Blog – creating creativity, Gabrielle Barnby
Reflections on writing for fun, friendship and well-being
This summer I have been facilitating a set of six sessions for individuals developing self-management tools while living with long-term challenges in their health and wellbeing. The sessions have been funded through Voluntary Action Orkney.
Today was our last session of the set of six. Our aim was to be co-creative.
We begin with a simple prompt for some free writing. This sort of opening to a session really couldn’t be simpler. I repeat the now familiar phrases, ‘You cannot do anything wrong. You can do it your own way. Don’t worry if your words wander.’
I find a connection when…
We write together in silence for five minutes. These moments of free-flowing writing ground me into the session. Yes, I am keeping track of the time, but I also gift myself a moment to explore what I need to explore. Today I write about the warmth through the window above, in an Orkney summer there is light by the bucketful. ‘I feel the warmth from above even though it is filtered by clouds and glass, it falls on my skin and warms me, changes the mood of me physically, just as the food I’ve eaten rests within me and nourishes me.’
I have been facilitating this group for six weeks now. There is a core membership, and others have come and gone depending on other commitments and health. I feel we have come on a journey together and today I am excited and nervous to see how our group renga will come together. There is never any guarantee a prompt will be fruitful even if they have worked before , or I have seen them used successfully by other creatives. There’s a moment of risk.
There is also mixed energy levels today and all the syllable counting and the guidance on imagery makes renga a challenge. It is usually enjoyable, but not everyone’s cup of tea. I start off with a haiku written a few weeks ago at the start of summer. Today it seems out of place, but I go with it.
While collared doves call
lost ball hides beneath new growth
– rest, be curious
We write for five minutes in silence then share. I have to concentrate hard to type in the group’s responses into the chat function in zoom, trying my best to get everything word for word as I hear it. Gradually we link and shift using each others lines as prompts for the next. It can be a wonderful experience with a group of likeminded friends. Here’s more info if you’re interested in having a go: https://ahapoetry.com/index.html
I realise by the end of the session what a great group this is, living with sadness, with pain, with isolation yet my participants bring courage and set aside these things. When we are together they are open and vulnerable, they share experiences, they value each other’s words spoken and written. We respond to each other, support each other and look for positives. I have respect for these women and gratitude for their participation. I can feel a multiplication of hope.
Working with the renga form feels very exposed to me. What if there is no next line? It requires discipline and is at the same time childishly simple and fiendishly difficult –like all art. One participant notes that it is satisfying to be able to allow another person to carry the burden of inspiration, to let go of ideas after holding them briefly and move on. Is that what the renga is teaching us today? That this pattern of link and shift inspires all our days, being able to hold and let go, to begin and end with confidence.
At the end of the renga, just as we’re talking about how the sessions have gone overall I receive a satisfying piece of feedback, ‘I’m annoyed that I missed one!’ It makes me smile.
When we conclude I see the piece has come out beautifully, with unexpected images, twists and turns, yet a sense of flow. I have that good, positive, tired feeling after creating something. I trust my co-creators who I have just farewelled feel the same.
And just like that the call is over, and they are gone from the screen. I have the renga to transcribe..and now the garage calls to say the car is ready…how instantly the creative bubble is burst, and how precious is this time that we give ourselves and give each other.
A couple of sessions back someone made the observation that, ‘We’ve got to know each other a lot more doing this than by other things.’
It’s true: Words Work Well. It is a central belief I support and a phrase taken from Lapidus Scotland. If you are curious read more about their work here: https://www.lapidusscotland.co.uk/ and read more about the sessions I offer here.
The foy* has just finished. What a great gathering of heart it was. There was such a good atmosphere in the building, of welcome and of accommodation to people’s needs. A line of mobility aids grew at the back wall and chairs had to be gathered from reception, the kitchen and the resource room in order to seat everyone. The group that gathered ranged from 3yrs to 93yrs and included participants, friends, family and a handful of intrigued newcomers. There were also Age Scotland staff and a well known local musician or two.
It was so generous of Kenny Ritch to come along and play accordion. He plays as if it were no more difficult than the blinking of an eye finishing on a quickstep melody that had everyone’s toes tapping. Balfour joined him on the guitar and then played a charming trio with a husband and wife in attendance. It was so good to hear Robert reading and giving his own introduction too. Clare read a newly written piece that had been inspired from one of the sessions, she read confidently and finished tenderly with a metaphor of tears and the falling rain that was very touching to all.
