Writing and wellbeing

DH Lawrence famously observed that “one sheds one’s sicknesses in books”, which in his case was demonstrably true. But for the rest of us, what is the relationship between writing and wellbeing? 

Last week, I delivered a presentation at Reminiscence Network East’s annual conference, on the subject of Creative Writing and Dementia.  My literature research into this area had been inspired by Writing Home, a project I am currently involved with which takes place between May and July this year and is a partnership between Essex County Council and Essex Dementia Care.

For the past year or so, I have also been facilitating a series of monthly writing workshops alongside a storyteller and an audio artist at a hospice in Essex, as part of a Creative Hub.  In this setting, and with the trust that is gained by meeting a group of people regularly over months, the vital role writing can play in an individual’s life has become evident.  Through the act of writing and sharing their stories, some participants have found a way of reflecting on the value of their lives up to this point, and of leaving a poignant and lasting legacy to future generations of their family, stories that might otherwise never have seen the light of day.

I have also been working recently with a Bereavement Service, bringing bereaved people together within a safe and supportive environment to write down and then share some of their resonant memories, feelings and thoughts, prompted by a range of writing exercises.  The results that emerge – invariably highly charged and emotive – are sometimes breathtakingly powerful in their honesty and simplicity, a reminder that all stories start, according to WB Yeats in The Circus Animals’ Desertion, “in the foul rag and bone shop of the heart”.

For anyone who would like to find out more about the field of therapeutic writing, I would recommend reading some of the many excellent titles published by specialist imprint Jessica Kingsley Publishers.  Bloomsbury also publishes a range of titles in this area, including the transformationalWriting Your Self by Myra Schneider and John Killick.

For people wishing to explore this subject further and perhaps to link up with fellow practitioners in their region, I would strongly recommend joining the ‘words for wellbeing’ organisation Lapidus.  As well as an informative journal, it has a lively Facebook forum and will help bring you up to speed on current events, activities and best practice in this challenging and highly rewarding field.

On a personal note, whenever I am able to write in a regular and sustained way I find that I am on better terms with myself.  The writing becomes rewarding in its own right; process rather than product, journey rather than destination.  It can even have a spiritual dimension, as adherents of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way will attest.  The alternative, as Dorothea Brande notes in her inspirational writing guide Becoming a Writer, is to drop back “into a life with no creative outlet, unhappy, thwarted, and restless”.

Perhaps this connection between writing and being on good terms with oneself is what Zadie Smith was driving at when she commented: “Good writing requires – no, demands – good being.  I’m absolutely adamant on this point”.

What role does writing play in your life? Does it contribute to your sense of wellbeing? 

Do let me know please, by replying to this post.

A fuller version of this post can be found here.

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What are literary festivals for?

Like some irresistible, fast-spreading fungal disease, literary festivals have sprung up all over the country in recent years while we weren’t looking.  Every city, town and even large village throughout the UK now boast its own annual literary gathering where, it would appear, the chattering classes meet to listen to an author, drink some indifferent wine, stand in a queue for the obligatory signed copy of an overpriced hardback then disappear into the night wrapped in a cloak of cultural self-improvement.

So what lies behind this exponential surge in popularity?  What purpose do literary festivals serve?  Wasn’t Margaret Atwood right when she observed in Negotiating with the Dead that “Wanting to meet an author because you like his work is like wanting to meet a duck because you like pâté”?  Surely the authentic relationship between reader and writer is one convened quietly and privately, via the page or the reading device and not at a public event?  “Literature”, as the pioneering Writers’ Centre Norwich observed in its successful bid for Norwich to become England’s first UNESCO World City of Literature, is “a quiet art form”.  So why do we need public literary events and festivals at all?

One reason is that they bring people together face to face. Catching up with the latest episode of your favourite Danish crime TV drama on the commuter train is all very well, but it’s a one-way exchange between voyeur and viewed.  At a literary event, you get to meet your heroes, find out new things about them, discover writers you were previously unaware of, and enjoy chance meetings with people who share your passion for books.

Another reason is that many festivals provide much more than traditional author events, offering writing workshops, debates, literary lunches, walks and more.  Take the month long Essex Book Festival which takes place throughout the county each March.  For this year’s festival, I have programmed a Writers’ Day on Sat 8 March which has proved extremely popular. The participants will enjoy ‘taster session’ workshops from Juliet Pickering on How to Find an Agent; on Writing in the Digital Age from social media expert Carla Watkins; on Is There a Book In You? by Dr. Alison Baverstock and on How to Get Published by Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook editor Alysoun Owen. As well as author talks, the festival also includes a crime writing workshop How to Plot the Perfect Murder, a range of thought-provoking events hosted by the University of Essex, one of the festival’s key partners, and a selection of children’s events in partnership with Chelmsford’s Just Imagine Story Centre, an enterprising local bookshop with a zeal for igniting young people’s imaginations through books and storytelling.

It’s all very well relying on Amazon-style algorithms to tell you that if you like X then you’ll love Y but some of the most original and valuable book recommendations I’ve heard in recent years have come from attending author events.  Last year I heard novelist Evie Wyld read at an event hosted by Suffolk Book League.   She is also appearing in this year’s Essex Book Festival.  And I doubt I would ever have stumbled across the work of one of her favourite authors – Australian novelist Tim Winton, a dedicated environmentalist and author of nuanced and immersive books such as Shallows, Cloudstreet and the Booker-shortlisted The Riders – any other way than being in the audience on that stormy autumnal evening.

