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A list about lists and other writing ideas

Barbara, my colleague in the ReFrame Collective, attended an event last week called Social Media Exchange, and this blog post has been prompted by a subsequent exchange on social media. So it worked then!

I saw a tweet from the Twitter account of Connected Voice (the new name for Newcastle Council for Voluntary Service it turns out, who also have a great strapline - ‘Connecting People. Supporting Action’), about a seminar on the power of blogging. The tweeter shared a list of five things they had learned about blogging, including that lists are a popular blogging format.

I retweeted this, and promised that my next blog post would be a list, coming soon!

The tweet brought a number of things to mind, both as soon as I’d read it and on later reflection:

1) Making lists is one way in which writing is brought into and used in therapy, which in the main focuses on talking rather than writing. I’m sure writing is used in many types of therapy, though the two I am most familiar with are the solution-focused and narrative approaches.

2) Using ‘lists’ is one of the simple ideas that many solution-focused practitioners use, and, along with their clients, find really useful. I wrote about using lists in my book, Solution-Focused Practice, in the chapter on ‘instances’, where I suggested that to do so can facilitate a search for instances, which can often be testing - “the question ‘What other changes have you noticed?’ 20 minutes and 20 changes after the first was mentioned being potentially difficult to ask and hard for the client to answer”, while at the same time, it is "potentially one of the most useful”.

As well as writing the client’s achievements down, the ‘using lists’ technique, if it can be given so grand a name, also includes setting a target number at the outset. Writing things down is useful as seeing the list increasing is encouraging and so helps the client to continue thinking. Setting a target number has a similar effect. “Tell me 10 things you’ve done that have helped you get on better at school” is far more likely to help the young person come up with that many than the non-specific “What have you done that’s helped….?”

[The benefits of setting a target number and writing ideas down might be seen in the photo of a list I made just before writing this blog post].

3) To the useful simplicity of solution-focused practice, narrative therapists have added typically rich descriptions about the use of writing and how they do this. In their seminal 1990 book, Narrative Means To Therapeutic Ends, Michael White and David Epston distinguish between “oral and written traditions” (see pages 33-37), and acknowledge that while they do privilege the oral tradition in their work, in many other circumstances, “writing achieves unsurpassed authority from the fact that it is not heard, but seen” (p34). Seeing is believing, as they say (or write, perhaps).

I love the way narrative practitioners make use of documents, and how they can connect people by sharing records of how difficulties have been overcome. Hugh Fox’s paper is a great document itself of this use of documentation.

4) David Denborough has taken this a step further in his book, Collective Narrative Practice, where he shares ideas and practices of collective documents, recording how communities have responded to ‘hard times’ - thereby enabling these communities to contribute to other communities which have experienced similar hard times, by the sharing of their documents.

5) The phrase ‘hard times’ reminds me of that great chronicler of 19th century hardship and how people responded to it, Charles Dickens. Coketown, the industrial Northern England setting of the novel, Hard Times, was reputedly based on my home town of Preston. In a number of his writings, Dickens provided a “testimony to life” and a “record of heroic survival", in the words of David Pilgrim, a British clinical psychologist, in his book Psychotherapy and Society (p150). Pilgrim criticises therapists for not seeing this “non-therapeutic value of talk”, rather seeing talk of problems being pathologising, rather than recording heroism, and in our shunning of so-called problem talk, solution-focused therapists might be the most likely to miss such opportunities.

6) I learned more about the importance of written language to human development when I was studying extended cognition and reading the philosopher Andy Clark in particular. He is brilliant at describing how we make use of our environment and artefacts it contains, to supplement and even become part of our cognitive processes. Take as a simple example how we use pencil and paper to carry out long multiplication, or at least did before the advent of electronic calculators.

In a review of one of his books, the archaeologist Steven Mithen wonders whether Clark’s ideas might explain the rapid development in human culture of the Upper Palaeolithic age around 60,000–30,000 years ago. This was the period that saw the first appearance of art, in the form of drawings on cave walls, and Mithen speculates whether the making of such marks served to ‘freeze thoughts’ and thus enable them to be “transmitted to others, recalled, manipulated, and used to scaffold more complex thoughts”. This process would have been accelerated when the first writing appeared around 3000 BC, which "would have provided another critical threshold in developing the modern mind by combining the power of language and material culture in one single package”.

7) I hope these thoughts, frozen here, and transmitted to others via the circulation of this blog post around the Internet, might be used to scaffold more complex thoughts. Whether yours are simple or complex, I would love it if you froze at least some of them and transmitted them underneath this post, or in an email to me.

Guy Shennan

9th March 2020

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