Choosing the right space for a group workshop

The workshop space is an important component to creating an atmosphere that encourages creative energy as well as a since of group interaction and community. In our own workshops, we have found that some specifics of the room set-up has made a big difference in the way the participants are able to interact as well as its impact on the overall feel of the workshop.

The Room– Ideally, the room is large enough to accommodate your group, but small enough so that the group takes up the majority of the room’s space. Windows, paintings or other art decor on the walls are all components of the room that promote a creative workshop feel.

The Tables– We have found that setting the tables up either in a circle or a U-shape works very well. Participants are able to look at each-other throughout icebreakers as well as during the sharing of their writing.

The Board– Ideally, there is somewhere in the room to hang a poster board (or write on a dry-erase or chalk board) the prompt, so that participants may refer to it throughout their writing.

A few specifics– During out workshops, we have set name tents up in front of each participant, so that other participants may easily read his or her name as well as stick-on name tags. We also have provided the participants with light snacks (coffee and bagels).

Typical Format for Group LW Workshop

Here is the typical format for a workshop done with a group of people (8-16 people). There is no perfect or correct way, but this is what has worked best for us. This information can be used as a resource for guest writers to provide guidelines for a the structure of a session. Remember, you know your group better than we do!

1. The moderator introduces the writer. We recommend having a separate moderator and writer (person providing instructions for writing activity). Moderator can answer questions, and assist anyone with writing or obstacles during workshop.

2. The writer introduces him or herself. Generally, the writer gives an introductory anecdote or background to the writing activity. He or she may also begin by providing some information about themselves to allow the group to get to know them better. Writers sometimes discuss how they started writing and their area of expertise.

3. The writer introduces the writing exercise (and, possibly, how he or she came up with that exercise.) The writer may have to explain the exercise a number of times. He or she should also warn the group that they will have the opportunity to share their work with the group when they are done. No one likes surprises when it comes to speaking in front of a group. Warn them in advance and keep it optional!

4. The rest of the workshop is a balance between private writing time and more expressive work time. Generally, this occurs in about 5 minute intervals. Therefore the pattern resembles something like this: individuals are given a prompt (or part of a prompt), they write privately, and then they share what they have written.

* The moderator should be aware that when the first three participants have finished, he or she needs to start wrapping up that segment of the exercise. If too many people have finished and their attention is drifting, it is can become disruptive. It is okay to stop the others when they are not yet finished. We think of this as leaving them a little bit hungry for more!

5. Invite participants to read what they have written or offer to read what a participant has written for them. Different people are comfortable with different things, so asking, “Do you want to read or do you want me to read for you?” works well. If people read, comment on it! Point out what is compelling. Encourage others to comment on what other people have written. But make sure only positive feedback is given.

6. Continue with the balance of private writing time and expressive work time. Offer another part of the exercise or give them a small new exercise. Some workshop sessions may be based on one prompt with many parts, while other workshop sessions may consist of smaller independent exercises or increasingly difficult versions of the same prompt. This follows with the balance of talk, write, talk, write. Humor and group interaction are extremely effective as well as variation of activity.

If you lead a LW workshop, then please let us know what works for you and your group. You can also allow us to keep track of workshops using our survey here.

Benefits of Living Words

Below you will find information about the benefits to providing this program to your group, may it be a writers group, a women’s club, programming event, or a support group.

The list of positive attributes to the Living Words program is:
1) cognitive stimulation
2) reminiscence and reflection upon one’s life
3) release of stress
Let’s look more closely at each one of these benefits for all individuals that may be involved with the Living Words program.

First, cognition refers to any type of “thinking”, such as attention, memory, language, and problem solving. The saying “use it or loose it” has been supported by several research studies. It is necessary to work-out your brain, just as you work-out your body. Like physical exercise, you need to work different parts of your brain by thinking in different ways (e.g. verbal vs. visual), and the workout needs to be challenging. For the individual who completes a crossword puzzle every Sunday, they should challenge themselves to new types of puzzles (e.g. change from words to picture games, such as Mahjong). Activities that are new and different or traveling to new places are great forms of cognitive stimulation since they require new and challenging forms of thinking. Mental workouts are good for everyone, but especially individuals with dementia in hopes that it will help to slow the progressive cognitive decline. The Living Words program also has the attributes of a challenging and varied mental workout. If multiple workshops are held, each week there is a different type of writing that challenges the attendees to think in new ways. There is also the benefit of challenging themselves to find words to match their thoughts. The use of language in the verbal and written form is great mental exercise. We believe the act of pen to paper is also a unique and important component to the program.

Second, reflection and reminiscence are gained in the Living Words program during workshops that ask the attendee to remember a time in their past. The practice of remembering (because once you begin to think about a certain time, often other memories come back too) is more support for the cognitive stimulation benefit, but it also provides a chance to reflect upon stories that one may not have thought about for quite some time. At any time in life, but especially as we grow older, time spent reflecting upon the past is necessary in order to give perspective and organize the themes of one’s life story. We all feel it is necessary to leave a legacy or a mark on the world. The Living Words program not only provides the opportunity for reflection, but to write down these stories so that they can be passed on to loved ones. This can be especially useful for individuals with dementia as their stories may be forgotten in the coming years. Their writing, of their past or not, can be a part of their legacy for their families and friends to cherish. In later years, the stories can also be read back to the individuals with dementia, and can be a fun and stimulating activity.

Finally, unfortunately, stress, sadness and anxiety can accompany the lives of all individuals, and especially for those dealing with dementia and their caregivers. Each person has their own reasons for stress, but the Living Words program may be helpful for all involved. First, there are benefits of socialization and having fun with others in the creative writing workshops. Time spent getting out of a stale routine at home, and instead, talking and writing with others can be fun, which will reduce negative affect symptoms. Second, writing about stressful life events has also been found to reduce depression and anxiety. “Writing therapy” has been used for many populations (college students, eating disorders, individuals with depression), but there are also a few studies that have found it useful for caregivers of individuals with Alzheimer’s disease. We also believe that it would be useful for individuals with dementia, but to date, no studies that we know of have examined writing therapy for that population yet.

In the future, we will also refer you to specific articles for each of the areas discussed above, but if you have a specific question please let us know so we can direct you to the appropriate article or book. You can email us at anytime at livingwordsprogram@wofford.edu .