“Ok group, we’re going to freewrite about what relaxes us, for ten minutes.”
Papers shuffle. Coffee is gulped. Heads are bent over the boardroom table, and hands with pens begin to move.

 We are the Healthy Minds Cooperative writing group, and we meet once a month for two hours to share our work, do writing exercises together, and talk about ideas, writing tips, contests and markets.

Our writing group is composed of individuals with a range of levels of writing experiences, as well as diverse goals for attending the group. What we have in common is a desire to learn more about writing and to share our work with others who also love words.

...expressive writing can be a tool for healing in our lives.

We laugh a lot, on the good days. The laughter is just as rewarding and potentially as therapeutic as the writing. But we also write about personal and serious topics. According to researcher James W. Pennebaker, studies have shown that writing about traumatic experiences for as little as 15-20 minutes a day for three or four days can produce measurable changes in physical and mental health. From our immune system to our long-term mood, expressive writing can be a tool for healing in our lives.

The Healthy Minds writing group, however, is not a therapy group. It is an opportunity for group members to be creative and express themselves as a means to experiencing self-empowerment and peer support.

Sheila Morrison, a member of the Healthy Minds Cooperative writing group, agrees. “The writing we do in class often reflects who we are, the struggles we have been through, and the successes we have had. It is an opportunity to celebrate….The writing and reading is entertaining and educational, but the connections people make are invaluable and far reaching.”

As their freewriting on the subject of relaxation comes to an end, the group put their pens down one by one. And then we share. Someone reads his piece about relaxing by drumming to his favourite music. Someone else talks about hot baths and eating. Another mentions tea, and walking… and writing. It makes my heart glad to know that writing has contributed to the quality of life of one of our members, just as facilitating the Healthy Minds Cooperative writing group has to mine.  

Anna shares her tips for starting a writing group:

  • There are different kinds of writing groups. Decide on a focus. Some groups focus on critiquing each other’s work, and others like the Healthy Minds Writing group are structured to provide writing experiences and sharing of work
  • Decide on the goals of the group, and limit the size of the group to a manageable number accordingly. I have found that four participants for the first kind of group works well, while 6-10 participants in the second type of group is optimum.
  • Spend some time at the beginning for group members to get to know each other and to set “group agreements” about the rules to follow (eg, not interrupting, maintaining confidentiality, not offering criticism unless asked, etc.)
  • There are many books about writing that contain writing exercises. Borrow, replicate or create your own!
  • Allow a lot of time for sharing, but do not pressure anyone to share their writing.
  • Some people may be shy about sharing, especially at first, and some people who generally share may want to keep a specific writing private.
  • Allow others to contribute ideas for writing exercises, guest speakers, and field trips.
  • Remember that we are all there to learn from one another and to enjoy the process of writing and sharing. Foster a nurturing and respectful culture in the group by focussing on what is positive in each person’s writing.     

About Anna Quon

Anna is an accomplished freelance/creative writer and writing workshop facilitator. She lives in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.  She is passionate about many things, especially writing. It is through her writing, and her volunteer work with community organizations, that Anna honours the lives of people who, like her, are living with mental illness.

In 2008, Anna received the Inspiring Lives Award from the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia. In 2009, Anna published her first novle titled Migration Songs which was shortlisted for the Dartmouth Book Award.