In the acute- and chronic-care hospital settings of psychiatry and chemotherapy, I was looking for a technique that would be inviting for patients and easy to use for operators.
Like all basic magic, it had to be teachable. It would elude the relational patterns that seemed to be isolating my interlocutors from themselves and from me. It would keep them from succumbing to familiar but unhealthy thinking styles that either triggered negative thought patterns, reinforced present-moment emotional discomfort or spun them off into abstraction.
"Productive" in this case also meant an approach that would steer us clear of rote fact-telling and repetition of old information. These recitations-by-heart shared content "already known" and often challenged the patience of listeners. Ironically, story-telling could diminish attention and empathy for both teller and listener, as there was little that was fresh or of-the-moment in the dialogue.
"Productive" dialogue would open these closed-circuit talk-cycles and stimulate new perspectives. It would engage the emotions of present-moment reality in a new way. Even brief encounters would feel fresh, generating hope born of an insight or two. It would offer a sense of clarity and a moment of calm relative to the state of distress.
As a place to start, my background in literature and creative writing led me to poetry. But I discovered early on that the more open-ended my invitations were for these individuals to write creatively with the intention of sharing how they felt, the more likely it was that my new poets would lose themselves in pursuit of their own thoughts. Their thinking could so quickly become associative, then negative, then self-perpetuating. When it did, the recounting of past and present troubles reinforced familiar and, at best, unsatisfactory conclusions.
I was discovering that open-ended writing could make certain poets feel worse. So how to keep the poetry without the risk?