Writing Therapy (reflective commentary on ‘Spitting Pips’ and ‘Poppies Are Red’)

The author attends a weekly counselling service with her therapist. It is a unique form of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy that uses art to enable catharsis. This week, they are discussing the assignment pieces. 

Therapist:      Let’s start by discussing how your stories relate to you personally.

Author:                  Tolstoy states: ‘One ought only to write when one leaves a piece of one’s flesh in the ink-pot each time one dips one’s pen’.[1] I adopted this as my mantra for the assignment, using my own memories as inspiration for writing material. I juxtaposed my favourite and worst memory in order to provide emotionally rich work.

Therapist:      Talk me through the writing process of Poppies.[2]

Author:                   In the first draft of Poppies, I used mine and my sister’s real names and wrote it with a first-person narrative in the past-tense. However, the final product turned my fond reminiscence into an uncanny flashback.

Freud writes: ‘The “uncanny” is that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar’.[3] My character/Lily’s final line was originally, ‘The Earth is God’s Play-Doh and we are here to mould it’. Having an eight-year-old child combine the innocent and ‘familiar’ game of Play-Doh with the complexity of religion/existentialism of life, transformed my memoir into a scene from Children of the Corn.[4]

Therapist:      What do you think was the cause of this?

Author:                  I was projecting my own (adult) voice onto the character and it didn’t fit. I knew that my memory contained the perfect ‘story-moment’ that Harry tells us about in class, but I was too close to the story to be able to tell it satisfactorily. Yet, Katherine Mansfield states, ‘Once one has thought out a story nothing remains but the labour’…[5]

A couple of unsuccessful drafts later, I was ready to abandon the piece, until I finally grasped that it was irony of the situation that made my memory compelling. Two young sisters trying to make heroin in their back garden. It sounds like a tall-tale and drags you in to hear more. So, I disregarded any part of my writing that wasn’t significantly connected to this main plot and worked on replacing the horror aspects with humour.

Lily’s final line was altered to this: ‘We were just playing. Gardens were made to be played with, like Play-Doh. Anyway I’m far too mature to be playing with dolls, Dad.’ Now, the former uncanny-adage realistically mimics the speech of an eight-year-old. Although Lily patronises her father with the response, it’s amusingly precocious not ‘terrifying’.[6]

Therapist:      You mentioned before about your family’s reservations with you using childhood memories for writing material, is this still the case?

Author:                  Yes, my family wasn’t happy with my original draft. In particular, my sister was unhappy with how our childhood memory got twisted into a Freudian nightmare. She was concerned that readers would interpret it as an autobiography and that in turn would negatively impact our family.

I confided in a classmate about my family’s response and they told me about how Alice Munro describes her work ‘…as “personal” rather than strictly autobiographical’.[7] Like Munro, this attitude granted me more creative freedom, allowing me to take a step back from my memories. Feeling rejuvenated, I went home and the first thing that I did was change the names of my main characters.

I named Lily after Dante’s ‘Lady Lillith’, Adam’s bewitching first wife. In his accompanying poem, ‘Body’s Beauty’, he writes ‘her sweet tongue could deceive’ and that ‘the rose and poppy are her flowers’.[8] I couldn’t resist bestowing her with such an awesome and evil name – my own hark back to the original, darker, tale. Like the famous Lillith, my Lily ‘deceives’ her sister and makes a demand for poppies.[9] Rosie’s name stemmed from the flower itself (rose), which Lillith was also known for obtaining.

Therapist:      That’s interesting. Is this how you view your relationship with your sister?

Author:                  Not at all! I’m just a fan of inside-jokes.

Anyway, for my next step I reworked my narrator into omnipotence. Here’s my personal favourite segment of narration: ‘Nevertheless, you try telling a child that addicts inject drugs into a vein through a needle. They would look at you like you were the most preposterous person on the planet’.

The patronising phrasing of ‘you try telling a child’ suggests an older and more knowledgeable narrator, yet the alliterative insult and the shocked emphasis on ‘vein’ and ‘needle’ mimics a child’s reaction, as if this may be a heterodiegetic third child. Thus, my narrator acts as a sarcastic comedian/commentator, with which the reader is steered into watching the scene amidst a grown-up-child mind-set.

This new narration also inspired a flourish of frivolous dialogue between the girls wherein they bicker about pop-stars and television, further adding to the comedy of the piece.

Immediately after completion I sent a copy to my sister who replied, ‘It’s perfect…It feels very true to the time’. One year later and I can say that ‘the labour’ of writing Poppies has finally paid off.[10]

Therapist:      Let’s move on to Pips. What memory did you draw on for this piece and why?

Author:                   Well, Alisa Cox states that a short story ‘…captures the essence of an experience’.[11] Pips embodies my experiences last year of struggling with depression and attempting suicide. Statistics show that ‘one person in fifteen’ has made a suicide attempt at some point in their life, which is an unfathomable amount.[12] Pips is my attempt at turning a bad memory, and a taboo subject matter, into a platform used to translate the mental pain suffered by so many people.

Ironically enough, I found that depression was incredibly difficult to describe in a logical, realistic way. However, I hit my stride through using a powerful allegory to emulate a physical sensation that’s somewhat similar to the emotional pain of the illness.