Eday was brought alive by Jen’s poem – her depth of appreciation of the grey and red heads of Eday and all the birds and sea animals that make their homes beneath those cliffs had everyone in the room transported. What a sense of yearning it created. The poems remembered by heart by Bob and Sam were lovely – I like that phrase ‘remembered by heart’ it says so much. Bob told the Robert Rendall poem of the Shorepicker – written about his own forebear. And Sam gave us The Heart of the Cabbage with humour and enthusiasm.
I am grateful for all the hands on deck who either read poems when asked and helped tidy up the left over sandwiches and cake afterwards. In a blink of an eye it was all done whilst I was farewelling the folk who had gathered and shared their stories and music together. Shout out here to the Blide Trust mental health charity who provided the catering. Wonderful brownies.
It was a gentle rolling programme, yet what a gift was repeatedly given of listening, of paying respect and attention, and I sensed a process of taking in and storing the moment so it can be enjoyed again at leisure. Although no one said it in words I could see how the invitation to perform and contribute, and the process of holding attention, was so appreciated. To be warmly included in a safe space, where every performance is simply taken as a joy was heartwarming.
I overheard this comment as folk got themselves comfortable –
‘It’s no joke this getting old.’
But there is a lot of laughter released when people come together. I see pairs of friends, siblings, children and parents, husbands and wives who come and support each other, and those who simply come and plough there own furrow for one reason or another. Here is a place where they will not be turned away. Where they will be invited to try small challenges, to take courage and maybe next time join in a little more, or even if it’s less and less then that’s okay too.
This was a most satisfying event to be part of, it was one of the most unpredictable and most unpolished. It was hugely generous and courageous. A Foy! An eagerly anticipated delight.
I counted twenty-six people which included folk from Eday, Stronsay and Hoy, and from East Mainland over to Orphir and all over Kirkwall. Not everything went right – partly because there was no correct plan to stick to. Everything evolved quickly and freely and was held together with great good will. We all wanted it to go well. So it did.
I learned a great deal during the afternoon and during all of the sessions that preceded it. I look forward to reading the feedback. I am relieved, delighted and in a small a way sad because it is an ending for now. It is a chapter come to a conclusion, but there are many future possibilities.
- A foy is chiefly a Scottish farewell feast, a traditional island Foy is an eagerly anticipated night of music and entertainment.
April 18th, 2023
These sessions have been a journey, through autumn and winter and now into spring. We have gone through new topics and group members have come and gone and come back again. I’ve developed a way of working with participants that moves and adjusts to individual needs, that promotes equity of participation, where access barriers such as transport are removed. I’ve used and discarded technology, tried new materials, explored a wide breadth of content and grown a sense of contentment based on what happens rather than what I had planned. It has been bespoke and personal, reciprocal rather than about prescribed roles of giving and taking. I feel at peace with what I have left behind.
I have material to go through and want to create a sort of poetic archive of the shared experience of the groups. I feel this is a valid use of this material, my response to these experiences a process of archiving and honouring. If there is to be any creative product from this then it will be done softly and responsively rather than with an aim to modify, improve or poeticise for an audience. This feels ethically sound, it feels part of a process of reflection and development that I am following.
I have learned about waiting, and allowing things to evolve, to let things go, to try things other people’s way and to release control. Why has it taken six months to do this? Perhaps it will take me less time in the future, perhaps I can find a way to genuinely let go and embrace the richness and variety waiting for me.
I received a handshake after the Spring Foy, and that means something. It spoke volumes to me. And now the idea pops into my head that ‘Handshake’ would make a good theme for a session…
I have worried about declining numbers, but I feel more that this is how life naturally plays out, ebbing and flowing, and flooding. The Foy was certainly a spring tide. Books have been picked up and taken away, and there was an energy around the whole process moving forward.
The desire to create, perform, converse and explore remains even as memory becomes fragmented and mood rises and falls. This gives me great hope.
The Shout of Spring
The last creative session has just been completed. It was a zoom call that linked myself with participants on Eday and Stronsay. I feel glad to have a sociable time planned for this time next week – it feels right to finish with a celebration. I want it to be a place where participants can show off a bit to family and friends, to enjoy themselves. I have really warmed to my online participants and am a bit nervous about meeting them in person – perhaps excited is a better word.
