Notes on a “Writing in Community Settings” workshop
This was a weekend workshop, in Cardiff Bay, organised by CULT Cymru, at the suggestion of a Writers’ Guild member who saw such courses advertised in the South of England; a way of exploring how writers might find work in therapeutic environments (e.g. hospitals, prisons), amongst those who seek to explore writing as a means of self-expression, healing or personal development; although, as it turned out, there was much that could be applicable to anyone thinking of setting up a writers' group in the wider community.
The workshop was led by Graham Hartill, poet and highly experienced facilitator, who works part-time at Parc Prison in Bridgend and teaches on the MSc in “Creative Writing for Therapeutic Purposes”, based in Bristol, via Middlesex University. The group was a mixed one – a few professional writers, but mostly people working on social care projects (e.g. drug rehab, oral history, with Alzheimers patients), seeking to use creative writing as part of their work.
I won’t go into great detail, but the course was structured thus:
Day 1 – the basics (setting up a respectful ambience within a writing group, the need for the group itself to construct the ground-rules, looking at practicalities such as access, etc. ). Then an individual writing exercise, based on a suggested title – written in a few minutes, and shared with the group (sharing not compulsory). This was followed by a discussion of the nature of the pieces, and the field of “therapeutic writing” as a whole (book recommendation – “The Self On The Page” edited by Celia Hunt and Fiona Sampson). Next came a collaborative exercise, with people working in pairs to explore issues around transcribing (and respecting) other people’s stories. Finally some theoretical concepts were introduced, notably “reflexivity” – the importance of being aware of what you, as a facilitator, bring to the group (e.g. values, prejudices, limitations, propensity to be critical of both work and people).
Day 2 began with a recap of issues raised on Day 1. After this, each participant was asked to outline a project that they were either working on, or would like to; these formed the basis of a group discussion, looking at the multiplicity of issues that arose (practical, legal, financial, ethical, emotional). This was followed by another individual writing exercise, which was then transformed into a group exercise. The day concluded with general discussion of practicalities in terms of further training, funding etc.
A fascinating couple of days, and a valuable introduction to an area of work in which I have no experience whatsoever. And it was certainly clear that considerations which apply to the setting up of writing groups in clinical/penal contexts would certainly apply in the “outside” world – the importance of creating an atmosphere of mutual respect, the need to have clear outcomes in mind, the tricky issue of getting paid for your work etc. The course may have focussed on “vulnerable” would-be writers in formal therapeutic settings; but one doesn’t have to be in an institution to feel vulnerable, to feel the need to use self-expression as therapy, and to want to seek out a supportive environment in which to do so.