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How creative writing helps make sense of the world and improve mental health, from prisoners to the public service workforce.
Haf Bach Mihangel, St Michael’s Little Summer, as St Michael’s day is September 29th. More widely known as an Indian Summer, it’s a period of summer’s warmth and light as Autumn grips. It was also the title of Adult Learning Wales’ Late Summer School and we at the Good Practice Exchange were on hand with a little technical support.
One of the sessions we supported was a fascinating talk by author Sian Northey [opens in new window] on the relationship between writing and wellbeing. In her talk she mentioned that writers can often think they’re writing about one thing, but are actually writing about something else altogether and much closer to home. To emphasise her point she described the thunderbolt of realisation when writing her first volume of short stories, that a seemingly innocuous passage about the dislocation and loss of self, felt by a woman on a long space journey, was actually about her own marriage.
She went on to describe how she had worked with prisoners at HMP Berwyn. The creative writing sessions held in the prison library were usually well attended, because there were biscuits and because it was a chance for prisoners to do something in Welsh. Recent news stories [opens in new window] serve as a reminder that being able to use your native language should not be taken for granted. The sessions were also a chance for the inmates to let their guard down a little. This letting down of their guard was an insight into their ‘whole’ selves, not just their prison personas and facilitated by the written word.
It has long been known and advocated that hobbies, especially creative hobbies are a good way of relieving stress and giving a sense of mastery and control in a chaotic, busy world. A world no less chaotic and busy because of COVID-19. It is only the boundaries that have changed.
Creative hobbies especially have a way of transporting us from our lives. To use reading and writing again as an example: A central plank of Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series of novels is Thursday, the main character’s ability to transport herself between worlds. The mechanism for doing this is the moment where a reader starts to hear the birds singing in the trees described on a page, start to smell the grass and feel the sunshine. The next moment she has been transported into the book and has to be careful that she doesn’t affect the plot.
That transcendent moment of losing all sense of time in deep focus is the freeing nature of a hobby or leisure activity. In the same way that reaching a spectacular viewpoint whilst mountain walking is a transcendent moment that erases the journey’s time and struggle.
When we engage with a creative task we engage with the work on many levels, both consciously and unconsciously. The simple act of writing about your day serves as a way of processing the day’s events. The act of writing someone a letter, without any intention of sending it is a recognised technique to get thoughts and feelings out of your head, and onto a page. The important thing is to get them out. To process.
For at least the last 12 years, the budgets of Wales’ public services have been shrinking steadily. The nature of the services themselves have also changed beyond recognition, with this present emergency causing the pace of change and adaptation to increase further. With change comes both stress and opportunity, and resultant concerns about staff wellbeing and support.
A perennial goal of any organisation seems to be finding out what the staff actually think; are they really satisfied with their roles and is everyone aligned and pulling together to achieve the objectives? How engaged are they with their jobs and organisation? In the end a leader wants to know if the workforce support them and their decisions.
Would it then be worth trying to engage staff creatively, with no connection to their work? To use techniques of free expression to allow them to communicate honestly, both consciously and subconsciously. To allow people to communicate freely, both with themselves and the world within a safe space.
I wonder what we’d learn.
Sion Owen is a Knowledge Exchange Officer with the Good Practice Exchange. He joined Audit Wales in November 2019, and previously worked at a local authority