Q – Hi Helen! Great to see you here, and thanks so much for joining us. Could you start off by telling us a little about how you got involved in writing for wellbeing and what you like most about the work?
Helen Stockton – It’s great to be here!
Well, I’ve been teaching creative writing for many years and after a while, I noticed that students were often using their writing to help them address things that were going on in their lives.
After seeing that, I became interested in using writing specifically for that purpose. I think it’s a gentle, non-threatening therapeutic intervention that’s accessible to almost everyone.
Q – In order to gain a therapeutic benefit from writing, do you have to have the skills as a creative writer first?
HS – I think first and foremost you need to be interested in writing and words, but you don’t have to be a great writer.
It’s often the process and not the product of writing that’s most beneficial in a therapeutic sense — but, of course, the more you write, the better a writer you’ll become.
Q – What makes for good facilitation, and what advice do you have for anyone wanting to enter this field of work?
HS – I’m a firm believer in managing the group, as this is fundamental to the process. I start by negotiating a group agreement that everyone has ownership of and that helps to prevent any problems from arising.
I think you need to have experience of working with people and to enjoy it. It’s desirable — but by no means essential — to have some kind of background in caring work, even just in the loosest sense of the word.
You also need to be a good communicator, empathetic and have a sense of professional boundaries. A sense of humour goes a long way, too!
I’d encourage you to network with other practitioners. Try to attend some writing for well-being courses with other facilitators so you can experience different techniques and perspectives, as well as what it’s like to do some of the exercises.
Finally, read, and always look for good training opportunities — they can crop up anywhere.
The two networks I use are Lapidus and NAWE. I’m not aware of any that are as useful as them, and they’re the only organised networks I engage with.
– Helen Stockton
Q – What kind of groups do you tend to work with?
HS – The groups I work with are very mixed! I’ve worked with groups that are open to all, groups in mental health settings and, over the last few years, groups in a well-being centre at a local hospice.
Q – In terms of professional networks, are there any you would recommend for developing practitioners of writing for well-being?
However, I do use social media to network informally with other like-minded professionals.
In terms of finding work, if you want to get involved in hospices you need to be proactive and contact your local ones.
It took me a little while to get my foot in the door as they hadn’t really heard of writing for well-being.
Q – Can you tell us more about the hospice work that you do?
HS – My hospice work is mainly running short courses of about five sessions, every week in a hospice day centre. It’s a mixed group of patients, carers — but not carers of those patients in the group — staff and volunteers.
You can’t change the big things that are happening in your students’ lives, but you can hold a space for them to be themselves.
– Helen Stockton
Q – Can you name anyone who’s inspired your work?
HS – One of the most inspirational people would have to be a student of mine who was a retired GP. He was on one of my general creative writing courses when he got a terminal prognosis.
He was writing his professional autobiography and I mentored him through the process.
Just before he died, he said that the writing had given him something positive and he felt that it had significantly contributed to his quality and length of life. After he died, I more seriously considered using this process in a hospice setting.
Q – That sounds like that was a very profound and moving experience for both of you.
HS – It was. You can’t change the big things that are happening in your students’ lives, but you can hold a space for them to be themselves, away from their illness, the medical professionals, their family and friends.
It’s amazing to see people blossom and support each other. Terminal illness can be very lonely and it’s immensely gratifying to be able to alleviate even a fraction of that.
I use a variety of journalling techniques, and I’m very keen on using objects and metaphor to prompt self-exploration
– Helen Stockton
Q – Are most of your classes set up in response to commissioners’ requests, or do you organise them yourself at a community level?
HS – I’d have to say a mixture of both!
Q – Do you have professional supervision to help support you in your work?
HS – Nope! If I’m honest, it can be tricky getting funding for the work, and supervision is something I can’t afford. I use journalling techniques myself to reflect on each session and the activities, in order to track where improvements could be made. I also have a trusted colleague I share experiences with.
Q – What kind of techniques do you use in your sessions?
HS – I’ve found a combination of both journalling and poetry yields the best results. I’ve developed quite a good collection of poetry that I use, and I’ve had students write some truly moving poetry of their own — both individually and as a group.
I also use a variety of journalling techniques. I’m very keen on using objects and metaphors to prompt self-exploration.
Q – Helen, this has been wonderful. Thanks for your time, and your great answers!
HS – Thank you for inviting me! I hope it was helpful, and good luck in the future!