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30 April 2020

Posted by Joanna Barnard

From Letters to Lockdown

We began the Writing for Wellbeing pilot programme back in February, meeting weekly with the goal of finding out whether words could make us feel better. What would be the impact of a regular creative writing group, with a wellbeing slant, on the participants’ emotional health?

We started in the bright, airy seminar room in Southampton Central Library, a lovely space in which to get to know each other and go on this creative journey together. Little did we know that by the end, a couple of months later, the world would look quite different and we’d be meeting on screen. 

Back in March, in the fourth of our ten classes, we wrote letters to our younger selves, inspired by examples from famous writers including Maya Angelou and Stephen King. Most of us chose our teenage or early-20s self as the letter recipient to whom we would dispense…what? Wisdom? Advice? Lottery numbers?! It was an interesting exercise as we reflected on what we might do differently with hindsight – and what we wouldn’t. In some cases we realised the younger version might have paid little attention and steamed ahead regardless. All of our stories were different but the common gift we all bestowed on ourselves was kindness. We recognised the frailties and vulnerabilities of that younger person and offered them compassion and sometimes reassurance – no easy solutions – just the promise that it would be ok, somehow.

In class five we revisited our old friend Mary Oliver and used her poem Gratitude as inspiration for considering everything, small and large, for which we might feel thankful. We started global and focused in on our own bodies and personalities. It felt harder, for most of us, to be grateful for something inside ourselves than for some great natural wonder, or cherished friend – which in itself was a cause for reflection. In the next session we turned the lens more closely on ourselves and mined our own histories, beginning with the simple phrase ‘I remember…’ We looked at the Langston Hughes story Salvation and considered the power of looking back at childhood experience through adult eyes. We anchored events in our own lives to major world events, perhaps even then still being only partially aware of the scale of the world event that was about to envelop us in 2020.

We took a week’s break and in that time things seemed to move fast and then the UK was in its first week of lockdown.

For our remaining sessions we met by Zoom. In our writing, we explored themes that seemed pertinent to the time - it would have felt disingenuous to do anything else – and tried to give everyone space to air any fears and sorrows while still trying to retain some optimism. We wrote around safety, resilience, hopefulness. Even in dark times, testing and for some of us deeply sad times, this two hours’ virtual space became a moment in the week for special connection.

In our writing, we expressed joy in nature – Spring was carrying on regardless, after all, and the weather was kind to us – and in manmade materials, too. A surprising number waxed rhapsodic about Tupperware (…perhaps you had to be there!), showing we were finding beauty and strength in the small, the mundane. We closed off the course last week reflecting on and writing to people who had inspired us, supported and motivated us, from parents to teachers to children; those who helped us find our voices, and gave us the skills to empower others to do the same. 

It felt fitting. I left with the grateful sense that in solitude, we still have our stories. Even closed in and locked down, we have our voices. 

(photo credit: Toa Heftiba- Unsplash)


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