I feel vaguely nervous. Sitting in a circle in a bare room at Dubai International Art Centre (DIAC), I have just completed an exercise in therapeutic writing (‘Write the letters of your name lengthways down the page,’ we were instructed. ‘Then next to each letter write a word that describes you – the first one that comes to mind.’). This is fine. A little too psychology. 101 for my tastes, maybe (perhaps tellingly, I have put ‘cynical’ after ‘C’), but essentially fine.
What isn’t so fine is that our session leader is now asking for us to read our personality round-ups out loud. I don’t really do out loud. Not to a roomful of strangers and especially not when it’s supposed to reveal something from deep within my soul.
Writing as a method of releasing the unconscious is hardly new – the stream of consciousness novel has been kicking around since the early 20th century (the phrase itself is a product of early psychology texts from around the same time) – and as someone who was a sporadic, express-it-like-you-think-it journal writer throughout some ‘difficult’ teenage years, I can attest to the power of the pen as a form of DIY therapy par excellence.
Less common is the therapeutic writing group, at least out here in the so-called real world. Writing, like art therapy, has long been employed by psychologists and their ilk as a tool for exposing and understanding problems in everything from addiction to bereavement counselling. But to uncover a group in one of Jumeirah’s sandy lanes is a little more curious.
Which, in true doh-re-me style, brings us back to DIAC (‘curious’ being the second word I’ve written after ‘C’). Sitting with me in this bare room are 15 other women, all of us curious to learn more about therapeutic writing in this one-off taster class, the brainchild of Femida Hirji, UK-trained creative therapist and life coach.
Hirji explains the principle of the group as ‘an opportunity to self-explore using the medium of writing’. As the accompanying leaflet elucidates, ‘This group is NOT [her emphasis] designed to “teach” how to write creatively; rather how to express oneself using words, images and writing.’
Hence the warm-up exercise in letter/personality association. Turns out that you only have to read your list if you want to (on the actual course, people will be expected to share but, in true group therapy fashion, will promise to respect one another’s privacy – what’s said in the room, stays in the room, Vegas-style). Today, about half of the group is happy to share. More than once (in fact, three or four times) ‘A’ is linked to ‘ambitious’ and ‘L’ to ‘lonely’. ‘It seems that we already have some themes developing,’ notes Hirji sagely.
We move on to exercise number two. ‘I have come to this therapeutic writing workshop because…’ writes Hirji on her whiteboard, instructing us to finish the sentence (‘I thought it would make a good story’, I duly reply, staying firmly in journalistic mode).
This response then becomes the jump-off for the next one (‘I thought it would make a good story because…’ etc.), a process we repeat a total of six times. The theory is that each time the response becomes more personal, more self-revelatory.
I am prepared, I think, for a little light delving into my psyche. I spend a lot of (too much?) time in my head and think I have a pretty good idea of what goes on in there. But when my sixth and final sentence fires into the heart of an issue I immediately recognise as one I’ve been trying to avoid for months, I’m stunned and not a little bit chastened. And I’m not alone.
‘I don’t want to go there,’ replies one of the members of our group when asked why she thought the exercise was ‘a little scary’. ‘It peels away the layers; forces you to really examine what spurs you on and why you do what you do,’ replies another.
Crikey. Outside the August sun is still shining, the traffic still thrumming on nearby Jumeriah Beach Road; but in here the world has suddenly become very small, confined to these four walls. It’s clear that for some of us this is too much – two people immediately cry off signing up to the course for exactly that reason (‘I don’t want to go there’ is one of these), while a few more murmur something about not necessarily being able to commit to the full eight weeks. About half of us would like to go on.
For my part, an inherent wariness about what I see as the confidentiality/group therapy paradox means I’m unlikely to ever want to sit in a room exchanging my innermost thoughts with relative strangers. Even so, the hour has far from been wasted. Walking away, I am impressed all over again by the power of the written word. I vow to dust off that diary again.
Therapeutic Writing will begin at DIAC in September. Phone 04 344 0398 for details.