Creativity for wellness seems to be a hot topic right now. In 2018 the APPGAHW (the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing – catchy huh?) published the results of their three-year study. Just the other day, it was reported that the Great British Creativity Test – commissioned by BBC Arts in partnership with UCL – has explored for the first time how creative activities can help us manage our mood and boost wellbeing. Everywhere we look, there seem to be newsflashes telling us what many of us feel we’ve known for ever: engaging with the arts is good for us.
The idea of creative writing as a form of therapy, of writing as catharsis, is not new. As a precocious, pretentious teenager, I liked to christen new notebooks with the following quote from 16thcentury French writer and philosopher Michel de Montaigne:
‘Writing does not cause misery; it is born of misery.’
(I know; I was insufferable). The stereotype of the tortured artist conjures images of laudanum-addled poets as well as depressed artists and angst-ridden musicians. There’s a commonly-held belief that any kind of creative expression, though perhaps writing in particular, is driven by some sort of need to exorcise one’s demons.
When I trained a few years ago as a psychotherapeutic counsellor, I came to recognise that creative writing, which I’d practised since childhood, and to a lesser extent journaling, were important tools for my own self-care. I became increasingly curious about ‘joining up’ my two chief areas of interest: writing and therapy, but for something more positive than exorcism and expurgation. I wondered whether I could help others use writing as a tool to protect and maintain, perhaps even improve, mental and emotional wellness.
In 2017 I started to explore how this might look in a workshop setting, and ran a few trial sessions in a local wellbeing centre. I had recently started facilitating women’s writing groups for So:write (http://artfulscribe.co.uk/blog-category/women-s-writing), and as the trust within those groups was building, I noticed some of the sessions were starting to feel a little like therapy, as voices were found and stories shared.
Since 2018 I have been running Writing for Wellness programmes at Farnham Maltings. A lot of people coming along for the first time, or contemplating joining the course, might wonder how a ‘writing for wellness’ workshop will look and feel. The Great British Creativity Test research shows there are 3 main ways we use creativity as a coping mechanism:
- A distraction tool – using creativity to avoid stress.
- A contemplation tool – using creativity to give us the mind space to reassess problems in our lives and make plans.
- A means of self-development to face challenges by building up self-esteem and confidence.
Funnily enough I think the workshops hit these three marks. Exercises roughly fall into three categories:
- Writing for joy / playfulness (distraction) – remember as a kid playing ‘Consequences’, that game where you wrote a line and folded the paper over and passed it to a friend? We do things like that.
- Writing linked to particular emotional ‘themes’ eg relationship difficulties; grief and loss. This might include journaling or letter writing (contemplation).
- Writing for its own sake. We look at different types of writing, perhaps less well-known forms of poetry or fiction, discuss them and have a go ourselves. We share words with each other; we pick random prompts from a hat and see where they take us; we write without concern for grammar or spelling or punctuation for a set period of time with no other purpose than to feel the scratch of pen on paper.
Of course sometimes a bigger ‘purpose’ is discovered and we might create a longer piece, or consider working towards performance or publication. Whether that occurs or not, these exercises deliver on self-development.
No-one is forced to read their words aloud, although they are encouraged and supported to do so if they wish. Exercises are generally short and, I hope, inclusive and accessible. Writing for wellness is about first of all giving yourself permission; and next, being heard and not judged.
The feedback from participants last term included benefits such as:”more willing to be open and share” / “gained confidence in my own voice” / “more confident in my abilities to be creative”.
From my own perspective, I was compelled to start these groups to try to help others, but of course they help me, too. The following 3 facts are completely personal and true:
- Writing is one of the things, if not the thing, I most enjoy doing. (OK often the joy comes from having written, but sure, sometimes the process is fun)
- Writing is the thing that makes me feel most like me.
- Writing is the activity I most often put off, relegate to the bottom of the priority list.
So for me, part of the value of a Writing for Wellness class is the feeling at the end that goes a bit like this: YES. I just spent 2 hours doing something that is all about self-expression, that (mostly!) brings me joy, and that makes me feel better about myself and the world. And it’s a virtuous circle because the more I write, the more I want to write, and am reminded of all the benefits it brings.
One thing on which I still agree with my old pal Montaigne: writing does not cause misery. In fact writing well, and writing for wellness, can do just the opposite.