by Faith Breisblatt, MSW, LCSW
I have always been attracted to the link between mental health and creative writing. Many of the most revered writers are known to have or suspected to have suffered from some sort of mental health issue, some of the most notable being Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Edgar Allan Poe, and Ernest Hemingway. Dating back much earlier than these writers, Aristotle and the Ancient Greeks were said to have suspected a connection between “madness” and creativity itself.
I suppose that having such an affinity for the creative and psychologically tortured (for lack of a better term) drove me immediately toward poetry and poetry therapy when I was offered the opportunity to develop a group curriculum at my first-year placement. As a writer myself, writing poetry had always served as my catharsis, allowing me to develop greater insight and awareness around the issues and situations that greatly affected me.
At the time, I was fairly new to the social work field. My first-year field placement was at a small nonprofit that provides residential and outreach services to adults with psychiatric and/or developmental disabilities. I wanted to share and encourage the therapeutic catharsis I have always found in writing with these adults, helping them to develop their writing skills and enhance their self-esteem and sense of consciousness. The group, entitled Pathway to Poetry, was meant to be a journey in which clients would find and develop their inner voice, enabling the unfolding of deeply personal stories. These stories touched me in more ways than I can explain.
As the facilitator, and someone who had never developed her own group before, I started by creating a curriculum that would allow any adult, at any cognitive level, to participate. The group itself was rooted in poetry therapy and bibliotherapy, as well as built upon a cognitive behavioral framework. Based on these components, I created large group, small group, and individual writing exercises and prompts that elicited the vulnerable experiences and stories of each client. Typically each week, clients would come in with a poem from the “homework” prompt from the week prior, share this work if they were feeling up to it, discuss the new topic for the week, and engage in some sort of writing activity to examine the topic. Examples of topics were emotions, family, relationships, love, grief/loss, and mental health. Along the way, clients also learned poetic forms and devices as it seemed appropriate, such as metaphor, simile, and haiku. For example, one week we focused on nature and awareness; as such, introducing haikus seemed appropriate because, traditionally, they are a form that celebrates nature and the natural world.
To help structure each writing exercise, there was typically a guided prompt to help clients with their writing, but free, unstructured writing was encouraged. An example of a group exercise fostered by a guided prompt was the week entitled “Then I was, Now I Am.” For this particular week, clients focused on how they perceived themselves in the past and how this has changed. For the group exercise, clients examined Robert Pinsky’s poem Samurai Song, in which most lines begin as follows: “When I had no . . . / I . . ..” For example, the first line in Pinsky’s poem reads: “When I made no roof I made/ Audacity my roof.” As such, I had clients develop their own lines, which were then formed into one group poem. They created the following poem, which I will forever have memorized:
When I had no religion
I felt lost
When I had no clean clothes
I did a load of laundry
When I had no courage to talk about my problems
I refused to talk about them
When I had no sky
I made my own sky
When I had no hope
I always had resilience.
I was blown away by this work of art. This was only the fourth week of our 12-week group. The clients at my agency all already knew each other though; many had known each other for several years. As a result, these clients didn’t need to jump through all the hoops and stages of group development to get to the nitty-gritty and share and create vulnerable work. I know this is not typical of group work, but I think I was lucky enough to experience group work first in this way, allowing me to see the power of group dynamics and social inclusion.
As the group progressed, the writing became deeper on other levels. I provided members with a homework assignment in which they were to complete an "erasure" poem, or a poem that takes an already established piece of writing (i.e., a passage from a novel, a poem, excerpt from an article) and erases unnecessary words to create a new poem. For this particular assignment, I provided members with an excerpt from A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway. One particular client created the following poem from the short passage:
We were afraid
We were not the same
All things are different because they can be lonely
But with almost no difference,
Courage has to break
And afterward it kills.
The very brave can be sure
But there will be no hurry.
In all honesty, I had no idea how the clients would respond to this type of poetic activity. However, all clients did beautifully with this assignment, even those who often complained of the difficulty they had with writing and forming words and ideas. An activity like an erasure poem is much easier for many clients to grasp. It provides clients with the words they themselves may not be able to find or contrive; they just have to put them together in whatever form they feel artistically fits them.
In the weeks leading to the introduction of the group, I was extremely nervous and anxious that the group would fail in some capacity, which is almost funny to me looking at the outcome of the group now. During the termination session of the group, I asked members for feedback about what they most liked and least liked about the group. Members threw many praises out there, but by far, what was echoed most throughout the group in one form or another was having the space to talk about important issues and having a voice. (What they least liked was having homework assignments.)
The main thing I want to point out is that as a neophyte to group work, I found a void in our agency and attempted to fill it. The first thing my supervisor warned me of while I was preparing for my group was that I should not be surprised if there was a low turnout or if many members chose not to share their work. Out of the 10 or so clients who consistently attended the group, each group had an average attendance of seven members. Not only this, but on average, all of the clients but one each week would choose to share their writing. I only wish I could share myself with such courage as they did.
I presented a poster at the IASWG Massachusetts Chapter conference about Pathway to Poetry, and by far, the most common question I received from other practitioners was: How did clients receive the poetry as a whole during the group process?
Most expected that the clients might have been reluctant or hesitant to engage in the medium.
The answer, however, was and is: with open arms.
Faith Breisblatt, LCSW, is a social worker living in Boston. She graduated from Boston University School of Social Work in 2015 with her master's in social work and a specialization in group work. She currently works at Step by Step Supportive Services and does individual case management and group work with adults with psychiatric challenges. She has been able to develop and facilitate many groups, including Pathway to Poetry, a group that successfully integrates her passions for both social work and poetry.