Writing as Therapy: Invisible Illness as a Character in Writing My Second Book

I’ve been meaning to write this blog post for quite a long time. I’ve recently delivered workshops on the subject and with Small due to be released in October, I feel now is the time to share with you how I wrote it in the hope it can help you too.

On an early run one spring morning in 2019, I realised that the little demon clinging to my shoulder that had momentarily shut up (it only ever shuts up when I’m running) was something that needed to be written. It made things easier to explain.

And in that moment, Small was born.

How I Started Writing the Book

I came home from that run with a burning urge to write that I hadn’t felt in…well, years. Since the publication of my first book, I felt I’d never write again. I honestly felt that I’d given it all I had and that the book was it – that was poetry for me. I’d never have anything new or particularly extraordinary to say. There was always someone who could say it better.

However, like the changing of seasons, I simply had to learn that creativity is something that cannot bloom all year round. It must fall to seed, be nurtured and given room to bloom again.

Anthropomorphising an eating disorder through the character of Small – an impish, dark little demon with the mannerisms of a tantruming, needy child – produced an unexpected poetry collection following several failed therapy sessions during one of the most challenging times of my life. 

During an appointment, I was asked to take part in an ‘empty chair’ exercise, a form of Gestalt therapy which involves projecting the cause of your feelings onto an inanimate object. You must then tell that object exactly how you feel as a way of expressing your emotions in a safe environment.

All that happened was that I turned red, refused, and could barely speak for the rest of the session. However, upon reaching my car I began to scribble poetry onto the back of a receipt and by lunchtime I had my head stuck in a poetry book again, seeking comfort. I wanted to know that someone had felt the way I was feeling that day. The result was that I ended up working late into the night editing the poem, feeling lighter and more accomplished once it was complete. It was imagistic, it was slightly abstracted, but the words were a snapshot into what was happening within my own brain: confusion, disorder, frustration. It was something I could never have expressed verbally in any therapist’s office.

I continued to write snatched little lines, and to capture the snippets of dialogue I would have with Small in my head. The only time Small is quiet is when I am running, and I imagine her like a tired child post-tantrum, head lolling upon my shoulder as she clings to my back and my head is busy at its peak of creativity. 

There were many stops on those runs to tap snatched lines into my phone, ready to work on later in the day.

How to Find Your Character

Your ‘character’ may be very different from Small. While teaching workshops on this, there’s been sheer joy in seeing the range of voices and boundless imagination from participants. I’ve received poems from writers who have turned their invisible illnesses into sphinxes, frogs, cats, dragons and ghosts. Some are shadows. Some are lovers.

All are surprising and brilliant.

Finding your character may not be an instant process. For so long, I’d tried to get on board with the ‘Ana’ and ‘Mia’ characters that I’d often seen people using to personify eating disorders. People would envision their eating disorders as bitchy teenage girls, and for a long time I tried this, but it didn’t feel right. I could turn my back on a bitchy friend.

But who can turn their back on a child? Something just clicked when I thought of Small in this way. The name came instantly. This tantruming child, as difficult as she was, was still mine. She was never something I could abandon completely. I needed her as much she needed me, in some skewed way. She would always get her way over me. And telling the story in this way felt right. It helped me to explain how things were for me.

You may not find the right character immediately (and for certain things, it may be too uncomfortable to write about it at all), but try writing about it as a different character until you find one that feels right.

And when you do, I promise you the writing will follow. Fast.

Writing as a Lifelong Therapy

You can use the practice of characterising illness for emotions too when things get tough. Bear in mind this usually won’t work instantly – things need time to settle, and you can’t skip the act of processing your feelings. You may still need traditional therapy. It’s important here that you don’t distress yourself; please only write about the things you feel ready and able to address.

But when you have that urge to write again at last, try experimenting with character. Turn whatever you’re feeling into a sly fox or a flapping bird or a hidden spider. Turn it into a mythological being or a lover or a child.

There are certain things that may not move into character at all. For me, type one diabetes is notoriously hard to condense into poetry and near impossible to use for anthropomorphism. It’s too much a part of myself, every minute of every day, for me to turn into a character. 

Remember, you’re not a failure if this happens to you for certain things. You can’t write a great poem when writing with one hand and beating yourself up with the other.

You don’t have to write an entire book or even an entire completed poem about your experience. Perhaps a story will feel right. Perhaps you’ll only be able to manage a line or two.

But however you tell it, in putting your pen to the page there’s more power to you.

2 Comments

  1. A really informative blog post. It’s energised me to begin experimenting with my own challenges through poetry. This is something that I started and moved away from very quickly. I found it difficult to maintain the intensity of two poems without feeling exhausted let alone an entire collection! It’s an innovative idea to change the form and texture of an invisible illness. I love how ‘Small’ is a child. In my experience, you never really get over trauma. It becomes part of a person’s personality and philosophy. Reality is a strange generic term for something that’s really very subjective and open to reinterpretation. The power of trauma over a person flutates with each passing year. It’s always present, and exactly as Natalie said, “who can turn their back on a child?” As much part of an identity as nationality or eye colour. A can’t wait to try out some of her creative suggestions!

    Like

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