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Welcome to The Creative Switch, the podcast inspiring the sensibly successful to switch on their unexpressed creativity for a more fulfilled life. In this episode I had the pleasure of interviewing Bijal Shah where we discussed the connection between wellbeing, reading and creativity.
Welcome Bijal to the creative switch. I’m delighted to have you here. I’m not going to say much about what you do because I’d really like you to tell the listeners what you’re about.
When I came across bibliotherapy, which is the use of literature as a therapeutic tool, I was fascinated. It was very much a part of my counselling training. I had to be in therapy myself during that time and I used bibliotherapy quite extensively; literature, poetry, myths, and a lot of journaling. One of the things that was part of my therapy was that I had to write a lot. And that really fostered my creativity in a way, because I had to get in touch with my emotions. I found writing and journaling just incredible at accessing my creativity. What I’ve learned over the years is actually a lot of creativity comes from emotional wounds, from the sort of things that have really triggered us. And when we release our emotions, we also open up the world, to open ourselves up to more creative aspects of ourselves, like such as our imagination, such as fantasy, vision boarding, and setting goals. All of those things that we would like to invite into our lives initially comes from getting in touch with our emotions and releasing them and opening the way for new ways of thinking and new thoughts to come into our minds. I call all of those techniques creative bibliotherapy techniques. But really I think reading and writing go hand in hand, and healing, I think, is a big precursor to creativity, or vice versa. But creativity helps you heal as well.
It’s all in the mix, isn’t it’s? All interconnected and fascinating stuff about how we access it and which parts of the brain we’re looking to kind of understand, and how writing in particular, I think, is a way of getting to those buried parts of you. Would you say that?
Yeah, absolutely. It might be triggered by reading. But it’s the writing that’s actually helping you heal and helping you connect with those emotions, giving them language that you maybe didn’t have before, which then brings a sense of understanding, a sense of being heard, seen, and then that leads to more to catharsis, a relief of those emotions and a new way of looking at things.
So, you haven’t always done this. I talk about switchers. There are three types of guests on my podcast – there are switchers who are the people who’ve done something else very successfully, and they’ve decided that they’re not feeling fulfilled because they aren’t using their creativity. I wonder whether you can tell us a little bit about, I know it’s not quite the same thing, but it’s certainly a very significant, perhaps pivot in direction, how that happened to you, what you were doing before, why you changed direction.
Yeah, sure. So, I started off working in investment banking straight after university. I worked in audit for three years, completed my accountancy training, and then went into investment banking risk management, which was very much maths and numbers. Whilst I found the work interesting, I never found it meaningful, I didn’t find it rewarding. It was quite pressured and I just felt like there was something that wasn’t being met, a need. I realized how much I enjoyed reading and writing and helping other people. That was hugely rewarding for me. I initially decided to do a counselling diploma and reach out to people and help them in a more meaningful way, looking after their mental health.
I’ve had a lot of mental health issues on my side of the family and I felt that this was something I was really passionate about and I really wanted to help people. I suffered from anxiety and stress and I just felt like I really wanted to help others and myself in this area. I started off in counselling and then realized when I was in therapy myself how much I would be leveraging reading. I’d always found reading to be really healing, and I’d always be looking at picking up a book and feeling like, oh, my God, I really resonate with that character, or that character experience is mine. I started to bring in a lot more literature and books and poetry in my own sessions. And I realized that as I was doing that, I was also journaling and writing. That was quite helpful for my personal therapy because I was able to log everything and account for everything and then take that to my therapist and talk about it. I felt more able to express what I was going through, because literature gives you a lot of language which you might not have the words for, to even explain how you’re feeling. So that part of reading was just vital to really connecting with myself and understanding what I was actually going through.
Then the healing part came from the writing and the journaling. I just felt like there’s so much here that people aren’t leveraging. And yeah, some people might find writing hard and they might find starting to journal quite hard, but once you’re into it, you get into a bit of a rhythm, and that’s where your creativity comes in, because you do have to allow those streams of consciousness, those thoughts, and just write. I know we’re often scared of writer’s block but we all have a creative part to us, and we have to allow that to thrive, to just be allowed to be. Often we shut that off in a lot of jobs. I think the reading and writing, the reading and the therapy really brought that out. So, I then felt that there’s something that’s not being tapped into here that’s not being explored, almost like it’s a subset of art therapy, really, but using stories. I felt that I needed to get the word out. I’ve done quite a bit of research to see what people were doing in this literature space, and using literature to form the therapy. There’s actually a long history of bibliotherapy from ancient times.
