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Writing, voice and social learning

What can emerge when writing and conversation are interwoven creatively?

Published onAug 31, 2020
Writing, voice and social learning

A central interest of mine that never seems to go away is understanding how human interaction works, and what emerges from it under different conditions. I’m especially curious about the interplay between writing and speaking, and this manifests itself in various ways.

First, I support other writers , acting in turn as thinking partner, writing coach, weaver of order and structure, and editor. Some of my most satisfying work involves engaging with researchers to develop their thinking and writing. I encourage them to practise freewriting, make good sentences, imagine their reader’s response, adopt an iterative approach to their writing, and have more conversations about it.

Second, I have spent many years helping organisations use narrative accounts and case studies to make valuable but ephemeral activities (e.g. conversations, storytelling) more visible. My longest collaboration was with UK charity Macmillan Cancer Support. Apart from creating the written accounts, we always sought opportunities to give them a “social life” so that they were less likely to fall into the usual “black hole” and stood a better chance of influencing behaviour. This invariably meant going back to the people whose story we had told, so that they could really engage with the written account and make changes to it, as well as seeing that their work had been recognised and appreciated. Additionally, we often introduced the accounts to senior management, policy makers or funders. Wherever possible, the introduction was face-to-face - not just via an email attachment. In 2011, I co-wrote a book about this work called “Communities of Influence: improving healthcare through conversations and connections”.

Currently I’m exploring these themes in a more personal book with a working title of “Small acts of defiance in a world that doesn’t seem quite right”. Each chapter starts with a scene recalled from an earlier stage in my life and uses it to show how my understanding of the world and my political awareness have been transformed through countless social interactions.

Reading, as a way of being in dialogue with other writers, has been a vital element in my understanding of human relating. Walter J Ong showed me what an artificial but invaluable activity writing is. Ralph Stacey and colleagues helped me see that conversation, though often taken for granted, is a topic deserving deeper investigation. I also regularly turn to fiction for inspiration, especially authors who explore human interaction in its cultural contexts.

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