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Journal for Specialists in Group Work

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Enhancing the group experience: Creative writing


Kathie Wenz & J. Jeffries McWhirter

To cite this article: Kathie Wenz & J. Jeffries McWhirter (1990) Enhancing the group
experience: Creative writing exercises, Journal for Specialists in Group Work, 15:1, 37-42, DOI:

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Published online: 31 Jan 2008.

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Enhancing the Growp Experience:
Creative W riti ng Exercises
Kathie Wenz
J. Jeffries McWhirter

In this article the authors review the literature surrounding the use of
personallcreative writing as an adjunct to group therapy. Several writing
exercises, as well as client responses, are included. Suggestions f o r
using writing with groups concludes the article.

Creative writing such as free-form poetry cises are described along with actual client
and prose, structured exercises and activi- examples. We conclude with suggestions for
ties, and personal journal logs offer interven- the use of writing in the counselor’s groups.
tion techniques to’ the group facilitator.
Writing as a technique is appearing consis-
tently in the literature, indicating an aware-
ness of the potentialities of the process. The literature indicates that both published
Groups may especially benefit from writing and self-generated creative writing, journal
exercises, since they appear to increase in- writing, and poetic writing are being used in
teraction and cohesion (Mazza, Mazza, & a variety of clinical settings and with a
Scaturo. 1987). number of counseling concerns. Petrick
Group facilitators may avoid investigat- (198 I ) found that out of 25 psychologists,
ing this technique due to “writing appre- 15 used writing in some form frequently,
hension’’ (Allen, 1985)or ‘‘writing anxiety” while 10 employed the technique infre-
(Grundy, 1985), a phenomenon affecting quently. Other authors (Brand, 1979;
many people in modem American culture Mazza, et al., 1987) indicated that writing
(Allen, 1985). The net result of writing is often used clinically, and though empiri-
avoidance is that an effective tool for group cal evidence is difficult to obtain, anecdotal
process is lost. evidence of its therapeutic benefits is sub-
The purpose of this article is to encourage
Some areas i n which writing is being used
counselors to consider using poetic and cre-
are in couples group therapy (Lauer &
ative writing in their groups. A brief review
Goldfield, 1970; Lerner, 1982; Mazza &
of the literature is presented and three exer-
Prescott, 19811. short-term group therapy
(Mazza & Price, 1985), career counseling
Kathie Wenz is a graduate student in the Master (Mazza & Mazza. 1982; Sher, 1979; Bolles,
of Counseling Program at Arizona State Univer- 1989), alcoholism counseling (Mazza,
sity. Tempe ond a secondary school counselor at
Maricopa High School. Maricopa. Arizonci. She 1979). adolescent groups (Mazza, 1981;
has published considerable poetry under the Morrison, 1969). and with abused children
pseudonvm Windwomyti.J . Jeffries McWhirter is (Mazza, et al., 1987). Writing has also been
a professor in the Counseling Psychology Pro- used with college students as a substitute
gram a1 Arizona State University. The authors
thank G . Lynti Nelson. Ph.D.. Department of for one-on-one counseling (Phillips,
English. Arizona Srare University. Tempe for his Gershenshan, & Lyons, 1977; Phillips &
suggestions and support. Wiener, 1966), with incest survivor groups