I feel tired now too. I gave extra heart and energy to the session, knowing it would be our last and feeling the topic’s energy. Now that energy feels spent. Spring is coming, but right now there are squalls of rain rattling the windows above me. I loved the pieces of writing done today – they were so evocative, incorporating all sorts of sensory experience and delving into the details of memory. It’s a shame that one participant had to leave five minutes early – someone came to the door! But actually good on her for being in the moment and prioritising the person who has traveled to her.
I began with all three poems as Soibhan had done – this being the session she has developed after my mentoring, and then we moved onto gratitudes. It worked really well as a way to get our minds into the theme and gave us all a chance to read aloud.
I offer more and more choice in my sessions, and find nothing is lost. The whole purpose of the sessions are to encourage freedom, to follow personal interest, to generate comment and conversation. It was lovely that there was a common object in our gratitudes – the garden fork and spade. I wish I were fast enough to record word for word what is shared, but I make do with making notes as unobtrusively as possible. After trying other methods this seems to be the least invasive way to record what happens on sessions. I am looking forward to receiving some feedback – so valuable for me because I don’t have a staff member to talk things over with after on-line work.
I feel a good ending is coming, for the participants and staff members, and for me. I know I will need time of reflection and consolidation before moving forward, but I am content that I have a process to follow.
Gratitudes – here’s the poem I read at the Spring Foy that celebrated the completion of my creative sessions at Age Scotland Orkney.
The verses are made up of the three gratitudes I wrote at the start of each creative session. It really is very simple.
For me the poem captures the arc the sessions travelled through and brings back happy memories of the time spent in conversation with my participants.
My Team – Session Reflection
I read back my post session reflection and cringe. The first thing I have noted down is disappointment at running out of time to use my new feedback form. But really I could see how well the session went from the relaxed expressions on Robert and Sam’s faces, from their surprise that time was up and their appreciation for the preparations I make.
At the end of session, with the theme of ‘My Team’ on my mind, I observe a team in action helping Sam stand and disengage the breaks of his walker, as I try and disengage the brakes on his mind. The dial-a-bus arrives to take Robert home to where his wife will be waiting. These small quickly assembled and disassembled teams receive little acknowledgement, and might seem an insignificant mechanism rather than members of a team. Perhaps that’s an illusion of the here and now.
I think that’s why I like the Walt Whitman poem so much, it links people. Both Robert and Sam knew him and were excited by the prospect of the poem. Sam read it so well, the fluency of reading surviving when recalling memories is difficult. ‘I’m losing my words’ says Robert in sympathy, and then handles adroitly George Mackay Brown’s prose.
Nina, the dementia support worker who has joined the session today, returns from the door. I pause in my reflection and we evaluate the session together. ‘Sam was definitely taking it all in today, and Robert he’s into the detail of everything.’
I ask Nina to try out my new feedback form, and while she does I watch the Age Scotland Orkney team in action, taking away my cup, emptying the bin, offering to give out leaflets for the planned Spring Foy.
It strikes me that life is really more like a web, that everything given circulates in myriads of ways. Isn’t it amazing that the Blue Brazils, a down at heal Cowdenbeath football team, have enlightened our sessions so much? I bet the players never thought of that as they left another defeat on the field.
As we talk Nina shares her own experience of exclusion and inclusion. I notice how much she opened up about her experience of living with a hearing impairment, specifically noting herself how Robert’s attention inspired her to speak more. He met her courage to face challenge with interest and compassion. I think of the strength of her advocacy, and the team that brought her into a new sensory space. It was wonderful to hear about her journey. All this conversation was inspired by the slow meandering through our gratitude lists with a few scribbled words. The simple prompts took us from the football terraces to tour guiding to sensory impairment and adaptation.
Something I am grateful for when I am with other people…
Something I am grateful for when on my own…
A small win I am grateful for…
I discuss the ‘soft start’ of our sessions with Nina, it seems so slow, and yet is invaluable for creating the space where the group roams. The subject of listening was on people’s minds today, that essential interrelation between people. This surprised me a little, I suppose I thought we’d be talking about teams, what they looked like, their purpose, the ‘glory’ of success. Instead this session became a deep reflection on those small moments of connection between people – the repartee on the terraces while watching a team, the way that failure teaches and allows for more compassion and growth than a win.
