Guide for Creative Writing

Focusing Guide for Creative Writing1

© D. Garlovsky, 2018


Focusing was first developed in 1960 – early 70s by Dr Eugene Gendlin (philosopher and psychotherapist) and others in Chicago, following on from his work with Carl Rogers and University of Chicago professor Richard McKeon, a David first met Gene in Chicago at the CHANGES Listening/Focusing Community in 1970. (ref: The Changes Book by Kathleen McGuire PhD). A group of graduate students at the University of Chicago started Changes in May 1970 as a response to the shootings of students, protesting the Vietnam War, by the National Guard at Kent State University.

Gene and his colleagues spent 15 years finding out just what made psychotherapy successful for some people and unsuccessful for others. Gene’s discovery was that people who benefited most from therapy had the ability to sense vague, still unformed intuitive feelings and put this sensing (which Gene names the ‘felt sense’) into words. This new awareness or understanding or moments of change, might lead to sudden sense of opening or release in the body; which Gene termed the ‘felt shift’.


This guide was created to help people discover and develop – write about what is on their minds and so help them give shape to their thoughts through the process of writing. They are an application of Focusing. People interested in using this guide for writing are advised to familiarise themselves with Focusing and Active Listening. (See Dr Eugene Gendlin, Focusing, New York: Bantam Books revised edition, 1981). For those who are not yet familiar with his work, the following brief points may be of help:

  1. This is a gentle process. It should not be forced on people. Creating a supportive environment is important.
  2. All instructions are offered as invitations for people to look at an experience.
  3. Where people look is to themselves, to a “felt sense” they embody. In other words, to that part of their bodies where they feel something.
  4. This process assumes that writers don’t know everything they are going to write before they begin writing – that writing is a process of discovery. This process aims to lead people gently down that path to write.
  5. The instructions are meant to be guides. They may not fit everyone’s experience. Some writers may need to change them to fit their particular writing needs. The point is not to get answers to every question but to use them as a “way in” to writing. Where it goes from there is up to the writer.

The Focusing steps used in the activity are written from focusing exercises written by Gene, Mary Hendricks, Focusing Institute’s materials (, tapes of Gene produced by Nada Lou and based on my and other focusers’ experiences.

STEP 1: Find a way to get comfortable. Shake out your hands, take a few deep breaths and come in touch within your body, settle into your chair, feel the chair supporting your whole body, if you’d like close your eyes and relax.

STEP 2: Ask yourself, “of all the things I know about, what would I like to write about now?” This is like asking yourself, “What’s on my mind?” and waiting to see. Or you may already have something in mind to write about. A song, a poem, lyrics, a joke, a traumatic experience, something you are feeling happy about. Maybe you get one thing or maybe a list. Jot these all down and take as much time as you need.

STEP 3: Pay attention to any body sense that may arise while you are writing down this list. Ask yourself, “Now that I have a list – long or short – is there anything else I’ve left out, any other piece I’m overlooking, maybe even a word I like, something else I might at sometime want to write about that I can add to this list?” Make space for whatever comes. Add to list and take as much time as you need.

STEP 4: Now, you may have one definite idea already or a whole list of things. Look it over and ask, which one of these draws my attention right now? Which one could I begin to write on even if I’m not certain where it will lead?” Take the idea, word, item and put it at top of a new page. (Save the first page for another time.)

STEP 5: Now, continue put your attention within, and continue to pay attention to any body sense that may have arisen while you were writing the list.

STEP 6: Now keep your attention there, and ask yourself what are all the parts I know about I am writing about? What can I say about it now?”

STEP 7: Wait for a few moments then spend as long as you need writing down these responses. Maybe a list, a bunch of phrases, notes to yourself, developed paragraphs, a dialogue, poem etc.

STEP 8: Now that you’ve seen what you know, take a fresh look at the ‘topic’ and make room for what you don’t yet know.

STEP 9: Now ask yourself, “What makes this interesting to me? What’s important about this that I haven’t said yet?” Now see if a word, image or phrase comes to you from any bodily sense that has been forming.