The Journal for Specialists in Group Work Volume 15, Number 1, March 1990,3742

(Bass & Davis, 1988), with the elderly some years. This has evolved parallel to the
(Barton, 1984), and in clarifying family development of the following exercises.
dynamics (Chavis, 1986; Cladding, 1985).
In addition, writing approaches are used to WRITING EXERCISES
treat clients with fears, anxieties, depres-
sions, and guilt (Silverman, 19861,to clarify The following exercises have proved effec-
the intrapsychic self, create self-affirmation tive in stimulating group interactions. Each
and integration, and to improve the develop- exercise is described and discussed. The fol-
ment of successful interpersonal relation- lowing are specific examples of participant
ships (Fuchel, 1985; Cam, 1983; Leedy, involvements.
1969, 1973). Poetic writing is also cited
specifically as a probing diagnostic tool to Exercise 1: Stain Glass Poem
assess disorders, personality functioning, and
behavioral manifestations (Silverman, Structured writing assignments provide a
1986). framework that allows group members to
Buck and Kramer (1974) suggested that focus their attention on images, thoughts,
poetic writing may stimulate group develop- and emotions. They encourage a deeper ex-
ment to heighten intimacy and cohesion. pression of hidden information that can stim-
Writing seems to facilitate the forming stage ulate the group interaction.
of a group by allowing support and affilia- Directions: Answer each of the following
tion to develop more quickly (Antebi, 1986; questions symbolically and metaphorically.
Brand, 1979). Group sharing of members’ Don’t think about it . . . sense and write the
writings facilitates the exploration of inte- answers quickly.
gral questions: Who are you? Are we equal?
Can you be trusted? Can we give to each 1. What did the sky feel like to you this
other? morning?
The discussion of a poem or piece of 2. How did you feel when you first
writing may provide fertile ground for inclu- awoke?
sion activities (Buck & Kramer, 1974; 3. Tell a fragment of a dream . . . if you
Press, 1979). Creating and sharing writ- don’t remember last night, use some
ing seems to improve and increase self- other night, or make one up.
disclosure, self-actualizing behaviors, and 4. If you could be anywhere in the world,
self-acceptance of feelings and experience. time and distance being irrelevant,
Perhaps this is due in part to the function of where would you go?
writing as a way to express ideas, attitudes, 5. If you could get to that place anyway
and feelings in an indirect manner as though you wanted, how would you go?
they are abstract or belonging to someone 6. As you came to this meeting, preoc-
else (Buck & Kramer, 1974). This indirect cupied with life, suddenly something
exchange seems to pave the way for more in the bushes caught your eye. An
direct statements. Group interaction is often entity of some sort crooked its finger
increased as well (Mazza, et al., 1987). A and you leaned over to hear it speak.
focus on writing in a group therapy environ- The entity said, “The key to life is
ment may elicit new and significant insights . . .” (fill in, complete this sentence).
and feelings that may not surface through
other therapeutic modalities. Hynes (1988) Now arrange these six answers into a
suggests this affect grows from the inner- pattern that feels good to you, a pattern like
self which is tapped through intuitive, cre- a stained glass window or a string of beads.
ative writing. One of us (McWhirter, 1988) Have it look like a poem-don’t worry if it
has used poetry and poetic writings as an makes a logical sense. Only 6 minutes will
adjunct to training group facilitators for be given for this before we share our cre-

ations. Don’t think-do! Remember, you amidst black endless velvet

know more than you know you know. frayed edges of pink and rose
utter panic! I startle up 10 minutes late
Debriefing: After the time is up, the fa-
grabbing today’s outfit I walk
cilitator (who has participated in the exer- sock footed
cise) models sharing by reading his or her to the car drive off
“ p o e m . ” T h e n participants read their half asleep
“poems.” There is often a sense of amaze- A snake jumped up chasing me
ment-at how good the writing is, how they stand still! someone cries
never knew how they felt about this or that I am shaking snake stands on tail
in the poem. Inevitably, members become gazing into my eyes
aware of similar issues between them. I spread my arms and fly to white sand beaches
Yalom’s (1985) therapeutic factor of uni- and calypso music
versality is quickly developed. This exercise slow gentle mine
coasting in upon waves
encompasses two components vital to both the dolphin smiles:
writing and therapy: language and feelings your bodies are merely
(Brand, 1979). The act of creation may be earth suits
therapeutic; Brand (1979) asserts that: “The
very act of writing (poetry) with the sense
of having come to a resting place, is in itself Exercise 2: Personal Logo
a kind of resolution” (p. 70).
Exnmples: Two examples of group mem- There is a strong possibility that imagery
ber responses to this exercise follow: was the first language (Samuels & Samuels,
1987). The power and magic inherent in
Fugue in 4110 Major symbols has drifted through the ages to the
The sky clung to my skin 20thcenturydisguisedas “the logo.” Widely
Like a clammy handshake used in the business world, a logo becomes
an almost translucent bright spot the visual message of a company. In a sim-
where the sun slept ilar manner, a personal logo may be a sym-
pierced my mind bol of one’s inner self.
the world intruded upon my cocoon Directions: Play with doodles you have
of safety: always enjoyed drawing, visualize an impor-
My station kept changing tant aspect of your life, capture a favorite
and 1 couldn’t find it
Oh! to sit in Peruvian hot springs
with Shirley MacLaine
being me
Got there by astral land rover
and cosmic bus
the small old lady
under the oleanders *.*
whispered ..
we are all space people!
At which she laughed
I - .. .‘
and broke into song
the camptown races sing this song
do dah do dah

