What they said
Here is a very small selection of comments from participants – first from Brenda’s work in prisons, and then from her work with patients referred by a medical professional to one of her courses.
I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed it this morning – It was really brilliant. You’re fantastic, you are, really inspiring. One of the best days of my life, best for a long time – just experimenting with words. It’s freedom within prison. Now I just can’t stop writing.
Any plant has the potential to bloom, but the need a good gardener; they need to be fed and pruned, and that’s what you do. You bring out the best in people.
I like to be pushed, and you really push us. It’s the only way to develop.
This course gives me the feeling of achievement every Thursday morning. At no other time while I’m here do I have these feelings. It’s a lesson I wish I could be part of every single day. You come out of the lesson with that “I feel good” factor. It has forced me to try and start using my imagination again, after lying dormant for so many years.
You’ve opened doors I thought I’d never open into rooms I never thought I’d see. I see you as my mentor.
Not wanting to put you on a pedestal, but you know this is the best part of the week, don’t you? Even if you’re feeling down, this makes you feel better. Yeah, it cheers you up. It’s different from everything else here.
I always feel happy in this lesson. I might let other people in the prison down, but I always do my homework for this; I wouldn’t let you down.
For a couple of hours a week it’s as if you’re somewhere else. You’ve introduced me to something I never thought I’d do, and I’ve really enjoyed it. I’ll keep writing.
You’ve encouraged me to do things I would never have thought I was capable of; you’ve taken my writing to places where I never thought it would go.
This really stretches your mind, makes you think about things in a different way.
Top class, I’ve really learned a lot, about description and editing particularly. It’s been great to discover ways of putting down on paper the things that are flying round in your head. The only thing that would have been better is if we had had two sessions a week. You’ve given us our own set of keys – we’ve really looked forward to Wednesdays. You’re our mentor and our guru!
When it comes to writing, she’s the dog’s bollocks!
Letter from a prisoner:
On behalf of the entire Creative Writing group, I wanted to thank you for all the help and support you have given us whilst we have been here at Shrewsbury.
To a man, everyone has been incredibly grateful for the way in which you ran the sessions and the interest you took in helping each and everyone one of us to develop as writers. The group sessions were like an oasis in an otherwise fairly barren prison regime, fun, interesting, enlightening and informative, the last sort of thing one would expect to find in prison. We appreciated your kindness and commitment, as well as the huge amount of work you did on our behalf and we all looked forward to Thursday mornings. Somehow you managed to bring together an eclectic group of men from all sorts of different backgrounds, yet bonded by a shared sense of purpose and enterprise. You were the inspiration and glue that held it all together and many of us even surprised ourselves. You helped to bring out the best in everyone, whether those with real natural talent, or others of us who could only aspire to more personal goals.
Every Koestler (and other) awards which some of the group achieved, reflected the amazing personal commitment that you made to our creative endeavours. It was as much your achievement as ours.
Thank you Brenda, you made a real difference to our lives in prison and none of us will forget it.
Extract from a BBC news online article, about an ex-prisoner who had been in one of Brenda’s writing groups:
But for another ex-prisoner, who did not wish to be named, the poetry he wrote in Shrewsbury prison while working with its writer-in-residence had a more profound impact.
"It definitely stopped me from reoffending," says the 41-year-old from Barnstaple, north Devon.
"Before, I didn't know how to express my emotions, it used to come out in bad ways but now I'm a hell of a lot calmer," he adds.
"It usually used to come out in violence, it did boil over inside and get worse and worse and then it would explode."
Now, instead, he says he "actually feels the anger flowing through my pen and on to the paper".
From the prison staff writing group: I didn’t want to come into work today, but then I remembered it was the Creative Writing session, and that’s something to look forward to.
Arts on prescription
Most of these quotes are from people who have attended Brenda’s Artlift courses. Artlift is a Gloucestershire-based charity that provides access to the arts for people referred by medical professionals. Most of the participants are living with anxiety, depression, chronic pain or other long-term illnesses.