I found Sam’s advice from his experiences guiding visitors around St Magnus Cathedral inspiring, ‘You have to stop, and listen to them listening to you.’
Robert says Sam gave the best tours. I believe it. This idea of transforming an interaction, moving focus from the words spoken to the quality of reception interests me. It leads me back to Nina’s hearing impairment and her openness to change fundamentally what and how she receives from the world around her.
I wonder if such a fundamental change is possible for all? It’s a journey that needs courage to begin in all partnerships and teams.
I also wonder, how we grow the confidence to keep singing our songs, believing and trusting that someone else somewhere is singing with us, strengthening our tune.
If creativity for wellbeing interests you then try this wee video which gives an overview of how the arts contribute to social, physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.
A Lifelong Joyful Affliction
Just like other people, creatives also have lists. My lists have a way of looking at me rather like a parent who lays out a perfectly reasonable series of requests only to be looked at blankly. I have an urge to drag and drop my coat on the floor and slouch away rather than do anything on the list.
Sooner or later though, the coat must be picked up, the list looked at and some appeasement made. This is where I am today, looking at an idea for a workshop I condensed into two words weeks ago: My Team. It is a theme inspired by a particular participants love of a particularly unsuccessful football team affectionately known as the Blue Brazils.
The phrase ‘My Team’ set me thinking about the teams we support, the teams we are part of and the teams that in turn support us. For anyone afflicted with an early tribal alliance to any sort of team, the highs and lows of their success are a lifelong joyful affliction, or as they say in Westray it is ‘horrid good’ although I believe that expression is usually reserved for tablet.
So my creative self sets of riffling through the labyrinth of my mind, poking around here and there while all the time chanting ‘My team…my team…my team…my team’
I start browsing through gousters, glims and veerie-orums edited by Alison Miller which has become my go to collection for contemporary Orcadian dialect poems. I am half-remembering and wishfully thinking that there must be a poem about George Mackay Brown loving football, as well as being a poet he held the open flowing game in high esteem. But there is nothing that seems to fit. I idly flick on and notice a page of Haiku about milling.
I pause and think of a playful adaptation of the haiku form to celebrate or commiserate with a team using strong natural images with the lines kept neatly to the 5/7/5 syllable pattern. I think on. The first line could contain the name of a team and the colour associated with them, then the second line the place they meet or play, then the final line about the feeling of winning, something rooted in the senses. But all that syllable counting makes my head spin, it’s practically sudoku with words and images and has proved too much for me many times. It might not be much fun for my participants who are living with dementia and tend to wander and play with memory rather than shuffle it into order.
Perhaps the way to go is to take the idea of simple strong imagery but throw away the poetic rules. I think more about the senses and begin to develop a structure that can be used by participants. I want something that is flexible to different responses, simple, but open to growth. Gradually the idea becomes a prompt. I call it ‘My Team – colours, songs and success’ and it is composed of four lines that seek to draw out memory and positive feelings:
This is my team:
Their goal is to…
I think of them and see…
This is a win…
I jot down a few more starting lines and then my creative self goes riffling about again. I think of a poem I wrote after watching a football game last year after an under 15s decider in the Pickaquoy infield, Kirkwall (The Oystercatchers Call Full Time),. There is another poem, one I vaguely remember that made my heart swell because it named a feeling I had encountered so precisely. I search the Emergency Poet and the Everyday Poet both edited by Deborah Alma, I know it is in here somewhere. Finally, I find Walking Away by D Day Lewis and it is exactly what I am looking for – parenting, love, loss and football. It ends with the beautiful, elegiac, yet hopeful lines ‘How selfhood begins with a walking away/And love proved in the letting go.’
In the same volume I find a thoughtful past self has put a post-it note on the poem Friendship by Elizabeth Jennings. It captures so wonderfully well the strength of a team of two and the value of a long partnership sings through its lines. I will include this.
I sift and skip here and there, and find a prose piece on Celtic FC in Letters from Hamnavoe by George Mackay Brown that captures the early allegiance to a team. It’s good to have some prose to include, but I still want something more, something about being supported too.
I flick through pages, dip in and out of books and then my fingers sidle to the keyboards – it’s not cheating. I search for ‘family poems’ and finally there is the one I have been looking for Family Tree by Alison Jean Thomas. It’s a gem of a poem that gives a sense of being part of a whole, of strength and potential. I begin to put together a second structured writing prompt ‘My Team Diary’ which seeks to draw out the value of being included supported by a group.
