It doesn’t have to rhyme: Collaborative creative writing as a community tool

| Mel Parks

Mel Parks shares ideas on using collaborative creative writing in community settings to bring people together, creating a unified experience often with the added benefit of new insights and surprising connections. As well as being lots of fun!

Many people are scared of poetry and creative writing often brings back memories of school, and often not good ones, so I always tread lightly and carefully. Even the people that sign up to my weekly creative writing workshops tell me they don’t write poetry, but when I break it down, step by step, they almost always join in, give it a go and find a form that speaks to them. It is always okay for people to contribute a word or two rather than whole lines, to speak aloud their words instead of writing them down, and to offer their work anonymously. 

Collaborative poetry can represent many voices and one voice is not privileged over another. It can be a snapshot in time and work with a theme or message you want to get across or explore. Words contributed from less confident writers can be absorbed into the whole and they can enjoy having their work shared with a wider audience, without their name on a particular part. 

For people who work visually or who would rather work with words that already exist, instead of having to make up lines or sentences, I offer collage, found or blackout poetry workshops. This is making poems from text that already exists. We cut up magazines, block out lines on pages of old books, or draw on newspapers, making new and surprising connections between words and phrases. To do this collaboratively, you could work on larger paper, cut out and stick found poems together. 

Collaborative story games involving no writing

The one-word story game

This is a fast-paced game. Can be played by as many people as you have available. Everyone is only allowed to say one word. Someone starts with a beginning word, for example, ‘Once…’, the next person continues the story but only saying one word, for example, ‘upon’ and so on. 

The sentence story game

A variation on the one-word story game but players are allowed to say a sentence or a fragment. Am not strict about whether it’s a sentence or not, just the next part of the story, but some people enjoy hogging the limelight so a limit can be helpful!

Fortunately, unfortunately 

Tell a story in the circle, but each person has to take it in turns to start with Fortunately… or Unfortunately….

These games can go on for as long as you like. It’s helpful to give a warning that the end is coming, for example, ‘one more round, then Sam can say the ending’.

Collaborative writing games 

This is based on the old Consequences game, where one person writes something, folds it over and passes it to the next person in the group. It is anonymous but it helps if you are sure everyone is confident that what they write can be read by other people. Writing skill can be basic as long as it is legible! Everyone has a blank sheet of A4 paper to begin with. 

Questions and answers

Following the order of the prompts below, write question, answer, question, answer, folding over and passing round after each one. Unfold and read out. The answers can be surprisingly appropriate and are often funny. The questions and answers could all be based on an agreed theme. 

Why…?

Answer to a why question (you won’t see the question first so this is a random answer, beginning with because…)

Where…?

Answer to a where question

When…?

Answer to a when question

How…?

Answer to a how question

Who…?

Answer to a who question

Pass the paper with no folding

This is a great way to work on collaborative poems or stories. Someone writes the first part of a story or the first line of a poem, then pass round and the next person reads what has been written, writes the next part or line. And so on. I also use this game to practise writing dialogue – two characters having a conversation in writing by passing paper back and forth. A great starter for this is ‘Did you hear what happened last night?’. 

Two examples of my collaborative poetry projects outside of workshops:

A community festival – I had a stall with luggage tags, writing prompts and string tied up like a washing line. People wrote their impressions of the festival on the tags, then hung them on the line. They could read what other people had written and respond to those ideas. I encouraged them to use all their senses, as well as share their feelings. 

At the end of the day, with the help of my 10 year old child, I typed up the lines and arranged them. I usually change no words, but I might change to past or present tense to make it consistent with the rest of the poem. If the poem is to be published or printed, I will make the punctuation consistent too. The following day, the festival compere read out the poem. 

An academic research project – During the pandemic, I was invited to be a researcher on a project looking at stories of gender-based violence during the Covid-19 pandemic. We didn’t want to ask participants to do anything we weren’t prepared to do ourselves and so as part of the research, we wrote our own remembered stories of gender-based violence. These came out as fragments, which often happens with traumatic memory and is one of the reasons that poetry is so fitting in this work. 

I wanted to link the fragments together somehow and came up with the idea of creating a renga. This is an ancient Japanese collaborative poetic form made up of linked verses. Having rules (number of lines, syllable count) helped to contain emotions of difficult experiences. We did this by email – writing one stanza, emailing it to the next person on the list who added their own to the growing poem. But I have also done it in person and on Zoom. The important thing is that each verse or stanza responds to an idea, word or theme in a previous one, which helps to make connections and tie the whole poem together.

Writing often feels like a solitary act, but each time I facilitate collaborative creative writing, I am reminded of the power of sharing stories, truly listening and responding to each other and our own individual voices. We all have something to say and together we can say it louder!

Further reading

Parks, M., Holt, A., Lewis, S., Moriarty, J., Murray, L. (Accepted/In press) ‘Silent Footsteps: Renga poetry as a collaborative, creative research method reflecting on the immobilities of gender-based violence in the Covid-19 pandemic’, Cultural Studies <=> Critical Methodologies, Sage Journals. 

Phillips, R., & Kara, H. (2021). Creative Writing for Social Research. Bristol: Policy Press. 

Mel Parks is a writer, researcher and workshop facilitator as well as the editor of Ideas Hub. She has an MA in Creative Writing (Distinction) and her research values creative practice for social change. She specialises in the maternal, building on 20 years’ experience writing about children and families. She also works with myths, fairy tales and stories of place. www.honeyleafwriting.com

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