Writing for ourselves can be hugely therapeutic; it is something I have done, in various forms, all through my life. It helps us to remember, to understand, to uncover memories and feelings previously unconscious or forgotten, enabling us to make new sense of ourselves and our experiences. But what are the benefits of writing in a group setting?.
Like many other practices for which groups of people come together – exercise, craftwork, meditation or singing, for example – the experience of writing as part of a group can energise and challenge us, and opens up huge opportunities for change and growth. To find the courage to read out loud something you have written to a group of people you may never have met before requires feeling that it is safe to do so; the sense of validation on being heard, in a respectful and accepting way can be very moving, and when others venture to share observations or ask questions about what they have heard, the potential for shifts in life-perspectives or entrenched ways of being is opened up.
You may think that the role of running a Writing for Wellbeing workshop is to set tasks and then assess performance, hilighting output that impresses and offering tips for improvement, all whilst keeping to a strict time-table. Nothing could be further from the truth! Though time-management is an important part of holding the boundaries of the day, for example, not allowing a single voice to dominate, a facilitator is not there to sit in judgement, nor to ‘therapize’ group members, but to enable them to feel safe enough to feel they might be able to risk reading out loud something they have written, sharing it with the rest of the group.
In order for this to happen, confidentiality is an important boundary to be clearly laid out at the start. It must be respected that everything that is shared during the day is personal, and hence go no further. Permission is given to let go of all the ‘normal’ rules we’re encumbered by when we put pen to paper – writing in full sentences, using correct grammar and punctuation, writing legibly – after all, group participants are the only ones who will be reading what they’ve written – or thinking carefully about sentence construction before we write it down. ‘People will write what they need to write if they are given permission and a safe, supportive, confidential, stretching environment where they are trusted and their responsibility and authority is respected’, wrote Gillie Bolton in her book, ‘Write Yourself’ (2001). The power and energy can then be created by the group itself, with the facilitator, in line with the role of a therapist, operating as an enabler and a holder of boundaries, but in an unobtrusive and sensitive way.
In group settings, everyone has gathered for a common purpose, to explore themselves through their writing. Having paid a fee and committed to time out under the care and guidance of a trusted other, a commitment is being made that could struggle to assert itself if left to be stuck to alone. So often we feel fired up at the start of the year and buy an annual gym membership, full of good intent, only to find ourselves drawing to a halt only a few weeks in. The same can be said of committing to the setting aside of regular, solitary time for reflective writing; without someone managing the clock-watching for us, we can find ourselves distracted – by the phone, by our emails, by food, or just allowing our minds to wander to something else.
Writing together, with time and subject constraints, followed by joint reflection on what has been produced will always yield surprising and illuminating results, and a sense of something satisfactory having been gained from a shared experience at the end of the day.