Yeah. From the ancient Greeks and Montaigne and Wordsworth and Elliot. I have a book coming out in November and I talk about this history in a lot more detail, but it’s been around for a while. And especially during the World Wars, it was heavily used even by doctors. Poetry was used by doctors to communicate with their patients and relieve their patients. I came across a few more dissertations and research studies, and there was actually a framework for bibliotherapy, which, again, I talk about in my book. It parallels, of course, with traditional counselling and psychodynamic therapy. There are a lot of parallels because it does leverage off that. There have been studies and they’re continuing to be studies, but a lot of this hasn’t been translated into mainstream culture. I guess that’s where I’m coming in. I’m trying to promote the research and the studies around this to show that it is evidence based and to show that we can help ourselves through reading and writing and using the creative aspects of ourselves that might have been forgotten.
I think there’s a lot of things that are happening now that science is almost catching up with things that people instinctively knew were good for us and perhaps, we’ve forgotten a lot of those things. And I’m sensing that people are recognizing that creativity is something that isn’t self-actualization level, but actually I think it’s much more fundamental than that because it’s not about whether you’re good enough to do it as a job. It’s actually, as you said, part of who you are. And if you don’t access it, then you’re not going to feel complete. In any case, whatever you do, even if you are really into your maths and stay in investment banking, if you have some way of using your creativity, it will mean that you’re a more rounded, happier person who can then do your job better, or you might even be able to use your creativity in your job. So, all ways round I think it needs a lot more attention. I know when we first spoke, I’d never heard of Bibliotherapy before, so I’m really pleased you’re getting out there and getting the word out there with your book because actually we often leave things until it’s got to crisis point, and we shouldn’t be doing that. We should be saying, okay, well, we all know that nature is good for us. And now that’s been talked about all the time and I think the same thing is true of creativity. What do you think? What does creativity mean to you?
Creativity allows us to really aid our mental health in the sense that creativity allows us to explore our emotions. Creativity allows us to open ourselves up to vision our goals. Creativity allows us to fantasize a little bit, which I think is actually quite healthy in a world where reality can sometimes be quite difficult and we do need mental breaks. I’m not saying just daydreaming and fantasizing, but just kind of allowing ourselves to be more open to new ways of looking at things, new ways of thinking, new insights, hope. In my first book, I talk about cultivating hope. It’s such a big part of our mental health. I think for hope we need to find creative ways of looking at the future and a positive vision for ourselves. Otherwise there’s no hope, right? We need to be able to cultivate hope in that way. For me, creativity and mental health go hand in hand and I always tend to approach creativity from that perspective. Other people might have a different view but being a bibliotherapist, that is what I do, how I leverage creativity the most. So that’s always going to be my perspective on it.
Sure. Okay, so can we talk a little bit more then about maybe, obviously you can’t tell us the whole content of how you actually do your job or give us a bibliotherapy session now, but can you talk a little bit about what that process is like for people that you’re working with and how it helps them?
Yeah, sure. Before people come to see me, I ask them to sort of fill out a very short questionnaire about what it is that they’re going through right now. Any difficulties, their current life situation, anything they’d like me to focus on. Then I get a sense of their reading preferences and what books that they’ve connected with in the past and their reading styles. Because what I want to do is when I suggest books for people to go and read, I feel like they really need to connect with the book, otherwise they’re just not going to read it and the whole process is just not going to be as effective as it could be.
The real therapy is all about connection and when we find ourselves reading a book or a genre that we’re really into, we find that connection. So that really is the first stage of setting up the therapeutic platform. Once we have that connection and sense of safety and trust that’s when we can start observing ourselves. As part of the therapeutic process, the first session is always just going to be understanding where the client is, and what books are going to be helpful for them. The second stage is always getting them to get those books and journals, and send me those journals in between sessions. That’s when actual work starts to happen.
