Interview 2012

Louise Green, Editor of Lapidus Journal, Creative Writing for Wellbeing, talks about the ‘Homeless Hearts Club’ to Jon Potter, Director of the Charity Company Paradiso, and Dr Nicholas Troop, Principal Lecturer in Health Psychology, University of Hertfordshire.  The project used music and creative writing to engage young people living independently at Slough Foyer and YMCA, and homeless people at Serena Hall, a drop-in centre run by Slough Homeless Our Concern (SHOC).  This was the first time Jon and Nick had worked together and was an attempt to link a practical project with some of the theory around creative writing for wellbeing. In the latter stages stories from the project were broadcast on BBC Radio Berkshire, a long-term partner of Company Paradiso. 

L          Congratulations on the award (a Silver in the Sony Radio Awards for Community Broadcasting)

J          Yes, thank you, it was fantastic recognition for us.  We seem to have a really good collaboration going with Radio Berkshire.

L          It was great to hear the programme. Tell us a bit more about the project.

J          We used writing and music to engage young people and adults in Slough which is an area of economic and social deprivation.  We worked at the Foyer, the YMCA and at Serena Hall, which is a drop-in centre providing food and other support to homeless people.  At Serena Hall the project really grew and as time went on we were involved in decisions about, for example, rehab, or contacting family members, which went beyond our arts involvement.  It was in the latter stages at Serena Hall that we called our lunchtime music sessions ‘The Homeless Hearts Club Band.’

Participants and staff with Jon Potter (right) at Serena Hall

Participants and staff with Jon Potter (right) at Serena Hall

L          So  how does it all get funded?

J          This is funded by the Arts Council, with additional money from BAA Groundwork Trust and Thames Valley Partnership.  Our brief is to work with vulnerable young people and adults in Slough, and later this year in Sussex, which will involve more live performance.

L          And has your work always been geared towards a wellbeing aspect?

J          No, Company Paradiso was a touring theatre company until around 2004/5, when I did an Arts Council course on working with young offenders, and simultaneously the Arts Council asked companies in the South East to pitch ideas to BBC radio producers.  We put those two things together.  This is now the fifth collaboration with BBC Berkshire, but not all funded by the Arts Council; the previous collaboration was funded by the Heritage Lottery and before that the ‘Made in England’ joint BBC Arts Council fund.

How did you two get together ?

N         I think Jon got in touch with James Pennebaker who lives in Texas, who is a very big name in expressive writing and wellbeing, who put him in touch with John Weinman, a health psychologist in the UK, who put Jon in touch with me.  I know John Weinman through shared interests in expressive writing and wound healing. A fairly circuitous route.

L          And Nick, have you always been interested in expressive writing, or is that a shift coming out of other work you have been doing?

N         It’s a culmination of things – I have been a songwriter and musician from the age of about 13, but when I became a psychologist my research was much more in relation to the development of wellbeing through other means, such as emotional regulation, people’s ability to manage difficult emotions.  The experimental aspect of expressive writing in the health psychology literature is more about writing about trauma or writing about life goals.  So it’s not creative, but it is expressive.

L          You’d make a distinction between those two things.?

N         Yes.  I always kept my song writing separate from my academic work, and it’s only in the last 4 or 5 years that I thought – that just doesn’t make sense.  If I’m interested in song writing as a creative form of writing, and I’m interested in expressive writing as a form of emotional regulation it seems so obvious to put the two together.

L          You  mentioned the work of Pennebaker.

N         Yes he worked in the very early days with students, but it’s been extended so broadly, it’s been used with people with cancer, with arthritis, to relieve pain, with people made redundant get back to work quicker, with prisoners, in such diverse settings.  But his work is not about creative aspects of writing; it’s just about exploratory expressive writing I suppose, in terms of understanding your thoughts and feelings about your situation, how you got there and where you are going.

L          One thing that intrigued me looking at you website and blog, was a reference to Pennebaker’s The Secret Life of Pronouns, did that come into your work at all?

N         Well I haven’t evaluated it formally but I have noticed interesting things, for example, around the use of the word ‘I’ rather than ‘we’. This can give an indication that someone is a bit more socially isolated.   There’s something interesting about people’s use of ‘I’ rather than ‘you’ in relation to people’s status.  When people are talking to, or writing to or emailing people of higher status they tend to use the word ‘I’, “should I do this” and so on.  And when the higher status person replies they use ‘you’ more,  The same person uses those pronouns differently according to who they are talking to.  So with one young man on the project, Ross, we were able to look at his emails home when he had been in distress   In the first email,  there was a change in the use of first person pronouns, he used the first person plural only very rarely, but he’d doubled in the use of I and you over that time, the second email seemed a bit more psychologically ambiguous, in the sense that he seemed vulnerable but attacking at the same time.  There was a doubling in the ‘I’ words, which seems quite independent and assertive. But the absence of first person plural wasn’t very social, it seemed quite isolated.  In Ross’s most recent writing, the use of the word ‘I’ drops considerably.

L          So this could be used in a kind of diagnostic way?

N         You wouldn’t make a strict diagnosis but it does enable you to see a pattern of change.

J          And it’s a great way of talking to someone about their writing and identifying change.  Ross is now back home and on medication and doing very well.

L          I notice you mentioned the writing as being ‘future orientated’, setting goals.  I just wonder if problems arise, what one writer calls ‘falling through the trap door,’ when people write and get into difficult territory.  Was that a factor at all, and how do you deal with it?

N         With the early research that Pennebaker did, he was getting people to write about past trauma, which has long-term benefits, but the short-term consequences are that people get upset.  If you write about things that are upsetting, that will happen.    So when working with people directly we try to have a safety net.  I’m quite interested in people’s ability to use creative writing for themselves, independently of say with a therapist.  If there’s a past event that is upsetting that might stop them writing and prevent them from developing emotion regulation skills, maybe it’s better to write in a different way that is a bit more future orientated or a bit more positive that doesn’t have that immediate negative consequence but still helps them develop skills at regulating their emotions, so they can benefit long term without being put off in the short term.

L          One thing that interested me was the part in your programme where people were writing letters,

J          Yes, we gave out cards and envelopes with stamps on them and asked people if there was someone they would like to contact.  We had a group of men sitting in the corridor writing to mothers, sons, daughters, partners, in many cases getting back in contact after a long time.  They could write a return address at Serena Hall.  It was about looking forward.  One of the staff said later that it’s very important to have a sense of future, because if you’ve got nothing to look forward to, you’ll go back to what you know, which in this case that could be homelessness, addiction, prison and so on.

L          And did they choose to send the cards – some of expressive writing focuses on unsent letters, rather than the real thing

J          Yes, in this case people were saying fairly simple things like ‘this is where I am’ and ‘I love you’, and all the letters were sent.  We talked at other times about children, and how the quality of the time you spend with them is important, not necessarily the length of time – and saying to a child “I love you” can sustain them sometimes for quite a long time.

L          And there seems to have been an emphasis on working collaboratively, I’m thinking about playing football together, playing music together, writing together.  I’ve found this collaborative aspect can be a very important part of working with a group.

J          Yes that is completely true, both of joining the football team, and of the music, the sense of togetherness and trust that brought.  In this project trust was so important, many of the participants wouldn’t have got involved if others hadn’t been there too.  Also one of the steps on the Alcoholics Anonymous 12 step programme, I believe, is being of service to others, and we kept on this theme because we felt it was so important.  When we can be of service to others we are on the road to better wellbeing and we were encouraging this thought all the time.  The benefits of being of service to your children, for example, can be life changing.

L          And when it results in a performance or exhibition that gives another layer of identity, evidence of being of service to others.

J          Yes, this happened through our performance at the Foyer, which was a wonderful event on a Sunday evening sharing food.  And it happened through the radio week.  There was an important sense of informing people – Radio Berkshire has about 150,000 listeners a week – about what it’s really like to be homeless.  And staff really caught hold of the idea of informing an audience through individuals’ stories.  One listener called Serena Hall and said he was so moved his company was donating £500 to the charity.

Young people and staff at Slough Foyer cook and enjoy a meal together as part of the project's final celebration.

Young people and staff at Slough Foyer cook and enjoy a meal together as part of the project's final celebration.

Photo: Marcus Connolly

L          Facilitators often say they acquire a new learning from each projects. What has been the learning for you from working with the homeless?

J          Well I would say that in relation to Serena Hall the further we have taken the project the more we have been thinking about love.  I’m not sure where this has come from, but we have been having very philosophical talks with the men and women there and a lot of that has come back to the importance of family and those we love.    And as we developed our relationships we began to think the issue of homelessness is not so much about shelter, although that is important for stability, it’s about emotional things and you’ve got to address that side and fix on how much you want to change and why.  Otherwise, you can get temporary accommodation or go into rehab but that may not work.  Sometimes people have a ‘moment of clarity’ where they change course and we are looking for these moments. 

N         Can I add that one of the interesting things that comes out for me from expressive writing is about emotional regulation.  You develop skills in emotion regulation as a child from a supportive, loving relationship, from an attachment figure.  They sooth us if we become upset, they sing to us, cuddle us.  From that we learn to sooth ourselves and we maintain that skill into adulthood.  Of course not everyone develops that ability and they can be very self-critical, very self-attacking when they get upset. Part of what I have been doing is looking at how we can use expressive writing to lead to an ability for people to sooth themselves.  And that did seem to come through in this project.  People were writing about the future, not dwelling on the past, and it was relationship orientated, it was about these attachment figures, about love and connectedness, which is all about this ability to self-sooth rather than to self-criticise. 

L          And is this writing something that is taken beyond the session, do you think, do they stick with the writing habit?

