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Archive for the ‘Creative Writing for Health’ Category


 

Carers often need to protect their own well-being and to express pent-up emotion, frustration and stress. Practical permissions to ease your daily round can help. Journal-keeping can help. But journal-keeping can involve permissions directly-related to self-care – all of its own!

When – at 2am – the local hospital’s A&E department tell you to remove your next of kin from their charge, what do you do next?

This happened to Jane and Jane was still noted on someone’s form as next of kin to her schizophrenic ex-husband. As a result, A&E would not take ‘No!’ for an answer over the telephone. So off she had to go.

But – when Jane arrived – no-one would hand over the case notes or make suggestions as to where she could get help. And there was nothing Jane could do. She had to take her ex-husband home – even though he was threatening her with jealous violence at the time.

However, there is another way. If you find this kind of situation arising – as carer/parent/child/sibling/friend – remember to ask your ‘caree’ in a calm moment to sign a permissions letter to the GP and others. Produce this letter and they’ll discuss your caree’s case with you.

This is a simple solution but prevents you being kept out of the loop of discussions about case plan and management. Among other considerations, to have a say in this is crucial for your well-being

But the concept of ‘permissions’ is more wide-ranging than this.

Permission is not just a practical management tool for the daily situation of a carer. Permission can also be an effective safeguard for people like ‘Jane’ who keep a journal as part of a self-care strategy.

Jane keeps a journal to give herself a voice – when people such as health professionals just don’t listen. But also, she keeps a journal to explore feelings that – when she starts writing – she doesn’t know she has. This can be powerful and frightening, too.

Let me explain. As a journal-keeper, you are responsible for managing your own safety and you can do this in several ways – by, for example, building in the principles of ‘structure’; ‘pacing’; and ‘containment’.

If you are new to journalling, for example, you may find the blank page daunting and structured prompts can help get you started. These may include such beginnings as ‘Today, I . . . ‘ or ‘I am . . .’ or questions such as ‘Who am I?’ or ‘What weather am I today?’

But the structure of these sentence stems, as well as getting you over the blankness of the page, will also ground you. They will keep you in the present and not allow you to return to an unhappy past. This will keep you safe.

Writing without pause, editing or reflection is another form of journalling. Triggered by simple prompts – such as a single word pulled randomly from your dictionary – and expand in unthought of directions. Known as free-writing, this is worthwhile for the truly surprising insights you gain!

But in some vulnerable people, this freedom can be dangerous. Some suffer severe distress. Some – rare examples – have even been known to hallucinate. So, when tempted by free-writing, try these safety measures:

 

  1. Set a time-limit and – when the timer pings – stop even if you are half-way through a word. (This provides structure, pace and containment.)

 

  1. Make sure you have your support network in place – family, friends, counsellors & therapists, the dog! (More containment.)

 

  1. Give yourself permission to stop! Yes, permission to stop is the most effective ‘containment’ measure of them all. And it is in your power.

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Often in my therapeutic writing sessions, we will use a poem as a springboard. This poem is chosen for its relationship to group concerns. For example, Rumi’s Guesthouse helps people who are feeling overwhelmed by thoughts and feelings they cannot understand. Or Maya Angelou’s I know why the caged bird sings resonates with people who feel trapped (for example, caregivers).

The people I work with may have had scant experience of reading poetry. They are sometimes surprised at how relevant poetry can be – even if the poetry they have met previously was written in language not remotely relating to their everyday lives and seemingly placing the poet’s concerns somewhere different from their own.

So, when we have read the poem (several times), we then consider some of the following questions:

  • What does this poem do for you?
  • What feelings does this poem call up in you?
  • What similarities are there in your life?
  • How do you relate to the speaker’s situation?

These questions are quite different to the questions asked in usual literature classes and may generate surprising discussions. But if the group is willing to go further, I may ask also the more usual questions such as:

  • What is the important idea in this poem?
  • How does the language help to express this idea? The images? The sound? The rhythm?
  • Which vivid detail speaks most to you?

