charlie, is that it sounds like a very gentle approach to me and perhaps if someone has experienced very difficult life circumstances or some type of trauma or traumatic event that this is a gentle approach to starting to work therapeutically with it.
Charlie: It is. It’s a very gentle approach, but also you would know from the Julia Cameron work that there’s the trauma side of it and then there is that kind of freezing up a lot of us have around creativity and creative practices and writing particularly for some people has a lot of negative connotations to it. I’m no good at this or I don’t really know what to say or that kind of thing. It’s beneficial on all of those areas, I believe.
Clinton: That’s great. Have you seen people who have gone through this process, have they been able to really making roads with maybe having a different relationship with their inner critic?
Charlie: Absolutely. We do have quite a bit of fun with the inner critic. I think knowing the inner critic is certainly something that we explore. What is the inner critic saying? What does the inner critic look like in your imagination? How is the inner critic giving you a hard time? What are the tactics of the inner critic and you notice in the group that people will start to say to each other is that you talking or is that your inner critic talking? Some people might give their inner critic a name like my Auntie Margie or Mum, anything like that, so it’s something that we explore and that seems to be received so well by the group so far.
Clinton: This sounds like a lot of fun. What we’ll do, if people are really interested in finding out more about this workshop, you can go directly to this URL, AustraliaCounselling.com.au/writingworkshop, and all the data about the workshop will be there, including the contact information for Charlie and Cecile. Is that the best way for people to contact you?
Charlie: Absolutely, yes. We didn’t have an email address on the flyer, but the email address is Affordable Therapy Sydney at Gmail dot com. People are welcome to email me on that address or you can phone the numbers that are on the flyer.
Clinton: Great. Okay. Thanks so much. Well, it’s been lovely to talk to you, Charlie.
Charlie: You, too.
Clinton: Wishing you all the best with your workshop.
Charlie: Thank you and thank you very much for your interest.
Clinton: Okay. Bye for now.
photo credit: HaoJan