I want to find clues in the literature, triggers, what’s upset them, what’s not, what have they found interesting about something, just anything. I’m looking for clues in their reading process and then we will focus on that. It could be that somebody’s reading about, I don’t know, having a really difficult mother and really being able to resonate with that character’s experience because they themselves might have had a difficult childhood or a mother that they are very ambivalent about. Then we know that kick starts the process of looking into their own relationship with their mother. We also look at coping strategies that could be either from the literature or it could just be general coping strategies from our own past experience. We use all of that and then we also use letter writing to characters, to the author, because that also allows them to voice their emotions and then they have to write back to themselves from the character of the author. It’s really kick starting this healing within a switching from mindsets, being able to reframe, rethink, and then also understand what it is that might help them heal and see that in the return response.
So that is a very active technique that we use beyond just talking therapy, which I think is quite passive. I think therapy has to be quite an act and I think it has to be about releasing those emotions and it has to be about inviting new ways of thinking and I feel like writing really helps you to do that. We also use things like narrative therapy, which is rewriting your story with a more positive spin at the end or helping you find some closure or make sense of a situation that’s been quite traumatic. So narrative therapy, we use that a lot with adults and children and then just reflective practice, as you would in medicine and other nursing, where you reflect on a piece of literature and then you set out your goals from the outset, what you want to achieve from the therapy session and then work. Use that text to get there. I talk about all of these techniques in the book with lots of examples of client stories. There’s a lot more practical information in the book.
That’s fantastic. So, a couple of things I’m thinking when you were talking there, the first one is I’m sure people are going to say how on earth even, though you’ve obviously got to understand your client in that first session, how on earth do you know which books they need? How do you know how, there’s so many books out there, how do you choose? Do you have a set number of really solid texts that you know have helped other people? Or do you just read so widely that you’ve got an amazing bank of books that you’ve read yourself? How do you do it?
It’s a very valid question and I get asked that lots. I have a database of books arranged by mental health themes and I share those on my website for free. I have a lot of free reading lists arranged in A-to-Z order of depression, anxiety, all of that. It covers fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, because I want to make sure that it’s within the preferred genre of the reader. But really it’s over time. A lot of books that I’ve read, but a lot of research that I’ve done on helping clients with books that I’ve suggested that I’ve not had a chance to read. But I’ve reached out to other therapists or other counsellors or other clients because I get a lot of people sharing with me what they’ve read and what they’ve found helpful, so I do use that as well. I do log all of that. I’m constantly building and updating this database and I may not have read everything, but if I haven’t read it, it has to be very credible. It has to come from another credible source who has read it. It has to come from client feedback, industry news reviews. There is a research aspect to it as well.
Yeah, so you’re constantly trying to add to the database of options for people. And then the other question I was thinking as you were talking was obviously the process is very much an individual one for the people who are taking part in it. But do you see any themes about when they’re coming out the other side, about how they’re then using their writing perhaps, or any creativity that they’ve tapped into because of the change of mindset or whatever? Do you see a common response to having come through the therapy?
Absolutely. Most people want to then go and write their own books or memoir or children’s books or something. There’s always that desire to then pass on the knowledge, and not necessarily the knowledge, but what they found helpful in the form of fiction and write a book about it or a story about it and that can help others or otherwise a memoir to talk about their life history and how they manage to overcome something. There’s always that real desire because once you’ve been through the therapy, you’re now able to make sense of it and hear it from the other side. There’s a lot of value in that, that you want to get out. That’s always been the main product. People have also started their own book groups or book clubs where they can talk about themes and then focus on that. I’ve had a lot of people do my course because I have an online course filled with some of these techniques. A lot of librarians do the course and booksellers and also therapists and counsellors and coaches and then they go ahead and set up these groups that they feel will be helpful to talk about themes using books.
What about for yourself? You mentioned earlier on that one of the reasons you gravitated towards this profession is because you felt it would be helpful and also meaningful. You’re clearly getting huge amounts of value for yourself out of helping other people because it’s giving you meaning. But do you have any other outlets for your creativity? Do you do anything else other than writing and obviously the writing you’re doing that you’ve mentioned is for your business, to support your profession. Do you do any other kind of writing? Do you do poetry or fiction writing or do you do anything else that’s creative?