And if group members are interested in ‘having a go’ themselves, I ask them to make notes on the following:

  • If you wanted to write about your own situation, what image would you choose?
  • Have you any ideas about a poetic form you’d choose? Eg couplets (two line verses, lists, alpha poems? Free verse?
  • Would you write it from your own point of view – or choose another person? For example, we might read Hawk roosting by Ted Hughes.

And then, we do ‘have a go’!

Sharing is an important part of this kind of work. Some people are willing to share there and then. Others like to polish their work as ‘homework’. Others consider publication or public performance.

But, for some, what they have written is entirely private. And, whatever they choose to do is good. In fact, for some, having a choice is empowering. Choice for some is a rare experience.

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Unsent letters are a great place to vent pent-up anger and frustration – simply because we write them as if we will never send them and with brutal honesty about what we feel and what we think. People suffering from brain-injury and their carers are no different from the rest of us in this. And, recently, at a journal-writing session at Wirral Headway, having written the letters, we then brainstormed the next steps. Here are some of the ideas we came up with:

  1. Send the letter to the person addressed anyway – options included a range of people from the kind/unkind to healthcare professionals (understanding/unsympathetic) and so on . . . 
  2. With due regard for Health & Safety, burn the letter and throw the ashes on the sea or use them round the roses
  3. Commit the letter to the unknown – such as the God in our lives – by putting it in a bottle and throwing it off a ship or attaching it to a balloon
  4. Or make it part of our future so that we can see what progress we have made. We can do this by putting the letter in a time capsule to be opened this time next year or we can leave it in a stamped, self-addressed envelope with a friend who will post it when we least expect it.

 

If you can think of any other ways to handle the unsent letter, we’d be grateful if you’d let us know.

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The First Word!

Short of time? Just quickly write down three words that describe how you feel in body, mind, or spirit at this very moment. First into your head. Go!

Three words that describe how I feel right now are:

_____________      ______________    _____________________

 

The Last Word!

Write down three words that describe how you feel at this moment – first into your head. Go!

Three words that describe how I feel right now are:

_____________      ______________    _____________________

Do you notice any change from the three feelings you wrote down earlier? More self-awareness?  Anything different?

You can use this exercise any time of day – but you may also find it helpful at the beginning and end of the day for checking in with yourself!

 

I’m very grateful to Barbara Stahura (www.barbarastahura.com) for suggesting this exercise!

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President elect for the American Society for Personality & Social Psychology James Pennebaker recently received the Society’s Distinguished Scholar Award on account of his work on the health impacts of expressive writing.

As early as the 1970s, Pennebaker put to experimental test the thesis that writing about your feelings can improve your physical health. And since those first inspiring studies, over three hundred research papers have been produced – a formidable and oft-cited evidence base for the health benefits of expressive writing. For an independent review of the academic literature making up this evidence base, see the Baikie and Wilhelm article listed below.

Intriguing developments have occurred.

King’s College Institute of Psychiatry researchers, for example, have found that

Communication Graphicsignificant numbers of people participating in expressive writing sessions a few weeks before their scheduled operations demonstrate improved immune function. Their wounds heal more quickly.
And, people with breast cancer who practise expressive writing are not cured of cancer but are known to visit the doctor less frequently.

 

    To learn more, see:
  • James Pennebaker
  • For the Pennebaker expressive writing method, see YouTube (But, if you think you may be emotionally or psychiatrically vulnerable, this method is potentially risk-bearing and you should ensure adequate emotional and mental health support is available to you.)
  • 2005 Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing by Karen Baikie and Kay Wilhelm.  Advances in Psychiatric Treatment 11: 338-346) (for an independent review of the literature up to 2005)
  • 2008 Enhanced wound healing after emotional disclosure intervention by John Weinman et al.  British Journal of Health Psychology Feb ;13 (Pt 1):95-102.
  • And, if possible, listen to BBC Radio 4’s Claudia Hammond’s programme on Pennebaker (first broadcast on 12-04-2013). This is entitled Mind Changers.
A LONELY FURROW COMPANY CAVEAT!
Expressive Writing is not for everyone! As James Pennebaker says, if it hasn’t worked for you after three to four days, try something else. For those few Lonely Furrow Company well-being coaching clients who don’t find writing helps, we suggest going for a walk. Walking is good – so is jogging, swimming, gardening, making music – whatever helps you to change your state from negative to positive!

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Words for Well-Being, a new Cumbria Partnership Foundation NHS Trust publication, contains a melange of essays and poetry and prose exploring how creative words can promote health and well-being. This  is now available for purchase on Amazon.co.uk or  from Carol Ross, editor, c/o Cumbria Partnership Foundation NHS Trust. I am one of the chapter authors and my theme? Story-sharing in Healthcare.

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On the recommendation of Lisa Rossetti (www.positivelives.co.uk), Katherine Hansen of A Storied Career (www.astoriedcareer.com ) recently interviewed me for her on-line Story Practitioner series.

Here are my Q&As as featured on the web this week.

Q: How did you initially become involved with story/storytelling/ narrative? What attracted you to this field? What do you love about it?

A: I was brought up by storytellers. Telling stories was how we related to each other, entertained each other, informed each other, re-affirmed each other. I love storytelling because what my family of storytellers did for me, I can do for others.

Q: One of your areas of specialization is storytelling and writing for well-being. How did you get involved in that area? Did you have personal experience with having your well-being improved through writing/storytelling?

A: Story-telling and writing for well-being have chosen me, and I have built on what they have given me. I started to write as I learned to read stories. And I have written all my life. But at times of crisis — when in such severe trauma I doubt my heart will hold out — writing is a form of restorative meditation. And — although I can tell stories to move to tears — I also tell stories to entertain and develop relationships. Although at times, I cannot avoid the former, I prefer the latter.

Q: You offer workshops in memoir-writing and journaling. Undoubtedly many reasons exist for journaling and writing one’s memoir. What do you feel is the most compelling reason? Why do people need your workshops assist them in these endeavors?

A: One of the most compelling reasons for writing your own story is “witness” — even if the writing never sees the light of day. But — when shared in a supportive, empathic group (such as I create in my workshops) — the writing brings all the human emotion contained in the writing to the outside and allows the writer to reflect on it and feel in control once more. To do this, with an audience, is to be empowered, to lose all sense of merely being a passive recipient of the experience. This endows the writer with a self-esteem and confidence, which he or she may never have felt before.

Q: One of your specialty areas is communication and storytelling in organizations. When organizations (and the people in them) seek out your services, why are the typical communication issues they face — and how can storytelling help?

A: Teams (like families) are quite often dysfunctional because their members have ceased to communicate with each other. Story sessions encourage people to listen, to be curious about what is going to happen, to sift their own experiences for answers to common problems and to share. Stories also generate empathy and laughter. And living — for however brief a time — in a functional “metaphor” is a “habit” that can be carried forward into everyday working life.

Q: What has surprised you most in your work with story?

A: The eagerness to engage that people display when listening to stories and telling their own — even if this is a new experience for them.

Q: The storytelling movement seems to be growing explosively. Why now? What is it about this moment in human history and culture that makes storytelling so resonant with so many people right now?

A: Storytelling is becoming popular now because, as people increasingly understand, “hardware” is not enough. They like human interaction — loving or loathing others. But, as people find opportunities to interact are programmed out of their lives, they will make efforts to re-introduce them. And story is a way to do this.

Q: What’s your favorite story about a transformation that came about through a story or storytelling act?

