Lisa Mitchell

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Writing from the Art

Lisa Mitchell | Oct 22, 2017 | 13 comments

What I learned at a week-long writing retreat


It’s been a 6 days since my return from a week-long writing retreat with Laura Davis in Bolinas, CA.  I gathered with 20 other brave writers to face grief, uncertainty, and transition and to share our words that captured the raw experience of our pain and struggle.  The week was profound in many ways.  I want to share some of my experience here, with you, because I think it could be inspiring and useful for all therapists.

Here are my two big take-aways, plus one smaller one.



Writing from the Art

On the registration questionnaire for the retreat, in response to the question, “What do you hope to work on during the retreat?”  I responded, “I want to use the time to explore the relationship between my art and my writing.  I want time and space to do this.  I want to discover what it is about the two creative acts, joined together as one, that is so profound.”  This wasn’t a typical response, so Laura called me up and asked me to explain.  I told her about my latest therapist retreats and how powerful this integration of art and writing was for the participants.  I told her about the individual sessions with clients and how when I had started to bring writing into session (in addition to the art) I felt like I was on another plane with clients.  That what came out of those sessions was more intimate, deeper, more from a place of truth—realness—wholeness than I’d ever witnessed when just one modality was with us.  And, I told Laura, I felt I needed to do it more—for myself—not just facilitating it for others. I wanted to know the relationship between my writing and my art from the inside out.  She got excited for me and couldn’t wait for me to share my experience.

So, every day at the retreat, in addition to writing for 7 hours a day, I painted.  I took my sketch pad with my Golden acrylics to the bench overlooking the ocean or to the front porch of the Commonweal building or on my makeshift table made from my suitcase in my room.  And I painted.  Each painting had a direct relationship to my writing.  I linked together a series.  Painting, writing about the painting, writing about my writing, painting in response to my writing, painting in response to a sand tray, writing about the painting in response to the sand tray…..each prompt led to another related creative response.  I wove and integrated while I followed the breadcrumbs which led me further along this knowing:  When I plug into my creative expressions and let them relate to one another as collective guides in an intentional way, I get to a place I could never have predicted.

I share my first painting here as an example.  It came from a vivid image that I imagined while driving to the retreat.  I let it unfold on the page.  At first it was a dark curtain or tunnel, then, as my painting evolved, the bird emerged.

In our small group that afternoon, I wrote a response to my painting. Only during the writing process did I realize my painting was about letting go of my grandparents’ home which has also been our family legacy.  I share my writing here as an example.

I am a bird and my shroud is heavy velvet.  I have wrapped myself in the folds for decades.  Such soft, heavy safety with a hood to cover my eyes in case I just can’t bare to see.  I didn’t know I was a bird.  I thought I was just a woman, with weight on her shoulders who was making it through life fairly well–one step in front of the other and sometimes even a skip or a hop.  It wasn’t until I broke it all open—the red blood oozed from my core and the rip of generational sinew was so loud that I realized I have wings.  

So I must be a bird.  I must be about to fly away to make a nest or migrate somewhere or find the flock and join them at the levee.  

I am emerging from a place I didn’t know I had been.  Where grandmothers and grandfathers stroke your hair and take you on adventures and fix the best tuna sandwiches you’ve ever eaten.  Where their legacy is meant to be a gift and so everybody agrees to put on their shroud and wear it like an elegant fur coat.  

There is a theory that Stepen King describes in 11-21-63 where the closer time travelers get to changing past event, the more time fights back.  I had to fight and rip and tear myself away.  The legacy was so strong the closer I got to seeing that I was a bird, the more that shroud tried to encircle me.  It recruited darkness and meanness and awful threats—but I persevered and cut myself out of that cave of suffocating love.  

I can feel my wings now.  Small and still trying to dry after their long moldy existence inside that mass of dark fabric.  They quiver when I think about what’s ahead.  I don’t think I’ve ever had to be so brave in my life.

What I really want to say is this.  This stuff sucks. It fucking stinks that I have to rip myself open to figure out what I am made of.






Take away #1: 

When you write from your art and paint from your writing it’s like following a path of breadcrumbs that have been there the whole time.  This is a path that leads to profound understanding and experience.



Sharing and Being Witnessed

We didn’t spend all 7 hours writing each day.  We used much of that time to read to each other.  We read through tears—sometimes sobs—and listened intently.  It’s generally difficult for me to sit still and listen. I like to be doing something with my hands—like knitting or embroidering or sketching.  But here, in the big belly of the Commonweal group room, listening was sacred.  I didn’t feel the urge to distract or sooth with my hands.  When it was my turn to read I had to gather courage because sharing at such a vulnerable level is scary for me.  I shared, just like others shared.  And we all said, “Thank you.”

When we read our writing to others, we are accessing a conduit that bypasses the censorship we use to edit our verbal exchanges.  We just read things as they are—with more honesty, more realness, more feeling.  And when others receive these words—their attention rapt, calm, alert, accepting—there is genuine connection.  We didn’t have to rehash our writings or process them further with questions or feedback.  We didn’t have to reassure one another or set out to fix the problem at hand.  We just used the power of relationship—a collective holding environment—to let each other know that not one of us was alone.  The entire week was a practice in the very basis of what heals—relationship.  It was rich and easy and so, so fulfilling.

