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My Word Sauce: Celia Hunt

Posted Jan 27 2011 12:08pm
The natural choice for my first ever Word Sauce interview is my dear friend, colleague and ex-doctoral supervisor, Celia Hunt. Celia is a writer, teacher, researcher and consultant in the field of creative writing and personal development.

In fact, it’s probably fair to say that Celia invented the field of creative writing and personal development (although she would never lay claim to this herself).

In 1996 she set up and ran the unique MA programme in Creative Writing and Personal Development at the University of Sussex which, until her retirement last year, recruited students from all over the world and inspired an entire movement of teachers, therapists, healthcare practitioners and workshop facilitators with Celia’s combination of passion, theoretical grounding, creativity and rigorous research enquiry.

Celia was a founder member of Lapidus , the UK-based organisation for the literary arts in personal development. She has pioneered research into writing and wellbeing, has published many papers in the field and is the editor and/or author of three seminal texts: The Self on the Page and Writing: Self and Reflexivity (each with Fiona Sampson) and Therapeutic Dimensions of Autobiography in Creative Writing .

Celia lives in Lewes in Sussex where she enjoys the beauty of the old town, with its castle and ancient houses, its proximity to the Sussex Downs and the sea.

She’s currently working on her next book, Creative Life Writing as a Tool for Transformative Learning, to be published by Routledge in 2012.

So, pull up a chair and get to know a little more about the wonderfully inspiring  Celia Hunt.

Where did it all begin? How did you become interested in creative writing and personal development?
It all began through my own quest to know myself better, to go right back to the beginning. I guess I could say that it began with my reading of Marion Milner’s book A Life of One’s Own, which I must have read in the 1970s. That has always been such an inspiring book for me and, I know, for many other people too. It’s a sort of self-analytic autobiography, in which the author tries to find out through diary writing what makes her happy, presumably because she isn’t happy much of the time. It very much spoke to me about my own dissatisfaction with my life at the time and it encouraged me to start exploring myself through writing autobiographical novels.

That was in the 1980s and early 1990s. Around the same time I went into psychotherapy, so I suppose you could say that I was exploring myself through two different methods: the writing and the therapy. And sometimes they came together because I would take bits of writing into therapy to discuss with my therapist. This was very helpful and stimulating.

Also around that time I started studying the MA in Language, the Arts and Education at the University of Sussex, run by poet Peter Abbs. This involved doing a combination of academic and creative work, so I was able to continue my autobiographical fiction writing for that purpose and also to write some reflective essays on my writing process and that of well-known writers such as Franz Kafka, all of which helped to deepen my thinking about the self in the writing process.

The most important piece of work I did for the MA, from the point of view of my subsequent development, was devising a way of using autobiography as a basis for teaching creative writing, which I subsequently put into practice in a course for the Centre for Continuing Education at Sussex University.

What I found in teaching this course was that using autobiography in this way had the potential to open people up to deep feelings and memories. Some people found this very helpful, but it could also be very upsetting, which made the learning environment very challenging.

All the work I’ve done since, for example in setting up and running the MA in Creative Writing and Personal Development, involvement in setting up Lapidus, and the research I have undertaken, has flowed from the experience of teaching that first course.

How would you describe your creative process? Do you have a routine? How do you like to work?
Because I became a creative writing teacher, and also perhaps because all of my creative writing was a way of understanding why I hadn’t managed to find a meaningful way of being in the world, I stopped doing creative writing when I began to develop a career. Since my retirement in September 2010, I’ve begun to go back to my fiction and poetry, and I’m delighted to be writing creatively again.

But this is a fairly small activity at the moment, because I’m deeply involved in writing another academic book. And now that I have a lot more time at my disposal I do have a regular writing routine: I try to work on the writing for about four hours every morning, with just a short break in the middle. In the afternoons I go for a walk or swim in the local pool. In other words, I try to do body-work rather than mind-work at some point during the day, otherwise I just seize up eventually.

What I have learnt about my writing process is that I have to pace myself, which isn’t always easy, as there is a very impatient part of me that wants to do everything in one go and move onto the next thing!

Sometimes I read in the mornings instead of writing, and I’ve recently discovered the joys (and frustrations) of the Kindle software on my computer, which allows me to download books, some of them free. Wonderful, as long as one doesn’t get carried away!

What are you working on right now?
As I said, I’m writing a new book, Creative Life Writing as a Tool for Transformative Learning, which I’m hoping to finish by the end of the year. It’s going very well now, although it’s taken me a long time to be able to focus on it, and I’m very much enjoying having the time now to work on it at leisure.

