I read a quote the other day on my art gallery newsletter that I thought captured the essence of what creative expression might means to us as human beings:
'Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time'
Thomas Merton was probably speaking as an appreciator of art, but he might well have been referring to the experience of the creation of art - as anyone who has ever created anything must know. You get into ‘flow’ and time stops, you forget to eat or pay your bills, you are so absorbed by the present activity. Creative self-expression has to be hard wired into us as human beings - whether it is painting or dancing or playing music, or building a pizza oven or making cheese. Storytelling, too we know is hard wired into our neuropsychology – as Lisa Cron in her volume ‘Wired for Story’ puts it - our brain’s primary goal is to make causal connections – if this, then that – and stories that follow this basic trajectory have huge appeal to readers - we want to know what happens in the end, and how the protagonist, with whom we identify, will sort out her fundamental dilemma, the one she has at the start of the story, the hook.
So as a psychologist, what are the common themes in all of this for me – how did I get into this particular form of creative self-expression and how does it differ or relate to my work as a psychologist?
When I started my Arts degree in 1977 I have to say it was a bit of a toss-up between Music, English and French – these were my great passions at the time. I had always wanted to write - but eating what amounted to a stodgy diet of literary criticism - which was English 1 at Adelaide Uni was a total turnoff for that particular career path. It was far easier to get D10s in psychology and I had always been interested in people and the human relationships that literature portrayed, so I guess that’s how the psychology pathway opened up for me. The lucky break for me into writing a novel was from a few scrappy words that I sent into the SA Writers centre back in 2002.
In August of that year I received this e-mail from the director:
“Dear Jane, Nicholas Jose has selected you to take part in the Mentorship program. He has proposed three meetings at two-week intervals. He will spend around 45 minutes discussing your work with you.”
Nicholas was the former Professor of Creative writing here at the University of Adelaide and he has written about seven novels - and recently edited the Macquarie anthology of Australian literature.
Amazingly, just from those scrappy words, it seemed this distinguished author (at least) thought there was potential; we met those three times over about six weeks to discuss ‘my novel’, with me writing furiously in between times.
Nicholas was a great mentor - very encouraging in his feedback. I’ll never forget our last meeting, when he– so casually - told me he thought the novel was ‘publishable’ – What? Really? I floated off back to the mundanities of shopping with grandiose thoughts of ‘giving up the day job’ only to have my eftpos card rejected at the supermarket due to ‘insufficient funds.’ Maybe I needed to keep the day job a little while longer.
Anyway the first of those 45 minutes now 11 years ago were to mean the beginning of my novel ‘Poinciana’ which was published in 2006.
A little bit about the novel – it is set on the island of New Caledonia, Australia’s closest French pacific neighbour, only a two hour flight from Sydney, and where I spent four years in the late 80s during a pretty turbulent time for the country politically.
The novel is about a woman – Catherine Piron - ’s search for traces of her father, whom she presumed was dead, and set against this backdrop of political turmoil. I wrote it because I had witnessed first-hand the confusion of living in a country where both sides of the political - and ethnic - divide seemed to have justifiable reasons for their position – for either wanting to remain a part of France, or to be independent from it. In the story, there is a tragedy – based on a real event – the death of a young man caught in the crossfire during the height of the conflict over independence - that is a central to the novel. In my own life I had experienced, at this time, some tragic losses myself, and the novel also became an exploration, for me, of some of that shock and grief.
The title Poinciana comes from the old common name of the tree New Caledonians call the ‘Flamboyant’ – shady flame trees, like a flame red version of our jacarandas, with their “umbrella shaped canopies and brilliant red blossoms in summer”. For me the tree symbolised the country – the passion, the beauty and the bloodshed, but also it is an image of family – roots and branches and foliage. I also wanted to write a story about searching for biological roots – my heroine’s story I think touches on universal themes, and issues I was also considering at the time of writing, as I was working doing family assessments and follow ups for the adoption agency in South Australia. So Poinciana is a story of loss, but also of hope and the possibility of renewal, a story with a few romantic elements –subtly romantic – so if you’re after beating hearts and panting you’ll be disappointed, sorry. My editor was very good at scratching out anything with gasps or ‘breathlessness’.