 J         Well we have given journals and pens to everyone on the project, and we keep in touch with the centres we have been in.  One young participant, Sophie, is writing a lot, and was doing so before we met her, though we have now known her for over a year.  We have listened and appreciated everything she is going through, and suggested things about her writing, but most of all we are there to support her to understanding her own story and the parts that others play in that story, good and bad.  And we do keep telling everyone that once experience is written down, or talked about to someone else, it, broadly speaking, causes you less stress and helps your wellbeing.  And staff are really important. One support worker took up writing again during the project and others have really taken on board the importance of sharing story.

L          do you ever experience reluctance among the clients to put pen to paper?

J          Well we were going in with music in the first instance so we could include young people at the Foyer and YMCA who said they didn’t write, and of course we were also gathering a lot of audio for radio. Many people we met were very talented musicians and for many homeless or marginalised people music is important because it’s so inclusive, it gives such emotional support and brings people together.  And from there we progressed to story – our project was about understanding story, not just writing.

N         And with some of the ratings sheets What was interesting was how anxious most of them were, because they were performing something they had written individually or collectively, but some of the other ratings were about how meaningful or personal their writing was, and for those whose songs were more personal, important, meaningful, they didn’t become more anxious or feel more insecure.  It was almost as if, by expressing themselves in a meaningful way, they had developed an ability to not be so affected. 

Interval time for performers at the Slough Foyer celebration event.

Interval time for performers at the Slough Foyer celebration event.

Photo: Marcus Connolly

L          And are there plans to continue the Homeless Hearts project, and what are you working on in the future?

J          Yes, music sessions will continue at Serena Hall on a Monday lunchtime, with a colleague, Jamie Green from SWIPE Music, and the Foyer are keen to continue the project with funding of their own.  We are planning a follow up day of radio in the autumn, but in a larger way, I have been very inspired by working with homeless people so maybe that will bring new ideas.  Although of course one thing about our collaboration with Radio Berkshire is that we can’t go back over the same subject, we need a new subject each year.
However from now until the end of the year we are returning to something we covered two years ago on the radio, working in mental health support centres using writing, comedy and performance, because we liked that so much.  We’ll be co-ordinating performances across the South East, along the lines of our Warning: May Contain Nuts nights from two years ago.

L          And Nick, how will this work affect you in the future, or is it just deepening the experience of what you are already doing?

N         A bit of both. A lot of what I have done has been to do with the more James Pennebaker type of expressive writing, which is great. We’ve explored this in relation to weight gain and in people in a hospice for example. But I’m also at the moment doing a 2 year follow up with about 58 songwriters, which was my first project in song writing.  This project with writing in homeless people has taken me away from a more experimental to a more applied approach, which I feel is really exciting.

L          I think in literature and poetry, song writing is very much neglected.

N         Absolutely.  The song writing study I did was unfunded. I submitted a grant proposal to do it bigger and better and I found out yesterday that it was not successful, after being under review for a year.  If you put song writing into an academic search engine there are about 50 papers, almost all about song writing as therapy. None that I could see are about the naturalistic use of song writing for psychological wellbeing or about how people write different kinds songs at different periods of their lives, at times of difficulty for example.  It is really neglected.  And one of the prejudices that the grant reviewers had, I know this is going off track a bit, was that song writing is a minority thing, no one really does it, maybe a few teenage boys.  Whereas in the data I already have, it’s as common in 30, 40, 50 year olds as it is in teenagers.

L          Absolutely, in the creative writing groups I have run there are often a couple of songwriters, and they always add something I find, because they have a slightly different way of working.

N         And the other assumption from the reviewers was that songwriters couldn’t possibly remember what had happened over the last few years because they are all on drugs or alcoholic.  So trying to convince mainstream psychology literature is hard.  Poetry would be fine, diary writing would be fine, but they are marginalising song writing, and it’s a real shame, because there are so many elements to it that are useful for health and wellbeing.  Quite apart from any self-expression, you have this collaborative work for the performance, the development of competence, operating with a group, all of which are good for us.  I think mainstream psychology is really missing out here.

L          I think so, you’ll have to be the torchbearer for that.  Sounds like a tough struggle.  When I was listening to the radio programme I must say it was one of the things that struck me most, the collaborative aspect, and how that works.

J          And I was struck by how songs I knew took on a new, moving meaning.  Robbie, for example, one participant talked about living wild, and listening to Simon and Garfunkel, and it was so touching to hear his story with Bridge over Troubled Waters as a background.

N         Songs are so evocative even if you don’t write them, and that song, I believe, was used by the Korean underground train service, among other chosen songs, to try and reduce the number of people jumping in front of trains.  It has such a positive message; it is literally and metaphorically about support.

J          Our musician at Serena Hall, Frank, who was once homeless himself, chose songs very, very well.  For example one regular song was the Wild Rover, “I’ve been a wild rover for many a year…’ and one of the guys requested John Martyn’s “May you never lay your head down…’.  Hearing that song together made us all melt.


The names of some participants have been changed.

To listen to the four broadcasts from the project go to Listen Again 2012.  And for more on the health benefits of writing see James Pennebaker on how to use expressive writing for oneself:

Also James Pennebaker talks about the use of language: