Practice Based Research: ‘A Journey with Two Maps’
Blog post by Rebecca Hurst, Creative Manchester Research Fellow.
On 1 November 2022 I started a 9 month Knowledge Exchange fellowship within the University of Manchester’s research platform, Creative Manchester, and working with Lime Arts, the city’s NHS Trust arts and health organisation. I am still in the process of discovering what my work entails: defining my role goes arm-in-arm with bringing my practice-based research to bear on existing partner projects and new collaborations. The journey of discovery, and work of coming to an understanding as to how and why I’m going, are happening at the same time. To repurpose a phrase coined by the poet Eavan Boland, practice-based research is ‘a journey with two maps’.1
By way of an introduction, I am a writer and researcher. My poetry pamphlet, The Fox’s Wedding, was published by The Emma Press in February 2022, and you can also read some of my poems in Carcanet’s anthology New Poetries VIII. Born and raised in East Sussex, I now live in Greater Manchester. I'm a co-founder of the Voicings Collective — an ensemble that devises new music theatre — and I regularly teach creative writing workshops in schools, universities, museums, and the libraries. Finally, I’m a life-long journal writer. Since childhood the process of creative writing (which includes regular journalling, drawing, and notebook-keeping, but also building a community of writing friends and collaborators, finding readers, and developing and facilitating workshops) has kept me grounded, and helped return me to myself after periods of ill health or life challenges.
In my own mind-body the link between the process of creative writing and well-being is clear. Moreover, in addition to anecdotal evidence, there have been numerous studies that can corroborate the link between creative or expressive writing, and positive benefits for both mental and physical health. And it is by making use of both my personal experience and evidence-based research that I have developed and facilitated creative writing and well-being workshops over the past 18 months. These workshops have been attended by NHS staff (in partnership with Lime Arts); by staff, faculty, and post-graduate students at the University of Manchester; and by members of the community through the Festival of Libraries. In all these sessions we’ve read and talked about poetry, and we’ve written and shared our writing.
Although I choose the poems, and devise the exercises we do, it is the participants who lead the way in creating a group that is supportive and mutually encouraging. I approach teaching from the perspective of a life-long learner; someone who spent much of their adult life as a student. I will always have more questions than answers.
The things that I’m curious about right now, questions that made themselves known at the very beginning of this project, and which I’m still trying to navigate by, are varied. The answers might at first seem obvious, but on closer inspection prove to be — not. These questions include: what is well-being? What or how is a creative writing and well-being group? And how does creative writing for well-being differ from therapeutic writing? Or from writing with an eye to publication, or the making of art?
The second, third and fourth questions I will leave for a future post (along with an outline of the literature I’ve been reading around creative writing and well-being). And in addressing the first question (what is well-being?) I will provide two definitions as a starting point:
OED: well-being, n.
- With reference to a person or community: the state of being healthy, happy, or prosperous; physical, psychological, or moral welfare.
- With reference to a thing: good or safe condition, ability to flourish or prosper.2
World Health Organisation (WHO): ‘Well-being is a positive state experienced by individuals and societies. Similar to health, it is a resource for daily life and is determined by social, economic and environmental conditions. Well-being encompasses quality of life and the ability of people and societies to contribute to the world with a sense of meaning and purpose.’3
Both of these definitions link the well-being of the individual with the well-being of society more generally, while the WHO’s definition directly connects an individual’s personal sense of well-being with their ability to contribute to the society or community in which they live. However, neither of these definitions seems to capture what the idea of well-being has become as a cultural phenomenon over recent decades. Liz Hilton Segel, a Managing Partner at McKinsey & Company explains what well-being means from the perspective of global corporations, noting that: ‘To truly build a more resilient workforce…employers should prioritize well-being, which is the state of being comfortable, healthy, or happy. Businesses should treat well-being as a tangible skill, a critical business input, and a measurable outcome.’4
In particular I’m challenged by the idea contained within the OED’s definition that individual prosperity should be linked to well-being, alongside health and physical safety (‘With reference to a person or community’), as opposed to the seemingly more equitable and inclusive ‘ability to flourish or prosper’ (‘With reference to a thing’). I also question industry’s assumption that well-being is another task—or rather, a measurable aid to productivity—that good employees will take care of in the limited time they have available outside of working hours. The WHO describes well-being as a ‘resource’, and one that is not allocated equally.
Well-being is a relatively recent addition to the English vocabulary (first appearing in 1561), being modelled on the Italian benessere, and eventually supplanting the Middle English welfare. Welfare is derived from the compounding of well and fare; the former rooted in ‘Satisfactorily as regards conduct or action’, and the latter primarily in the sense of a journey, but also success, and food or provisions.5
To ‘the ability to travel well through life’ is where this etymological exploration has bought us; a journey that will require at least two maps if we are going to improvise, to change course when needed, and to demonstrate both the flexibility and resilience that both travel and well-being require. For all their tangible health benefits, the arts cannot overcome or offer solutions to structural and endemic societal inequities that diminish individual well-being. However, the arts, and specifically creative writing — which is highly accessible, requiring little more than paper, a pen, and functional literacy6 — can provide some of the skills needed (of imagination, empathy, curiosity, and adaptability) to make us better map-makers, better equipped to navigate a world that is grappling with ‘current and emerging health threats such as COVID-19 and environmental disasters.’7
Importantly, I believe that enhancing these creative skills empowers us as individuals to flourish within our locality, by which I mean both the communities in which we live and work, and the locality of our own bodies and minds; an idea I will explore in greater depth in future posts. Until then thank you for reading, and fare well.