As someone who loves writing, I have often employed scriptotherapy in my work with young people. Writing as a therapy tool is common to many counselling approaches, but creative writing, rather than writing in the context of completing therapy homework or worksheets is not as common. Fiction, poems, song lyrics, short stories, diaries, journals or alternative endings – I have used them all.
Introducing writing in therapy inevitably leads to a little self disclosure about my writing journey, and most clients ask similar questions: Am I in one of your books? Have you written a book about me? Will you write a book about me? or Can you please put me in one of your books? Some clients have even suggested I could just write the story of their life and it would be a best seller. “No one would believe it wasn’t fiction!”
Where do your stories come from? is a question almost universally asked of writers. All of us come at our work from a different starting point, but most would agree that life experience enrichens plot and character development. Yet somehow, when that life experience involves working with other people facing the worst challenges of their lives (let’s face it, no one comes to therapy because life is going great), it seems more necessary to assure people (or even to give proof) that my stories are fictional, my characters are fictional, and that I don’t write books about my clients.
The whole art/life dichotomy is an interesting one. Art is clearly an imitation of life – an expression of life. But sometimes the reverse is true. Life often imitates art – even secret, unspoken art. (It’s called a coincidence!) I remember that while writing the first draft of a book during Nanowrimo one year, I created a scene featuring a young man on a quest to end his life, a police chase, a rail crossing and a train line. I had never told anyone about that scene, that story, those characters. At the time I wrote the scene, I didn’t have the story that went with the scene. I didn’t even know the character – he was just a scared and angry boy in a desperate situation. It was just what I call a snippet.
Less than a week after writing it, I had a young man in my office relating a very similar story. A real story. About himself.
What did I do with that disclosure? Well, obviously I dealt with the issue of his distress leading to the described incident, and his ongoing safety. All very necessary and therapeutic. But I also told him about the fictional boy. At the time I was really engaged with writing that book, and I didn’t want him to come across it a few years later and say, “Hey who is this Tess Wilson person who has written a scene from my life story into a novel?” (Tess Wilson is my pen name). Although the draft of that book is currently ‘shelved’, and I hope to get back to edit it with fresh eyes sometime in the future, it is unlikely that character or that scene will ever appear in the final cut. Ultimately I expect I will ditch it, primarily because it has been tainted with the crossover to someone’s real life struggle.
Now, when I think of that scene and that character, I don’t think of the boy I had in my head when I wrote him. He has been swapped out for the real life kid. It’s kind of like what happened to my picture of Harry Potter when the first film came out featuring Daniel Radcliffe. Harry had never looked like that to me when I read the first three books. Now, I can’t even picture the way I saw him before. The real train line kid and the fictional train line kid have merged, it may not be possible to distinguish between them, so of course the finished version of that story, if finished at all, will never include that character or scene.
It doesn’t matter that the real life kid might have quite liked to appear as inspiration for a book. In fact, he was another of those who said, “You could write a whole book about me!” But then it wouldn’t be fiction. Of course I could change enough facts to make the story fiction, to make the people unrecognisable, I could change the ending. But then I’d just be masking real life and calling it fiction. That’s not really creating a story, is it? That’s just telling someone else’s story. And it’s also exploiting young people’s hardships and life stories to my own ends. That’s not who I am.
Admittedly, one of the reasons I write is for escapism from the nine to five of working with pain and distress. There is an element that I enjoy in terms of controlling endings, when in real life, things don’t often end ideally. There is certainly some therapeutic benefit to myself in writing; I find it cathartic. But honestly, my stories are not about my clients.
So how does my work enrich my writing? My characters are fictional. But working with young people and their experience of the transition to adulthood has definitely enhanced my understanding of the adolescent and young adult mind. It has helped me with the language, to know and understand the things that many of them think about and worry about and talk about, and in that way it helps me bring authenticity to my work that makes it more relatable to young readers. It has been a long time since I was seventeen. Working with young people helps me remember what it was like, and helps keep me young. I love their intensity and I love their ambivalence, their passion and their contradictions. I love their energy, and their apathy. I just love them.
I don’t write about my clients, but I often draw my inspiration from their strength and resilience, their sadness and vulnerability, and I try to make it real enough that you can feel what it is like to sit with that, without it being real.
Ultimately, I think it is possible for any of us to see something of ourselves in any stories and characters we read about. Surely that is what connecting is about. All of us have had the experience of reading a book and relating to a character. Do we feel like we know them? That we are them, or that they are us? Do we feel like we understand them? Do we feel understood when we read them? This is the goal of all writers – to create that connection between readers and characters.
Yes, I am a counsellor, and this means I may have some interesting insights into the nature and motivations of people. But I am also a person, and most of my insights come from my life as a person, not from my job.