Review of "Writing Cures 'An Introductory Handbook Of Writing In Counselling And Therapy'"

Burns-Lundgren, E., 2004. Review of "Writing Cures 'An Introductory Handbook Of Writing In Counselling And Therapy'". Reformulation, Autumn, pp.30-31.


Writing Cures ‘An Introductory Handbook Of Writing In Counselling And Therapy’
Eds: G Bolton, S Howlett, C Lago and JK Wright
Brunner-Routledge 2004

This is a timely, ambitious and stimulating book addressing the various uses of writing in the training for and provision and supervision of counselling and therapy, and for the purposes of reflective practice – the ‘key to the meaningfulness of therapeutic endeavour’ (O’Loughlin, 2002, as quoted on p196).

It is timely in that it comes against a background of demands within health and other services for increasing transparency, choice and consultation. For a long time patients in the UK have had the right of access to their notes, and Health Trusts are now obliging staff to copy correspondence to patients. The fact that this forces staff to be more thoughtful in their writing can only be welcomed.

It is also timely in the face of the rapid expansion of internet and e-mail channels of communication, and useful descriptions are given of the ethical and practical complexities involved in provision of therapy via these media, including its careful and thoughtful use by the Samaritans.

It is ambitious in that it tries to provide a ‘stating of the position, the theoretical background and the current situation’ (Bolton, p. 2), as well as pointers for further research and developments. This very scope is however also a draw-back in that each area by necessity can only be touched on in brief. Although very accessible and easy to read, some chapters are more engaging than others and there is some overlap. But the book, as indicated in its title, can fruitfully be used as a handbook for selective reading.

The first two chapters in the book summarize theory and research findings on the use and value of writing in therapy, e.g. its positive impact on the immune system found by Pennebaker et.al. (Wright, pp 7,8,11). Our human need for an inter-personal and social narrative, and to create space for ‘the arrival of news from the self’ (Bollas 1987: 236, 276, as quoted by Hunt, p.40) is then compassionately explored in the following three chapters, with Steinberg guiding us through the magic and meaning of symbols, imagery/metaphors, and, specifically, words and their development.

This leads neatly into the second section of the book, which addresses various actual applications of writing in therapy. Tony Ryle as usual gives a clear and compelling account of the extensive and integrated use of writing in CAT, whilst Thompson, Howlett and Williamson offer moving accounts of the power of journal writing and writing with psychosomatic disorders and in addiction.

The third part of the book addresses how to deal with such sensitive issues as cultural expectations, transference, confidentiality and ethical and contractual considerations when writing online. Anthony stresses the value of the written record of communications, which can be kept and re-referred to, and of the ‘online disinhibition effect’, which can compensate for the lack of a physical presence. Similarly, online or e-mail communication allows for thoughtful consideration and the shaping of comments and replies before sending, as we have experienced in the CAT supervision on the Melbourne project.

In the final section the focus is on the contribution writing can make in the development of thoughtful and reflective practice, highlighting its use for personal development in training and as a tool within supervision, especially for long-distance purposes. Powerful examples are then given of the use of creative writing to capture the essence as well as significant omissions in our therapeutic endeavours.

This can be undertaken on an individual level, parallelling Casement’s process of developing our ‘internal supervisor’, and in groups within settings such as primary care health centres, where writing, and therefore the ‘burden’ of care, can be shared and new understanding emerge. Heller’s chapter gives a particularly moving account of the power of writing in the creation of meaning and understanding in the field of dementia work.

The message at the ‘core’ of this book is to draw attention to the empowerment and liberation inherent in the deceptively simple instruction or encouragement to someone to write about their experiences, thoughts and feelings, and in giving them the control over whether/when/how they share this writing. The message throughout is that the written word has a very special power to surprise and inform us, by bypassing our usual ‘censoring’ or information-processing templates, if only we can trust the hand and the pen to let the words flow freely. This is something we readily recognise as CAT therapists, where the very process of writing the ‘Reformulation Letter’ to someone reveals to me the depth of understanding we have created together of his/her painful and unhelpful ‘procedures’. It also enables me to convey this to the person in a containing and digestible form, which s/he can keep and return to.

In his OUP publication ‘The Koran, A Very Short Introduction’ (2000), Michael Cook opens with these sentences; “Language exists for people to talk to one another. Typically it is used on the spur of the moment, and the words rapidly dissipate. Many of us forget most of what we say and hear, or at best remember only the gist of it. But given the will to do so, it is possible to create and preserve a linguistic artefact with an existence that goes beyond what one person happened to say to another on a particular occasion. Any nursery rhyme will do as an example. If someone tells us that Jack and Jill went down the hill, we can immediately object that this is not how it goes. The fact that the objection can be made shows that we have to do with a text.”

What ‘Writing Cures’ amply demonstrates is also the therapeutic value of the fact that the objection can be made, in terms of liberation from restricting ‘scripts’, improved communication and overall empowerment.

I end by offering a taste of the power of the more formalised end of reflective writing addressed in this book, that of poetry. Contrast the force of expression in the two descriptions contained in a verse in Helen Drucquer’s poem (page 200);

“Reason? Nice and tidy. Example:
‘She reports that she vomited.’
Not, ‘sicking up the vile bilious stuff of force fed
foul centuries old
fear and only way anger
to say NO.’”

A powerful challenge to the idea that something so complex as this can be contained or managed in ‘assertiveness training’ or its ilk.

Eva Burns-Lundgren
Consultant CAT Psychotherapist, Warneford Hospital, Oxford

Reference:
Cook, M. (2000), THE KORAN A very short introduction, Oxford University Press.

Eva Burns-Lundgren

Full Reference

Burns-Lundgren, E., 2004. Review of "Writing Cures 'An Introductory Handbook Of Writing In Counselling And Therapy'". Reformulation, Autumn, pp.30-31.

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