Recently I had the pleasure of co-producing a creative writing workshop “Your Story Matters” as a part of the Footsteps Festival, a volunteer-led, collaborative year-long festival that celebrates people living with pain through the means of art and education. Eighteen of us came together, all across the globe, to meet in togetherness, behind our screens. Just like ten characters from Boccaccio’s Decameron who, wrecked by the horrors of the plague in 1348, found refuge in the villa just outside of Florence, learning how to survive by telling tales to each other, we retreated into virtual storytelling in the time of Covid-19 pandemic. Even seven centuries after the inception of Boccaccio’s masterpiece, the stories have remained the fire that kept our lived bodies warm.
But unlike Boccaccio’s characters who had a privilege of inhabiting the same physical place, we were “restricted’’ to the virtual space grounded in the world of social distancing. Covid-19 crisis ineluctably turned all of us into students of space, more precisely of distance, whether we want it or not. One cannot move freely and uncaringly in space anymore without developing an awareness of physical closeness that those around us are comfortable with. This notion of distance thus brings with itself sub-notions of awareness, attention and recognition.
I began to ask myself if there is an ethical lesson that we, as healthcare providers, can learn from practising distance? Can space in distance be a fertile ground for recognition? What else can flourish in that space? Some of the answers to my questions I found in our writing workshop.
Our workshop was based on the principles and practices of narrative medicine: narrative listening, narrative humility and narrative competence. Writing and knowing that your story will be shared is inherently an act of risk taking. With this in mind, my co-producers and I decided to start by reminding our participants that we too are stepping into this space as fellow human beings. My friend Clair, a physiotherapist, tenderly laid down cobblestones of confidentiality and choice, for those that would wish to share their stories and for those who would not. Jenny, our collaborator who lives with pain, generously shared some of her personal writings that we exercised together, and I shared my elaboration on what I had received by listening to her story. Whilst we danced to the music of meaning-making, an instant leap of connection and humility percolated the space between our participants, permeated with smiles, interest, sense of safety. The virtual distance between us transformed into a space of holding, seeing and discovering.
The heart of our workshop was conducted by our friend and collaborator Debra, an occupational therapist. Debra compassionately guided our participants into writing exercises, followed by an invitation to join smaller breakout rooms and hold space for each other’s stories. Our participants were invited to listen and pay attention to each other’s word choices, spaces between the pen and paper, evoked imagery, and to their own embodied reactions as listeners. Instead of launching ourselves into the land of opinion or prompting further questions, we all practiced the art of being with.
I am always amazed at what kind of visceral stories people are able to bring to the fore in such automatic, unintentional writing. I was taken back by the story that erupted from my own body, releasing itself from a hidden position of grip. Even though my listeners were my collaborators whom I knew well, it still felt uncomfortable reading my words aloud. Having them recognising rhythm and musicality in places I saw nothing but interrupted blubbery, truly felt like growing wings and catching myself falling. When somebody pays attention to your craft, they inherently recognise your position as a creator. This can be incredibly empowering. My listeners stimulated my agency as they un-hinged me from a seemingly trapped situation into the space of narrative possibilities. As some other participants noticed, after coming back from the breakout rooms, there was a sense of connection, validation, recognition and a true sense of shared vulnerability.
One of the final crescendos of our workshop was the moment when we thickened our gazes whilst watching Kae Tempest speaking their poetry aloud. Breathe deep on a freezing beach / Taste the salt of friendship / Notice the movement of a stranger / Hold your own / And let it be / Catching… This line Notice the movement of a stranger strengthened an ethical foundation of our writing workshop – the one that values coming to know one’s own humanity in relationship with others. Our participants left the workshop feeling inspired, strong, empowered, awed, seen, touched. Even though the encounter was virtual which could easily be perceived as disembodied, it felt very much the opposite for it was our spoken stories that communicated our bodies. Our final destination therefore wasn’t in the virtual space, it returned us back to the essence of our very selves.
French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy captured this in his philosophical concept singular plural, which is entirely grounded in the ontology of relation. Following similar thinking line as Levinas, Nancy points out that there is no being without being with, no body without bodies, no existence without co-existence. He recognises that human beings are borders they share with others, and relational actions (such as listening and paying attention) bring us closer to the edges of those borders, restoring our very relation to the self.
As I write this, I am reminded of a story I recently read by Haruki Murakami, Samsa in love. In his story, Murakami re-humanises Gregor Samsa, a famous literary character who one day woke up in a body of a gigantic insect, by making him fall in love with an un-named woman (let’s call her Isabel). Isabel reminds Samsa that he is alive and relational. The narrative arc of alienation, commenced by Franz Kafka, is therefore recovered and reinvented by the means of love and desire in Murakami’s story.
It is the very taste of Boccaccio’s medicine, the medicine of relationality, that saved Samsa, that sustained our virtual workshop and that keeps restoring our sense of humanity over and over again.
Boccaccio’s medicine is what we do in clinical practice: we bear witness to stories. I would argue that practising some distance sometimes helps us to see each other in a brighter light. And I don’t mean distance in a form of spaceship ethics to reference Arthur Frank, but distance as a disposition of knowing how to hold space for the other by listening and by knowing how to keep our own stories at the bay when that means honouring someone else’s.
As we are all reconfiguring the new coordinates of space in our lives, let’s not forget the spatial poetics that imbue our clinical practice, be it face-to-face or virtual, and beyond. Let’s not forget our active role when it comes to creating spaces that allow for connection and recognition; spaces that honour the borders of who we are and what can flourish in between.
Thank You to my friend Clair Jacobs who invited me to join her on this wonderful project. Clair and I met at the narrative medicine course (https://narrativerx.thinkific.com) last summer. Clair is a physiotherapist who works in NHS and I am an osteopath working in a private practice. What are the chances that we would have met had it not been for this course? I am afraid very small. Perhaps sometimes on the borders of who we professionally are, we build walls that separate us beyond possibility of relation. And in doing so we risk losing the sight of gazing outwards towards our shared space: people in pain and illness. One of the reasons that I love narrative medicine is its ability to flatten hierarchies and allow for multidisciplinary and truly person-centred care. Clair and I came to know each other not only as two healthcare providers passionate about working with people in pain, but as two women. I got to hear Clair’s sorrows as she got to hear mine… The product was this fantastic workshop that was possible only in collaboration.
Thank you, Clair, Debra, Jenny & all who attended our precious workshop.
Our next workshop “Your Story Matters” is on the 30th of March at 5:30-7PM GMT: