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Writing For Survival

Creative writing for wellbeing

Writing for Survival

Why do we write? There are many motivations, some more noble than others; to tell a story, to express one’s art, to explore an intellectual or academic issue, to attempt to become famous or celebrated or simply to pay the bills. In most cases, these reasons are arrived at through choice. For some people, however, there are more compelling reasons; to protest injustice, to expose wrongdoing, to make sense of something that has had or is having an acute effect on the writer. These reasons arguably add a legitimacy to the act of writing with which the mere desire to entertain or to become rich cannot compete.

Three years ago, I became involved with the Scottish arm of an international organisation called Lapidus. Lapidus exists to promote creative writing as a means of enhancing wellbeing, particularly among people who are either facing up to or recovering from serious ill health, both physical and mental. The aims of Lapidus are broadly similar to those of music therapy or art therapy organisations and charities. Involvement with some of the projects developed and delivered by Lapidus Scotland showed me that the act of creative writing could be used to support much more acute personal needs than I had previously thought possible.

Lapidus Scotland began their work in the late 1990s. The organisation aims to ‘offer a creative approach to supporting self-management of long-term conditions’, such as ‘mild to moderate depression, isolation, dementia, recovery from stroke and other illnesses that impact on individual identity’. Lapidus attempts to do this by offering opportunities to use writing as a tool for reflection, self-discovery and emotional reconciliation with whatever is challenging the individual. Its range of activities sometimes appears under the catch-all term bibliotherapy though this term, with its vaguely ‘new age’ connotations, can sometimes cloud the practical value of the act of reading and writing as therapy, as opposed to recreation.

Bibliotherapy has been in the lexicon for over a century. In recent years it has been used as a cognitive intervention to treat certain forms of depression, and its efficacy has been researched in controlled experiments since the 1990s. It focuses more on the reading of set texts rather than creative writing. The act of therapeutic writing – for self-knowledge or catharsis – is arguably a response to similar motivations to those that led the writers of so-called ‘misery memoirs’ to publish their stories. At the vanguard of this literary phenomenon was Dave Pelzer’s harrowing but inspirational autobiography A Child Called It, which first appeared in 1995. Such misery memoirs seemed to tap into a public hunger to be inspired by tales of survival in the face of adversity. Some books in this genre were laden with gratuitously shocking details of abuse or personal tragedy. Many though were written with the honest intention of setting out how the human spirit can defy even the most horrific personal circumstances.

The bibliotherapeutic work of Lapidus focuses mainly on the facilitation of writing rather than the prescribing of reading. The work of Lapidus Scotland centres on a range of projects, many of which have established themselves over several years under the stewardship of a small group of dedicated project leaders. Some Lapidus projects have gone on to become self-sustaining, with the project lead stepping back to allow their project to take its own direction.

As well as the input from project leads, professional writers sometimes act as guest facilitators for individual sessions. Modest funding from cultural organisations such as the Scottish Book Trust and local authorities allows these guest facilitators to be paid for their work. Contributions from these projects – prose, poetry and artwork – have been gathered in biannual anthologies curated by Lapidus Scotland members. These anthologies provide the contributors with the opportunity to see their work appear in print, often for the first time. The therapeutic value of this simple act of artistic validation, though difficult to measure in clinical terms, is significant.

I have had several glimpses into the practical work of Lapidus through my involvement as a guest workshop facilitator. In one such workshop I chose to focus on the idea of ‘Lifelines’, encouraging attendees to plot their lives as if they were a graph, showing peaks and troughs relating to happiness or fulfillment. The intended outcome was that these emotional swings over time could provide attendees with inspiration for their writing. This act of reflection was revelatory for myself — I responded to my own prompt and discovered things about my own emotional journey which I had never previously explored. Attendees indicated that they too had rarely considered their lives in this way.

My sense was that I was operating at the border where writing and therapy abut one another, a vague frontier where self-writing and self-help become almost interchangeable. In this instance, I was privileged to see the point where my modest facilitation skills lit a fire in the imaginations of attendees. I began to understand the value of the work of Lapidus in channelling the creative instinct into therapeutic action. Subsequent feedback was very heartening; modesty forbids my including it here, but it is enough to say that these workshops helped attendees to start to make sense of life events through encouraging them to respond creatively to them. One attendee asked for help in sharpening up the piece that they had written in response to the session, and a subsequent email conversation was very helpful to both of us in working on further drafts of their original material.

I had the privilege of editing the most recent Lapidus Scotland anthology Seven Journeys in 2021, and in reading through the work submitted I was conscious that each piece represented a personal triumph. The poetry and prose were often stark and uncompromising in the way it captured and described emotions in the face of adversity, but also brave, defiant and mature. The act of translating emotions into creative written testaments became part of the healing process, requiring courage from the writer as they shared some of their most personal thoughts and vulnerabilities. The piece I had helped an attendee to sharpen up (as described previously) made it into the anthology, allowing me the rare honour of being instrumental in its conception, present at its birth and in the audience for its coming of age at the launch of the anthology.

The value of these and other projects to the individuals who engage with them is evident in feedback. Many responses reflect on the way the membership of such communities offers the chance to share and discuss the issues which brought the individuals to the group. Responses also talk of the importance of ‘safe spaces’, of discovering one’s voice, and of the value of writing as part of a community.

If the value of Lapidus activities to participants is well-documented, what of the benefits to those who lead and deliver the projects? Most writers would be glad of a few good reviews or some healthy sales for their work, both of which would satisfy the reasons for writing I explored at the beginning of this article. Few professional writers, however, have the privilege of seeing their guidance and advice blossom in the lives of those for whom writing has become the key to day-to-day survival. Professional writers involved in Lapidus projects are enriched by seeing that their work as facilitators can make a genuine difference to the mental health and wellbeing of the individuals they work with. Few beneficiaries of Lapidus projects see their writing as a route to celebrity or financial reward, but all cherish the opportunities for self-expression and self-knowledge in the face of life’s most challenging plot twists. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have been able to see at first hand the power of creative writing to change the lives of ordinary people living though extraordinary circumstances.

Andy Jackson is author of three collections of poetry, most recently The Saints Are Coming (Blue Diode, 2020) and editor of a dozen anthologies. He also co-edits Poetry Scotland magazine.

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