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Creative Writing for Health and Wellbeing

Posted on February 25 2021



By Sabrina Mei-Li Smith

1. You, You, You!

Creative writing is an activity done alone and doesn’t require any sharing. Mostcreative endeavors encourage the author or artist to have a bit of a wonky first goand allow the creation of something a bit naff, so don’t expect to become poetlaureate with any first drafts, or to even like it. As the author though, you can choosewhat to create, how you feel about things, and how you want the writing to look,feel, and sound. And you don’t have to share it with anybody. You can keep copies,destroy them, or give them to anybody... ultimately, it’s yours, and you can do whatyou like with it. So go for it! You don’t have to shell out for expensive or specialistequipment. You only need a paper and pen - or a computer if you’re feelingextravagant – and some time. Don’t be frightened of the empty page. As a writer, Ipurposefully use scrappy, worn out notebooks - rather than posh moleskin ones -because I know everything I handwrite is a bit scruffy and trashy.

Exercise for Anxiety and/ or Depression: What’s bothering you? Using pen and paper, make a list of what’s bothering you about the world, or about a person, or about you. Go as deep as you like. Be as caustic as you want. Pour as much negative emotion as you can onto that paper. Now destroy it. Ruin it with a pen. Dunk it in water. Set fire to it. Tear it into little pieces. Just so long as it can never be read again. Feel a little better now?


2. Using memory for creative writing.

All writers use memory within their creative compositions. Whether it’s a highf a ntasy novel or a TV show set on Mars, an element of the authorship will rely on the author’s own personal experiences. Artist and writer, Joe Brainard, composed a short, innovative and unpretentious autobiography entitled ”I Remember”, which radically departed from the traditional form of the memoir in its simplicity. ”I Remember”contained representations of his childhood in 1950s America, his rise tof a me in the 1960s, and his account of coming out in the 1970s. Each entry consisted of a few short sentences that began with the words ‘I remember...’ and detailed large, small and inconsequential moments of his life. Here is an example (by me, not Joe): ‘I remember the smell of cheese and onion crisps.’ ‘I remember ten penny jam tarts at school on Friday lunchtime.’ ‘I remember my first day at university. I got lost around the huge campus and had to queue up for the cash machine. My bank didn’t do card payments then.’ Exercise for memory: Have a go yourself. Start each sentence with the phrase ‘I remember...’ If you’re stuck, concentrate on a certain topic. For example, ‘school/education’, ‘family’, ‘friends’, ‘culture’, ‘style’, ‘you’.


3. Writing yourself healthy.

Believe it or not, there have been extensive studies that suggest creative writing canhelp with physical ailments and mental wellbeing. Expressive writing can help withthe physical and emotional toll that illnesses and injury can bring. American socialpsychologist, James W. Pennebaker, conducted a series of studies with soldiers whoexperienced symptoms of PTSD and injury. Through specific expressive writingexercises, participants found their relationship with injury improved the more theywrote. I’ve adapted this approach in creative writing sessions and found it beneficialfor participants who experience mental health issues and fibromyalgia.

Exercise for Health and Wellbeing: Write a letter to an illness or injury you may havehad. This could be a cold or bug, a long-term illness, a mental health issue, an injury,an injury or illness that has stopped you from doing things in the short or long term,or even an accident. In your letter, consider: how it made/makes you feel (physically and/or emotionally), how you think you might have come across it, how it affects your levels of energy and/ or tiredness, how it affects your social life, and what you have learned from it. Use second-person narration in your letter (for example: ‘You make me feel...’). Now, write a second letter to yourself from the injury or illness.Explain the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ and apologize. This could ultimately give you a deeper understanding of the illness or injury.


4. Writing Description

As books are now page-turning, action-packed narratives, ‘description’ has become a bit of a bad word in contemporary fiction. However, description is a valuable tool for mindfulness and can be a great way to focus. So don’t worry when you write a description and it doesn’t match up with the last book you read. Experimental French writer, Georges Perec's ”An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris” is a book with no narrative. It is only a heavily descriptive list of what he sees, feels, hears,tastes, and smells in Saint-Sulpice Square in Paris in 1974. The aim was to document all the things which usually pass unnoticed, as they appear. This social and linguistice xperiment has been recreated by many writers, in different places all over the globe. I’ve used it in workshops with individuals who suffer from long-term mental health issues, and it helps with focus, concentration, ‘brain fog’, and changes to medication.

Exercise for focus and concentration: Find yourself somewhere outside to sit (if thew eather is nice) and record everything you see, hear, smell, touch, and taste. Only do this for about 20 minutes. If the weather is bad, sit inside and open a window.Record everything you can hear, see, and smell. Again, 20 minutes is ample time.


