Writing & Health: Writing for Groups

I recently completed this short course at the Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts at Newcastle University led by poet Cynthia Fuller.

In my job as an interaction designer at Northumbria School of Design’s Centre for Design Research, I spend a lot of time working to discover new and inspiring insights from the people involved in delivering and receiving current products and services, primarily in public sector and healthcare contexts. We want people to tell us their stories, to surprise us and give us leads on possible new approaches that could help GPs engage more effectively with their patients, and help those patients to take more control over their own health and wellbeing. My interest in undertaking this course originated in my work in this field.

In our weekly sessions during this course we have often discussed the potential dangers of writing exercises that ask the participant to explore their own experiences and memories. This can be difficult when the easiest way to begin an exercise is from the starting point of a common experience or piece of information that all of a group’s members are likely to share – such as an exercise we tried in class about telling the story of how and why your parents gave you your name. Even such a simple task could potentially prove distressing, for example for a person who was adopted or has become estranged from their parents.

One of the discussions I found most interesting during the course was around how critical a tutor or group leader should be of the quality of written work in a situation where the group’s main agenda is to bring about health and wellbeing benefits. The common view of the group was that it would be disrespectful of a tutor not to provide honest feedback and guidance that helps a participant to become a better writer. Indeed, treating a participant as ‘a writer’ rather than ‘a patient’ or ‘a carer’ could create the sense of a safe space offering respite from the duties and obligations attached to that person’s usual formal title.

The course is designed to equip students with understanding of the therapeutic benefits of creative writing workshops, and provide them with a method bank of exercises and tasks for use in group settings. I’ve been dipping my toes into the world of poetry (as many of my fellow students are predominantly poets) and it’s been really fascinating to explore the lines between therapeutic and literary writing.

Here’s a writing exercise that I came up with, based around the prompt images above – feel fry to try it out yourself or with a group, all you need is some random images of objects (or you could use actual physical objects):


Select a prompt from the envelope (or an image/object). Imagine an international day of celebration for your selected item.

• How does the day begin?
• How do people mark the occasion?
• Who do they celebrate with, and where?
• What do they eat?
• What do they wear?
• What gifts do they give to mark the occasion?

Spend 5 minutes writing about what happens on this Celebration Day. You can describe the different celebrations from around the world, or tell the story of the day from the point of view of one individual or family.

Here’s one of the pieces I wrote in response to set exercises in our group sessions:

CLARA sits waiting outside of an office on a row of seats. She checks her watch.

Fifteen minutes now. You might call that rude.
I understand, though.
If I’m quiet I can almost hear them in there but it doesn’t sound heated. It doesn’t sound like something that should take this long. So.


So, this is free time!
Minutes that the universe has gifted to me.
What do I do with these special bonus minutes?
I could go somewhere else.
Well, not in these here minutes but I could plan it.
Think about it, at least. I could close my eyes and be – where? Somewhere at night. And running. To get somewhere else. Running with someone, or to them. Like who?


Like where, then?
Well, not here. As far from here as possible.
As far as passport and bank balance allow.
As far as existing wardrobe will accommodate.
Because I don’t have any hot weather shoes and, blisters. I cannot stand blisters.
Somewhere lukewarm then.
Somewhere like here but just a little less so.
With galleries. With at least one gallery.
And I mean it doesn’t have to be grand, I don’t want Da Vincis or anything just something I haven’t seen here, that hasn’t done the circuit that always takes this place in. Starts there, comes here, goes on to so-and-so.


I’ve never actually been to so-and-so.
That’s quite bad isn’t it? When it’s so nearby.
When it has all the things I like.
The shops and the restaurants and the cinema and the theatre, just like here. They’ve got all of that there too. And it’s not that far when you drive. You could be there and back in a day, probably in less than 3 hours. Like you’d hardly been anywhere at all.


There are beaches near here.
Trees. Woods, actual forests. Landmarks. Ruins. Castles.
There are rivers. Bridges. Towers.
Things to walk over, things to climb.
Things to jump into.

She checks her watch.

Sixteen minutes.

And here’s one of my attempts at poetry:

The batter before baking.

One half, or one whole?
She wavers.
Weighs out the rest to buy some time.
Raises up a cloud of flour
Rattles drawers for the unrusted cutters
Snaps out a length of parchment
and tears it hard against the cutting edge.

One whole it is.
Maybe a half more?
The scent takes her away
This narrow laminate galley becomes a spice bazaar
Clothing, hair, teeth
All coated and carried off
before a spoon’s been licked.

Too late, she puts up her hair
Ties on an apron
(pressing stray butter shavings
into permanent grease stains on garments below)
Forgets once more to wash her hands
Turns on the oven and stops to watch
The fan begin to purr

Heat reaches out for her and she knows
This is what the goods must do
Crack on biting, tingle on tongue
Make camp down low and sen out
Soft fire to each extremity
One more half.
And then another whole.