Patricia Cleveland-Peck joined a `creative journal' course.
With a new year comes a fresh chance to sort out your life. You know the feeling: nothing seems impossible; this will be the year to travel, ditch that hopeless man, start that new job, write that book. Some people even commit these optimistic thoughts to the pages of their brand-new diaries - but sadly, the majority of resolutions are abandoned before the month is out.
Yet, according to Simona Parker, who runs a workshop known as "creative journal", the simple expedient of writing a diary can help you to make sense of your life. The journal used in her method, however, is anything but simple, consisting of 20 separate loose-leaf sections to cover different aspects of your life and personality: Body, Work, Here and Now, Relationships, Dreams, etc.
"They are not there to classify your psyche," Simona says, "but to open doors. Each is a channel of energy, and by working in the sections, the material starts to shift and interrelate so that transformation and growth can take place and a sort of sense of one's life can emerge."
Her method owes a lot to Dr Ira Progoff, a Jungian psychologist who developed the Intensive Journal Workshop in America.
"He is undoubtedly the master," says Simona, "but I have taken his method out of a rather rigid framework and simplified it for our European culture." Like Progoff, she uses the principles of "depth psychology", which seeks to integrate an individual's conscious and unconscious aspects, but she brings to it a background in "transpersonal psychology". The aim is to move forward from a static position.
"When you get used to the journal," Simona explains, "you'll find that it will almost do the work by itself; the cross-references free your energy and reveal examples of the Jungian concept of synchronicity, or meaningful coincidence, which will give you new insights. It is particularly useful in times of decision-making, transition and crisis."
This is endorsed by Liz, who has been attending Simona's workshops on and off for 10 years. "It is an extraordinarily efficient way of putting a grid over tumultuous experiences," she says. "You need a grid - it gives a purpose to your past life. It helped me when I lost my son ... it just works." Liz, who was an English teacher, has now taken up writing; as a bonus, she finds that the journal helps with her memories. "It brings you right back into the spirit of the thing, evokes it and gives you an understanding which is quite special."
You don't need to be a great writer or even particularly literate to use this method. Negative memories of school, or the belief that only academic or "educated" people write, can cause initial apprehension; this disappears when you realise that your journal is for your eyes only. (Simona's old journals are kept in a locked bag inside a big black trunk that dominates her sitting-room, a potent symbol if ever there were one.)
In fact, the simple act of writing itself, according to research by Gillie Bolton, of Sheffield University, can be therapeutic. Writing, she claims, is more powerful than speech; being a solitary activity, it draws on a deeper well. She encourages people, especially those with stressful lives, to engage in personal and reflective writing. She has worked with doctors and others in caring professions, and is now involved in a project whereby they suggest therapeutic writing to their patients. Sometimes she finds that the writings "slip between the bars which a person has erected around themselves", and their pens write unexpected things. This is especially useful for people who find it hard to talk about their worries. She, too, emphasises the importance of privacy. What is said cannot be unsaid, but in a diary you can contradict yourself, try things out or write nonsense without the embarrassment of anyone knowing. It can, she claims, also pin things down. If you just try to think things through, your thoughts may trace familiar circles, "only to slip away with the ghost of a laugh", but if you get them down on paper, they are there to work with.
This reflective writing offers a path to the inner being through several unusual techniques. One of these, which Simona's "creative journal" method shares, is the Jung-inspired "dialoguing", in which you write down an imaginary conversation with anything or anyone of importance in your life. This permits you to "talk" to people, living or dead, with whom you have "unfinished business". Often the guilt felt after the death of a parent or other loved one can be defused in this way, and areas of conflict can be resolved. You can also "dialogue" with parts of your body - giving your lungs, for example, the chance to complain about how you "look after" them when you just must have a cigarette.
Another interesting element in the "creative journal" method is the "crossroads" section, in which you can explore the "roads not taken", or areas of regret in your life - and, by writing about them, move on. Many of Simona's clients have found that the method leads to valuable new insights. Ann, an American who has been working with Simona sporadically for 17 years (most clients begin with the intensive weekend workshops, then return for further, one- to-one consultations when necessary), finds it "helps to give space in the world of chatter around us - it helped when my husband left me".
Simona herself is often astonished by the significance of what she has written, finding that it reveals much that would not occur to the conscious mind.
Simona Parker's "creative journal" workshops are held at 11, Brackley Road, Chiswick, London W4 (0181-995 5320).