From a psychological point of view I found the whole experience of writing and completing the novel to be extremely satisfying. I could create characters that were amalgams of people I had met and whom I found to be quite fascinating or memorable – the journalist Henri living on his yacht was one and Louise, the Melanesian domestic another, Vivi the snobby Parisian sister and Robert the young kanak boy were all fired from my acquaintance with the people of the island. But importantly, while based on these real life experiences, and some quite personal experiences for me, the novel is not my own personal memoir. It was as if, through fictionalizing things, I could safely explore issues and events that had touched me so powerfully, from the safe distance of the third person – a point I’ll return to.
I was lucky when writing Poinciana to have had a mentor who encouraged and directed without encroaching on the creative process. I was interested in my own experience of writing and shaping, and I certainly did feel a great deal of satisfaction - both in the fact that I achieved publication and all the exciting things that followed from it, but more importantly in the sense of having created a forward-moving narrative - a fictional story - drawn out of raw experience. For me I definitely did have a sense of making sense out of senselessness, a resolution of a kind, a coherence, a bringing together of lots of disparate elements. As I was later to discover when I looked into it, this is exactly the therapeutic benefit that narrative writers experience when things go well in the creative process.
This discovery – which of course I thought I was very clever to have done all by myself – has been researched by psychologists interested in the healing powers of creative or expressive writing. There is an extensive literature in the psychology of creative writing, and there are many aspects of it. Some of you may be familiar with one famous study by James Pennebaker in 1997 in which he got college students to write about a significant emotional experience, even a trauma, for 15 or 20 minutes a day for four consecutive days. At follow up, the experimental group showed a boosted immune system, reduced visits to the doctor, and better grades compared to a control group who wrote about trivial matters.
This study has been replicated many times and the finding is the same: when people put emotional upheavals into words, their health improves.
As Pennebaker summarises - “the act of constructing stories is a natural process that helps individuals to understand their experiences and themselves. Why?
- It allows them to organise and remember events in a coherent fashion, to integrate their thoughts and feelings
- It gives a sense of predictability and control over their lives
- It provides a sense of resolution, so that there is less rumination, which is not good for health.
Do these processes sound familiar?
We can see that writing is not unlike the process people engage with in counselling; essentially this is what I feel I do when listening to the stories students tell me in my current role. Counselling (and they have been compared) involves the client putting together a story that will explain and organise the major life events causing distress. I’m sure many of you present will relate to this: as psychologists a great many of us have this goal as a primary focus of therapy – to help the client organise and clarify events, integrate them into their current experience, and to obtain some form of resolution of such experiences. Wearing the hat of the writer, not exactly as a psychologist, this was in fact one of my main goals in putting together my second book - an edited anthology of parents’ stories of adoption. I found it very satisfying to facilitate the ‘telling of story’ – in this case, parents’ experiences, the good and the not-so-good, of adopting a child.
The publication of my novel has taken me on an interesting writing as well as a personal journey – while I certainly couldn’t give up my day job it has certainly opened up some other great opportunities, some of which combine my interests in psychology and teaching – they include teaching fiction writing through TAFE, running writing workshops in marvellous parts of the country – I had my third trip to Merimbula on the far south coast of NSW last month - the occasional writing festival (I was invited to New Caledonia along with JM Coetzee in 2007!), gaining employment as content writer for the Black Dog Institute and most recently in putting together a staff training module on mental health awareness at my workplace the University of Adelaide. And of course editing the APS newsletter which has been a most rewarding experience! I have had times of really getting into ‘flow’ - certainly times when I have definitely found myself and lost myself at the same time, to return to our opening quote.
Thank you for inviting me to speak about my experiences in the psychology of creative writing and I hope I have inspired you, in National Psychology Week, to take up or continue on with your own preferred form of creative expression.