I actually laughed, and it dawned on me that I hadn’t laughed, probably, since February – that’s when we shut down here. And I thought, My goodness, I’ve been laughing! And I hadn’t realised that I hadn’t, until I started to do it. So that was quite something for me.
It takes one out of the box; you think out of the box. I find I become completely absorbed in them so then I’m totally unaware of my pain any more, and even my exhaustion. Time doesn’t seem to matter any more.
Two years ago I broke free from my fifteen year prison. I was broken and afraid. I joined an art group. I grew as an artist. I joined a writing group. I grew as a writer. This is my healing. This is what saved me. I can lose myself in my creativity.
For two hours a week, I’m not depressed.
When I started the Creative Writing course, I was probably at a very low ebb, and had no concept of what I might gain. I used to tell people I didn’t have a creative bone in my body (including the broken ones, and there were enough of them!). Now… I have a new insight into the use of language. Looking back …I can see what I have achieved on my journey.
I’d like to say a big thank you because you’re so patient and kind and you’ve also, not just when we’ve been nervous given us what we want to hear, you’ve come back with constructive criticism, which is certainly what I wanted, anyway.
But along the way I found that I’ve changed in myself a bit, and I’ve wanted to put more effort into things. Definitely self-esteem has been a big one and that’s not something I would have seen coming. All credit to you, Brenda; it’s very clever of you to know how we are and help us to do the work at the same time. It’s that interaction. It’s something that I’ll take away as something that I’ve been happy to receive and accept because sometimes I get too nervous to do these things.
Just gratitude – gratitude to you for delivering something that was clearly fabulous for all of us. It was structure and the light at the end of the curved tunnel as we’re transitioning through it all. You’ve been really understanding and gracious and fun.
My enthusiasm for writing had deserted me, but I knew how important it was in my life. But my anxiety prevented me from doing anything about it. Then a friend brought me a leaflet about Artlift and it seemed worth a try. Week one was traumatic – new people, a venue I didn’t know. But it was OK; a safe place. Over the weeks, my confidence improved and my anticipation of each meeting was excited, positive and eager. Writing has now found its way back into my life and I think that I am now producing better pieces, which is of course is a tremendous boost.
It’s been like a stepping stone, more of a springboard really, to other things. It has changed the way I communicate with other people. It’s more authentic, because it’s about something I love rather than something I’m worried about. And it’s something I’d much rather talk about.
Brenda, you have been absolutely amazing.
These courses have brought me back to life, and brought life into life itself. Before them I was alone, my lifelong creativity stifled and buried under debilitating chronic illnesses. Through serendipity I stumbled onto a course, which I thought would be like patronising therapeutic finger painting with words. Instead I began to grow into a new version of myself. I have found my intellect and creativity again, going from slumbering to a full awakening. I felt seen, challenged and respected. I felt like an equal human being of worth once more, not just someone whose label was “ill”. For the first time in a long time I felt hopeful, happy and alive.
I cannot tell you enough how much I am enjoying your class. You are such an engaging, charismatic, knowledgeable teacher with a wicked sense of humour. I am so glad I got to be part of your little gang of poets. We’re all so different and mismatched in many ways that we are like a group banded together in a heist film. Thank you!
I run a group that’s for dementia, and this has inspired me into doing things with that group in a way I hadn’t thought about before. I’ve been able to apply what I’ve learned here to my reminiscence group. That’s brilliant!
This just opened a world for me. It’s just changed my life. I went away and I felt inspired. It’s my therapy now - I can get it all out.
It has given me somewhere to express myself. I never knew I had such a vivid imagination. It makes me feel good about myself, and I enjoy the interaction between us all.
I’ve looked forward to it every week. It has been in fact the highlight of my week since I started. I’ve enjoyed learning new things and making new friends. We are now going to start our own writing group as a result of this course.
It has given me confidence, something that I severely lack at times. We have learned so many different things about writing and poetry. It has been fun!