Therapist:      Why cherries?

Author:                  I used cherries because they are my favourite fruit, yet in the back of mind I have always harboured a dull fear of swallowing the pips, just in case the folk-tale of turning into a tree is true.  I thought this would bring an uncanniness to my story. Most people are familiar with the fruit and by allegorising them with something morose it created a ‘terrifying’ base to build my story from.[13]

To flesh out my piece, I followed Poe’s description of a perfect short story: ‘…a unity of effect or impression created by the close integration of language, imagery and form’.[14] Pips is a sensory-assault on its reader. The very first line drags you in and keeps you hooked, ‘When I was a little girl, I believed that if I swallowed the pip from a cherry that I would grow into a tree. I think everybody used to think that – maybe’. From this paragraph you’re unaware of where the story is leading. It’s the tail-end of the yarn from which everything spins out of. The narrator is mysterious, holding information back, enticing you to read on and find out more.

Therapist:      This piece is more descriptive than others that I’ve seen, did you take inspiration from anything in particular?

Author:                   This description of ‘Bliss’ by Katherine Mansfield was a huge inspiration and laid the seed for Pips: ‘…as though you’d suddenly swallowed a bright piece of that late afternoon sun and it burned in your bosom, sending out a little shower of sparks into every particle, into every finger’.[15] I envied the way she made me feel from this paragraph. I studied her use of asyndeton, surrealism, hyperbolism, and alliteration and applied them to my own work. This is an extract from the beginning of my piece: ‘…with so much force that my fist would have plunged through my flesh and into my stomach, searching for the stone with my own fingers’. Obviously my piece is a lot darker, describing the exact opposite emotion of bliss, yet the same techniques can be transferred.

Another influence is ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, the protagonist of which also suffers from depression. She is trapped in a house that is ‘quite alone, standing well back from the road, quite three miles from the village’.[16] This triadic description makes me feel like I’m walking down the road further and further from civilisation until I’m locked in that room myself. I used a similar triad in my piece to create character empathy: ‘I needed something to make me feel different, to make me feel better. I needed something to make everything go away: a new life. I needed to leave my life’. I want my reader to descend into the protagonist’s shoes with this asyndeton, like I did with Gilman’s.

Therapist:      Did you write in the first-person because this is how you felt?

Author:                   I used a first-person narrative because of its naturally commanding and personal tone, in order to drive my story forwards. Of course, it is based on my own experiences but I’ve adapted it into its own fiction. I purposely didn’t personalise the story too much because I want my readers to be able to place themselves easily into the protagonist’s shoes.

Therapist:      If that’s so, then why did you include an extra passage at the end?

Author:                  I shared my work with a course-mate to gather feedback. She described my work as ‘emotionally rampant’ and that she ‘was on the edge of [her] seat wondering what was going to happen next’. However, due to it being so fast-paced and surreal, she couldn’t fully realise the allegory until she re-read it.

The end statement pulls you out of the nightmare with a hit from reality. Contrasting with the imagery from the main piece is an authoritative message, followed by a personalising anecdote. That anecdote was taken from a page in my diary, from the first time that I had felt sublimely happy again, months after my suicide attempt. I understand that I can’t change my past, but I can change my future and I can help to change it for other people too, through my writing.

Therapist:      We’re running out of time, is there anything else you’d like to add?

Author:                  Remember the Tolstoy quote from the beginning: ‘One ought only to write when one leaves a piece of one’s flesh in the ink-pot each time one dips one’s pen’?[17] I feel like with this mantra in mind, I have written not only the most personal material of my writing career, but possibly some of my best work to date. From now on, I am going to channel it into everything that I write.


[1] Miriam Allott, Novelists on the Novel (New York: Columbia University Press, 1959), p.150.

[2] For the sake of ease, Poppies are Red and Spitting Pips have been abbreviated to Poppies and Pips.

[3] Sigmund Freud, “The Uncanny”, in Sigmund Freud, Collected Papers, Volume 4, trans. and ed. by Alix Strachey (New York: Basic Books, 1959), pp. 1-21, (p. 2-3).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Valerie Shaw, The Short Story: A Critical Introduction (New York: Longman, 1998), p.3.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Alisa Cox, Writing Short Stories: A Routledge Writer’s Guide, 2nd edn. (New York: Routledge, 2016), p.117.

[8] Gabriel Rossetti Dante, ‘Body’s Beauty’ (1868) <http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/walker/exhibitions/rossetti/works/beauties/ladylilith.aspx&gt; [accessed 24 April 2018], Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Shaw, Short Story, p.3.

[11] Cox, Writing, p.7.

[12] Mental Health Statistics: Suicide <https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/statistics/mental-health-statistics-suicide&gt; [accessed 24 April 2018]

[13] Freud, “Uncanny”, p. 2-3.

[14] Cox, Writing, p.7.

[15] Katherine Mansfield, ‘Bliss’, Selected Stories (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008) pp. 174-185 (p. 174).

[16] Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) <http://image.guardian.co.uk/sys-files/Books/documents/2009/01/09/TheYellowWallpaper.pdf&gt; [accessed 24 April 2018] (p.4)

[17] Allott, Novelists, p.150.

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