By Erica Leibrandt LPC, RYT
When I was 30 years old I found myself on the surviving end of a five year long, intensely abusive relationship that featured such highlights as drug abuse, homelessness, and a bunch of other stuff I now simply call my “dark resume.”
As I tried to turn myself back into a normal person who could look other people in the eye, I realized it was going to take more than a few cathartic chats with family and friends. So, I did therapy—lots of it. And I started writing.
I knew pretty quickly that the story I had to tell was bigger than a bit of journaling. Nope. This was going to have to be a whole book. Having always dreamed of being a “real” writer (parentheses because what the hell does that mean anyway) I thought, maybe I could turn lemons into lemonade. Sure, I’d been through hell and back, but at least I had something to write about.
Inspired by Julia Cameron’s excellent book The Artist’s Way, I resolved to write a page a day until I was done. Some 500 plus pages and two years later, I was.
I had a big towering mess on my hands that I had no idea what to do with, but that was okay, because somewhere along the way I’d come to understand that the book itself was somewhat beside the point. The point was, I was taking ownership of my story. I was unintentionally doing something called Narrative Therapy, and the benefits were remarkable.
One of the hallmarks of abusive relationships is that the abuser systematically takes away the abusees power. They do this through multiple means, among which are gaslighting, a process by which obvious realities are intentionally challenged to make someone feel irrational. After years of gaslighting, victims do not trust themselves, their feelings, or their perceptions, so they hand over the reins to the person constantly calling them crazy.
They think, if I am crazy, they must be sane. In other words, they stop being the authors of their own story, and start just being a character in someone else’s.
We don’t have to have been in an abusive relationship to experience the phenomenon of being a character in someone else’s story. We can be made to feel this way from the pressures of culture, from family systems and from our own core beliefs or low self esteem. At some point or another, with the possible exception of pathological narcissists and sociopaths, we will all feel powerless to create, and believe in, our own stories.
Writing is one way to counteract that.
Bit by bit, as I relived and wrote out the scenes of five years of torment, I began to see that I had never been incidental. I was a dynamic, colorful, important force without which my abuser’s story never would have existed in the first place, and it was up to me to inhabit the untold side of it. I did so with relish, and as I did, I began to trust that I could know Truths too.
Fast forward a decade plus and I had indeed rebuilt myself back into a normal person who could look other people in the eye. I’d become a mother, a Yoga teacher, a published writer and a psychotherapist, in that order. I was finally in a position not just to heal myself, but to help others heal as well.
It didn’t occur to me straight away that I should suggest writing as part of my client’s therapeutic treatment; it was only as I tried to define myself as a clinician that I wondered if writing might help them as it had helped me. I began to suggest to clients who seemed open to it that they start journaling. They all generally agreed that they should journal, but no matter how I encouraged them they rarely seemed to actually do it.
I might as well have asked them to take a daily supplement of prune juice and castor oil.
But I knew their desire to write was still there. I just had to find a way to tap into it. It’s no secret that we all need to be held accountable sometimes, and that being asked to report to a group can do exactly that. I also knew that for me, the act of sharing what I have written in the presence of others more or less immediately fills me with a depth of self awareness I have rarely experienced any other way: for this is the painful process by which I edited my big messy book.
With these thoughts in mind, the seed of what would become Write Club was born.
At its essence Write Club is simply a group of about eight people getting together in the presence of a facilitator and reading 5-10 minutes of their writing, which is a response to brief prompts they’ve been given to complete before the day of the workshop. The facilitator then leads a discussion about the writing: its themes, psychological implications and anything else that seems noteworthy, and invites other group members to weigh in.
The only real rules are: kindness is king, and critiquing the writing itself is verboten, unless it’s to bring enthusiastic attention to a particularly lovely turn of phrase.
As I often tell my groups, no one does art therapy because they expect to be renowned artists, and we don’t do Write Club because we aspire to pen the next Great American Novel. We do it because it opens a door into ourselves. In other words, the actual writing, like my own book, is in many ways beside the point.
The first iteration of Write Club was a bit wilder than my above description. Unbeknownst to me, the practice where I worked at the time had indiscriminately signed up about thirty participants. Who knew there was going to be such a large response to a random little flyer at an out of the way practice in the burbs?
When the day came, I stood welcoming people, pouring sweat under my good work blazer, wondering how on God’s green earth I was going to run this show. One other clinician agreed to help and we broke the 30 into two groups of 15. I don’t know what happened in the other group, but mine was unexpectedly intense.
The prompt had been simply to “write your own biography” and the tears started flowing about two words into the first reader.
It turns out that reading your own words, about your own layered and tricky life is emotionally akin to jumping out of an airplane—so much so that sometimes we call reading our work in Write Club “skydiving.” I drove home that night ecstatic. It seemed to me that months of therapeutic work had been accomplished in the space of a few hours.
Therapy on steroids, I told myself.
I was hooked and so was everybody else. From that first day there were enough willing participants to run the club more or less non-stop—the only problem being there was just one of me, and I had no idea how to communicate to other therapists exactly what I was doing. Perhaps because I didn’t, and don’t, exactly know.
I’ll try to explain. I call on a reader. It is a tense moment for we all know that person is about to skydive. I enter into a place of profound empathy, clear my mind and prepare myself to receive whatever it is they are offering. Often I close my eyes. As their words wash over me I try not to let any slip away. I hold them as carefully as a cracked egg that is still whole inside. As they read, the blueprint beneath the words begins to reveal itself.
I can’t see the whole thing. I try to remember the questions I’ll need to ask to bring it into focus.
I force myself to stay out of my own head, to not make judgements, and to remain inside the beats of the readers syllables, which are the beats of their heart. When they are finished I rest a moment in gratitude. What a wondrous thing it is that they have just done!
And then I try to encourage them—enlisting the help of seven other people who were trying their best to listen as I was trying to listen— discover what that blueprint represents. What are its gaps, its pillars, its paths, its beams, its windows and its stones.
Therapy on steroids. Every time.
I’m not saying that writing or Write Club is the answer to more traditional one on one talk therapy. It isn’t. But it is a magical adjunct to it. It excavates all kinds psychological fossils that can continue to be examined long after the group has ended. It also cultivates a willingness to be vulnerable among relative strangers, a handy skill for better therapeutic results and shows us that our struggles and thoughts are not as unusual as we may have believed, but actually just the stuff of being human.
And while we may claim to know this intellectually, it is quite a different thing to sit in the presence of it. It gives us a chance to be brave, and to have our bravery met with compassion, which is a feeling few of us get to have past the age of two, but which is one of the finest feelings any of us can experience.
If it sounds as if I am waxing romantic, I am. I may be the creator of Write Club, but in fact I am just its servant.
I see time and time again that all I have to do is create the space, convey the intention, and all else will follow. It strikes me that this is also a good way to approach life. Create space, set an intention, and then see what flows.
If I had my druthers, everyone with the slightest inclination to write would have access to Write Club, or something similar to it, but for now I’ll just be I’ll just be taking small steps forward, one group of eight at a time.
Erica is a mom, licensed Psychotherapist, registered Yoga teacher, and published author. She is frequently able to win staring contests with dogs.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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