I think we have come up with some really sound work, both entertaining and thought-provoking. It is very important to feed the hungry mind and give it work to do and goals to reach. I’m sure it is harder to co-ordinate the group than to participate, but important to stay focused on who we are here for and what we are trying to achieve, lifting ourselves out of ourselves perhaps, and not being tempted into wallowing in our own difficulties, past or present.
Here you are anonymous. No-one knows anything about you, only what you choose to tell them. It’s a blank slate, a new start, a chance to begin and to reinvent yourself if you wish. There is no pain here; that stays outside the door. Remembered pain and tears are handled with care; detachment is comforting as is the knowledge that we will all empathise. Lies are encouraged, only here it is called creativity - great, isn’t it? Here there is a challenge, a learning experience in a safe environment, but it is a gentle, slow process, awakening the brain power we were not aware we had. Our eyes are opened to new possibilities and a growing awareness of our lives and environment. We are told this is not therapy but that it can be therapeutic, and that is true. Everyone will take away something different.
I had my doubts about this, but I think it’s beginning to work. It’s given me a really different way of looking at things. I’ve told a lot of people how uplifting this is.
I had a breakdown a few years ago and it seemed as if all the creative side of my brain had shut off, but you’ve woken it up again with these sessions.
This course is my spiritual beefburger.
ArtLift has been my lighthouse in a storm, lighting the way for me to see more clearly, think more calmly. It has given me the confidence to believe I will make it to the port with determination. Thank you!
I can honestly say that there isn’t anything that I haven’t liked about the writing group.
I’ve really thought about things. Last week showed me this is not an easy thing to do, and it’s
showed me that there’s something about myself, that I want to keep going even when it’s difficult.
No point doing it if don’t want to be better. I’m very sensitive; react badly to criticism, but haven’t
reacted badly in this course. Really good learning thing, that people can say critical things and
it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person.
Thanks so much for the session today. I can't tell you how much I have enjoyed these sessions... they have been not only therapeutic and a real help for my depression but something that I could really get my teeth into and learn more about writing and improve my skills. I am so grateful to have had this opportunity.. it's been wonderful. I feel very sad that today was the last one. It also helped have such a great teacher! Truly very grateful .
These courses have brought me back to life, and brought life into life itself. Before them I was alone. My lifelong creativity stifled and buried under debilitating chronic illnesses, and I was unable to bring it back up to the surface. I had to make friends with the silence that surrounded me, and the different silence that now existed in the place where creativity once had thrived.
Through serendipity I stumbled onto a course, which I thought would be like patronising therapeutic finger painting with words. Instead I began to grow into a new version of myself. I have found my intellect and creativity again, going from slumbering to a full awakening. I felt seen, challenged and respected. I felt like an equal human being of worth once more, not just someone whose label was “ill”. For the first time in a long time I felt hopeful, happy and alive.
…Brenda’s joyful teaching and her way of quietly building us fragile warriors back up without us even noticing. … to be taught by such an excellent teacher, treated with respect and being made to feel like you are a worthwhile person with something to contribute to the world. Thanks to Brenda I have embarked on a new and different road, but one that I know will ultimately be not just rewarding, but hopefully bring me back into society once more.
I must say I am really enjoying the classes and I think your input is fantastic. As I said at the end of the first class you have revealed a way of looking at the world I didn't know existed.
Every week you have lifted my spirits. It’s made me see the strategy of writers; given me an insight into what they’re doing.
Thank you for opening my eyes and mind to discover a new world of vivid colours and exciting opportunities. Artlift has been a space where pain and problems have stayed outside the door while we explored a magical abundance of words, places and experiences - and laughed! Laughter is a great healer, and the instruction ‘Show don’t tell’ is engraved on my brains - and yes, we found these too, and they were activated.
So many thoughts going round in my head - poetry gives me somewhere to put them. I can let go of negative thoughts... And I soak up more details of what’s going on around me, just in case I want to use it as material for my writing. I feel this writing group has done a lot for my well-being.