Expressive Arts Therapy is less about techniques and more about presence. It’s less about a system of rules, and more about learning to be with what is there – maintaining a tolerance for uncertainty and even discomfort. This is part of why it is such a powerful way of doing therapy. Because of this, it can’t be taught as a method, or in a quick workshop. It is a way of being, not a set of steps.
Despite this, there are a few exercises that, by their nature, keep the work in that magical place of discovery and imagination. The less that control and order can be imposed on any situation, the more effective these exercise can be. One of my favourite exercises is one I am going to share here. I believe it works so well, simply because it is hard to control. The creation of it can only happen in one way, and the outcome cannot be predicted by any one person.
So although I have just told you that Expressive Arts Therapy is not a set of steps, I am going to outline this exercise in steps for simplicity here. The reason is, because I have a lot of faith in this exercise to sidestep any attempts to control the outcome.
Please note that this blog post is not intended as a replacement for training required to become a therapist or counsellor. This exercise should only be used therapeutically by those already trained to work in a therapeutic context OR by those wishing to use it only as a writing exercise, outside of a therapeutic context.
Collaborative Poetry Exercise
This exercise works best in a group setting (see below for a version you can do on your own). The group, however, doesn’t have to be together at the same time. During this time of physically distancing, this is something that you can do through emails or messaging.
Step 1: Each person writes a poem or some reflections – there is no need to write in any one format. This can be around a chosen theme, or it can be written in response to another piece of art, like a drawing. The theme can be as general or specific as you want. If you are in a book club, your theme can be your response to one of the books you have just read. The important thing to remember is that this is not an intellectual activity. Remind the group members to connect to the writing with their imaginations. Things that can help to connect to your imagination are:
- Taking a few deep breathes
- Moving or stretching your body before you write in whatever way that feels right
- Using all your senses to connect with the theme before you start (what colours do you see, what do you smell, what part of your body do you notice and what are the sensations, what emotions do you feel?), reminding yourself to notice what is there, not what you think should be there.
- Going for a short walk outside
- Petting your dog or cat
Activities like this will help regulate your nervous system and open up more access to your imagination. Check in with yourself and see what works best for you – everyone is different.
Step 2: Read your poem or reflections to the group (or share the written form if you are not meeting in person).
Step 3: Read your poem or reflections again to yourself, circling or underlining words or phrases that stand out.
Step 4: Choose a word or phrase out of the ones you circled or underlined.
Step 5: Read your word or phrase back to the group (or share the written form if you are not meeting in person).
Step 6: Have someone write down the words in the order they are shared.
Step 7: Have that person read back the words or phrases to the group as if it is a poem. If you want to and feel inspired, you can rearrange the words and phrases in a way that flows better. Be careful here not to assert too much control over the poem. You may change one or two words for better flow, but try to let the poem speak for itself, rather than changing it to something more presentable or grammatically correct.
Voila! You have written your poem together.
Doing This Exercise on Your Own
What if you don’t have a group to try this with? This can also be done on your own, but it requires much more writing. If you are already a writer, you can access old material for this to create something new.
If you are doing this on your own, simply write several poems or reflections (or pull up old poetry or reflections you have already written), then read through them, circling or underlining words or phrases that stand out. Select the ones you want to use, and organize them into a new poem.
Again, you can reorganize the words and phrases in a way that creates better flow, but remember to let the words speak for themselves. Sometimes grammar that is slightly off can make for more interesting poetry. Have you ever noticed that when something isn’t as it should be you may stop for a moment and wonder what is going on? You may even get an image in your mind suddenly in response to something that has unusual wording. Don’t change these element too quickly until you have read through your poem first a few times and felt the impact of the words.
My inspiration for writing this blog post was my final project for my Movement Class in the Expressive Arts Therapy Program. I chose to read through all the poems I had written throughout the semester and use some key words and phrases to write another poem. I really love this exercise as part of a group (it’s possibly my favourite of all time!) but I had never done this on my own with several of my own poems. I was thrilled with the results and what came out was something that felt like it created itself. I felt such a strong affinity with it, but it also had a life of its own. Here is the result – each stanza represents an excerpt from a previous poem I had written:
Lay Me Down
I write, I write, I strike, and slight and exercise my might
With the word, my words, my written words…
Lay me down in the water
So soft and glossy
So pure and toss me
Through my hair
Through my bones
Alone is not a word that exists for me anymore
I grasp the pathways
And hold onto the soul ways
Oh, the possibilities!
The tops of trees
My friends, my allies, my grounding
But I still don’t know how to ditch this
The darkness will slip out the sides
And it will be a landslide
Tracing the lines of my age
Of my rage
I picture my mind
Enclosed in a ring of sadists
Not knowing what her fate is
Hidden from the world, relegated
Only to memory
My heart, my everything
That’s not ripped apart at the seams
Like my doll that screams
For vengeance, for justice
And the streams like the rivers of karma run downhill
to her daughter, and her daughter, and her daughter
If only there existed a god of my childhood
Who could take this away, if he chose it
If I prayed it…hard enough
If I wanted it…bad enough
It’s astounding that I could go this long without grounding my legs in this
Reaching my arms to the sky for this
Tell me, would you die for this?
So rest, and be, and feel your feet
And that’s the sacred place where we will meet