December’s Poet of the Month Sally Pomme Clayton on creative writing, fairytales and mental health.
‘Go I know not where, bring back I know not what’ is the title of a Russian fairytale. It describes the quest of the hero who has to go to ‘the thrice ninth kingdom in the thrice tenth land’ to fetch impossible things. I loved this fairytale as a child, and had the overpowering desire to go to this land. But where was it? How could I ever get there? The longing was so strong, it was actually painful! Years later I found that this land was not where I thought it was at all. And I discovered I could approach it, by telling a story! I started performing fairytales in 1984, and working with Apples and Snakes in 1989, when they were based at Battersea Arts Centre. Their lovely cafe became a club once a month, mixing-up poets, storytellers, djs, writers, musicians. It was the place to be!
Over the last four years I’ve been working with Apples and Snakes and No Panic (Sutton and Merton), a self-help group for people experiencing anxiety and panic. No Panic meet to share advice and give mutual support. We produced a book of poems for the Olympics. No Panic found the act of creative writing helped their sense of well-being. They did not want to stop writing, and had the idea to create a book about coping with panic. Apples and Snakes believed in the project. And Producer Daniela Paolucci, supported the project over a long period of time, working hard to secure funding by the National Lottery through the Big Lottery Fund to produce the book ‘The No Panic Book Of Not Panicking’.
The book combines fact with fiction: self-help advice is buried in fictional short stories; practical strategies for coping have been turned into poems; real life experiences have been fictionalised. The process of fictionalizing, turned personal experiences into art, making them feel safe to share. We started each session with a meditative writing exercise – it is in the book so you can do it too. The exercise helps still the mind, calm the nerves, and create an accepting inner state where ideas and thoughts can arise without judgement. This exercise helped participants get in touch with their creative flow, and from this place stories and poems could be born. This writing exercise is inspired by Dorothea Brand‘s brilliant book ‘Becoming a Writer’, and has been adapted by many writers since. Brand emphasises how creative flow depends on not censoring the unconscious, or editing what it produces. Editing comes later. No Panic found this exercise soothing to the brain. Both silence and focus helping shift emotional states. Perhaps it is also to do with the physical act of moving a pen across paper? Of course the exercise can be done on a computer, but I am not sure if the effect is the same? I wonder if the movement of writing itself encourages mindfulness? The exercise allows you to ‘Go I know not where and bring back I know not what’.
Creative writing connects you with the imagination. This can be a scary place for someone with anxiety. Perhaps a place to avoid. No Panic found that writing without judgement allowed them to turn feelings into words and express their emotions. Fearful images might become landscapes or characters. One’s own life story could be set in the past or future. The group began to feel the creative potential inside them, something they had not contacted before. Connecting with the imagination links us to the creativity that is inside us all, but we often ignore. Once a few keys have been given, the imagination and its riches can become available. And the imagination is no longer a scary place. However the writer needs to embark on their journey like the hero, having no idea where they are going, no preconceptions of what they will find, or thoughts of what they might bring back. In this spirit of discovery and receptivity, the imagination can reveal its gifts.
No Panic found the act of writing to be healing. Practicing the non- judgment necessary to create something helped recovery and enhanced well-being. Creative writing fostered their inner resilience. They found it to be cathartic and satisfying. No Panic said:
“The anxiety has gained expression and now exists on a sheet of paper instead of just inside my head.”
“It has not been easy to put down in words many years of suffering, but to my amazement, finally getting it all down in writing, has freed me.”
“It has enabled me to look back and see how far I have come.”
“I find that the act of writing things down makes me feel that I am actively confronting my problems and I therefore feel more in control.”
I am still trying to get to ‘the thrice ninth kingdom in the thrice tenth land’. But fairytales themselves show what is necessary. Fairytales are products of the imagination – our collective imagination. Created by our ancestors, they belong to us all. Fairytales use the poetic language of metaphor. They describe one thing, but mean something else. This allows each of us to travel into their fictional spaces, and shape our own unknown. That’s why I love them, and am continually interested in exploring them. Next year I’m working on a new show: ‘The Frog Princess Punked’, based on another Russian fairytale. I will tell it with an all-female punk band! I don’t know what I am going to create, or if it will succeed. But I will risk following the imagination to ‘go I know not where, bring back I know not what’.
© Sally Pomme Clayton December 2016