5. Free-writing

One of the things I miss about my non-lock down life is the workshops I ran in a localart gallery. Participants were encouraged to find a painting or photograph that theyfelt drawn to and simply take a few minutes to view it. They then were told todescribe what they saw and what they liked, using free-writing. Free-writing is atechnique where the author times themselves (say, 10 minutes) to write whatevercomes into their minds about a particular phrase, image, or stimuli. There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ Often, the stimuli are left behind in favor of imagination, but byusing the stimuli as a jumping off point, this can be a great tool to warm up our ownimaginations. It can help with creative and analytical thought, help ease anxiety anddepression, help with schizophrenia and mindfulness.

Exercise using free-writing: Find a picture online. This can be by a favorite artist orsimply a random image. While timing yourself for 10 minutes, write whatever comesinto your mind about the picture. Don’t worry if your focus drifts off to other things.Don’t let your pen leave the paper much. Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, orgrammar. And don’t go back and edit or re-read until the time is up.


6. Rewriting and re imagining

Christopher Booker stated there were only 7 different types of plot in all fiction, film,and television. His Jungian style theory offered a summary of human storytelling andits creative basics. So, if there are only 7 basic plots, the author is free to rewrite andre-examine any story, right? Often, we feel storytelling is ring-fenced by the ‘norm’or the accepted. But it’s not owned by anyone. Have you ever felt that there was amisrepresented story? As individuals, we need to see ourselves represented in thestories of humanity. And if we don’t recognize ourselves, then it can lead toproblems with identity, self-esteem, connections with others, and culturalstereotypes. Jean Rhys, a Creole writer in the 1930s, felt sorely underrepresented byCharlotte Bronte’s ”Jane Eyre”. Bronte seemed to reduce the Creole character tomerely a stereotype. So, in response to this, Rhys wrote a prequel, outliningAntoinette ‘Bertha’ Mason’s story, and her novel, ”Wide Sargasso Sea”, has become one of the best examples of how stories belong to everybody and nobody.

Exercise for Escapism: This is one for budding long-form writers. Pick a story, novel,film, or TV show that you enjoyed, but there was something that didn’t ‘ring true’ for you. This could be a poorly represented character, poor character motivations, or plot problems. Now either rewrite it, write a side story, or write a prequel or as equel using this structure:

o The world as it is

o The inciting incident (aka story fuel)

o Building complications

o The new world


7. Poetry for healing

Many people dislike poetry. They fear it, usually due to bad experiences at school.However, poetry in its modern form is based on voice, or the rhythm, pauses, andphrasing used to frame the sentiments behind the poem. Poetry can become anatural part of the healing process for emotional or physical trauma. Rupi Kaur’spoetry about womanhood, heartbreak, and love does not adhere to traditionalforms, rhyme schemes or verses. Instead, it brushes against the rawness of emotionand her experiences. Kaur uses poetry to gain access to wisdom but through wordsthat differ from ordinary language. She uses lower case letters to symbolize equality between languages and ignores punctuation in favor of allowing the reader toembed their own cadence onto her words.

Exercise in poetry: Look up some examples of Rupi Kaur’s poetry. Now think about a strong emotion (love, hate, anger, heartbreak, etc) and write a poem in her style.Read it back to yourself. Do you want to change your words? Spacing? Phrases? Put capital letters in or not? Add punctuation or not?


8. Writing for community

People can experience a resonance with their own stories in a way that might not have been put into words before. In these COVID times, we are all feeling lonely and disconnected from our loved ones, friends, and family. As such, writing can be a means of connection, simply by writing about somebody you miss, and/or sharing that writing with them. Of course, you don’t have to, but sometimes making a connection with other writers might be the antidote to loneliness. There are many online writing groups to share with. Or if you’ve developed a collection of writing you’re proud of and want to share it, consider a blog or Instagram. If you don’t feel at that stage, many Facebook and Twitter groups ask for readers of work in progress.

Exercise for connecting: Who is the person you have known the longest? It could be a family member or friend. Find a photograph of them. Consider writing a poem about them. This could contain the story behind the photograph or a description ofthe imagery contained within the picture.


Sabrina Mei-Li Smith is a Ph.D. scholar, writer, lecturer, and researcher in the discipline of creative writing. She lectures on ‘Writing Identity’ and ‘Writing Place’ at De Montfort University’s undergraduate Creative Writing B.A. Her first play, The Holy Bible, received Arts Council funding and is a bioficiton piece about missing Manic Street Preachers guitarist Richey Edwards. She specialises in writing with marginalised individuals, and challenging accepted narratives, through her residencies with Writing East Midlands Elder Tree project, and Leicester City Council’s Memories into Healing Words project which documents the narratives of Leicester’s elderly, street-homeless, and Irish Traveller communities. She runs specialised and mainstream creative writing workshops for Leicester City Council’s Adult Education College and has been a writer in residence for Coalville Writes 2019. Sabrina was part of De Montfort University’s National Writing Day – Creative Writing and Practice Research Conference in 2020




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