A: A young girl was raped. Years of therapy hadn’t helped her forget and live life as she wished. Then a wise counselor asked her to tell her story — as a story, as if it had happened to someone else. She did. She felt witnessed. She felt empowered. She has displayed such talent and passion for storytelling and writing, she is now a full-time novelist. Telling stories has changed more lives than medical interventions.

Q: If you could share just one piece of advice or wisdom about story/storytelling/ narrative with readers, what would it be?

A: Listen with attention, reflect in depth and share.

Q: What question do you wish I had asked you but didn’t?

A: What did Einstein mean when he advised parents if they want their children to be wise, encourage them to read fairy tales?

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At the beginning of any Lonely Furrow Company group session, I like to encourage people to feel ‘in the room’. I use a few Open Space guidelines to settle people down – such as ‘Who-ever comes are the right people’ and ‘Whatever happens is the right thing to happen’. For added safety, I add the Chatham House Rule: ‘What is said in the room stays in the room’.

And then we begin – usually with a free-write on ‘Why am I here?’

I run two sorts of creative writing groups. One is concerned with creative writing and publication. The other has as its focus the well-being of individual participants and creative writing is the means to achieve this. At the point of the first free-write, the nature of each group becomes clear.

Writers concerned with the art and craft of creative writing and the possibilities of broadcasting and publication concentrate on technique – themes and inspirations, characterisation, plotting, location and descriptions, dialogue, editing, language and style and how to approach publishers. They are honing their skills. They may enjoy the ride but the finished product – story, poem, memoir, drama – is their goal. (I have devoted the writing blog, Authorgym, to this: http://authorgym.wordpress.com )

On the other hand, in a therapeutic creative writing group, the possibilities of self-exploration mean that technique doesn’t matter. In these groups, creative writing may take the form of journal writing, unsent letters, dialogues, expressions of altered time perspectives, and creatively-written accounts of imaginings, dreams and visions. These writers may take pleasure in the writing itself.

But, for these writers, it is the process that counts. Nothing written can be ‘wrong’. The purpose of the writing is to observe what is going inside the writer and what is going on around them and to bear witness to this. It is not to produce a work of Art.

As, for example, journal therapist Kate Thompson explains in Therapeutic Journal Writing (Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2011): “for most people who practise therapeutic journal writing, the product of their process will be greater understanding, behavioural change or enhanced well-being rather than the writing itself.”

And, released from concerns over spelling, grammar and punctuation, writers – who never thought of themselves as writers – begin to use words fluently to feel into the darkness within and shed light. (This blog explores this further.)

There is another major difference between the two groups – the desire to ‘share’. Creative writers who want to produce stories or plays are not writing in a vacuum. Part of their purpose in writing at all is to ‘share’ – whether this is reading aloud to a group or being published.

But, within the therapeutic creative writing group, seeking to know themselves better, the ‘sharing’ is optional. For some, it’s enough to have borne witness to their lives with only themselves as audience. They may then choose to share with a trusted A N OTHER. Or they may choose to destroy what they have written. Whatever they choose doesn’t diminish the power of the process itself. And their choice not to share is a valid strategy and must be respected.

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Hello, Everyone!

 

Using creative writing to improve life quality for the long-term ill and distressed – and that of their family, friends and professional advisers – is a subject dear to my heart. And since I went to an Arts and Dementia Conference in Liverpool at the beginning of November, I’ve been thinking about this a lot.

 

As organisers Collective Encounters  explained, the conference aimed ‘to explore the possibilities in the use of arts in dementia care, celebrate excellence in the artistic work created by artists working with people with dementia and their carers, and look at the potential impact of Live and Learn [a new project] will have on the health and social care and creative sectors locally.’

 

It did and I found it difficult to process so many stunning insights all at once. But one story particularly impressed. David Clegg – a sculptor by profession – had volunteered to visit an old lady with dementia. When, after fifteen minutes, she found her front door, she was stark naked apart from ski-boots and oven gloves. She told him later, she was dressed this way because someone had stolen her clothes and replaced them with the clothes of an old woman. A stunning insight – indeed.

