Building Relationships and Communities in Healthcare through Writing Workshops: Guest Story from Writers Collective of Canada

In this guest story from the Writers Collective of Canada (WCC), their team shares the methodology that informed a series of writing workshops for patients at a Toronto-area hospital and insights they took away from this model of writing in the community. Alisha Kaplan, a WCC workshop facilitator and friend of the NBM Lab also sheds light on the profound impact writing workshops can have on patients, healthcare providers, and facilitators.

“We shouldn’t always just be listening for symptoms but for stories.”
— Trillium Health Partners Staff and WCC Workshop Participant

For the past decade the Writers Collective of Canada (WCC) has inspired exploratory writing in community with a focus on serving those often underheard. Starting with one workshop in a tough downtown Toronto shelter, WCC now leads 20-30 weekly workshops across the country.

Recognized as a leading community-arts organization, WCC has partnered with over 130 social service, community, health, and arts organizations to offer our community program onsite, online, or through a hybrid model. Populations served by WCC include Indigenous peoples, newcomers, the homeless and underhoused, abused women, youth, seniors, caregivers, veterans, and members of the 2SLGBTQIAP community, among others.

A recent pilot project with Early Psychosis Intervention patients at Trillium Health Partners (THP) provided valuable insights into how the writing workshops support patients in building community and connection — a social prescription to complement existing programs.

Says one THP staff, “It was so lovely to think that what she and others got from the group was something we couldn’t give them otherwise. We give therapy, medication, et cetera, but this was giving them something special.”

Highly accessible, WCC workshops emphasize process over any polished final product, although much of what emerges is nothing short of magnificent. The unique program methodology invites participants to respond to prompts, share first-draft writing, practice deep listening, and offer feedback to others about what resonates in their writing.

“What WCC does really well is address the idea of using writing/creativity in a very low-pressure environment. People were introduced to a very open space where they could try something. This has a major role to play for clients. It’s not art for art’s sake, it’s about the community that is formed — supporting one another,” says one THP staff.

Another unique element of WCC’s workshops is that staff were invited to write alongside patients as peers with a strong emphasis on confidentiality. “Hearing stories from patients’ lives offered a broader perspective for me as staff . . . It also reinforced for me that we often have the hospital/clinical forefront in our minds — maintaining this more community approach in other areas of work would be beneficial,” says one THP staff participant.

Writing — and specifically, writing in community — has many known benefits. External evaluations of WCC’s program by Dr. Kelly McShane (Toronto Metropolitan University) confirm participants consistently report improvements in self-expression, healing, empowerment of voice, community, connection, and hope, among other benefits. In the case of THP, the program increased patients’ therapeutic gains and encouraged participation in other programs, it humanized the hospital setting, increased mindfulness, and helped heal secondary trauma in staff participants while also reinforcing patients as people first.

WCC workshops are led by volunteer facilitators who first undertake an extensive 20-hour training. Facilitators are social workers, writers, artists, therapists, teachers, first responders, lawyers, case workers, and peer leaders — many representing the communities WCC serves. At a time when human connection is at an all-time low and demands on social supports are at an overwhelming high, programs like WCC’s offer a non-clinical alternative to more traditional interventions.

Alisha Kaplan, poet, educator, and practitioner of narrative medicine, shares her experience facilitating workshops part of this pilot project:

“In my experience as a WCC facilitator and as a narrative medicine educator at the University of Toronto, I see time and time again the immense power of this simple relational act: sharing one’s story and being heard. The work of narrative medicine is to shift the structure of disease-centred care to person-centred care. Patients are not merely a checklist of symptoms and test results; they are stories. In The Wounded Storyteller, medical sociologist Arthur Frank writes, “Stories do not simply describe the self; they are the self’s medium of being.” WCC workshops place the individual at the centre within a circle of care. This is radically beneficial to both patient and practitioner. The workshop challenges typical hierarchies in healthcare, in that Trillium Health Partners staff, their patients, and the facilitators all have equal space to voice their stories.

In these WCC-THP workshops, I have gotten to know a diverse group of individuals who are struggling to live with the symptoms of their illnesses, which includes stigma. I have witnessed them come together and find healing in their own creative expression and in support of one another. Participants are empowered to express their voices through creative writing and to share as much or little as they choose, with complete agency — which they may not feel in other areas of their lives. This is a gentle process, not as direct and intense as a therapy session and, by the end of the workshop, the impact on wellbeing is palpable.

It is amazing what people can write in 10 minutes, and in that process, what they can reflect on about their lives and the challenges of illness. When one person reads what they wrote, they feel witnessed and, in turn, others often relate and find recognition. Participants create something out of their suffering, which takes on new meaning within the larger narrative of their lives.

As facilitators, while we encourage participants to face the difficult and painful, we also offer them opportunities to reflect on gratitude or moments of joy or dreams they have, through the writing prompts that we, facilitators, very intentionally choose. For example, in one workshop I offered the prompt: “Describe what happiness looks like” in response to the Hafiz quote, “Ever since happiness heard your name, it has been running through the streets trying to find you.”

There are few spaces I can think of in one’s life that are designed to be wholly kind and supportive, without any possibility of negativity, critique, or judgment, whether from oneself or others. I hope that this encourages participants to adopt self-compassion and to advocate for themselves outside of the workshop.

What I have observed is that participants’ worlds have often grown quite small because of their psychosis, but their potential for creativity has not. Life may have become isolated for the patients whose illness experiences can be quite alienating. The hospital staff may also feel the weight of their work, which is physically and emotionally taxing. The workshops offer a remedy for this: together we build relationships and community around trust, shared vulnerability, and the basic human need to express.

Narrative medicine focuses on the individual’s lived experience with illness. The creative writing workshop is a venue for patients to share that lived experience and to find recognition in one another. When the world outside stigmatizes or fails to understand them, and when the medical system can tend to pathologize them and strip them of their humanity, the writing workshop is a sacred place for participants to be their full creative selves, and to be cared for simply by being heard and valued.”

Visit the Writers Collective of Canada website to learn more about their work.