STEP 10: Take what you have been writing about or a word or image that fits, and ask yourself, “What’s this all about?” Write down whatever comes. Describe the image. As you write, let the felt sense deepen.

NOTE: You can stop writing at any time of your choosing.

STEP 11: Continue to ask yourself, “Is this right? Am I getting closer? When you feel you’re on the right track, let your energy release. Experience the shift of “Oh yeah, that says it.”

STEP 12: You can continue along now writing what comes or when you stop, you can ask, “What’s missing? What hasn’t yet gotten down on paper?” Again look to your felt sense for a word or an image. You may at this point continue to write more or you may want to go back and survey what you’ve accomplished so far. In either case, remember to go easily with any changes that happen in the felt sense or in the writing.

It may be that you know precisely what you want to say now and keep writing or that you have discovered a new ‘topic’ and start to develop that. Most of all, don’t worry about logical ordering or sequence. Just keep writing, relaxing, calling up the felt sense.

STEP 13: After you’ve written for a while or when you find yourself stopping, ask yourself, “Where is this leading? What’s the point I’m trying to make?” Again, write down whatever comes.

STEP 14: Once you can say what your main point is – or the sense you are trying to capture, ask yourself, “Is there anything I’ve left out that will help to make my point more clear? Is there anything I can add to make this more complete?”

STEP 15: Once you feel you’re near or at the end, ask yourself, “Does this feel complete?” Look to your body for the answer. Again, write down whatever answer comes to you. If the answer is no, ask what’s missing?”

STEP 16: At this point, there may be major reorganising to do. Pieces that came later may need to be moved to the beginning of the paper.

STEP 17: Now ask, “Now that I know the point I want to make, how can I reorganise the point so that it is most effective? What is the best order for these points? What’s the story I want to tell? Is there anything here that is not essential to the story or point?” Either make notes about revision plans or do revision.

STEP 18: Now you may have anywhere from one or more pages of writing. It may be best at this point to turn to your writing group or partner and read what you’ve written.

Have them say back what they heard and what point they think you’re trying to make. They may also want to respond to your piece, saying what it evoked in them, where it moved them, what they liked-calling up and talking from the felt sense of the piece. You may want to write down what was said.

Due to the content of what you have written you may wish not to read what you have written. It is your choice.

STEP 15: At his point, you may be ready to go from this version to a more complete one. At any point, you may need to use some of these instructions gently as a guide to help you through the writing process.


Support for Creative Writing in Developing a Vocabulary of Response2

1. Practise skills for active listening. Make sure you understand what the writer is trying to communicate by restating what has been read to you by the writer, either by paraphrasing, summarising the gist of what has been read, or using most of the author’s own words.

This is a crucial point. Writers need to know what has been communicated before they can benefit from what they think you have said. Sometimes the writer may not be sure what he or she wanted to communicate in writing until you say it back. Allow time for the writer to hear their own words and to change or develop them.

2. The writer needs to respond to what has been heard of writing.

3. As the piece is being read, write down the words or phrases that catch your attention. Think before you respond.
a. What about those words makes them stand out?
b. Why those specific words?
c. What parts do you like best about the piece? Why?
d. What do those parts do to you? This allows you to say
what works about the piece.

4. Letting a writer know what is effective about their writing is as
important if not more important than telling them what doesn’t work. a. Be sure to respond to the specifics of the writing. A
general response like “I like it,” or “that was good.

5. Ask the writer what he/she intended to do with the writing.

6. Ask which parts the writer likes best.
a. Which parts does he/she wants help on?

7. Help the writer clarify where the piece needs to go. Rewriting? Revision?

8. Let the writer know if there are any parts that don’t set well within you.
a. Is there anything that seems confusing, out of place, unclear?
b. Are there any errors that stand out glaringly to you? Explain why you are bothered by that error.
c. Let the writer know if he/she reads (pronounces) words or word endings that are not on the page.
d. Help the writer spot what is missing.

9. Make sure all members of the group have a chance to respond.


1 Dr Sandra Pearl, Herbert N. Lehman College, City University of New York with revisions by David Garlovsky
2 Dr Sandra Pearl & Dubler, Engish 282, Herbert N. Lehman College, City University of New York