Take away #2:

To read your writing to others who listen with empathy and gratitude is to forge what heals—relationship and connection.


Claire is the cook at Commonweal.  She goes to the farm stand every day, picks what is freshly picked and creates a menu from there.  Three meals a day of freshly prepared, organic food nourishes.  The food was beautiful and delicious.  The food, made with wholesome, loving hands supported our healing process.

Take away #3:

When you set out to grow or heal, don’t forget the smaller things—healthy meals that look beautiful.


This coming year is going to be a big one.  I now know, for certain, that Writing from the Art will be a crucial part of my life—both personally and professionally.  If you have a practice that includes the integration of art and writing, I’d love to hear your experience.  Will you share?  I will say, “Thank you.”


13 responses to “Writing from the Art”

  1. Carol Barry says:

    Thank you, Lisa, for sharing your insights. 💕

  2. Brenda says:

    I love this post! I truly believe that we gain so much from using art and writing in combination. I have art journaled for awhile and what comes up always surprises, cleanses and empowers me. It seems like drawing your pain opens up different pathways in your brain than writing them. What a great benefit. I am off to journal now and thank you for sharing your wisdom and experiences.

  3. Perri Jacobs says:

    Connecting two creative processes into one healing adventure. I am all for it. I must try this.

  4. Beth says:

    Lisa, thank you for writing from your heart and sharing your art pieces and your integrated writing. I would love to see your sand trays and how each piece of work interweaves with the other towards healing and wholeness. I’ve also been stuck with how to write to parts of my struggle, and now I see how I can take my healing journey to the next level through art and sandtray and writing. Thank you for sharing, your integrated process resonates with me and I could see it helping my clients as well.

    • Lisa Mitchell says:

      Hi Beth, if the sand tray integration seems interesting, I will share that in another post! In the meantime, I hope you do, indeed combine them all for yourself and your clients. Let me know how it goes?

  5. Caro says:

    Wow Lisa, your honesty, integrity, authenticity inspires me. It touches my heart and spirit. I am left feeling woman to woman, standing in a circle with you and other readers. A circle of joyous depth, pristine pain, searching and creativity. A sense of wholeness and connection. I really, really appreciate how you share your journey, I learn always from your posts both personally and professionally. Deep gratitude. And I’m excited to try it as well! I love the idea of echoing and tunneling through art, writing and I’m thinking dance too. Wonderful wonderful stuff!

    • Lisa Mitchell says:

      Caro, Dear One. So good to hear your inspiration and gratitude! “Echoing and Tunneling” is such a nice and fitting phrase. Dance on!

  6. Oh Lisa; Thanks for this. I am deeply aware of the powerful shifts (and sometimes painful shifts) we can make when we combine the modalities of visual art experiences with writing. Your story confirms my “knowing”. I was at one time a single person site crisis counsellor. I am also an expressive arts therapist. Since we were funded by Federal Aboriginal funds, we were “status blind” and whoever walked through my door, I served. Sadly, sometimes two at a time! Eventually, the mother-daughter “case” of attempted suicides wore me down, without any colleagues to debrief with, I became “compassion fatigued.” Many insisted that I was just depressed, needed a break, a vacation maybe. But I knew different. I took a “health leave” and worked with a mental health nurse who listened. I began to journal my experiences in pencil by writing 10 “gratitudes” a day. Melody Beatty has a book about it “Make Miracles in 40 days” see: I had done this for a year with a friend/colleague who worked in the same field as I did. It was an amazing experience so I just fell into it again. But this time, I did it alone. I returned to what I first wrote about a month into it and because I had felt a shift I wanted to show it in my journal. Impulsively, I grabbed an old plastic card (like an expired driver’s licence) and some thin gesso and covered over the writing. Now, no one but me knew what was under it, though some writing did peek through. After it dried, I collaged, painted, wrote over the page. The images reflected back to me in a concise form the change in me. Since I was working on my Master’s in Writing and the New Media, I incorporated this technique in my coursework for the course, “Healing Narratives”. Now I have a new modality that has been “tried and tested” by clients, friends, and myself. I call it Wordscaping. I am so happy to see that you have discovered the power of TWO! LOL Best to you! And thanks for sharing

  7. Marilyn says:

    Have you looked into the work by Anna Halprin and the Tamalpa Institute? Anna was a dancing pioneer who incorporated Gestalt therapy, artistic ideas from her husband who was an architect , and writing. Impulses usually start from movement, get further expressed in a process drawing, and use writing. Processes are mixed in sequence at times, but used to enrich and deepen each other. Anna is in her late 90’s and still does some classes, and her work is carried forward by her daughters, at least one of whom is a creative arts therapist, who worked and collaborated with Natalie Rogers, the daughter of Carl Rogers. The Institute and much of the work is in Marin County CA. though they have trained teachers who work all over the world. Flowing between creative processes can allow them to deepen and feed each ther.

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