Write Advice: poetry therapist Victoria Field discusses the power of writing groups

Victoria Field
23 August 2017
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Mo Harber-Lamond

Although some of us may have attended workshops, it’s a different matter trying to set one up yourself. Poetry therapist and Running Writing Groups course director Victoria Field takes questions from our students, exploring writing for radio, how to get your workshop started and abstract ways to unlock your creativity.

  • Learn the principles of running a writing workshop
  • Identify your role as a writing group facilitator
  • Develop an action plan for getting your workshop off the ground
Running Writing Groups

Q – Hi Victoria, and thanks for joining us! To begin, I’d like to ask about how you got into writing for radio. As an outsider, it seems that the BBC supports new talent, but did you submit work, or was it commissioned?

Victoria Field – Glad to be here! It’s very competitive, but they do put out calls via the Writers Room. My story was commissioned by Paul Dodgson who is a freelance producer and mentored me quite a while back. I made the most of that mentorship – and was one of the few who actually finished their project – so I think he knew I could write to order and wasn’t touchy about being edited.

Concerning my poems on radio, one was commissioned for Sunday Worship. I was writer-in-residence at Truro Cathedral about 10 years ago, and they wanted something for Sunday Worship. It was broadcast live to millions and my knees were knocking so hard I nearly fell over – never again. The Verb was recorded and they cut my fluffed delivery at one point…

Q – That sounds really interesting. What is the Writers Room?

VF – The Writers Room is part of the BBC website and fantastically useful. They do call-outs for plays, comedy sketches for the BBC, and links to other opportunities. It’s definitely something worth following.

Q – I’d like to get into running writing groups in my area, with a focus on promoting well-being (sort of a ‘rewrite-your-story’ type of thing). What’s the best way to go about it? Do you think I’d be credible as I’ve had nothing published yet?

VF: That’s a good question. Everyone has to start somewhere and I usually recommend attending workshops as much as you can so that you have a sense of where you might fit in as a practitioner, and the kinds of groups you want to work with.

In terms of credibility, I’d suggest doing an audit of your own skills and experience. You clearly have an interest and commitment to writing, and there may be other skills such as teaching or running groups that you can bring to a writing group.

If the focus is to be on ‘promoting well-being’, publication wouldn’t be an issue, but you would need the right kind of experience and support for taking care of people as they tell their stories. As you can imagine, there is often a lot of emotion around that.

I’d suggest not going it alone. Perhaps you could initially offer something through the WEA, Adult Ed or your local library so you are within a bigger organisation.

There is a special kind of alchemy when people write together in groups, especially if competition is removed from the session.

Victoria Field

Q – What sort of workshops would you recommend? I don’t have any experience in counselling, so perhaps I should just run a general writing group. I am training to be a yoga teacher so maybe I could combine that somehow. Could you tell us a bit about the groups you run?

VF – I’ve worked with many different groups of people and am especially interested in how writing can help with problems of living – and also celebrate the joys of it. They can all be of help to participants, so I’d advise you to simply pick one you like the sound of and go for it. There’s always something to learn!

Recently, I’ve been running groups in the local library for people with mild mental health issues and am resuming some work with people affected by dementia. I’m also very interested in the natural world, and had a residency a couple of years ago in Blean Woods with the RSPB. It wasn’t well-being focused, but that was a side-effect of walking through beautiful landscapes and stopping to write as we went.

I feel there is a special kind of alchemy when people write together in groups, especially if competition is removed from the session. I always focus on process and generating work, and more experienced writers may go away and use those drafts more formally.

It’s also important to know what our motivations are – often these are many and might include income, social stimulation etc. – but you need to be sure you’re not just avoiding your calling to write the next great novel!

Q – Could you tell us more about your Running Writing Groups course?

VF – Of course! Anne Taylor and I both felt there was a need to unpick what happens in a group, whether it’s in the community, for well-being or focused on craft and publication, so we look at the dynamics of what happens with people in a room with all their expectations, as well as how to plan and manage. We’ve also interviewed people who run very different kinds of groups – a novelist, a couple of poets, writing for career development – about their approaches.

Write a letter to your novel and then write a reply, or ask it what it needs from you and write down what it says.

Victoria Field

Q – It’s often said that one should write what one knows, but do you think you also write to find out what you feel and know emotionally?

VF – I tend to write about what is emotionally true, so although I’ve published a memoir which includes ‘facts’ (although what a fact is is debatable!), I’ve also written three plays. These encompass widely different themes, but in retrospect I now see they all concern father figures…

Q – How can poetry be used therapeutically, and how is it different from using journaling therapeutically?

VF – Poetry and journaling can both be used effectively in a therapeutic context, but have different benefits and foci. Poetry is a particular love of mine as it can convey complex ideas very succinctly and often speak back to us, both reading it and writing it.

Journalling is a way of having a conversation with the self and also aspects of ourselves. It’s possible, for example, to have a dialogue with your novel in progress – what would it tell you if it could speak?

Q – How might you go about talking to your work in progress? It sounds like an interesting way to get unstuck.

VF – There are lots of different ways. You could write a letter to your novel and then write a reply – perhaps even with your non-dominant hand. It can seem a bizarre thing to do, but it sometimes gets beneath the conscious mind. You could also ask your novel what it needs from you and write down what it says.

Q – What an interesting concept – I’ll certainly try that. Are there any other exercises you can recommend for silencing the rational mind or waking up the subconscious?

VF – There are plenty. In groups we often write for just six minutes, and the pressure can help. Seamus Heaney talks of breaking the skin on the pool of yourself – we need to trick ourselves to get beneath the surface. A simple thing to do is to ask yourself ‘what do I think about my novel?’, and then write down ‘what I really think is …’.

Another way that writing can be very effective in both coaching and counselling is the use of metaphor. Sometimes that can get us to the heart of a matter – a little like the symbols in our dreams. As writers, I’m sure you are all adept at keeping the rational mind in its place at times in order to give the imagination full rein!

It’s important to know what kind of writer or person you are – I like being both in the world and in my own head.

Victoria Field

Q – Are there any resources you would recommend on the topic of therapeutic poetry?

VF – If you’re in the UK, I would suggest joining Lapidus. It’s the main interest group for writing for well-being or therapeutically.

Q – Is therapeutic writing ever used alongside coaching or counselling, and if so, how would you get involved with it?

VF – It certainly is! On our course Running Writing Groups we devote a whole session to that. Also, as with all aspects of therapeutic writing there isn’t any one route to being involved. Many people come via writing, and others may already be coaches or in another profession such as counselling or medicine who want to incorporate writing.

For instance, Anne Taylor has specific experience with medical students, using creative writing as a way of them supporting themselves and processing the challenges of their work. I also think running writing for well-being groups is a useful string to the bow for creative writers.

However, it’s important to know what kind of writer or person you are. I tried full time creative writing and it wasn’t good for me – my novella became more real than reality and I became reclusive. I like being both in the world and in my own head.

On the other hand, we can sometimes end up giving too much to others – it must feed you too, otherwise you can get frustrated at not honouring your own creativity. The main thing is to be clear and open about your credentials, find a community of support so that you can learn from others, and work out a balance that works for you.

Q – Thank you, Victoria! You’ve given us some wonderful insights, and plenty to think about.

VF – My pleasure. Good luck with all of your writing, and hopefully your workshops, too!

Victoria Field

Victoria Field works as a writer in a variety of genres and is a pioneer in the world of poetry therapy. She has won prizes for her fiction, poetry, drama and creative non-fiction and has been commissioned for BBC Radio 3 and 4. Her latest book is an acclaimed memoir, Baggage – A Book of Leavings published by Francis Boutle in 2016.

Running Writing Groups

Begins: 22 January 2018