I love writing poetry. I don’t share all of it, but I write because there’s a real impact when you write poetry and capture your emotions. It just captures your emotions so succinctly and so precisely that if you were to ask me what I prefer do, journaling or poetry, I probably say I like writing poetry because of the conciseness, because of the immediate access to that emotional outlet. You can just talk about how you feel and the way you write it as well. It’s quite profound. When I read it again, I really feel like I’ve captured my emotions and I have immediate access to it because you’re forced to be concise. The brevity means you’re forced to really hone in on what’s going on with you. It’s less waffle, it’s less stream of consciousness.
It’s definitely tighter, isn’t it? Yeah, I agree with you. And I actually very rarely share my poetry. I nearly always write it just for me. I started out as a writer. I’ve written and published a novel, and I’m writing my second one. But actually, I think my core writing person was a poet. I started writing when I was in junior school, and I’ve still got an anthology of all the poems I wrote.
And I think it’s because I read a lot of both books and poetry, and I thought I fancy writing some myself. It seemed to come quite naturally. But it’s not because that creative side of you has to have an outward or external purpose. It’s really to help you feel fulfilled or for you to deal with something that’s unresolved. I think that’s one of the things that poetry definitely does for me. It’s interesting. I think it’s actually very hard for poets to reach the people that would resonate with their work because for some reason it doesn’t seem to be as valued. I don’t know whether you would agree with that. Obviously, you may well use, I’m sure you do use poetry anthologies with your clients, but what do you think about that? Why is it people find it difficult to connect with it sometimes?
I think this really depends on the style. Recently, I know a lot of readers connected with people like Rupi Kaur and Nikita Gill because their writing has been quite modern. I sometimes wonder if the barrier is the time at which the poetry was written, older poetry can sometimes feel a bit harder to digest or understand. We need to work at it to figure out what’s going on, whereas more modern poetry can really hone in on our feelings and our emotions. We’re not always going to connect with every poem, and that’s fine. It’s finding the ones that you connect with. Sometimes you might need to work at it, because once you’ve worked at it and got through to the other side, it just becomes very clear that actually ‘I really connect with this poet and his experience,’ but timeless ones, I’d always say, like Robert Frost, his poetry is just timeless. John O’Donoghue, Mary Oliver their poems have stood the test of time. Whereas Shakespeare, I don’t know.
I think with something like Shakespeare, it’s the volume of work that’s there. I think what I really love about it is when somebody comes along and interprets it and turns it into something that is very accessible and modern, but based on the concepts and the themes that were there in the first place. I think that’s why it’s probably still so popular, because it’s very human. Although the language can sometimes be a barrier, at the time it wouldn’t have been because people would have understood, that’s how people portrayed things. It’s more about understanding the language. And if you can do that, then you can access it. But if you can’t, you can just find someone who’s done that translation for you.
In a way that’s a synopsis and just the moral of and the story itself, which is probably the largest part of it.
There are so many universal themes in there. And actually, nothing is really very new, it’s just new interpretations of the same things that matter to us all, I think. So, writing still is very much your creative outlet then, would you say?
Yeah, I have to say it’s always putting that pen to paper. Recently I was getting into illustration and drawing, because I do feel drawing is also quite expressive. And sometimes when we can’t put into words what we’re feeling, we can put it into art and drawing. I use that a lot with children. I feel like it should be something that, again, I would love to explore for myself. More artistic aspects, for sure.
I’ve always wondered, I don’t know whether this is true, but I write my prose in longhand, and I do definitely feel I’m accessing something different when I’m writing as opposed to typing. And I’m sure that I’ve heard artists say the same thing. It’s the connection, the physical connection between the hand and the brain. In your research, have you found anything that supports that?
Yeah, I have. And I think it also goes back to why we prefer paperbacks to the Kindle. There’s a kinetic element to it, that sense of feeling and touch. That definitely means that we feel we are more connected to something than we are when we’re just reading on a Kindle or, I guess, typing on a laptop. There is a more sensory element to it.
I’d be happy to volunteer for a study for this, but if you were wearing a brain sensor, one of those kits with all the pads on, to work out which parts of your brain are active, I’m sure it would show that it’s different parts of the brain that are being used. I don’t know, because I’m not a neuroscientist.
The study on this, on the paperbacks angle and can’t remember the details of it, but a book was always the preferred option to reading on the Kindle because sort of sense of connection.