All these thoughts will settle out over the next few weeks, some fade, and some crystallise. What interests and inspires me will become less important, I become less vested in what I have chosen and ready to be the attentive listening ear, to offer a bowl ready to be filled, an inviting space for my participants memories and creative voices.
Oh, but I there’s just one more poem… finally I add I Hear America Singing by Walt Whitman, for all those who are in the same solitary occupation, like writing or painting, or sitting in the quiet of an empty house remembering, because they are also part of a group, no matter how separated by distance, their souls are touched.
A New Session
It’s November, the nights have lengthened. I am just over halfway through my creative sessions with Age Scotland Orkney and I am hot on the heels of planning my next creative session with the group. The theme that I have been working on is ‘On Waking’.
It is the title of a wonderfully reflective and positive poem by John O’Donohue. It’s a good poem to use I think, short enough to hold attention, the language is clear, the images strong and I love the first two lines ‘I give thanks for arriving/Safely in a new dawn’. After the idea sat with me for some time (you could call this procrastination or processing time) I thought more about the experience of waking and how difficult it can be when the body and mind have no easy sense of wellness or anticipation for the day ahead. The thought sat with me and I reflected on the the difficulties that the day ahead might pose for someone who is older, or simply going through a challenging time mentally and physically at any age, whether it is mechanical actions like rising or trying to get somewhere on time that is difficult, or remembering what is going on and interacting with others, or dealing with the unexpected.
I began to think more about the afternoon and the waning of the day and how old age can be seen as a waning of a life that has been ‘lived’, and is cast as finished, where everything is old, the body, the mind, all worn out, all out of date. The grey-waiting room of the late afternoon came to me and I wondered about how it contrasted with my lively theme ‘On Waking’.
I had thought to concentrate on the excitement of newness, the satisfaction of achievement, of learning something new – even if it only retained for the briefest time and then forgotten, even if it is re-learning as forgotten skill the sensation is the same. But as I thought more about waking my thoughts were also directed to the afternoon – and to a dreamlike poem called Friday Afternoon by Alison Brackenbury. It conjures up the curled up, drowsy satisfaction of watching and listening as a child in a hidden space. A secret pleasure that is ironed out of adult existence.
This set me thinking a that perhaps my ‘On Waking’ session really needed to incorporate both a sense of newness and a sense of positive closure. I began to feel it needed the immediacy of being attentive to a particular moment and an acknowledgement of time passing. So, this new session has gradually come together. I have added Friday Afternoon, and I have found two other little gems of poems Hoosewirk by Barbara West in the fantastic gousters, glims and veerie-orums collection of poems for Orkney voices from the George Mackay Brown Fellowship and Motor Run to Birsay 1949 by Orkney poet Robert Rendall that also speak to me about that sense of filling the day and how attention to one bright moment can bring lasting satisfaction.
My notes are now decorated with pictures, the poems typed in large easy to read font, templates made for writing to be added, and everything is neatly hole-punched down the side ready to be added to my participants folders.
The memory of the session may be as fleeting as the Red Admiral butterfly in Brackenbury’s poem, but there will I believe be pleasure in it, a ripple that sends good will though the body and mind, perhaps similar to those awakenings of childhood.
After session reflection
It was a good session today, lots of warmth between the group members. Bob’s hearing did not seem to be annoying him as much as last week and he made no move to leave early. It was quieter without Sally, a gentle reflective mood throughout. Robert captured the atmosphere when he said, ‘It’s the talking and then the silences in between’ when I asked how he liked the session.
I think there is something in this, that the time spent ‘writing’ actually gives time for thinking and processing and I feel many memories are being turned over and in the end only a small fraction bubble through to the surface fully, and an even smaller fraction result in words being written down. There is also a value in the repetition of words, ‘family’ for Sam, written over and over again. Nigel mentions his neighbours, humour and animals. Bob read a piece about a moment of solitude in the past, so treasured and so different from the enforced ‘silence’ of having hearing difficulties. The session was an exploration of morning that was safe and shared, those difficulties that are faced, the group is becoming able to share comfortably, to know perhaps that they are not alone. There is struggle and there is still the miracle of morning, and there is sadness and comfort in the quiet end of the day. I was moved by how much they shared – including doctors visits and all – everything part of daily life.
I have changed participant names keeping only their starting initial