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“Writing gave me back joy” – How writing for self-expression can foster well-being

An interview with RLF Fellow Lisa Evans, who runs Writing for Self-Expression workshops alongside charity Doctors in Distress.

RLF Fellow Lisa Evans
  • 8 February, 2024

“It’s all about people expressing or discovering what kind of stuff they’ve got in the back catalogue of themselves, the wealth of images and people and story that we all carry,” says Lisa Evans.

Lisa, an award-winning playwright, is one of several RLF Fellows who run Writing for Self-Expression workshops, where writing is used to foster well-being. Lisa’s workshops collaborate with the charity Doctors in Distress and are aimed at people in the medical profession, although the RLF also collaborates with other healthcare and community organisations.

Lisa explains that Writing for Self-Expression workshops “help people think about their life and put their thoughts and feelings into words.” Unlike creative or academic writing workshops, the concern is not with the end product. It’s simply writing to develop personal awareness, resilience and well-being, as she put it in a blog for Doctors in Distress.

There are usually four 90-minute workshops in one course, and in the first workshop Lisa gave, three participants described themselves as “broken”. “I found that absolutely tragic,” she says.  It’s no secret that people in the medical profession are under immense strain, and as one of the participants says, “We are not encouraged nor is it even acknowledged that we could be more creative.”

Another participant, Emergency Medicine Registrar Jenny Gaiawyn, says, “When I’m particularly unwell with my mental health, I find writing workshops a very useful way of taming the thoughts in my head and giving me more focus, as well as just having a chance to be creative and having time out from my personal life and the chaos that is the NHS.”

“It is incredibly positive: one woman said these workshops gave her back joy. Not only did the group come up with hugely emotional stuff but beautiful, beautiful writing.”

One of the reasons why the workshops work so well is because of the structure. The group start with icebreakers – short writing exercises – before being asked to work on longer pieces. They can share their writing if they wish, although there is no pressure to do so. For instance, one poem Lisa used in a session was I Come From by Dean Atta, inspired by Robert Seatton’s poem of the same title, originally published in 2006. The participants were then invited to write a poem of their own, each line beginning with I come from.

I come from waving the white flag to loneliness
I come from the rainbow flag and the union jack
I come from a British passport and an ever-ready suitcase

I Come From by Dean Atta
Atta, D. (2019) I Come From, Feminist Dissent, 4, pp. 158-159

One of the participants, Sam, says, “We talked about the migrant experience, and I felt the facilitator had thought about how, within the NHS, people come from loads of different places and have different backgrounds. The way she did it was carefully thought out.”

 

Sam says, “The workshops took you on a psychological journey from down in the basement of your psyche and then it moved further up as the weeks went on – from the depths up into love.” Lisa says, “It is incredibly positive: one woman said these workshops gave her back joy. Not only did the group come up with hugely emotional stuff but beautiful, beautiful writing.”

Another participant described how she came to the workshops at an extremely difficult time: “I was struggling with burnout and processing a clinical incident. And because it was all people who work within health care, the creative writing group felt like an empathetic and sympathetic space where people can genuinely understand what you might be alluding to or referring to.”

Jenny agrees: “The advantage of doing something within a group specifically aimed at doctors or health care professionals is you can be more authentic. There’s still such a huge stigma around mental health, particularly among the medical professional. As a doctor, I’m supposed to heal myself, and for patients to see that their doctor has mental health problems is frightening. You have to shield others from what’s actually going on in your mind, whereas if you’re in a group of fellow professionals, you can be yourself.”

Another of the participants agrees, saying that in their role, they’re not often given the time, space or encouragement to interrogate difficult issues creatively or expressively, adding, “It was very nice to come at some of these painful topics obliquely instead of facing them.”

Each workshop in the series often focuses on a different theme. Lisa included the poem, Beannacht or Blessing, by John O’Donohue in one of the last sessions. The participants were asked to write a blessing for someone else or themselves.

…may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

Beannacht / Blessing by John O’Donohue
from Echoes of Memory (Transworld Publishing, 2010)

“I thought the workshops were perfect,” says Sam. Jenny adds, “I feel really privileged that Doctors in Distress and the RLF work together to offer support to those of us who are a bit broken.”

For Lisa personally, the experience of running these workshops has been in her words, wonderful. “I felt useful, which, as a playwright, frankly, I don’t feel too often. Being in an online room full of people and making them feel all right was a skill I didn’t know I had.”


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