It’s All to Learn

the sun has moved in its skyhome
arising somewhere else
..... *.
s a -

place on earth; keep playing and drawing journal, or to check in with yourself. Epi-
until a symbol seems right for you. And then, grams may be found almost anywhere, from
tell a story about it. a book of quotations to an herbal tea box.
Example: An excerpt of a response to this Do not search too hard for the perfect one-
exercise is the logo at the bottom of the let it find you. Copy it onto a fresh piece of
preceding page. Subsequent written descrip- paper, then begin to explore and write and
tion is based on the logo. wonder about i t . . .
Example: The following is a partial ex-
Dancing Star cerpt from one group member’s exploration.
Once there was a woman who longed to fly.
Raised in love by her grandparents until age 6 ,
Celebrate rhe Possibilities
she had been a happy child with golden hair and
bright blue eyes. Her mother was busy at teaching, Somewhere between childhood and motherhood
her father had left at birth. Grandpa was the person (which had ended and began without any choice)
most dear to her. the woman had gotten lost in darkness.
One day, her mother brought home a man. The A possibility is that I might let my eyes go soft
child saw a dark circle of brown and gray around and see the wind and want to ride it. Away from
his head, and hid behind her mother. But her here. Away from grabbing hands that pull and
mother only pushed her toward him saying: “He moan at the tattered pieces left of my soul. The
will be your father.” Soon ‘the mother married. wind would carry me to an island of deep lagoons
Within months, the child’s beloved grandpa died. and sandy beaches where I could walk and find
For the next 1 I years the child’s life was filled bright shells and ocean-worn wood to stroke . . .
with terror. Her new father would come into her mermaid treasures. I could be a child then, a child
room and touch her in secret places. After bedtime protected by the wind and no person could hurt
she would lie awake, listening to the night sounds. me with their touch. No one could touch me and
She knew that when all was quiet and the house my body would be my own.
breathed in slumbered rhythm, he would appear.
She would feign sleep, but to no avail. For a time,
she turned her face desperately to the wall, away USE OF WRITING IN YOUR
from his kisses. That didn’t helpeither. Eventually GROUPS
she discovered a place to withdraw to. deep in her
mind. Nothing touched her there. She was afraid According to Brand (1977). there are sev-
to tell anyone. . . eral therapeutic benefits of writing in coun-
She became a star! And . . . she could fly! seling. We apply the following to groups.
Laughing at her luminescence, delighted with
herself, she ascended to the moon and danced. She
Writing is an expressive and creative
balanced in a pirouette on the very tip of the
crescent, light and free. Love filled every cell of act which offers a medium to analyze
her being. She gazed through the cosmos, know- and integrate emotion in a personal
ing that through pain and sorrow. beauty and way, countering the repressive and
dignity prevailed. Life was surely a gift. regressive factors in the personality
and in society.
The intent of writing provides mate-
Exercise 3: Epigram rial to be analyzed and discussed in
Epigrams are short, witty, pointed sayings. the group, much as dreams, fantasies,
Some we remember for a long time because projective tests, and other imagination
they touch an aspect of our belief of value mediums.
system in a special way. Epigrams can be Writing improves the counseling pro-
used to highlight important issues for indi- cess through opportunity for re-
vidual participants. hearsal: How will I present this to my
Directions: Identifying an epigram and group? It also extends the therapeutic
then writing about its personal meaning is hours since insight. cognition, and
an excellent way to begin or complete a self-reflection are encouraged.

Writing may be used in groups as an Brand. A. C. (1979). The uses of writing in

initial icebreaker, using an exercise such as psychotherapy.Journal ofHumanistic Psvchol-
Stain Class Poem to facilitate trust building ogy, 19. 53-72.
and affiliation. During the group, writing Buck, L. A . , & Kramer. A. (1974). Poet9 as a
means of group facilitation. Journal of Human-
may also be pursued outside the group. Jour-
istic Psychologys 14. 57-7 1.
nal logs may assist members in tracking
Chavis, G. G. (1986). The use of poetry for
their own therapeutic process, as well as clients dealing with family issues. Arts In
establishing a focused procedure to highlight Psychotherapy. 13. 121-128.
group development. Issues such as hidden Fuchel, J. C. (1985). Writing poetry can enhance
agendas and group norms may achieve clar- the psychotherapeutic process: Observations
ity when written about and shared among and examples. Arts In Psychotherapy. 1 2 . 89-
members and facilitators. 93.
A rnindset for writing is useful. Facilita- Ganz, A. (1983). Writing as a problem solving
tors may create this within the group with experience. Language Arrs. 60, 736-739.
reflective music or silence. Setting a time Gladding, S . T. (1985). Family poems: A way of
limit also defines boundaries and sets inten- modifying family dynamics. Arrs In Psycho-
therapy, 12, 239-243.
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Grundy. D. (1985). Writing anxiety. Arts In
described in the previous comments may be
Psychotherapy. 12. 151-156.
used. Also, the writing may build on an
Hynes, A. M. (1988). Some considerations con-
incident or issue unique to the group. cerning assessment in poetry therapy and inter-
Anxiety among participants about “writ- active bibliotherapy . Arrs In Psychotherapy,
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