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Reflexivity, creative writing and insight. How a dip into poetry led to reflection and learning.

This blog started as a write up of a creative writing activity that prompted reflexive discussion for my social work students...I ended up questioning the way we use constructs like 'reflexiveness'. I was inspired by the idea of using poetry in social work education (Furman et al, 2012). So I explored using ‘blackout’ poetry as a stimulus for reflective discussion and found it could prompt reflexiveness. But what do we really mean by the term? I wonder would words we would use if I did exactly the same activity with service-users? I’m inviting you to follow my musings as I describe the learning from a creative writing day. What I did. Why I did it. What we learnt. And what I still need to learn...

And, as I meander towards a conclusion, I will share with you the questions that have been raised for me as a result of writing this.

First a few thoughts on the tricky concept of reflexivity...

I made it through my degree writing about it satisfactorily. In practice I was doing it (some of the time). Then when I became a practice educator I realised I could not explain it to a student. So did I really understand reflexivity? I did and I didn't. Part of the problem is that often academic writing on the topic is pure bafflegab. Seriously. Why do very clever people write in such impenetrable ways? My ‘ah ha’ moment came from reading that reflexivity is a contested construct which is open to interpretation (D’Cruz et al, 2007).

I had been confused because reflexivity is a slippery concept. There are certainly multiple definitions to choose from. My understanding of reflexivity has evolved into something along the lines of -reflection in, and on, action, integrated with an appreciation of the impact we bring as individuals into situations (our characters, values, experiences, skills, assumptions, gender and so on). In order to understand how we impact others we first need to understand ourselves. We also need awareness of how our interventions might be perceived by others.

What has this got to do with poetry?

Social workers need a range of ‘tools’ to use with people to facilitate discussion, help them express feelings, or to help emotional regulation. Creative writing and poetry is used to help people express themselves in therapeutic ways by a range of professionals. My aim, in facilitating a creative writing session, was to model using some tools for direct work. Telling it, reading it, and writing about it, is not the same as doing it!

We have to know what it feels like to be on the receiving end of interventions. We ask service-users to share their most intimate and distressing aspects of their lives with us. We ask them to think about things that they might not want to share. We put them in uncomfortable positions. We need to work with our own and others’ discomfort. We just do.

I have to confess it is not always a popular move to ask your students to move out of their comfort zone. I understand that. I hate being pitched out of mine. But I recognise it is good for me... and we do it to service-users. All The Time. And expect them to ‘engage’ with us.

We need to be mindful that the simplest activity can trigger a powerful emotional response.We need to understand that our best intentioned approaches can lead to unexpected reactions. This means in the moment we have inner questions to answer. How far to go with an activity? When to stop? How to bring someone emotionally back to a safe place? These are all skills that students (and practitioners) need to learn.

One way of managing activities to keep them safe is to keep things structured and contained. The idea of free creative writing can seem overwhelming. A blank page can be daunting. So I eased my students in with the more structured ‘blackout’ poetry activity (based on Austin Kleon’s work). All you need is some text (pages from an old book or newspaper) and a black marker. I find that trashy novels are a great source for this. They usually cover birth, death, relationships, love, war, violence and family life. You simply circle the words you want to keep and blackout the rest. A poem emerges from the remaining script in the order it appears. There are some easy to follow instructions and images on the internet if you search for ‘blackout poetry’.

It was really quite amazing how this simple technique resulted in so many different styles of poem. Some students chose to add colour or draw on their poems. They shared their creations and thought about what they noticed in each others’ work. They practised curious questioning. I encouraged them to attend to the details of their own and others’ work. Was the poem neat? Or exuberant and liberated? How did it feel to undertake the activity? What had they learnt? About themselves? About their assumptions? About each other? As we dug deeper into these questions we were able to move from reflecting on the activity to the students considering what they bring of themselves to their direct work.

By dwelling on the activity the students moved into something I would describe as a reflexive stance. They started to think about how their own values, experiences, likes and dislikes, create bias towards using, or not using, creative methods. There was a sense of surprise about the way a simple activity could be such a powerful tool and potentially reveal, harm or heal.

I learnt from this activity too. I have used creative writing with service-users and entered into the activities from a ‘therapeutic’ perspective. Nevertheless the level of reflexiveness prompted by the activity with students surprised me.

As I started to write this blog I started to wonder why I was surprised...

I have never heard a service-user referred to as ‘reflexive’. I have observed service-users demonstrating reflexiveness though. Many, many times. Could I hold an assumption that reflexiveness belongs to professionals? A word only for describing professional attributes? A word for very special helping people (who can understand and articulate academic constructs)?

So I am wondering what the difference is between professional ‘reflexiveness’ and service-users who demonstrate 'insight' or 'self-awareness'. Maybe the difference is simple. It’s all about power. How we construct things. The way we position ourselves. The way we use complicated language to maintain our positions as ‘experts’ and the holders of knowledge. A sobering thought.

My blogging is about sharing ideas and learning. As I get older, I realise the more I know the less I know. The more I understand, the less certain I am of anything. I started this blog with a sense of (finally) getting to grips with reflexivity. I have ended with more questions than answers. Am I missing something?

Please share your thoughts, views and information with me.

My thanks to the students who gamely ‘engaged’ with my creative approaches to teaching. I really enjoyed working with you.


D’Cruz, H., Gillingham, P., and Melendez, S., (2007) ‘Reflexivity, its meanings and relevance for social work: a critical review of the literature’, The British Journal of Social Work, Vol 37, Issue 1, pp 73-90

Furman, R., Interline, M., Thompson, R., and Shukraft, A., (2012) ‘Poetry matters: a case for poetry in social work practice’ Journal of Social Intervention: Theory and Practice Volume 21 Issue 1 pp5-17

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