And of course, lots of people talk about, those that are fans of paperbacks, of physical books, talk about the smell of the book and feel of the book, don’t they? I know a lot of librarians do. That is definitely something because it’s their environment, isn’t it?
They’re surrounded by books.
And as those books age, they change. The way they smell changes as well. It’s not just the touch of it.
No. There’s a sense of the book having a bit of wisdom in it because of the aging or the age of the book. It’s weird how we have these subconscious ideas.
Sometimes those books do definitely feel like they have a life of their own in some way. Definitely. I’m sure you’ve heard of the Midnight Library. Have you read the Midnight Library?
Yes, I have. I do suggest that a lot for people.
I loved it because it’s obviously got that fantastical element to it, we probably shouldn’t talk about it in too much detail because people won’t know what we are about. But basically, the connection between the library is the portal to help the individual who is suffering and experiences different versions of her own life depending on which part of the book it’s in. I loved that description of how it was that place, that was the thing that was going to be her way to find the answer. I thought that was brilliant.
Yeah, it’s just holding all these clues. I loved it. I thought the whole concept was brilliant and he’s also a great writer. Matt Haig
So obviously your book is going to be coming out and we can definitely point people in the right direction to that. Is there anything else that you wanted to add around the whole topic of creativity, of books, of reading, or do you think we’ve covered the basics of what people would need to know?
I think we’ve covered the basics. There’s a lot more detail that I can give you around the frameworks that we use, but I think for that you need some time to process it.
It feels a bit academic. All I would say is, you can get a lot more out of your reading if you leverage it and use these tools to leverage it. Because often we find ourselves being passive readers and there’s so much more we can get out of our reading. Always have that in the back of your mind when you pick up a book. I’m sure we all pick up a book because we’re curious about something or we want it to help us in some way. But you can then use these tools that I’ve talked about to really leverage that. Incorporate reading into your life. Like you would go into the gym or exercise even ten minutes a day. You’ll be surprised as to how much you end up reading by the end of the year. And it’s a great tool for relaxation and mindfulness.
If you choose the right book, you absolutely get lost, don’t you? I totally agree with you on the mindfulness part of it. I find for me, if I read fiction, I tend to read that at night. I find it more soothing and more relaxing. If I read a really good non-fiction book, it’s no good because my brain’s going off here, there and everywhere trying to work out how to use what I’ve learned. I tend to do that in the morning or at a different time in the day.
Yeah, it’s interesting how the time of day also affects how you read because I think we are different people in the morning and we’re different people at night.
Excellent. It’s been brilliant talking to you. I’m sure I could have you on again another time. There’s so much to explore here. I hope people have found it interesting. It’s certainly something that should be a therapy. That part of what you do is really important and totally under publicized. I think it’s great that you’re getting out there and talking about it and writing a book about it so more people can access it. I think that’s the thing. Thank you so much for being my guest. Bijal tell people where they can find you. Where do you want them to go to find more about you and what you do.
You can find me on the website at www.booktherapy.io. And you can also find me on Instagram at booktherapy_by_bijal. If you google Bijal Shah Bibliotherapy the Healing Power of Reading, you’ll probably find the book. It’s up now, but it’s actually out on November 9th. You could get a copy now at slight discount and then read it in November if you wanted.
I would forget if I didn’t buy it today on pre-order. I would encourage people to do that if they’ve been interested in finding out a little bit more, maybe they don’t feel that they want therapy. Often people are a little bit scared of it, but I think just understanding what it might do for you that it might open some doors going forward.
I probably didn’t stress this enough, but you can definitely use self-bibliotherapy using the techniques. You don’t necessarily need to see a counsellor or therapist. You can actually use the techniques for yourself.
It’s a good alternative, isn’t it? Because I think talking therapy is great and works for some people, but doesn’t always work for everybody, and this might be another way to find the answers that you’re looking for. As I said, thank you so much for being my guest on the Creative Switch podcast and I look forward to keeping an eye on how you’re getting on. Thanks a lot. Bye.
Thank you for having me, Nikki. Take care.
I do hope you join me and my next guest, Penille Hughes, who writes what she calls ‘funny kissing books.’ And remember, Why Survive When You Can Thrive?