collaborative reading & writing to end isolation
Reading and writing are often considered solitary activities. There are, however, many ways of reading and writing in groups that can help end isolation. In my journaling and writing groups at the Maggie Cancer Care Centre, we often start with a short piece of prose or poetry, and we read it aloud once, taking turns, then a second time, and, if it’s short, a third time. I like hearing all the voices in the room. This begins the establishment of social bonds and trust. After talking about what we read, we usually do our own writing which could lead to a group poem as described by Cheryl Moskowitz in Writing Works.
Another way of collaborating I often use is called The Web of Words devised by Graham Hartill, fully described in The Self on the Page and available from Lapidus Scotland as a leaflet in which this exercise is used to explore the theme of racism. Web of Words celebrates every person’s right to speak, and be listened to, regardless of their confidence in reading or writing.
And sometimes an Object Lesson is the way I facilitate word-sharing: Find an object – ideally outside. Sit with it for a time and let it look at you! Then ask the following questions: How heavy is it? What shape is it? What does it feel like? What colour is it? What does it sound like, smell like? What is its name? What is inside it? What use is it? How old is it? Where did it used to belong? What does it dream about? How does it relate to your childhood? How does it relate to the future?
The mind is so hospitable that thoughts and feelings
are coming and going incessantly
bringing in their wake incremental changes. John Ashberry
This could lead to collective storytelling, passing the objects around the group, individual writing followed by collective reading aloud. One of my favourite collaborative ways of working with a group on the Object Lesson theme starts with a poem by Susan Donnelly:
If I don’t catch it
right now, the look of the bay
at the lowest tide,
with the sun stamping on it,
the uncovered sand like clay,
if I let it go
for some more important thing,
or just look away
for a bit, meaning to note it
when I’ve first done something else,
only my mind’s eye
will be left to remember,
when the tide has turned,
how the whole bay looked
like a great shell lying there
all blue, brown, silver
and how I needed to shape
something I could hold
and keep, maybe, from those few
moments before it all changed.
At the end of a group we read this poem twice aloud, each person reading a stanza, then I give the following instruction (which is written below the poem and everyone has a copy):
Writers need something to hold and keep. Find a small object you have held and kept to help you hold onto an experience. Use the object as stimulus for writing or storytelling. What strength or solace did you derive from this object? Bring your writing/story and your object to the next workshop. (from Giving Sorrow Words – poems of strength and solace.)
Whenever I’ve offered this prompt, almost everyone comes back with an object and, if someone wasn’t at the previous session, they often have a keepsake in their bag. Taking turns each person passes their object around the group – feeling it, touching it, smelling it . . . then they begin writing and reflecting for three minutes: “if this were my object, why would I be keeping it, what does it mean to me”. The person who brought the object remains silent as she listens to the stories about her object from everyone in the group. Then she tells or reads her story. This prompt stimulates the imagination as well as promoting empathy.
The most versatile collaborative form I’ve used over and over in places as diverse as a prison, a forest, a walk along a beach, or a hospice is called “Renga”. Renga is a game; there are rules and there are roles. It is 1000 year old Japanese form or shared writing. The essence of renga is in the idea of change. It encourages collaborative composition working in pairs or small groups. Each verse is written in the spirit of haiku, in the present tense, and from the world of sensation and perception. Expression should be direct and straightforward.
Renga writers are encouraged to use their senses throughout: to smell and taste the tea, to listen to sounds.
“The poem should be written in the present tense and should conform to the poetic values of haiku. Thoughts, ideas and overt metaphors are not normally appropriate; it is better to create the poem from the immediacy of sensation and perception; work with natural images; and express yourself in a direct and uncluttered way.” Alec Finlay and Martin Lucas.
In the Simple Renga there are no further formal requirements. The two key principles of renga are link and shift. Link means that each verse should connect in some way with its immediate predecessor. Shift means that, with the exception of the link just noted, each verse should move on, drawing on imagery which is new (for that particular renga). That is, repetition is to be avoided. Even when linking, although there will be some implicit connection, actual words and phrases should not be repeated. The overall effect of a renga is a scattered mosaic of images with changing episodes of atmosphere.
A few notes on Haiku:
―Haiku arise out of unguardedness, occurring when the writer is least identified with the idea of being a poet. They rely on plain language, immediacy, objectivity, and openness and invite the reader to participate as an equal.
―a haiku needs to be firmly of the here & now, to be able to come true, to evoke not provoke.
―The natural limit of a haiku is the span of one breath – not as a measurement of time, but as a moment of coming and going.
―The haiku creates a circular narrative that brings you back to where you started.
―The best haiku hint at something beyond. If haiku is to be defined at all, it is defined by the creative potential of what is left unsaid.
In my role as facilitator, I am also a participant. I read and write along with everyone in the group. When sharing raw writing, I make it clear that each person has a choice to share or not share, to share a little or share it all (writing). And whatever is shared is confidential. Although I will have designed a full programme, I am always ready to ditch it after the first few minutes of a group. I never really know what I’m going to do till I see the whites of their eyes! I listen to the informal chat and usually a first prompt will arise from what is happening in the room. When reading aloud, if someone begins by apologising or denigrating what they are about to read – I encourage them to give a donation to the Maggie Centre.
Moskowitz, Cheryl: “Group Poem: The Making of a Group” in Bolton, Gillie, Victoria Field and Kate Thompson, eds. (2006) Writing works: a resource handbook for therapeutic writing workshops and activities. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, pp. 51-53
Hartill, Graham: ‘The Web of Words’: collaborative writing and mental health; in The Self on the Page, ed. Celia Hunt and Fiona Sampson (London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 1998) pp 47-61
Donnelly, Susan: Tide in Giving Sorrow Words (National Association for Poetry Therapy – 2002)
Renga: for more information on http://www.renga-platform.co.uk/: and http://www.lindafrance.co.uk/article/renga.html