Poetry as Therapy (blog)

Poetry as therapy?
I like the sound of that.
Take whatever’s thrown at you
And throw a little back…

Recently, I’ve had a bit of a “disagreement” with the next-door neighbour. Nothing particularly interesting, or unusual, but it did upset me. My usual way of dealing with this is to stew and fester and chew things over and over and over AND OVER in my head, literally losing sleep thinking about it.

I obsess.

I fret.

I analyse.

I over-analyse.

I play out whole conversations in my head – things I wished I’d said, things I’d say next time, things I wish I had the courage to say, things I wished I could get off my chest but know in reality that they’ll only make things worse… you get the idea.

I know that this is not healthy, believe me I do. I also know that this is far from the first time that this has happened. My way of dealing with everyday trauma and stress is to get locked in this feedback loop, thinking about it from all angles… family arguments, problems with the boss, being made redundant… these have all triggered this before.

I was determined that this time would be different.

Over the past couple of years, as I have started to write picture books, I have also written poetry. I have tried various styles, with varying results, but the one that I enjoy most is simple rhyming verse, usually with a comic twist. I make no pretence of high art, but it works for me, and the results are all over this blog. (For example, https://altheauthor.wordpress.com/2015/03/04/above-the-clouds-poem/ ) Hopefully you like at least some of it too. So, I figured if it works for me as a general creative outlet, then why not try it to deal with some specific issues?

When researching this, I googled “poetry as therapy”, and got quite a few hits. There is a whole mini-industry around this, dealing with issues of how we perceive ourselves, unleashing creativity, encouraging self-expression, increasing self-esteem, allowing emotional release, and finding new meaning through new ideas, insight and information. All very worthy, and worthy of further research if this is an area that interests you. However, I want to limit this blog to my own experience, and what worked for me.

So, back to the neighbour. I wrote a poem about him. It begins:

“There’s an ape next door called Martin”

Award-winning stuff. But that’s not the point. One day I may share it on here, but for now it’s just for me.

1. The point is to release tension, vent some negative feelings, and regain control of your emotions.

To take a common example, picture yourself stuck in heavy traffic, on your way to an important meeting with family/ friends/ your agent/ your dog. Whoever it is, it’s important to you, and all those other cars are selfishly wanting to make journeys in the same direction at the same time as you. Now, some may feel angry, and fantasise about suddenly having the use of a tank, which you could then use to literally ride straight over all those others cars who cut you up moments ago. Perhaps you’d rather go for the “Hulk SMASH!” approach to clearing cars from your way… or maybe you’d simply fret and worry about being late, and get yourself into a panic.

Stop. Calm. De-escalate. Go to comic extremes, if you have to – anything to avoid getting locked into that feedback loop of negativity.

“But I can’t write poetry, I’m not creative…” Nonsense! Kathryn Evans blogged recently that “You’re A Poet, You Just Don’t Know It” – https://mrsbung.wordpress.com/2015/03/10/youre-a-poet-you-just-dont-know-it/ – including the key point that you can’t get poems wrong.

Start with something small, and let it flow, having fun with language. Gently stretch those creative muscles before taking them out for a jog around the block. This poem is just for you, so silence your inner editor and let it out!

2. The golden rule (for me) is that the poem has to make light of the situation, to minimise whatever’s happening.

“Feeling stuck in traffic
Nowhere else to go
Feeling stuck in traffic:
Hear my tale of woe!

Left foot has gone to sleep
Righty wants to catch it.
My bum is feeling numb.
Do I dare to scratch it?”

You get the idea. Test the adage that laughter is the best medicine: try and make yourself laugh! You WILL get through that traffic eventually, so focus on the aspect of the situation that is at least partially under your control – your mental state – and let the rest of it go. Sometimes people are just late… the world still turns…

I have managed to stop myself letting the “neighbour thing” get out of hand in my head, and I think it’s directly down to this approach. So it’s 100% successful to date!

It needs saying that there is a difference between making light of things, and trivialising them. It all depends on the person and the problem. The “reach” of this post is aimed at daily irritations rather than more entrenched problems, for which professional support would be more appropriate (although even in that setting, creative expression is often helpful).

I asked a therapist friend to pre-read an early draft of this blog. She recommends a book called “The Chimp Paradox” – http://www.chimpparadox.co.uk/ – by Prof Steve Peters, a psychiatrist who has worked extensively in the business world and the sporting arena, including with the British Cycling team, Ronnie O’Sullivan, UK Athletics, and Liverpool FC. His book refers to the primitive brain responses – fight, freeze, or flight. In my friend’s words (I love this quote), “sometimes we need to throw our chimp a few bananas and give our prefrontal cortex a chance to chill and be more rational” !

Being creative, and positive, and downright silly can be good. Daydream a little, throw your chimp some bananas, and add some colour to your day! What have you got to lose?

Going back to our “stuck in traffic” scenario, remember that your car is your kingdom. It’s an entirely made-up fact that no one can see or hear you once the engine is on. So, air drum, sing a song, write a rhyme, pass the time… and arrive smiling.


Picture Book Idea Month – done!

This last weekend, I successfully completed the PiBoIdMo (Picture Book Idea Month) challenge – see the links to the right of this column (http://taralazar.com/). The aim is to come up with 30 ideas in 30 days, although I set myself the additional element of finding one per day, rather than relying on “inspired” days to carry the load. Truth be told, I found this fairly easy. I often let my mind wander off for a walk, whether it’s in the shower, or on the bus to work, or in meetings at work (ahem)… If my body was as well exercised as my mind, my doctor would be much happier!

Nevertheless, I found it a really good habit to get into. There were daily blogs about different techniques that you can use if you’re feeling uninspired, but the key for me was just not to force it. When you feel the pressure of the blank page, and all you can focus on is the stark blankness of the all-encompassing white page, white, WHITE, WHITE! … Then you’re not really getting yourself in a mentally creative state.

My best flow of ideas came while I was at the computer and half-listening to the University Challenge quiz show that my wife was watching at the other end of the room. As I didn’t know the answers to any in that particular run of questions (which, sadly, isn’t at all unusual), I just let my mind wander and treat the topics as a stream of idea-prompts. Chemistry, history, music, art… In the space of five minutes, I had half a dozen “good” ideas down.

There did seem an odd batch of people commenting on the facebook pages as the month progressed too. There was a mix of “look at me, I’ve got 70 ideas and it’s only day 2”, and “help! It’s day 27 and I’ve only got 3 ideas!”… To the first group, I’m not sure why you felt a need to broadcast that. It’s not a competition. Are those 70 ideas – and the hundreds that follow – any good? If they are, wow, but how (and when?) are you going to turn them all into picture books? (This is surely the point.) I’d go for quality over quantity every time. (Except for chocolate cake… Always make allowances for chocolate cake.)

To the latter group, have you really given your mind time and space to wander in amongst the madness of daily life, and forgotten about that white, WHITE page? It is undoubtedly true that some people are more creative than others. That is the nature of things. But a single idea a day is not beyond anyone, especially when that idea can be something small like a character name, or a set-up, or even just a punchline or pun that you want to turn into a story (I had one of these around the line “a bit of a clown”).

I’d recommend any picture book writer should give it a go, and set your inspiration free!

Lessons learned

1) Never be too far from your notebook / phone. You never know when inspiration will strike!
2) Never rely on a list being saved in one place only (I lost my first batch of ideas through a file being corrupted).
3) Take your mind for a walk in the woods on a regular basis.
4) Try not to do 3) during a meeting with your boss…

Now to try and turn some of these ideas into completed picture book stories. Anyone with me?