Workshop 2: Overcoming Challenges

Posted by Carolyn Jess-Cooke on January 19, 2017

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We held our second day-long workshop on Friday 6th January 2017 in the Edwin Morgan Poetry Library at the University of Glasgow. Those of us who braved the cold, dark morning and participated in a lively meeting were:

  • Dr Carolyn Jess-Cooke, University of Glasgow
  • James Withey, Founder of The Recovery Letters
  • Angela Wilson, counsellor at Washington Mind
  • Dr Alyson Hallett, poet
  • Dr Rosalind Crawley, University of Sunderland
  • Larry Butler, Lapidus
  • Dr Cheryl McGeachan, University of Glasgow
  • David Turner, Lunar Poetry Podcast
  • Robert Chalmers, postgraduate student at University of Glasgow
  • Pauline Beaumont, student counsellor at Newcastle University
  • Christine Hollywood, Words Work Well
  • Professor Bridget Escolme, Queen Mary University, London
  • Wendy French, poet
  • Tamsin Cottis, child psychotherapist
  • Gillean McDougall, postgraduate student at University of Glasgow

The day was structured according to three sessions and one roundtable discussion on the use of creative writing interventions for young people in recovery.

The first session was taken by James Withey, who delivered a fascinating talk about his project, The Recovery Letters, a website (with a book in the pipeline) which he set up with the intent of enabling people who have recovered from mental illness to write letters to those who are still struggling. Drawing on his own experiences with mental illness, James spoke about how we hear a lot about symptoms and treatment, but not enough about recovery, or hope. During his own stay at Maytree Respite Centre, James wrote himself a letter promising himself he would recover, and from there grew the idea of the Recovery Letters, which now receives 30k visitors a year.

I found the discussion about James’ editorial process utterly compelling. Specifically, James works with each letter writer individually to craft a letter that is as powerful, structured and well-presented as can be. This is important – and it didn’t immediately strike me as so integral – because the letter is intended to be read, and therefore needs input on typographical errors, layout, and perhaps on sections which need clarification or development to make sense in communicating with the intended reader. Given how many letters James now receives, this amounts to an incredible amount of work… James ensures that the writer of the letter is fully involved in the process, before posting the letter online. While he has faced some comments about the letters possibly being ‘triggering’, or indeed libellous, he has managed to ensure that the project is successful through this onerous editorial process.

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One of the highlights of the talk for me was James’ comment that, ‘by reading other people’s story we know ourselves better. By writing our own story, we know how to continue.’ In addition, one of the group questions was ‘how does writing help you?’ The answer: ‘It helps me slow down, be present, and gain perspective. It helps me listen to myself.’

I’m very much looking forward to James’ book when it comes out in October.

After a short break, we heard from Angela Wilson from Washington Mind, who talked about her work with 11-18 year old service users in Washington and Sunderland, Tyne and Wear. Sadly, Sunderland is classified as the 15th ‘most declining city’ in the UK, and has a high number of young people struggling with mental health problems. The young people with whom Angela works told her team that they don’t like the word ‘counselling’, and wanted an increased provision of creative expression as an alternative to medical-model approaches. Angela’s response to this was very honourable: she and her team not only provide a huge range of creative workshops, but also allowed the young people to devise a campaign called ‘Underground Neighbourhood‘ by which to encourage their schools to do better with mental health provision and to drop the stigma. I was impressed by the range of creative approaches used by Washington MIND and the user-led initiatives that are coming into play.

Christine Hollywood talked about her work with a school in Fulham, where she spent 12 weeks leading writing workshops. She talked about ‘creating a space in which everyone was equal’, specifically in terms of facilitating the writing as a way of allowing the students to find their voices. This talk made me think a lot about creative writing workshops as generating a a sense of self-esteem and equality.

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Larry Butler talked about his numerous projects, including Survivor’s Poetry, Arts on Prescription, and interestingly this was the point at which the session confronted one of the key issues surrounding creative writing interventions. Larry said, ‘research shows that process is just as important as end product‘. This is important (and created some interesting discussion) precisely because a common view of creative writing in therapeutic contexts is that the product is more important that than the process. Conversely, therapeutic writing is often characterised by its focus on the process of writing, with little attention paid to the product. My own view matches Larry’s: that the most effective writing for mental health considers process as important as product. As Larry’s project outputs show, the creation of a piece of art – the culmination of the process – can have multiple benefits: it can create a powerful sense of self-esteem; it can enable the creator to self-identify less as a patient or victim but as a creator or artist. We discussed that the process and product of creative writing are intimately connected, which is why many writing-practitioners often talk about the importance of their writing to their well-being as much as creating a piece of work.

Wendy French spoke about her work at a school for mentally ill pupils, where she used meditation, drama, art, music, and creative writing as part of the recovery process. She discussed her approach to writing with the students, whereby she encouraged redrafting. This approach enabled the pupils to see something develop and get better, and reaffirmed Larry’s point that process and product go hand and hand: she mentioned a poem by a pupil titled ‘Think in Ink’, which I thought was a powerful way of capturing the value of creating writing: like James stated in his opening talk, writing helps one slow down and process things (and the self) a little better.

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Dr Ros Crawley talked about her project, which engaged hundreds of new mothers in expressive writing to monitor its effects. There were a lot of good intentions driving the project, and some barriers faced due to the fact that new mothers tend to be otherwise occupied (out of 7,972 women invited to take part, 850 agreed), but the results showed that expressive writing did lead to a reduction in stress.

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It was a hugely stimulating and important session, with all of the talks touching upon the same theme: that recovery needs to be emphasised and discussed, and that creative writing is an important recovery tool. In addition, whilst ‘creative writing’ and ‘therapeutic writing’ (or ‘expressive writing’) tend to be quite severely divided from each other, with one regarded as product-driven and the other driven by process, this division ought to be re-considered. Creative writing practitioners and therapists who use writing can gain a lot by exchanging ideas about both product and process.

The next workshop is June 2017 – date to be confirmed shortly.

 

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