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Holdalls, Sheds And Pineapple Squidgies

Writing with non-writers’ groups

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

Two years ago, as writer in residence at York University’s Co-Motion Centre, I wrote poems inspired by research into older people who had undergone a life change such as ill health or bereavement and the effect this had had on their mobility and wellbeing. Academics reported that people with the same level of capacity had completely different experiences depending on how they perceived themselves and how they felt perceived by others. One case study was of a visually impaired woman who stumbled in the street. A passer-by helped her up but then asked, perhaps with a good intention: ‘What are you doing out?’ The woman didn’t leave her house again for six months. I wrote about the woman in my sequence (T)here:

Imagine someone who is no one
in particular in a chair or
on sticks unwilling or unable
to walk when they can no longer 
drive. Imagine them having to
anyway; falling in the street
and someone helping them up,
saying what are you doing
out the house? Saying really
you shouldn’t be out — Imagine
them going back in then
(with nowhere to go but in).

The poems, which were displayed on buses in York and Newcastle, were aimed at encouraging people to be mindful of their fellow passengers.

At the end of the project and with some money left in the budget, my colleague at the University suggested I run writing workshops for people implicated by the research. I would be largely responsible for setting up the workshops myself and encouraging people to try creative writing who might not have done it before — which is not a case of offering something for free and having grateful punters queuing around the block, as many people reading this will know.

A few weeks later, I found myself giving a workshop in a care home on a windswept edge of York for residents in the early stages of dementia. I had turned up with a holdall full of props and a comprehensive workshop plan. My spirits were slightly dampened by a receptionist who looked at me askance and then said in a loud sotto voce to her colleague: ‘What am I meant to do with her?’ Finally, I was taken with my large and embarrassing holdall to a woman’s bedroom. ‘Do you write?’ I ventured. She began to say ‘No’ or maybe ‘Eh?’ just as a member of staff butted in: ‘Yes you do Mary; letters, don’t you?’ What the staff member was really saying was ‘Please take care of this do-gooder for me so I can get on with my job’.

Mary was wonderful as were other residents I met on that visit. We didn’t write but I read a couple of poems in an unnervingly quiet dayroom, more as an aid to conversation. The act of poetry is the act of paying attention — I had often trotted out that line in workshops. Here, it felt like we were pushing the idea to its limits. Poetry was perhaps what we were doing in its widest sense. Or was it therapy, or were some women kindly helping me use up a bit of surplus research budget while we had a life-affirming chat? Who was helping who? I had no idea.

Spurred on by the experience, a year later, I facilitated a series of writing workshops in County Durham: some were open public groups in libraries while others were in locations including a veterans’ group and a hospice. As well as the practical challenge of turning up at far-flung places, there was an additional element of surprise in one town where a bus stop had been stolen and I couldn’t work out where to queue for my journey home. There was also the issue of not knowing quite what I was walking into or what people were expecting. I had tried when liaising with groups not to over-promise, but poetry can be a difficult sell. I needed a few people around a table to be quorate and was happy for them to come along and listen in, write diaries, ransom notes, pleas for help, whatever. I was safe in the knowledge that, working primarily with older adults, I was unlikely at least to be asked to rap.

I usually started each session by unpacking my bag of props and laying a selection of gift-wrapped objects on the table which had the effect of breaking the ice. However, it did make me feel a little like a kids’ entertainer trying to win over a crowd. At one session I caught sight of an older man’s baffled face as he unwrapped a pineapple squidgy toy and began to wonder if I had too many bells and whistles and not enough content.

Many sessions were themed around childhood which produced evocative writing such as this from a story ‘Catapults, Mudslingers and Car Bonnets’ by Terry Franks who participated in an open library session:

An alternative form of entertainment was using old car bonnets to slide down the steep sides of the pit heaps that sloped to the beach.

Elsewhere, a walk in Tow Law produced a group poem which yielded the following meditation on colour:

Blue is a word a verbal concept, 
Anywhere from violet magenta to green,
Cornflower... scabious... harebell... geranium... knapweed and clover

Some people say at the outset they aren’t going to write. ‘Writing is the wife’s thing’ one man kindly told me and then started showing me photos of his shed. I felt guilty for interrupting a weekly session which for him was a lifeline. I could have happily chatted sheds for an hour. At the same time, some people do want to take part and if others don’t participate (some don’t participate more noisily than others) it can affect the group dynamic. At one session, a lot of people said they weren’t going to write and the feeling spread alarmingly quickly around the table. I felt that having turned up to a writing session, some of them at least must want to get involved. In the end, we dived in to some automatic writing with no pressure to produce anything or read out, but people did, sharing work about everything from the school nit nurse to travelling through Russia in their youth.

Not wanting to get started is a scenario common to many writing groups but it is particularly the case perhaps where some people may be battling negative memories of school and writing, as well as health issues, which can make it an achievement to have got through the door. Occasionally people left the group – one time en masse for a cigarette break when I had just set up a writing exercise – and I wasn’t sure if they were coming back.

A creative writing workshop can only achieve so much. It is important to be aware of your own skills and limitations and not regard groups as a personal challenge to be won over for the sake of your ego. One women’s group nearly broke into a row when I was there although the session eventually went smoothly. The next time I visited – feeling sure they would all come along – no one turned up. It’s not personal, you say to yourself. Of course it’s not, but of course it is, too.

Working with people, some of whom are undergoing life challenges (and who isn’t or won’t be at some point?) shows what writing can achieve while simultaneously putting writing in its place. Nowhere more so than in a session with a visually impaired group, where a young woman who was losing her sight told me she wanted to write because she could no longer paint, although that was her thing really. I also worked at a hospice with a group who had been writing a while: in a poem ‘Things to Do on a Rainy Afternoon’ one participant advises:

Establish a rogue state on bank holiday Monday
Flog a brass monkey instead of a donkey
Gyrate with your best mate on amphetamine sulphate

Over a decade ago, I did a residency at a fire service and felt as I changed into my uniform inside a vehicle rushing to a 999 call that poetry had given me access to a world I would never have otherwise encountered. I felt the same with some of these groups. Occasionally I also had a sensation of being rushed along at a rate of knots and struggling to stay upright. Writing isn’t exactly an emergency service (at the fire station I was given a tabard with the word ‘observer’ to make it clear I was no help in a life-and-death situation). Sometimes in care homes and hospices I suspected I was also bystanding while other people and the participants themselves got on with the real work. More than anything though, I felt privileged to be there and to be able to share in the life-affirming act of creative writing; as one participant emailed me afterwards: ‘I go everywhere with a notebook now’.

Anna Woodford’s poetry collections are Changing Room (2018) and Birdhouse (2010). She has won an Authors’ Foundation award, an Eric Gregory award, a PBS recommendation, an Arvon/Jerwood apprenticeship and two Northern Writers’ awards. Her poetry sequence (T)here was displayed on buses in Newcastle and York.

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