On occasions, literary festivals bring academia and the public together in fresh and unexpected ways.  The inimitable Worlds Literature Festival in Norwich, for instance, includes a writers’ conference in which academics and writers discuss contemporary literary issues by day, whilst evening events are opened up the public and expert writers offer daytime workshops to complement the mix.

So what are literary festivals for?  Well, maybe I’ll ask Margaret Atwood herself when she appears at UEA’s Spring 2014 Literary Festival on Wednesday 26 February to read from MaddAddam.  Despite being vegetarian and not a huge fan of pâté, I couldn’t resist buying a ticket the day they went on sale.  Quiet art form or not, this is one duck I’m not going to miss. 

A fuller version of this post appears on the Writers’ and Artists’ blog, hereImage

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What do writers need?

Within the last week, I’ve delivered some one-to-one coaching sessions with writers and aspiring writers at Menagerie’s new writing festival ‘Sparks’ in Cambridge and have co-hosted the full-to-capacity Writers’ Café at University Campus Suffolk as part of Ipswich’s annual Ip-art festival.  It’s set me thinking a lot this week about what writers need to help them develop.

In his excellent and characteristically down-to-earth memoir On Writing, Stephen King advises would-be writers that “You need the room, you need the door, and you need the determination to close the door”. 

Chris Gribble, CEO of Writers’ Centre Norwich, recently retweeted what is probably the most succinct and effective writing advice ever given:

  1. Read a lot.
  2. Write a lot.
  3. Repeat steps 1 & 2 as necessary.
  4. Get lucky.
  5. Stay lucky.

So what is it that writers, across all genres, need in order to progress their art, or craft?  Certainly, all of the above are useful pointers.  And there are all sorts of interconnected support structures, including:

Mentoring schemes (see, for example, Escalator Literature, an Arts Council scheme which supports writers in the east of England)

Joining a local writing group to get feedback on your work in progress and to counterbalance the isolation of writing by having some social time with other writers

Online writing courses –Newcastle’s Live Theatre has set up a pioneering online course, at http://www.beaplaywright.com , which is well worth a look

Find a writing buddy or writing partner – someone you can share ideas, agonies, rejection, elation with and with whom you can exchange critical feedback on your work in progress, or maybe even write in partnership.

Be inspired by undertaking a residential writing course in the particular genre you are writing or wanting to write in.  The Arvon Foundation is the UK’s most established provider of residential writing courses tutored by inspirational tutors, and all set in atmospheric, rural locations dotted around the country – from Devon to Invernesshire.  As someone who has benefited from two of these courses myself, I can’t praise them highly enough.

Get in touch with your regional literature development organisation – if you don’t know them already, just Google ‘literature development’ and the name of your region, or enquire through your regional Arts Council’s literature officer or equivalent and they will put you in touch.  In my own region, the Writers’ Centre Norwich offers an unparalleled service including continuing professional development workshops, short courses in fiction writing, a monthly literary salon, connections with the International Cities of Refuge Network, events such as the prestigious Worlds Festival, and lots more besides. 

Read an inspirational book – one I find myself constantly recommending to writers starting out is Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer which was published in the first half of the 20th Century but the insights it contains into the psychology of writing and taking oneself seriously as a writer are as fresh and empowering as if written yesterday.

Book a coaching session.  I am a coach myself so I would say this, wouldn’t I, but I passionately believe in the power of coaching to support individuals in achieving their creative potential – by offering a safe, supportive and challenging space in which to explore their personal, professional and creative development.  Relational Dynamics 1st lists a number of arts coaches throughout theUK.

As well as coaching, there are a number of mentoring schemes and organisations available throughout the UK, from established consultancies like The Literary Consultancy and Jill Dawson’s highly respected mentoring service Gold Dust to new ones such as www.thewritingsmithy.co.uk, set up by poet Sarah Hymas and novelist Jenn Ashworth.  Information about both coaching and mentoring schemes are available through The Writer’s Compass (formerly literaturetraining.com) which is now part of NAWE:

Anyone serious about writing and literature development would be well advised to join the National Association of Literature Development (NALD) who bring together literature professionals from across the country, report on current developments in literature development and produce a quarterly newsletter which is highly informative about what is happening in the sector.  If your writing practice involves the education sector, then membership of (National Association for Writers in Education) NAWE is essential.

Join an online writing community.  Write Words is one I’ve known for a long time, and a new one I found about about last year is Quilliant.  If you are interested in writing for the stage, I strongly recommend you join the Bush Theatre’s online community Bushgreen  which brings together writers of all sorts of experience and style in a dynamic and accessible way, and the BBC’s Writersroom has a wealth of information (all free of charge) including interviews, downloadable scripts, writing tips and details of how to submit your work to the BBC.

I could go on (and apologies to those organisations I haven’t space to mention!)…

But have I addressed the question I posed at the beginning of this blog post:  What do writers need?  Perhaps not.  All of the ideas above, and more, can certainly be harnessed to help you as a developing writer.  But what’s the main thing a writer needs? 

Well, I think the most important thing is to build writing into the fabric of your life so that it becomes an essential part of who you are. 

And keep on with it – don’t lose heart.  As Stephen King so memorably puts it in his memoir: “Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position”.

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