Tell us more about the book…
Well, during the early years of convening the MA in Creative Writing and Personal Development lots of students taking it were telling me that they had undergone major change as a result of it, for example, that they had had a breakthrough in their ability to write or to think of themselves as writers or learners, or that they had found the courage to leave their jobs or their partners, in order to find a more meaningful way of being in the world. The word ‘life changing’ came up a lot.

At the same time I was becoming increasingly aware that the programme was very challenging, both to students and tutors, and that the tutor team — in the field of creative writing and personal development generally — needed a deep understanding of how this kind of teaching and learning worked. So I was keen to do an in-depth research project on the MA to explore all these things in more detail.

The opportunity arose in 2004, when I was awarded a National Teaching Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy, with a sum of money to undertake a project of my choice. I was also fortunate enough to be able to raise further money from the British Academy to cover the costs of a research assistant.

So the project began in 2004 with the following aims: to understand better the kinds of changes in sense of self which students of the MA in Creative Writing and Personal Development experienced, the elements of the programme that gave rise to these changes, and the nature of the challenges of this kind of teaching and learning, so as to inform not only creative writing teaching, but other areas of adult, further and higher education where creative life writing might be used as a tool for learning. The book will present the findings of this research project.

What’s your favourite word?
That’s an interesting question! I’ve always felt words bodily, somewhere between my ribs, and sometimes it takes me quite a while to get hold of a word even though I can feel it strongly. A word I have loved for a long time is opprobrium, just for its sound really, not so much its meaning, something about all those hard consonants coming together, I think.

Its literal meaning is an atmosphere of disapproval or bad odour surrounding someone or something, so it’s not a very happy word, but I used it once in a poem set in ancient Greece, which talked about ‘an opprobrium of virgins’ — make of that what you will!

What/who are your three favourite books/writers of all time?
Well, in view of what I said above, Marion Milner’s A Life of One’s Own would have to be at the top of the list. A close second would be Karen Horney’s Neurosis and Human Growth — well actually anything by Karen Horney, as she has been so helpful to me in understanding myself and other people — she was a second-generation Freudian psychoanalyst who emigrated from Germany to America just before the Second World War, and the first woman to take issue with Freud on his views on women.

As to literary writers, my absolute favourite is Joseph Conrad, whose novel Lord Jim I am currently rereading — or rather listening to on audio book — but I also very much like his shorter stories, ‘The Secret Sharer’, ‘Typhoon’, ‘Heart of Darkness’, etc. He has such a wonderfully flowing and visual style of writing.

I have a strong visual imagination, so I particularly like writers who stimulate it without over-stimulating it. I’ve always said, as a creative writing teacher, that writers need to leave space for the reader’s imagination and Conrad does exactly that, in my view. I’m also a great fan of the early Doris Lessing books, The Grass Is Singing, the Children of Violence trilogy, and some of her science fiction books. I would say something very similar about her style as I said about Conrad.

What inspires you?
Generally, rural landscape inspires me — I walk along the top of the South Downs quite a lot — sunshine and blue sky whatever the temperature — the persistence of the natural world and its creatures even in extremes of heat and cold (I am an avid watcher of wildlife programmes!) — human beings’ capacity to change in positive ways — the way creative life writing has the power to bring people closer to themselves, again in positive ways — the human mind’ s capacity for understanding.

How would you write your autobiography in 25 words?
Had potential as a child, but was unable to develop it until she discovered the therapeutic potential of creative writing; since then she has never looked back!

What do you think are the most important issues and challenges for the field of writing and wellbeing in the future?
- Developing programmes of study for people wishing to work with developmental creative writing in education, health and social care, and other areas; since the discontinuation of the MA in Creative Writing and Personal Development at Sussex University, an MSc in Creative Writing for Therapeutic Purposes has been set up at the Metanoia Institute, which I’m delighted to see, but there is scope for more such programs at universities and other institutions; good training, including immersion in both theory and practice, is crucially important for the field.

- Developing a formal accreditation for people wishing to work as therapeutic writing practitioners.

- Continuing and strengthening Lapidus: the Association for the Literary Arts in Personal Development.

What’s coming up for you in 2011 and beyond?
I shall be busy with writing my book for the remainder of this year, as well as continuing to supervise a number of doctoral students at the University of Sussex and running, at Sussex and elsewhere, workshops on creative writing for academic purposes, i.e. using creative writing techniques to help people develop their academic and research writing (see my upcoming website at

I’m also just starting a three-year Visiting Research Fellowship at the Education Faculty of Canterbury Christ Church University, Kent, which I’m much looking forward to. When the current book is finished, I am hoping to be able to apply myself again to my fiction and poetry writing, not just for personal development this time!

Thank you so much, Celia. I look forward to reading your next book and I wish you all the very best for these new exciting projects.

Go to to find out more about ‘developmental creative writing’ and writing for wellbeing.

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