Writing class for the homeless at Farm Street Church

Striking Gold at Farm Street’s Lunch Service

As I wheeled my suitcase through an empty Underground carriage and an eerily deserted Berkeley Square, I wondered what someone would make of the contents of my bag: – a box of Untranslatable Words, a map of Middle Earth, a couple of tiaras, a jewelled slipper and a copy of St John of the Cross. The more obvious clues would be in the next layer down: Kate Clanchy’s “How to Grow Your Own Poem”, some brightly coloured notebooks and a clutch of my own poetry book “50 poems for my 50th - A Beginner’s Guide to Opening the World with Words”.

Offering more than food

Farm Street's lunch service for the homeless and vulnerably housed has already been successfully providing an excellent hot meal on Wednesdays and Saturdays, during lockdown, but Fr Dominic and the team wanted to provide more – including a space for creative writing where people could get to know each other and themselves in a more profound way.  

End of term report

After 15 sessions, we have delightful experiences and lessons to report.

The first lesson: prepare to be surprised by the way the Holy Spirit brings the most healing encounters from the most unexpected people.

First through the doors was a guest who spoke 5 languages and who continued to bring us gems from the world of Latvian literature. He also translated two of my own poems into Russian. His goal was to finish his own short stories that had been written on the backs of A5 leaflets and now he had the chance to work on them and to create some new poems that he was rightly proud of.

Next through the door was  a guest who was an 81 year old translator of French and Italian. His take on most of our exercises was to produce touching and romantic pieces. He reminded me of one of one of my most favourite characters in literature – Beppo Roadsweeper in Michael Ende’s ‘Momo’, who only tells the truth and so he only speaks occasionally, but always has something wise to say. He has also written a play in Esperanto that he is looking forward to sharing with us.

The second lesson was that God really does make up for all the things you cannot do yourself. Planning matters, preparation and ethos guidelines matter, shared goals written on the board matter and resilient boundaries matter, but most of all love and prayer matter – praying in advance for each of the guests that might come, asking for inspiration to bring the right  exercise, trusting the charism you’ve been given by God  and trusting that others will bring their charisms into the room which will produce a marvellous ‘alchemy’. What marvellous pieces they made from the Russian word ‘Taska’, the Japanese phrase ‘Mono no aware’ and the Spanish word “Querencia”.

Leaving on a high

People leave the class feeling delighted because they have discovered the treasure inside of themselves.  They become convinced of the truth of an idea that I introduce at the beginning of the class - That each of us has a pocket of keys, that we might not know about, but that those are the keys to other peoples’ dreams.

Through writing and listening to the writing of others,  we discover what those keys are.  The artistic process is a spiritual mystery that springs from the fact that we are created in God’s image. Therefore we can expect the highest good to flow from it and for the imaginative landscape to be strewn with clues and insights.

How the class unfolds

And so in the class we listen to some of my own poems as well as classic stories of great beauty that ‘blow over the embers’ of the soulfulness we need to connect with when we feel lonely or disheartened. From this awakened spark we have the courage to write: from a ‘juicy line’ that strikes us, or a character that we feel has something to say to us. My job is to make this feel like the easiest thing in the world, that can take place in 3 minutes.  Because sometimes it can!

I then proceed with some warm up exercises (whether it is rolling a handful of word dice or ‘drawing a map of your world today’ and writing about it for 5 minutes). Then I set individual tasks where necessary, so that each of the guests can push forwards in a way that suits them and their writing goals: one guest might have an MA in literature, another might  prefer to write in another language and others still may just need to talk about their thoughts on the poem that’s been shared and then have an assistant write up what they are thinking.

A healing experience

The important thing is that everyone has the sense that something important from their interior world has come forth, that they can then share. And in the sharing the magic happens.  The mosaic of pieces becomes a whole. Individuals are brought out of monologue into dialogue and in the midst of us is the Healing Presence of the Lord who has been invited into the process from the beginning. In the listening we become amazed. The comments of others add insight to revelation. They are amazed at themselves and at others. And this is the unexpected gold.

Sometimes a guest might be locked inside a small circle of destructive thinking, but for the duration of the class they intuitively choose a story to read and then write from, that can unlock this circle for a moment - there is a sense of relief and possibility. One guest, who is completing an MSc while homeless, was deeply moved by Oscar Wilde’s story of the Nightingale and the Rose. His identification was with the petals of the Rose, so crushed and yet red with the gift of love that had created it. His writing was so tender. Beauty begets beauty.

The conversations we have in class and during the lunch time can sometimes encourage guests to take advantage of the counselling service we offer in partnership with Brompton Oratory.  It is a very fruitful synergy.  

Building on this foundation

We have now completed an initial 15 sessions and we are hoping to build on this service with a network of Bards of the Bard School that I run, together with professionals from the world of Writing for Well Being.  This is our next challenge, but we feel sufficiently encouraged by the experiences so far to know that there is gold to come!

If you want to know more about creative writing for well-being or how to get involved in helping to facilitate a class then do contact sarah@sarahdenordwall.com a ‘Bard with a Bard School’ or Fr Dominic Robinson, so that our project can grow.

[Photo: A delighted poet in the writing class, taken by Sarah de Nordwall]

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