Writing and wellbeing workshops provide boost for staff

We Are All Storytellers, a pilot wellbeing initiative for University of Manchester staff, has received outstanding feedback from participants. Run by the School of Health Sciences, a mixed cohort of 21 staff, faculty and post-graduate students, split into two groups, took part in a short series of two-hour workshops. Writers/co-facilitators Tara Guha and Rebecca Hurst introduced techniques such as free writing to help participants bypass internal blocks and to ponder personal experiences, from childhood through to Covid. There was plenty of space for conversation and reflection, for reading work aloud and offering feedback to others, and – not forgetting physical wellbeing – for food and drink.

Some participants were international post-graduates, whose experience of studying in the UK has been impacted by the pandemic. Some were parents who spent the lockdowns juggling both teaching and working. Some considered writing an essential, and not always pleasurable, aspect of their work life. What drew everyone together was a stated commitment to improving their health and well-being, a desire to learn new skills and find a creative outlet for their ideas, and the opportunity to take some time for themselves.

We used several methods to evaluate people’s experience, including discussion, a wall of post-it notes, a collaborative group piece and, finally, a more traditional evaluation form. On the numbers front, we were delighted that that:

100% of participants enjoyed the opportunity for self-expression

100% of participants had their expectations met

100% of participants would recommend the course

But it was the qualitative feedback that really stood out:

‘I’m really impressed by how much I got out of these sessions in such a short space of time. I found them very healing and transformative for my wellbeing.’

‘…to have that space set aside, with wonderful people structuring and facilitating the session, gave me the space and direction I need to attempt something like this.’

Several participants found the workshops a powerful way of connecting with others:

‘For the first time in 3 years I have connected with people without talking about their PhD/jobs!’

‘I don’t know anyone here but I have been offered the opportunity to have a window into each of their lives. Some of the views were fantastic – a rich tapestry of sights, sounds and rituals, from so many parts of the world, woven together with a simple prompt or technique.’

One unexpected benefit that emerged repeatedly was how creative writing and free-writing techniques could help with academic writing:

‘This experience is a tool that leads me to transferable skills. For instance, I can use free writing to deal with academic paper writing when I don’t know where and how to start.’

‘The “free-writing” exercise is surprisingly helpful for academic writing.’

Looking to the future, there is much to build on. The workshops were booked up within a day of being advertised, demonstrating the demand. A sharing event where people would perform their work unfortunately had to be cancelled due to illness etc, which left some people disappointed, although others didn’t feel ready to perform their work after two workshops. Given that ‘hearing others read their work aloud’ was listed as a highlight by 75% of respondents, it would seem important to incorporate this sharing element, with proper support and communication, in any ongoing development of this project. An encouraging 75% of participants also said that they would be interested in an ongoing writing peer support group, with regular facilitator input. As one person told us in the sessions:

‘This is the best thing that’s happened to me in my PhD.’

Tara Guha is a prize-winning author and mental health practitioner. Her first novel, Untouchable Things, won the Luke Bitmead Bursary and her second won the 2019 Northern Writers’ Award for work in progress. Tara works part-time at Healthy Minds in West Yorkshire, delivering creative approaches to emotional wellbeing for adults, children and young people. As a freelancer she harnesses her passion for writing to facilitate the exploration and expression of self in safe, supportive workshop settings. Her work is rooted in the belief that we are all storytellers and can use story to help us make sense of the world and ourselves.

Rebecca Hurst is a writer, opera-maker and illustrator based in Greater Manchester. Her work has appeared in various magazines and anthologies—including Carcanet’s New Poetries VIII—and she is the author of a poetry pamphlet, The Fox’s Wedding (Emma Press, 2022). Rebecca has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Manchester, and is a postdoctoral fellow in the university’s Centre for New Writing. Rebecca is co-founder of the Voicings Collective, an ensemble that devises new music theatre, and teaches creative writing in schools, universities, museums, and the community.


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