On 14 February I drove through two feet of angry looking tidal water to attend a workshop hosted by Victoria Field, entitled ‘Experience Poetry Therapy’. If it hadn’t been run by Vicky – one of the UK’s leading poetry therapists – I might not have risked the journey. In this winter of tempests, this must have been the fiercest so far in my far western corner of the country. I arrived late and dishevelled, my head full of fallen trees and tidal surges over A roads. I am a confident and intrepid driver, but the conditions had scared me.
Ten minutes later I felt calm and comforted. I was damp, but my thoughts were focused and my feelings were grounded. I felt present. How did it happen? A simple prompt offered by Vicky – ‘Why am I here?’ – and the gentle offer of a short period of time in which to write – six minutes – provided the containment I needed to bring me out of the storm and into the peaceful room.
Vicky’s prompt led me to write a list; disorganised at first, a jumble of protests (‘I am here because I dragged myself out of bed on a vile dark morning…’), that gradually gave way to positive statements (‘I am here because I want to be… because it’s important… because of courage… because my brave little car carried me here…[I’ll admit that last one’s a bit anthropomorphic, but the sentiment was strong]). When Vicky reminded us we had another minute in which to finish our writing, a couple of further statements of intent emerged, about wanting to learn and share with others, before allowing me to stop.
The next stage, a further six minutes in which we wrote in more depth about something that had come from the first part of the exercise, provided just enough space in which to explore something important.
When Vicky called the final minute, it felt good and right to put the pen down. Straight away I was calmer, as if something had been expelled. The weather and angst that accompanied me into the room had blown away.
The containment of time is a technique I often use with new writers and with those I meet in a therapeutic setting. I think it works for two reasons: firstly, because it provides a deadline and deadlines mean focus. If the clock is ticking we are less likely to stare into space, more likely to get down to work. Second, the limits of time provide a sense of safety. We know we can stop after 5, 6, 10 or 15 minutes, whatever boundary has been set. The limitation of time provides a force field in which we write with a freedom that can surprise us. I know I was surprised by at least three of the statements I came up with in Vicky’s exercise.
Form can provide another kind of containment, by which I mean setting limits in terms of words and the shape of a piece of writing. If you have ever tried an acrostic or – better still – a timed acrostic, you’ll know what I mean. Try it now. Choose a word such as a name (your own or someone else’s) or a word to describe something about yourself – your mood today perhaps, or something about your personality – and make an acrostic poem from it. Simply write the letters of your word down the left hand margin of the page and use them as the beginning of each line. Give yourself five minutes. The awkwardness of ‘how do I start?’ is removed and you can lose yourself in the craft of it, finding words to fit the pattern created by the letters, like solving a puzzle.
When you’ve tried that, how about a ten word autobiography, or a six word story? Hemingway’s example is often cited: ‘For sale, baby shoes, never worn’. The story of him winning a bet with Eugene O’Neill, that he could not write an entire novel in six words, may or may not be true, but it shows us how much can be said within the smallest of spaces on the page.