Workshop 1: Mapping the Territory

Posted by baitken on March 22, 2016

The first workshop for the project was held at the University of Glasgow on Saturday 18th June from 12-4pm.

There were 18 of us in total, all working in areas of mental health and creativity but a fascinating range of angles and scholarly viewpoints. The session was split into two halves, the first being devoted to talks by guest speakers Lise Saffran, Director of the Master of Public Health Program at the University of Missouri, and Esther Pujolràs, a lecturer in American and post-colonial literature at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, who spoke about her involvement with Isis-WICCE in leading literature workshops with survivors of gender violence.

Lise’s talk ‘Building Character: The role of art and empathy in health services’ drew attention to some of the ways in which health service providers can use empathy in re-engaging with patients and service users as people. For instance, an individual with diabetes might be referred to as ‘the diabetic’, and in turn is perceived almost wholly in relation to his/her medical condition. Lise recounted how she ran writing workshops with students in order to subvert reductive labelling and to challenge the narratives that we often subconsciously draw around others. Interestingly, during the course of Lise’s talk, I realised that I had felt quite shocked upon meeting many of the participants in the room for the first time after months of communicating via email – I had indeed created quite a complex mental image of these people without being aware that I was doing so, and all based on the tone of their emails. Even more shocking was that my mental images were completely wrong! Lise’s workshop had aimed to create awareness of this tendency and to challenge it via imaginative writing exercises. Empathy, she proposed, is fundamental in those roles where labels are frequently used and people are categorised according to their social contexts. When we have empathy, we begin to realise that an individual is much more complex and much less other than we would first assume.

Lise is a novelist as well as possessing a wealth of knowledge in public health, and I found this duality fascinating. She is a wonderful storyteller and had me riveted with her account of John Snow (sorry, GoT fans – not that Jon Snow) who famously worked out that cholera was transmitted via water, not air. When faced with the challenge of reducing the number of deaths caused by the Broad Street water pump (which apparently produced tasty water, attracting users from all over London), he opted for the simplest method: he removed the handle. No one could use it then. And people stopped dying.

This example was striking in terms of Lise’s discussion of the Health Impact pyramid which drew attention to the social contexts in which we live and by which we may be perceived. Lise told us how she engaged students in writing about characters who, for instance, smoked while pregnant. The students would then use this piece of info to create a character. What race was this woman who smoked while pregnant? What social class, and what level of education? She then challenged them to write about a character who was just as smart as them. If they had previously decided that smoking-while-pregnant woman was poor white trash, they had to rethink their assumptions.

Lise’s work is incredibly valuable in terms of the way she draws attention to the ‘mystery’ of the character. She comes from a place that at once champions empathy in story-telling as both art form and social practice, and everyone in the workshop seemed to take something of value from the talk.

Esther Pujolràs came all the way from Barcelona to tell us about her work with survivors of sexual violence in Kampala, Uganda. Having completed the first in a series of workshops, Esther’s work is absolutely crucial in enabling survivors of sexual violence to feel empowered to heal and give a voice to their experience. In collaboration with her colleague Felicity Hand and clinical psychologist Helen Liebling, Esther spoke about what she calls ‘practical literature’, which involves reading excerpts from texts which closely align with the cultural contexts of the workshop participants. Specifically, Esther and Felicity selected novels by African and Indian writers which focused on female protagonists experiencing the effects of patriarchy, post-conflict violence, attitudes towards women and rape victims, and silence. I thought the methods they used in dealing with such traumatic issues were worthy of applause. The combination of literature and writing provides a good platform for discussion, awareness, and creates a safe environment in which to discuss ‘taboo’ subjects that have been veiled in silence, shame, and even denial for many years. Esther and Helen have invited me to go to Kampala next year to participate in their workshop series, and I’m very much looking forward to it.

After a short lunch, Professor Amelia Oldfield showed us a short video of a music therapy in which a child makes up a song on the spot while playing a xylophone, accompanied by Amelia on the piano, who improvised a melody after the child’s song. It is very difficult to justice to what we witnessed, but I’ll give it my best shot. What I recognised in that video was that a child was simply having fun and experiencing a lot of joy by doing something as simple as making up a song on the spot. She wasn’t being asked questions, or having to explain herself. She wasn’t playing music with expectations of producing anything. She was simply messing about and having a whale of a time. Amelia explained that the lyrics to the song gave incredible insights into the child’s inner world, and this was useful in tackling some issues. But the method employed here was remarkable and has given me lots to think about in terms of play. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how creativity really is about three things: play, spontaneity, and voice. All three things were visible in the clip of the child. She was using her voice, and not just to sing. Her words were important and had power. I feel that we have lost creativity in places where it ought to be prominent: in schools, for instance, I feel that children are not encouraged to be creative enough. I see it in my own children. My son’s homework recently focused on prepositions. He’s 8. Guess how many times I think about prepositions when I’m writing a 100,000-word novel? Zero. I really don’t need my son to learn about prepositions. I need him to learn about creating and using his imagination and finding freedom in expression. I have loads to think about around how I’m approaching creativity in both my teaching and my practice.

Following these talks we had some group discussion about the needs of young people in recovery from mental illness, and this dialogue in still in process. I hope next time to be able to run some writing sessions with the group and exploring ways that creative writing can work alongside music and other arts disciplines to benefit young people in recovery.

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