Creative Writing at Tallaght Hospital
In 2013 Michael McCarthy was Writer in Residence at Tallaght Hospital. During his residency he facilitated three hospital groups as follows:
- a group for people with chronic pain (a community arts and health initiative bringing a creative writing course to people living with chronic pain, held at Tallaght Library)
- a group for patients attending the Charlie O’Toole Day Hospital (an outpatient group for older people held in the hospital)
- a lunchtime creative writing course for staff members of the hospital
Michael also created his own original work in response to his residency in the stroke service. This project was a collaboration between the National Centre for Arts and Health (NCAH), Tallaght Hospital, Chronic Pain Ireland and South Dublin County Libraries and generously funded by The Meath Foundation and UNESCO Dublin City of Literature. The project was led by Dr Ronan Collins, Director of Stroke Services and NCAH.
Participants included patients attending the hospital as outpatients, day hospital patients, and staff members.
The project had three aims: firstly, the aim was to offer a distinguished writer in residence an opportunity to create new work in response to the experience of stroke hoping to enable greater understanding of this illness through the prism of the arts.
The second aim was to offer selected patients and staff an opportunity to express themselves through writing and to explore the effect of writing on health and wellbeing. These patient and staff groups grew from requests from patients, staff and interested patient representatives who wanted a programme to be developed.
The chronic pain group was part of Moving On, a series of community arts and health groups developed by NCAH, which aim to offer a bridge from hospital based arts experiences to engaging with arts in the community. It also offers arts programmes to longer term patients who are living with chronic conditions. These arts groups are held in local arts centres or the local library and are for hospital patients only. Partnerships with national cultural institutions such as the National Gallery of Ireland form an integral part of the programme at NCAH.
The three groups developed through interest and suggestion from patients and staff, who expressed an interest in having an opportunity to engage in creative writing. The chronic pain group also developed through collaboration with members of Chronic Pain Ireland.
A third aim was to contribute to understanding the experience of patients through the arts. The arts can be a useful channel for greater understanding of patient experience as well as a supportive medium for coping with hospital and health experiences. These groups aimed to give staff and patients an opportunity to explore their own creativity.
All groups met for ten weeks with participants of the chronic pain group and staff group signing up to attend all ten sessions. These were closed groups and were offered to people to register to participate. The Day Hospital group was an open group - anyone attending the Day Hospital on the day of the workshops could attend.
Michael McCarthy, Writer in Residence is a native of West Cork. His style, and that of the artists working at the National Centre for Arts and Health, is to allow people an opportunity to express themselves creatively at whatever level they present. Sessions, therefore, are primarily client led and consultation with participants enables development of the sessions. However, in this residency, as with all our work, there is a balance between client led process and the structure and direction given by the artist facilitator. Michael brought writing exercises to prompt or guide participants and was the leader of the sessions. The sensitivity and reflective practice required of artists working with vulnerable adults is an intangible skill but crucial to successful facilitation in a hospital setting.
Each week, participants were set an exercise and after writing, people were invited to read their work and comments were given on the work. Conversation and enjoyment were part of the experience and Michael adapted his activities to suit the group, the atmosphere of the week and the issues arising. In groups such as these, sensitive issues arise which are important and emotions can be given expression. Michael’s life experience and ability to sensitively facilitate groups was crucial to ensure that sessions could be flexible to meet the needs of participants. The groups were structured by Michael and he adapted to participants needs as they progressed.
McCarthy comments on the experience of running the three groups:
“The residency was a steep learning curve. The environment was challenging to say the least. The three Creative Writing workshops I facilitated differed in tone and in atmosphere. The writing workshop with hospital staff was similar to ones I have facilitated elsewhere; it was a class-like atmosphere for adult learners. The writing workshop with people suffering from chronic pain was very different. Here the company of others with comparable experiences of pain was valued and appreciated. It gave a sense of no longer being alone. Their writing was a form of self-expression, but also an articulating of their pain in a way that transformed it into art. The workshop in the day hospital turned out not to be a writing workshop, as the participants here couldn’t actually physically write. Instead, we adapted this group and called it a storytelling workshop, the stories of early life, told by people with memory loss, were very moving.”
A booklet of poems and prose created during the course was created as a momento of the programme for participants. Plans are underway for future readings and publications. This is a pilot programme, the first such group for people with chronic pain. Click here to read a sample of writing produced through this programme.
Two books of poems have been produced and are currently being made into an e-publication by South Dublin County Libraries. It is hoped that these poems will help to spread a deeper understanding of what it is like to live with chronic pain and the power of the arts in terms of self expression, health and wellbeing.
Two participants of the chronic pain group had their writing published in the Irish Times Health Supplement.
The NCAH hope that this model may develop and be used nationally to roll out more groups for people with chronic pain and others living with chronic health conditions and that one of the future artistic outputs would be the continuation and development of such creative writing opportunities for people with chronic health conditions.
An evaluation form created by the NCAH was sent to all participants in both patient and staff groups. The form was given to all participants on the last week of the course and responses were collected anonymously.
All feedback was qualitative and asked for the benefits perceived, recommendations for improvements and whether participants will go on to engage in further creative writing post completion of the hospital programme. The NCAH has a well developed evaluation process and further information is available on request.
Participants from all groups recommended further creative writing groups be provided for staff and patients in hospital. Patients in the chronic pain group particularly recommended further supportive arts based groups for people living with chronic pain. Staff reported key benefits as meeting new people throughout the organization that they wouldn’t normally interact with, doing something creative at lunchtime at work was stimulating, enjoyable and a stress reliever and for some they found they discovered they could write when they had always lacked confidence in this area.
Comments from the evaluations:
“I really enjoyed the creative writing course… as well as providing a forum for exploring something completely outside my comfort zone it enabled me to meet different people. One of the drawbacks of chronic pain is that you lose a large part of your previous identity and often have neither the energy nor the opportunity to find new parts or to meet new people (or indeed anyone!)...so thank you again for giving me such an opportunity.” Patient and member of the creative writing group for people with chronic pain.
“I want to thank you so much for the opportunity you have given me. It was quite emotional reading my two printed short stories as I was told that I could never do that and I never believed I could too.” Staff member participating in creative writing programme.
Documentation & Dissemination
The primary outcome was a booklet of poetry by participants which was disseminated to participants and to selected supporters such as funders and programme partners. An e-publication was also created by South Dublin County Libraries of the book of poetry by people with chronic pain.
The evaluation was circulated to all project partners.
Plans are underway for further dissemination of the writing from this programme through public readings in 2013/14.
September - December 2012
The National Centre for Arts & Health, Tallaght Hospital
Chronic Pain Ireland
South Dublin County Libraries
UNESCO City of Literature
The Meath Foundation
UNESCO Dublin City of Literature
Creative writing, Literature
Acute Hospitals, Community Health, Day hospitals and out-patient clinics, Stroke Unit
Nature of Project