A Postcard to Myself: A lesson from Writing for Wellbeing

By DeAnn Bell

While attending the first ever Anglesey Montage Writing Festival this past weekend, I opted for a class called Writing for Wellbeing. I am a writing omnivore and nothing makes me happier than learning a new way to teach or learn writing. I am particularly interested in helping to facilitate healthy relationships between writers and writing. Having some experience with creativity based self-exploration, what struck me most interesting about the concept of writing for wellbeing is that the products of these sessions are not meant for public consumption. You are writing with the intention of keeping it to yourself. In the midst of a space where creation for publication is the main frame of the game, this discontinuity made me curious.

Dr Anne-Marie Smith of Bangor University introduced the subject with a combination of personal experience and practice examples. Set in a circle with twenty other people and some handouts, I prepared to have a serious talk with myself but rather than dive right into my worst fears or my most private dreams, the facilitator wisely advised that, on a scale of 1-10, one being casual and ten being our deepest self, that we try to keep the intensity of the exercise around a 5.  Her handout for the session defines Writing for Wellbeing as:
“Using literature, art, music, poetry, nature as prompts for writing, to gain personal insight, access inner thoughts, improve sense of wellbeing and mental health.”

I was familiar with the concept of using all of the above to inspire and motivate creativity but until I read the definition, I had no idea how reader-focused most of my writing routines are. From Tweeting writing statuses to writing this bi-weekly blog, all of my writing is intended for public consumption. Even the writing exercises that I engage in are chosen with an eye that they might be developed into a publishable piece later. This habit leaves me no place to talk to myself through the medium that I enjoy most; creative writing.

We went through a series of free writing exercises connected to poems and pictures to loosen our writing muscles, each that I engaged in with an awareness of sharing the writing. We were given space to explore our feelings about the work, but not the work itself. I was disappointed at first until I realised that Dr Smith was actually creating a sense of privacy, almost permission to not share. In the last exercise, Dr Smith used Wendell Berry’s poem called “What We Need Is Here”, a postcard that was blank on both sides, and coloured pens as instruments to open a doorway of communication between our public writing self and our private writing self. She had one person read the poem to us all the way through and then had us read one line each around the table. This allowed each line to deliver its own meaning unencumbered while the poem travelled around the room. When we were done, we wrote and coloured the phrase What We Need is Here on the front of the postcard. Dr Smith said to be aware of colours and shapes that we chose for the front of our postcard because they had as many messages as the words on the back. Then we used the rest of the time, about 10 minutes, to write a message to ourselves, from ourselves, for ourselves.

With no other intended audience, it took me an incredibly long time to find my voice. I spoke to myself in poetic form, a way that had been my primary method of emotional exploration when I was 16, but since my professional study of writing, I had abandoned. My current relationship with poetry can sometimes be described as hostile; not a voice I would have consciously chosen for self-care. The phrase on the front of my card was disjointed; written again and again in several directions, almost as if I were trying to convince myself that this was true. My pseudo-psychology aside, what was incredibly beneficial for me about the experience was the opportunity to speak gently to myself. Although I won’t share what I wrote, I will say that what the phrase pointed out to me was that I am always looking for the next piece of my future self. This constant searching means that I am prone to overlook contentment and under appreciate how far I’ve come. In a way, this searching allows me to learn and develop all the time, and to consider myself a work in progress. In another way, it indefinitely delays the moment where I have to put my cards on the table and see what the ante is. In this state of mind, viewing myself as complete is impossible. It is a healthy habit being overused until it has become unhealthy.  

For me, the exercise highlighted the uncomfortable fact that I often don’t think to talk to myself unless something is wrong. If all I do is complain during self-exploration, it is no big wonder that I don’t do it often. In this session framing the conversation using positive or encouraging images and poetry gave me a space to tell myself that I was doing all right. I wouldn’t call the session a break through moment in understanding how I work, but it was a definite step in the right direction, and a journey I plan to keep pursuing.

For information regarding Writing for Wellbeing the following recommendations and resources were suggested for further research:
·         Natalie Goldberg (1986, 2016) Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, Boston: Shambhala Publications
·         Gillie Bolton (2010) Write Yourself: Creative Writing and Personal Development, London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers
·         Lapidus International: The Words for Wellbeing Association: https://lapidus.org.uk/
·         National Association for Poetry Therapy (NAPT):http://poetrytherapy.org/
From my shelf:

·         Writing Routes: A Resource Handbook of Therapeutic Writing (2011) edited by Gillie Bolton, Victoria Field and Kate Thompson, London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers


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