Slow Burn Writing

Michael Jacobs was a psychotherapist and counsellor at the University of Leicester Student Health Service. For a number of years he was Visiting Professor at Bournemouth University. He played a significant role in the development of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) and the Universities Psychotherapy and Counselling Association. He is a fellow of the BACP and the National Society for Counselling and Psychotherapy and an honorary fellow of the Bath Centre for Psychotherapy and Counselling.

Michael’s latest book, Reflecting on Therapy invites you to pause and reflect with him on some of the fascinating and crucial aspects of the therapeutic relationship.

A friend recently gave me a copy of Elena Ferrante’s Incidental Inventions. She knew that I savoured every word Ferrante wrote in her novellas or her Neapolitan Quartet. But I was a little disappointed.

Ferrante had been asked to write a weekly column for The Guardian: she only agreed if they set the subjects, and the series only lasted a year – 51 ‘pieces’ as they are styled. Each is under 500 words. I felt that she was only writing about each subject because it had been given her. These were scarcely ‘incidental’ inventions but written to order – very different, I am sure, from how her novels came to life. Many pieces read like a short essay set in an examination.

The book nevertheless provoked me, because my own Reflecting on Therapy similarly has 50 pieces, and each is under 500 words. I am interested in how different it was compiling this new book, from much that I had written previously – or indeed from recently revising (to order) two of my books for new editions. Reflecting on Therapy did not start as a book at all, not even as a twinkle in my eye. Three years ago, I had just retired from practice and said farewell to my last remaining supervisees. I missed the stimulation of listening to their work, of reflecting upon it, and responding from time to time with what I hoped were helpful suggestions as to what might be said, or how something might be understood. Nevertheless, I found myself continuing to chew over particular issues that might have risen in supervision. One day, at a loose end, I decided to write down my thoughts – a short piece about 450 words.

A few weeks later another such idea occurred to me. I could at least express such thoughts on paper, if not to someone in person. Nothing was forced: I might wake after a good night’s sleep thinking about a phrase. A puzzling situation might occur to me in the middle of cooking or washing up, and niggle at me. Slowly, over a period of over a year, I found that I had written about twenty such pieces. None of course had been written in response to a supervisee’s presentation. Some were written after doing a bit of online research in the journals. Many, once sketched, were re-crafted since what I write must read well, even for my eyes only.

It was only after twelve months that I wondered if my pieces might make a book. Yet even then, thinking that I would have to write more, I still waited upon my less-than-conscious mind prompting me, by a memory, a book, or a puzzle that teased me. I still only wrote what seemed worth saying, and even then discarded some pieces as being too ‘incidental’. It was two and a half years after penning the first that I had something perhaps worth a wider audience.

Where does our writing come from? In a different book, Elena Ferrante suggests that in being creative we are to some extent taken over by others – by which I think she means the unrecognised influence of teachers, therapists, authors, friends and family. Inspiration comes from deep inside us, sometimes responding to a question, sometimes seeming to come from nowhere. Reflecting on Therapy has what is for me an unusual creative history. It was not written, like much of my work, to order (either a commission, or a plan of my own). It appeared in fits and starts, through moments of what I hesitate to call ‘inspiration’. Yet what other term might I use? That is not intended to sound grand – rather it is to suggest that it is possible to make more of those moments when something flashes across the mind. Working this way pays dividends, both in writing, and as a therapist.

Michael Jacobs

Pre-order your copy of Reflecting on Therapy now! Due to be published May 2024.