 

David now spends his time, when not sculpting, helping people with dementia record their stories and make sense of their lives. Which is what we all – as humans – want to do. And what creative writing is all about.

 

So, I have two pieces of news for you. Firstly, I now offer e-courses in Therapeutic Creative Writing – fiction, life-writing and journaling – for anyone dealing professionally or personally with relationship issues and emotional health problems. These e-courses each contain six units full of advice and writing games to explore the unit topic. Each unit may be completed at your own pace and in your own time with 24/7 support and – when appropriate – professional critique.

 

Secondly, November is packed with Lonely Furrow Company’s Out of the Box Workshops. These are designed to be useful for those – including writers – who deal with relationships and communication issues professionally. Group interaction is a crucial aspect of this form of communication training and the workshops provide a basis for further work.

 

November Workshops:

 

All will take place at The Conservatory, 28 Park West, Heswall, Wirral, CH60 9JF. (Tel: 0151 342 3877)

 

Communication Series

November 23rd 2011 (1pm-3.30pm) ‘Body Language – the silent story’  (£25)

November 30th 2011 (1pm-3.30pm)  ‘Story-telling – the techniques’ (£25)

 

Creative Writing Technique Series

November 26th 2011 (10am – 12.30pm) ‘Memorable Characters – how to write them.’ (£20)

 

To find out more or book your place, contact me initially via Elizabeth@lonelyfurrowcompany.com or telephone 0151 342 3877.

 

And, for a no-charge, no-obligation chat about any Lonely Furrow Company services, contact me initially via the Lonely Furrow Company brochure website www.lonelyfurrowcompany.com .

 

 

I hope you find the concept of Arts in Health as inspirational as I do. If you’d like to know more about this kind of work, please also see www.lapidus.org.uk. Lapidus is a professional organization which promotes the use of creative words for health and well-being, has established an ethical code for this work and maintains a directory of creative writing practitioners (of which I am one).

 

With very best wishes

Lizzie

 

 

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Reading and writing are concerned with people. The reason why I have been drawn to literature all my life is because I hoped – through story – to find out about people, to understand them better, to make sense of them where at times there seemed no sense. Sometimes, I have wondered how this works – this quest to connect to humanity. And, it seems to me, it works through the senses. And through the imagination.

As a writer, through sense impressions, you can build up a world for the reader which he can recognise. Sense impressions – visual, aural, tangible, olfactory, gustatory – link the writer and the reader through their common humanity. And, when this linking happens, as a reader, you know you are not alone, not a freak. You know you have something in common. You then take it further. You want to gain the insights which will help you make sense of your life. You want to be prompted to ask the questions ”What if . . . ?’ or ‘Where next?’   And, as a consequence, ‘What if . . .?’ and ‘Where next . . . ?’ are two of the most important questions a fiction writer can have in his or her tool kit.

The process has another important dimension. When you are the writer and the audience – as when journaling – the whole experience moves up a gear. You learn to understand yourself better, to make sense of your own life. You learn what is important to you and what your chief anxieties are. And, in the ‘safe place’ of solitude, you can learn how to express these – first to yourself and then to the world at large.

Here’s a writing game to engage you with your senses!

Settle yourself down where-ever you like to write, relax into your writing state and take up your pen. Complete the following:

On my way to my favourite chair, my desk, my bed:

  • I saw
  •  I heard
  •  I tasted
  •  I touched
  •  I thought
  •  I felt
Now, choose the three complete thoughts that seem to you to have the most potential for you to explore in fiction. Think of a character, give him or her a name, and your three sensations. Write a story of no more than 500 words using this material. Consider what you’ve created. Do you like it? Could you develop it further?
Through this game, you will demonstrate to yourself that you possess the imagination essential to linking writer and reader  in quantities.

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